Rosa Lyster

Cape Town, South Africa

Category: An Essay A Week

Essay 44: All the Alfred Hitchcocks

Scene: Three people are sitting outside the movies, waiting to see a film about an Italian man that will turn out to be boring.  Four people, including me. They don’t know yet how much this movie sucks, how impossible it is to invest in anything that happens. Is the main character depressed, or do his weird sort of flat affect and black clothes hint at something more interesting, like maybe he is a murderer? How come at the end he lowers himself into a cement pit? Is it sad? Is it in Italy? Good luck getting answers to those questions, pal, and then further good luck with trying to tell them to me. I will never listen.

It is a nice evening. The three people are in high spirits. They are one woman and two men. The woman has nice hair and a joke on her t-shirt. The t-shirt is a bad colour. The joke is only funny if you care about who Gertrude Stein is. The first man is wearing what you can see is his Smart Shirt, which is maroon and with little stripes. The fourth person is sitting quite far away and so cannot confirm this without going up to him and seizing his wrist, but he seems to have a Bart Simpson watch on. He smiles with a lot of gum, and has a tic where when he laughs he immediately looks down afterwards at his watch, into the face of Bart Simpson. Into the face of almost certainly Bart Simpson. The second man is wearing a little straw fedora, sitting right back on his head. He has come here straight from Sport, and so is wearing flash tracksuit pants that cost like two million rand. There is a book sticking out of his gym bag. Again, the fourth person is sitting too far away to stake her life on this, but she knows that cover pretty well. The book is Fight Club. The fourth person doesn’t know anything about watches, actually, or indeed why she is focusing so much on them here, but she will stand by her assertion that the one on the second man’s arm is a cool, rich-person watch. She bets he has referred to it more than once as a “time-piece.”

The three people are talking about Alfred Hitchcock. The fourth person is drinking her wine and listening intently, trying not to crackle her packet of Fritos too much. She tries not to get distracted by how much she loves Fritos, and stops herself from taking out her phone and writing a text message to her friend Ben: “Imagine you could get sponsored by Fritos”. She listens.

Woman: (inaudible) really loved The Birds

Man: Mmm. Mmm. Have you seen Rear Window.

Woman: yes

Man: Mmm. Have you seen Vertigo.

Woman: yes

Man: Have you seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Woman: I don’t think that’s him.

Man. Mmm. Have you seen Psycho.

Woman: Yes. My (inaudible) gave me a box-set of all the Alfred Hitchcock’s, so I’ve watched most of them I reckon.

Man: Have you seen Rebecca.

Woman: (gamely) I…yes.

And so on.


Man: Have you seen the movie about Alfred Hitchcock?

Woman: Yes

Man: No, the other one.

This went on for ages, and probably is going on right now. The fourth person cannot confirm this, however, because she died of being bored in the movie. Now, an experiment: Reading the dialogue above, which man would you guess it is? Would you say that the man speaking is Bart Simpson, or would you say it is The Timepiece?  There are a lot of people, probably, who wouldn’t feel confident in making a guess straight away. Not enough information, they would say. Where are you going with this etc. There is another whole lot of people who would say Jesus Christ I don’t care. However, I will lay my head on a block that a significant percentage of people would immediately say that it was The Timepiece. Yes? All the hallmarks, right? Being too confident and show-offy and pleased is the natural state of a man who is wearing bajillionaire sport pants and waving Fight Club in everyone’s face. People who guessed The Timepiece would take the above conversation to be a textbook case of mansplaining, which is when a man tells a woman about a thing she already knows. They would say that a little straw fedora is the natural headgear of the mansplainer. Yes?

No. It was Bart Simpson, of course. Obviously.

The point of this experiment, which is interesting only to me, is to work through the possibility that in the fever around the discovery of mansplaining as a concept, we have pushed aside certain important facts. Facts such as the existence of nerds. Facts such as there is such a thing as a know-it-all. There are plenty of male know-it-alls out there, of course, but the quality does not exhibit itself only in males. Lots of little kids can’t wait to tell you for a million years about a submarine or whatever. There are some weapons-grade lady know-it-alls out there as well. The worst offender I have ever known is a woman. I once watched her tell a surgeon how to do an operation. What kind of knife you use and that.

The point of this experiment is to explore the idea that sometimes a person is just a loser who gets too excited and wants to tell you too much stuff. This is, I think, a completely distinct category from a man in flash trousers who is committed to telling a woman what is what.

Sometimes what is going on in a situation like the one above is called mansplaining, and sometimes it is just a guy with a Bart Simpson watch and low self-esteem getting as jazzed as the devil.  I don’t think it makes me a tool of the patriarchy to point out that there is such a thing as a nerd. Does it?


