Today I made my first ever ‘complaint’ against someone. I feel uneasy now at the thought of what the consequences for that person might be, so I’m writing this post to work out if I did the right thing. Here’s what happened:
A South African friend on Facebook shared an article about white people being murdered by blacks. I commented. There was some back-and-forth with others chipping in. One man’s contribution to the discussion was as follows:
“No use arguing with an opinionated libtard. No cure for that. We know the truth cos we live it.”
In case it’s not obvious, the libtard is me. I didn’t reply. The man had made it clear that nothing I say interests him. I felt sad. Who is this guy? I looked at his Facebook page. He is a middle aged Afrikaans man. He recently celebrated his wife’s birthday. He is proud that his son was chosen to play in the under 16s Bokkie Week. He rides a big motorcycle. He listens to Karen Zoid. Even without the endorsement of our friend in common, this man seems like someone I could appreciate. If we met at a braai, I might chirp that he was quite hip for an old ballie, and he might call me a libtard. I was really warming to the man and thinking maybe I’d reply in a nice way when I noticed his job title: he is the deputy headmaster of a Christian prep school. Suddenly his comment took on new meaning. This man who calls himself a teacher considers thinking an incurable malady. His contempt for argument is an insult to the whole education project. I looked up his school’s website. It seems like a wonderful place. I like what they stand for there, so I wrote to the headmaster.
Everyone has one Facebook event that really got under their skin. This is mine. It’s taken writing this post to work out why. I think it’s wrong to sort people into good and bad. We’d all end up in the bad pile. But there are certain professions, considered callings, in which people aspire to be noble. One of these professions is teaching. The man’s comment offended me when I realised that he was a teacher because he is supposed to care about truth. He is supposed to welcome questions. His contempt for me and my attempts to understand a complex situation should not be acceptable in his profession. That’s basically what I said to the headmaster. He replied immediately, sad and cross. I felt relieved.
The American section of my social media feed is almost exclusively young middle class liberals trying to be writers. Several of them reacted to Trump’s victory by demanding that any Republican voters on their friend lists immediately unfriend them. (They couldn’t even be bothered to find out for themselves which of their family or friends voted for Trump.) Shouldn’t we, who want to call ourselves writers, take the opposite approach, i.e. not write people off?
For a few months now, both Rory and I have read Doris Lessing almost exclusively. We believe we know her quite well—her writing is very autobiographical, and on top of that she has written an autobiography taking up several volumes. Rory is currently reading ‘A Proper Marriage,’ book two in a series of autobiographical novels, and I’m reading ‘Under My Skin,’ part one of the autobiography (not to be confused with the autobiographical novels). So far, the titles are the only thing I don’t love about Doris Lessing’s books. This isn’t even a real gripe because I think Doris herself knew that her titles were bad, and she didn’t think it mattered. E.g. In her autobiography she mentions the title, ‘A Ripple from the Storm’ (part three of the autobiographical novels) which she ‘had thought quite witty, but nobody noticed.’ Rory, as far as I know, has no complaints about Doris. If he does, he probably won’t say. I can’t imagine him speaking ill of the woman who has become our shared God Parent. Quite often, when we need grown-up advice, we’ll wonder aloud what Doris would think. If we really want to feel sure about something, we’ll declare that Doris would agree. We really love and appreciate Doris, and we try to make her proud. I’ve even sacrificed the title of this blog-post in her honour, choosing the favourite expression of Binkie Maynard in ‘Martha Quest,’ the first in the autobiographical novel series, itself titled, ‘The Children of Violence.’ If you don’t like my title, please read Martha Quest and see if you don’t start saying, ‘Give it a bang!’ at every opportunity.
A bad dream woke me yesterday morning. I went around all day in a state of frightened confusion. I was unreachable, cowering behind my eyes. At about six in the evening I forced myself to go for a run. Near the lower reaches of the park, the hilly side, I slowed down to look at a deer I saw lying alone in the grass, down at the bottom of a narrow grassy valley between two swooping bends in the road. I stopped and looked down the bank. The deer lay in long grass with its legs tucked in and its head held up. Its delicate chin was tilted downwards, and its eyes were closed, as if balancing the wide rack of antlers on its small head required all its concentration. That night I thought about the deer: it was special. I’m sure any individual deer considered apart from its herd would reveal its own loveliness, but this deer really was especially beautiful—very pale, almost milky, and sparsely flecked with reddish brown; even its antlers were lighter than usual, a rich creamy colour. I am sure this deer would stand out among its herd, which, incidentally, I have not seen grazing or thundering across the sports fields for a few days now. Where are they all? Anyway, I went running again this afternoon. I did not see the herd, but rounding the bend, I saw my white deer. It was still there—down in the narrow valley, in its neat sitting position, holding its big antlers perfectly still. I knew it hadn’t moved since I’d last seen it. Could it be dying? I stopped and watched the deer for a while, more composed than I had been the day before. I saw an ear twitch, and then the other ear, and I ran on. The deer was alive, for now at least. A few kilometers later, I thought: of course it’s alive—it’s holding its head up. I wonder if it’s dead now, or if it’s still there, feeling the weight of its antlers.
This morning I had an interview for a job I really want and know I’ll be good at. In the run-up to the interview, I had two days to get into the mindset of someone switched-on and competent. Here’s how I fared:
The day before yesterday, I got the bus to Tesco and bought, among other groceries, toilet