Essay 43: Amongst the Queens

I’ve been trying to write an application essay all week. I feel about writing application essays the way I used to feel about getting carsick: I appreciate that everyone hates it, but I insist that no one hates it more than me. If they hate it as much as me, then why aren’t they kicking up the same amount of fuss? Hmm? I used to feel like this about school galas, also. Everyone standing there in little swimming caps, talking about how much it sucked, and me off to one side like You are all living in Disney World. Let the record show that the only one actually dying around here is me.

The essay is for a writing workshop. It’s such a big deal I can’t even say its name. It takes place over two weeks in August, and everyone who is teaching there is a famous king or queen. I really, really want to go. There is no evidence to suggest that I will get in (everyone who applies is a famous king or queen as well). Even if I did, which I will not, it is massively expensive. Even I did, etc, there is no evidence to suggest that I would like it. A writing workshop is when everyone sits around and shits on each other’s work. It is when people who relish the cut and thrust of shitting on each other’s work get the chance to stretch their legs. They find it invigorating. After they have all just destroyed each other, they laugh and have sex. As for me, I wouldn’t be able to smile ever again. I am so drippy and sensitive, and just waiting for a clever American to expose me as a charlatan. It would almost definitely not go well for me there at the workshop, amongst the queens. I have torn off three nails right now, just thinking about it.

Still. I really, really want to go. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one I think is that if you are at a writer’s workshop, then you cannot deny even to yourself that you are a writer. If people ask me what I do, now, I come over all silent and peculiar. I say that I am writing a PhD, or that I sometimes write for the newspaper. These things are true, but they are not a job. The other day on a plane this lady asked me what I did, and she seemed so nice, and I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I just said I worked in advertising. I have also told people that I was a yoga teacher. Once, when I was very very thin, this guy asked me if I was a ballet dancer and I said yes. No good reason for any of this.

I don’t even know if I want to call myself a writer. I don’t even know if I think a writer is a real job. It’s not, really. Not like how an accountant is a job. But I have been trying to write this application essay all week, and I have been imagining all these strangers thinking that I was a writer, and I have been wondering what that would feel like.

Essay 42: The Second Antarctic Campaign

(Maybe it would make sense to read the first essay I posted here before starting this one, or maybe it would not. Here it is, just in case:

I used to think I was better than other people. Everyone thinks this, a bit, some days, but when I was younger I really thought that I was much better than other people. All people. By far. Once, in matric, a girl I was nearly friends with looked at me hard in the face and said “You make it so clear that you think you’re better than everyone.” We were both extremely high, and I was taking a great deal of strain. I’d just come back from a spell in the bathroom, where I had spent a cool forty five minutes trying to make eye contact with myself in the mirror. I had sat down on the floor for a while, in order to study what my fingers looked like from that angle. I’d rolled up my jeans, and then rolled them down again, and thought for a long time about the word “jaunty”. Every time the fluorescent lights flickered, I assumed I was having a stroke, and then forgot about it straight away.  

On the way back to where everyone was sitting, I’d become seized with the conviction that I had shaved one of my eyebrows off. Surely I must have. A 45 minute spell in the bathroom bending your fingers and laughing under your breath at an episode of The Simpsons you just remembered, and not even one eyebrow off? Come. There was a razor like right there. I raised my hand to where my eyebrows should have been and they were both in place, but naturally I worried, and then laughed because imagine if you called them “eyebrowns”. There was a lot going on.  I was still feeling around at the top of my face when the girl I was nearly friends with laid it on me. “So clear,” she said. I can’t remember what I said to her back. “Please take a look at my eyebrowns,” probably. I remember what I thought, though. What I thought was “Good.” What I thought was that’s good, and I wish I could somehow make it even more clear. I really did feel like that. Even when massively stoned, even when coping with the imagined loss of one of my browns, I felt sure that I was the number one person around.

It’s hard to account for, except in the usual way, which is to point out that people carting round a sense of superiority like this are mostly also dragging behind them the sick sense that they are the fucking worst. There is a thing called “manhauling”. If you ever meet my dad, he will tell you about it. He will describe to you Captain Scott and the rest of the Terra Nova expedition, dressed in their tragic woollens, their useless trousers, pulling their food and telescopes and things in sleds across the arctic waste. Do you say Antarctic waste, rather, being as it’s the South Pole? My dad will tell us. He will encourage us to picture Captain Scott and the lusty Captain Oates, about whom we have already heard so much, straining against the straps of their sleds as they trudge towards a point where, right that second, Roald Amundsen is celebrating his victory with a tin of fish and some aqua vit. The champagne cork does not pop effectively in such temperatures, but Roald Amundsen’s team is fine with this. They won, after all.

The terrible thing about manhauling, firstly, was that it didn’t work very well. Dogs are better at pulling things than people are. Obviously. Dogs have four legs, and people only have two. Dogs are strong and kind, and people are not. The second terrible thing about manhauling was that this failure became something of a virtue for Captain Scott and the sassy pervert Captain Oates. The fact that manhauling was hard, and ineffective, meant that it came to be seen as inherently more noble. Nothing Comes For Free in This Life Etc.  Hard Work is Its Own Reward Especially When That Reward is Death. And so on.

You can haul all sorts of things across the ice. Food. Matches. Another pair of woolly trousers. Goggles that fail to deflect the glare in any way. Heavy photographic equipment which turns out, when you unpack it, to have shattered in the cold. A book about a boring historical period. The sick sense that you are the worst. Rope. A hat.

A person can haul all that stuff across the ice, even though it’s so futile and so difficult, and what can sometimes happen is that they can start to feel that, actually, its being so difficult and stupid is the whole point. Carrying all these frankly useless telescopes, and the sick sense that everyone in the whole world is okay and you are not, starts to become its own reward. Sort of heroic, really. Roald Amundsen is standing there at the actual South Pole, a flag in his hand, and he is saying You don’t have to do this, you know. Dogs are better at pulling things. Also, I won. Stop. A person can be having such a minutely calibrated terrible time that they can look at Roald Amundsen and his fine team of snapping yellow dogs and say Leave me, Roald. Go back to your wooden house in whichever part of Scandinavia it is that you come from, and leave me to collapse here in harness on the ice. A person can do all this and start to feel that they are pretty great, actually. They take out their little diaries and write “Suffering Is Ennobling And Only The Weak Are Happy. Still hungry. Probably going to die quite soon. Pity.” Leave me, Roald. Captain Oates and I can take it from here.

This was pretty much the state of things for me, in matric, and really for a long time after. You can dislike yourself enough that it comes back around looking like something good, and noble. You can put it in your little sled and drag it around with you for years, and only see how pointless it was when you take it out, finally.


Essay 41: Lightning Field

Stuff happens to some people more than others. Events circle around them impatiently, waiting to strike. I used to have a friend who for this story is called Tom. Things were always happening to him, with a frequency and an intensity I could not understand. Why was it that every time Tom went to the shops alone, he would bump into someone he knew and that person would turn out, always, to have huge quantities of drugs on them? He would appear three days later, all covered in glitter and smelling slightly burned, needing a lie down. Why did he find so much weird shit like guitars and love letters on the road? He would just look down and there by his feet would be a taxidermied hare staring up at him with fine glassy eyes. He would wipe his hand on the side of his jeans and pick it up by the ear, and you would find it in his boot many weeks later. Tom, you would say, where did you get this? Found it, he would say, in the road. Tom would lose his phone and then go to the Spur three months later and find it in the bathroom. I guess I just left it here, he would say. Weird. He would shake his head once or twice, a sort of pro forma acknowledgement of how frankly bizarre it actually was, and then never speak of it again. It would just drift out of his memory, finding no permanent place amongst the many incredible things that happened to him. Remember that time, Tom, that you found your phone at the Spur? No, he would say, I don’t think that was me.

I once opened the door to find Tom standing there covered in dirt like Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill 2 when she digs her way out the grave. Just the dustiest man I had ever seen. Gravel in his hair pattering down onto the floor.  I fell, he said, down a hill. Doesn’t matter which hill. It’s over now. He once fell asleep and woke up to find a cat he did not know having kittens in the corner of his bedroom. He was attacked several times by bats, and bitten by an animal he was almost sure was an ordinary dog, except with the ears of a rabbit. Just that kind of stuff, just constantly.

He tried to be normal, and in fact believed with perfect sincerity that he was normal, but everyone else could see the crackles of fizzy electricity around his head. The rest of us could see that he was vibrating on a significantly different frequency, that he was built on an ancient burial ground, that if he was a fish he would be one of those deep underwater ones, glowing with an eerie and magnetic light.

Tom. I hadn’t thought about him properly in a long time, but I’ve been in Joburg for the past week and he has been constantly on my mind. Tom, all covered in dust, walking round and round my brain. It’s not that he has any special connection to this city. None of his family lives here or anything like that. It’s more that if the city of Johannesburg got turned into a human being, it would be Tom.  Another way of putting it is that the only time I have the faintest idea of what it’s like to be Tom is when I am here. I feel normal in all other places, and then I get to Joburg and feel sure that I will be electrocuted at any minute, or a horse will charge into the house, or the washing machine will burst into flame. It is not an unpleasant sensation, at all, but it is a weird one.

I feel vulnerable to lightning, in Joburg. I suddenly believe in ghosts. Any kind of thing could happen in the sky above Parkhurst and I would accept it. This city has an excess of electricity, and it is fizzing around everyone’s heads all the time, and they act like this is perfectly normal, but they are lying to me and themselves.

Yesterday, my cousin and I were driving back home and a car reversed sharply out the driveway in front of us. It moved diagonally across the road, getting faster and faster, and we both watched as it backed straight into a lamppost. Drunk guy, I thought, and was about to say so when my cousin said,  Weird. There’s nobody in that car. The alarm started going off, and a garage door opened across the road. The owner of the car came out into the street, looking only mildly peeved at the sight of his car backed up against a lamppost. Fuck, he said, I must of not pulled up the handbrake. He looked inside the window and shook his head. Nope, he said, handbrake’s up. Weird. I thought briefly about screaming. You can’t just say it’s weird when a ghost gets in the car and drives it backwards into a tree.

If I had been in Cape Town, this would have been a big deal. I feel like it could have been in the newspaper. But I’ve been in Joburg for three days, only, and already it seemed sort of normal.


Essay 40: The water of my choosing

I’ve been swimming a lot. I am in a kind of a mood, lately, where I will put up with a great deal of inconvenience if it means a swim at the end. I will drive for long, listening to my best Scottish woman on Fine Music Radio as she describes for ten minutes what trumpet music sounds like .  I will stand on a bee. I will get all the way to the pool and realise I forgot my towel and so I must stand there dripping water at 7pm and go to dinner with blue lips and wet clothes. It is no bother.

At the beach in Simonstown the other day, there was this little baby who could not be prevented from making for the water. One of those good babies with a round face and a hat like a bonnet, crawling towards the sea at extraordinary speed. She was easily recaptured, but not easily subdued. Every time her dad put her down, she would smile at him nicely and eat a handful of sand and then pow. Off down the beach again. Moving so fast, seriously, and also no hesitation when she reached the water’s edge. Just no pause at all and then up to at least her little chest before her dad hooked her up by her underpants. Just let me at that water again, please. Just let’s see what happens when I get into the water of my choosing. It was written very clearly on her face, and I felt a pure and total affinity with her and her ideas. The main idea being yes, this is all fine, but what would happen if we were swimming, also? You say a thing, and I will say how it can be improved with the addition of a swim.

Some babies are like this. I was one such baby, according to reports, a baby you could not take your eye off if there was water around. The first dreams I can remember having were about water. I used to wear goggles when there was no pool in my immediate vicinity, just in case the opportunity later arose. You get those little girls who are obsessed with horses, and who spend grade 3 pretending to be a horse at break, setting up jumps in the playground. I was like that, except with swimming. My best part of Robin Hood was when he hides from the sheriff by breathing through a straw underwater. My worst part of The Little Mermaid was the entire end of it, where she abandons the sea for love. My best book was The Water Babies.  

Some people know everything about The Water Babies, and some do not, which means this summary will seem either vague or unnecessary. However. The Water Babies is an underwater version of Pilgrim’s Progress, written by the Rev. Charles Kingsley. It is one of those Victorian things that people insist is satire, despite its displaying none of the characteristics of what I understand satire to be. It is “of its time” in that it is quite energetically racist. It is not something you would want to read to a kid today, and neither is it something that my parents would have read it to me. I got hold of it somehow, though, and loved it to pieces.

All I wanted when I was small was to somehow contrive a situation whereby I could be swimming at all times. I used to think about how I would flood the house.  I suggested to my parents that they buy a big kind of truck, and put a swimming pool in the back, and then when we went on long car trips I could just float in the back. Someone when I was six told me what Venice was, told me that instead of roads there were canals, and you may well imagine how I took this information. I had it in my head for a  long time that you weren’t actually allowed to walk in Venice. You had to swim to work and to visit your friends. You were allowed a small boat, but why would you need it when you could swim?

It is easy to see, then, that The Water Babies just knocked me out. Here is everyone living their normal lives of Christian uplift and trying so hard, except they are all doing it underwater. What else could a person conceivably wish for?

The full title of the book is The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby. It is, as I said, supposed to be a story of moral elevation via Jesus, where the humble chimney sweep (yes) learns how to be good enough for rich people. It is overtly didactic in nature, a sort of a guide for all the sinning land babies out there. Many lessons.  The best thing about The Water Babies, though, is that there is no reason for it to take place underwater. There is no lesson in that book that could not be taught more efficiently on land. It is structurally unnecessary, and yet. There they all are paddling around in the seaweed, smiling at the fish.

This is why I still love this book. The Rev. Charles Kingsley sets out to write a tract. He wants it to be a clear set of moral lessons for little children and no two ways about it. As he writes, though, he finds himself thinking well wouldn’t this just be better in the river? Wouldn’t this situation be greatly improved by the addition of a swim? He finds that he cannot help himself. In this we are as one. This is a man who, when he was a baby on the beach in Simonstown, would have been shooting for the water at an extraordinary speed.  The three of us, in our little hats like bonnets and our goggles, making straight for the sea.


Essay 39: Any game with a lot of rules

Most games are terrible. Any game where it is necessary to have a strategy. Any game where you must think more than one step ahead. Any game that is called Risk. Any game that is called Monopoly. A game where you find out what your career is going to be, and your career is going to be a nurse or a babysitter. A game that is an early 90s version of Trivial Pursuit, where many of the questions require an intimate knowledge of who hosted Telly Fun Quiz. A game of Thirty Seconds I once played where this girl swore up and down that she didn’t know what New Zealand was. She later relented and said that she had heard of New Zealand, yes, and that Robert Mugabe was the president. The Prime Minister, actually. This happened.

Any game with a lot of rules. Any game where the rules are either undefined or self-evident, which is to say self-evident to everyone but me. Any game that I am bad at, such as chess, checkers, all card games (except Snap and Cheat), poker especially, bridge (I have never played bridge, but I know I hate it), and backgammon. Dominoes in any form other than making patterns or lining them up so they fall over. I said Monopoly, but I will say it again.

The only games worth a damn are Pictionary, Ex Libris, and Winking Murderer. This is one of the few certainties I possess. I am sitting now thinking about how fun Winking Murderer is, and my heart is beating all fast. I will play Winking Murderer with you right now, as long as you are not a very little kid. Little kids slow things down, and plus they tend to blink a lot in general. On the other hand, a little kid is the best possible partner for Pictionary. They have the right kind of free-spirited approach, and they already know that they are shit at drawing so are less likely to get frustrated when you don’t guess what they’re trying to depict. The worst person to play Pictionary with is an adult who fancies themselves as a good drawer. They get so peevish when you don’t guess. I once played Pictionary with someone’s dad, an art director. He was trying to draw “jazz”, I think, and he just kept doing all these guys in hats, and cats all over the place, and pounding his ball point pen into the paper so that he ripped the page, and circles round and round the cats, and arrows pointing to the hats like are you some kind of moron, and then drawing the sun over and over again and crossing it out. We could not understand. He got so emotional that he threw the pen across the room and did not speak to anyone for several hours. We found out later that the crossed-out suns were because jazz only happens at night.

Although this was, on balance, a stressful occasion, it was still a good time. Pictionary is an amazing way to see how someone else’s brain works. If I was drawing jazz, for instance, maybe I would draw at least one person playing a musical instrument. I am a bad drawer, but all you would really need to do is just draw a stick person holding a saxophone, and even I can do that. If my cousin Sue was there, I would just draw her dog, because he is called Jazz and that would be nice for him. I would try to adapt, is what I am trying to say.

The art director dad, however, had one idea in his mind and by god he was going to make it happen. These kinds of insights are valuable. Ex Libris is not as much of a Rorschach test, or not in the same way, but it’s still excellent. The rules, if you don’t know them, are that you get a whole lot of books together, one book for every person playing. Try to get as wide a range as possible. Do not worry about quality. Ex Libris is not the place to raise your high brow. The best round of it I have ever played involved a South African detective book called SNAKE, published in the 70s.

The point of the game is to make up a plausible first or last sentence of a book. Say the book is SNAKE. You write down your realistic-seeming first sentence, like “The curtain fluttered, although there was no breeze.” Everyone else does theirs, and then you hand it to my friend Ben, who is in charge of this round. Ben reads out all the made-up sentences, and mixed in there is the real one. Everyone votes, and if people choose your made-up sentence, then you win.

I love Ex Libris for all the reasons you might expect: books, taking turns, all my friends are there. I also love it because I am weirdly good at it. It is the only game I have a reasonable chance of winning. I will be straight with you and tell you that I win at it a lot.

This is because I am a good mimic. I have a pretty advanced ear for style, if that is a thing, and it’s not at all difficult for me to copy it convincingly. I can write you a paragraph that seems to be from a bad 70s detective novel, and you will probably think it’s real. This is why I am the queen of Ex Libris.

This is also one explanation for why I love the books that I do. The books I love are the ones that would defeat me at Ex Libris, the ones whose style I cannot I cannot break down and understand. I could write you an extremely convincing Margaret Atwood first sentence, for example, but I could never do an Alice Munro. This is not to say that Alice Munro is objectively better than Margaret Atwood (she is, she is, she so clearly is), but rather that Alice Munro is a beautiful mystery to me in some way, and that is how I like it. I like books that I could never write. The closer someone’s style or subject matter is to my own, the more bored and depressed I get.

This might be a variation on that theme called Self-Loathing, but I don’t think so. Instead, I think it’s because the more I write, the more I see how unlikely and how difficult originality is. I don’t think it can be taught. I think it’s just there, sitting in some people’s heads, and I think that I can spot it a mile away.


Essay 38: Bunny Rabbits

Students get a terrible lot of shit these days. There are all the usual kinds, and then there is the special new kind called “Students are Sheltered Bunny Rabbits/Universities are Becoming an Ever More Commodious Hutch”. Many articles are written, usually about American students at very, very expensive liberal arts colleges. The focus is most frequently on an extremely privileged young person, usually a white woman, hell-bent on doing something or saying something or feeling something that the writer of the article believes to be foolish/coddled/hysterical. There is a lot of sneering about Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings. Say “trigger warning” to a certain type of person, and you will soon see them clawing at their faces with fury and despair. You will see them get so angry that they will climb up their own bookshelves like a spider. They will sit on the top and scream that trigger warnings are not real, or else they are All Too Real. Either way, you have a person climbing like a spider up a bookshelf because an article made them cross.

(Here are two classics of the genre:;

I love reading these articles. I average about one and a half a day. There is no shortage of these pieces, because there is apparently no end to the way this sort of behaviour gets on people’s nerves. I do not get mad. It is truly no skin off my nose if a 19 year old girl who I do not know, attending a college that I have never heard of, organises a safe space where there are bean bags and colouring books and pictures of puppies. I wish her all the best.

I love reading these articles, mostly, because they describe a situation that is entirely exotic to me. I have been tutoring and teaching seminars at a university for four years, now, and I have never even once encountered anything like what these articles describe. Not once. I have had students get upset, in classes, or say that they found something disturbing, but that’s it. South African students, in my experience, are almost unhealthily robust. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but, as far as I can see, it is a thing. South African students don’t wilt. They tell each other to fuck off, and they roll their eyes. They are generally not the kinds of people with problems that are going to be solved by a picture of a puppy or a colouring book.

It’s strange, then, and embarrassing, to see how often people on social media share articles about American Sheltered Bunny Rabbits as if they apply to the South African context in any way. I see it so, so often: someone will post an article called something like “The Infantilisation of the American Mind”, and put a comment at the top that says like “scary to see what is happening to our universities” or like “sad…” To be clear, these are South Africans posting these things, and they are talking about South African universities. This is maybe just a symptom of someone who spends so much time on the internet that they actually believe they are living in America. They think UCT is Yale. They think Wits is NYU. To be clear, I find that very weird.

South African students are not little babies who need toughening up.  I am going to go out on a limb here and say that South Africans, as a people, do not need toughening up. I would venture further out onto that same branch and say that it would be actively bad if we got any tougher. We are as hard as nails already.



I grew up in Durban. That’s what I say, whenever someone asks me about myself: Well, I’m from Durban.  I say it even when they do not ask. This conversation cannot continue, I think, unless I make it clear that I am from the city of Durbs. This is partly a defensive posture. It started when I moved to Cape Town and realised that Durban, for some people, was the punchline of a mean joke.

Here’s the joke:

Q: Which South African city is neither Cape Town nor Johannesburg?

A: It’s Durban.

HA HA. I hadn’t known, before I moved to Cape Town at the age of 18, that for some people even just the idea of Durban was funny. The very concept brought a merry, poisonous glint to their eyes. It was extremely weird. When I say “some people”, I mean “these people were exclusively from Cape Town.” They were such dicks about it. It seems incredible, now, to remember the kinds of things that people thought it was okay to say. I had supper once with a friend and her parents at their house in Constantia. The dad asked me where I was from, and I told him. He giggled. He shook his head. Shoulders hustling up and down. Oh, he said, shame. Poor you. Doesn’t that seem weird?

Later, he asked me if I had gone to a private school. Instead of laughing in his puffy old alcoholic face, I told him yes. He asked me which one. Instead of pouring some kind of poison compound into his huge old red ears, I told him the name of the school. He did a thumbs down motion. Not a proper private school though, hey? Not one of the real ones. Instead of running him over with my car, I smiled. I think I was trying to be polite. This man, by the way, is considered to be a real Card – one of the great wits of Kelvin Grove. Years later, I heard that his own dog bit him hard enough to require several stitches.

The flower of Kelvin Grove was unusual only in the euphoric delight he took in himself. People used to say stuff like this to me all the time. You’re from Durban? Oh, Jesus. What a shithole. Durban? Shame. As for me I couldn’t stand the humidity. As for me the beach is full of syringes and mandrax addicts. The penguins at Sea World smell disgusting. Have you ever been to downtown Lagos well me neither but I heard that Durban is basically the same thing as downtown Lagos. I am not exactly sure where Lagos is. As for me I am like sixty years old and I used to go to the Stuttafords in town with my mom when I was a child, and the lift operator wore white gloves. I used to give him a tickey and he always seemed so grateful. Say what you like but people were polite then. You’re from Durban? Poor you. It used to be such a super place for a holiday.

That was the old guys. People my own age were different – they weren’t mean about it. They didn’t say any terrible racist things. They just thought Durban was funny. A favourite joke was that I used to surf to school, or else that I thought a car was a dolphin tied to each foot. Everyone in Durban smoked bongs in the shape of dragons. We all had tattoos of dolphins/lizards. Skate shoes for formal wear, no shoes for every other occasion. Board shorts for the grade 9 social, bikinis for the Matric Dance. Jack Johnson for weekdays, Ben Harper for weekends. Wu Tang Forever. Everyone from Durban was friendly. Everyone was smashing huge amounts of drugs. The drugs were of an extremely poor quality. Everyone from Durban was literally a fish. You’re from Durban? Jesus. That was the joke.

The effect of this on me was profound. Growing up, I had felt mixed about my city. It was very hot. My hair looked like shit all the time. Everyone knew each other too well, and for too long. Red dirt. Powerful cockroaches waving their feelers around etc. I was bored, sometimes, and continuously pissed off with my hair. I was open to the possibility that Durban might not be that great. I was ready to hear a critique of its many and varied flaws. It is the humidity that gets you in the end, I would agree. Joe Cools is not actually a very cool place, I would concede, nodding. Snake Park is a radical name for a beach, I admit it. I was open to it all, and then I moved to Cape Town, and found that I was closed for business. I simply did not want to hear it.

It is often said that people from Durban have a chip on their shoulder. Fine, okay, maybe, but can you blame us? Wouldn’t you have the same response? We are only human. Every time someone said something horrible about Durban, I would love it a little bit more. Don’t talk to me about how your cousin stepped in a human shit there by Addington Beach. It just makes me think less of you, and also of your revolting shit-stepping cousin. Moving to Cape Town engendered in me an absurd excess of civic pride. There was a Facebook group called “Bitch Please I’m From Durban.” I joined it. I dreamt I had a regularly updated Tumblr called Fuck Yeah I’m From Durban.

I say I’m from Durban at least once a day, and if I’m not around people, I just think it a lot. I sing the song Girls Girls Girls to myself, except I make it DURBS DURBS DURBS. I have a t-shirt that just says DURBAN on it that I wear to yoga. Whenever someone looks at me I assume that they jealous of my shirt. I should have a badge that says “Ask Me About Durbs!” I will be so, so happy to tell you. Durbs is the fucking best.


Essay 35: Goosebumps

My heart is more sentimental than me. Maybe sentimental is too disparaging a word – maybe better to say that my heart is more emotional than me. Or not my heart. The bit of me that manufactures tears and goosebumps and standing in the spaghetti aisle at Checkers unable to move because there is an Abba song playing, and everyone is singing. All kinds of people singing. A man is clapping his hands in an abstracted way. He is scanning the different shapes of pasta and mouthing the words. A little kid says that she LOVES this song. Her mom says me too I also love it. The song is Fernando. Isn’t that the best? Isn’t it true that Abba is universal, truly the people’s music? I say no. Abba is actually weird. Something off about the four of them being obviously at least ten years older than they had led the public to believe, and Agnetha living in an igloo, and getting married to her stalker. All that.  But the bit of me that grinds out goosebumps and crying in the car at the thought of how shit Beyonce must have felt when Jay Z cheated on her says yes. Abba is the people’s music. We are all here together on this earth, and in acknowledgement of this beautiful and appalling truth, I should start to weep. That’s what my heart tells me. My heart is a much bigger loser than I am. My heart has the worst taste.

I would love to be above all this. It’s not that I want to be unmoved by art.  I just want it to be the good stuff, only. If it can’t be wall-to-wall good stuff, I want it to at least make sense. I want to be moved in a manner consistent with my age and aspirations towards sophistication, but my heart keeps letting me down. I am routed in every battle.

Things that give me goosebumps: Simon and Garfunkel harmonising on the bit in The Boxer where he is singing about prostitutes. Bridge over troubled water. The pink panther music. Old fruit. Harmonising of any description. The make out scene in The Notebook. The make out scene in The Horse Whisperer. The work of Nicholas sparks in general. The bit in Jerry Maguire where he looks at her and says “you make me want to be a better man”. Truly. Goosebumps from head to toe. Certain pictures of horses or whales. The time my friend Caitie described Rosemary’s Baby to me. She said “it’s about a couple who lives in an apartment” and I said ENOUGH. It’s too much. I had goosebumps even on my face. Claire Danes crying. The Wikipedia entry for Pacey on Dawson’s Creek. His life was so hard, but ultimately redemptive. “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her”. The chorus in More than a feeling. When countries are united via the power of sport.

Things that make me cry: The Bicycle Thieves. Not watching The Bicycle Thieves for ten years and then describing it to someone. The movie Blazing Saddles, for some reason. Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The idea of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The part in Legends of the Fall where he is having sex with many different women on a boat but writing to Susanna and saying “all we have is dead, as I am dead. Marry another.” The part where she cries. The part where he cries. It’s not a good movie. It’s so long, and morally bad, but does my heart care? No. Claire Danes crying. When Jen died on Dawson’s Creek.  When countries are united via the power of sport.

It’s a problem. I keep telling myself I’m better than this. I’m a naturally fidgety and sarcastic person, terrified of earnestness and sincerity. I’m not only scared of it, I’m sort of shocked by it. Like: are we no better than beasts? Have we nothing better to offer this world than our bovine candour?

You see my struggle. Appalled and yet compelled. Stony-faced and yet wailing along with Nothing Compares 2U on De Waal drive. Push and pull etc. See, for instance, the difficulties I had with Patti Smith’s Just Kids. It’s so sincere you can’t believe it. You just want to die. She is always talking about vagabond children careening off into the night, hand in hand, dreaming of the stars etc. She is obsessed with the most fucked-up Catholic saints, although to her everlasting regret she is not a Catholic herself. Patti Smith is always making a promise to Robert Mapplethorpe and to her art, and she is doing it while kneeling at the feet of a messed-up statue. She loves Joan of Arc too much. I find Just Kids excruciating, and yet I have read it three times now. I will read it again. You see my struggle.


Essay 33: Potential, Potential, Potential

I used to know someone who thought I was very smart. It was, he made clear, the big deal about me. I was so clever, I had so much potential, I was remarkable for my age. It is possible that he was a little bit in love with me. I was very young, and I thought he was just the bee’s knees.

He would raise his eyebrows at things I said. He made a series of weird remarks about the clarity of my soul. My friends were sure that he wanted to sleep with me. I was sure that they were all the worst kind of sexist pigs, sexist bitches, for saying that. How could they think that he wanted to sleep with me when all he was doing was telling me over and over again how smart I was? It was so typical of this terrible world, really, that an old man couldn’t tell a 23 year old girl how brilliant she was without some dreary old naysayer, some mom, suggesting that there might be something else going on there. It didn’t occur to me that I was wrong.

If you haven’t heard of negging, it’s when a person gives with one hand and takes with the other. This is done with an eye to future sexing. Negging is when, for example, you are in the club and you see a girl. She is standing there chatting to her pals. You go up to her and stand on the fringes of the group. No one thinks this is weird or embarrassing. You nod along for a bit, and then you look at the girl’s friends and say, like “Wow, do you ladies ever get a word in edgewise? It seems like she never stops talking,” thus indicating to her that you are not interested. Thus making her feel the bitter sting of being just like everyone else. Negging is when you make her think that her looks have no power over you. The idea is that you “lower her social value in relation to yours” and she has no choice then but to give you the first of many blowjobs. This is all freely available on the internet. Anyone can read this.

There are lots of men who swear by negging. The internet heaves with them, all of them on forums writing “I am right, negging works, tell a girl she looks like your little sister and it’s BLOWJOB TIME, PAL. It WORKS.” A normal person looks at all this crazy bullshit and wants to dismiss it out of hand. Any normal person, surely, wants to believe that it’s a myth. I so, so wish it was.  I have never been negged in the club, but I have been subject to a sustained campaign of negging by the man who thought I was very smart, and I am telling you that it works. It made me feel like shit, but it also made me think I was in love with him.

His version of negging was to tell me that I was so, so smart, so much potential, but that it was always going to remain as potential. I was always going to be the girl that wasted her giant brain, because she couldn’t do any work. She couldn’t get it done. See how good that is? Smart, but a fuck up. Brilliant, but who cares?

It works. It made me think all kinds of stupid shit, like for example that he was the only person who understood me.  Like maybe we should just get married.

It took about five years for me to realise what was going on, there. I got sick of it all at once, just bored with all this stuff about my beautiful dying brain. A person with a more robust self-esteem would have got the shits with it much earlier. Still.

It took another two years for me to stop being angry. It was so long ago, and as it turns out, I am grateful to him. He was such an old creeper, and I ended up disliking him in a way that made it possible for me to dismiss everything he said. The whole business of whether or not I was smart just went out the window. He made it so I never, ever wanted to think about it again. As it turns out, this was a gift. I haven’t thought I was smart in years. I haven’t worried about my potential once. It just does not come up for me, anymore. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and all it took was one old creeper.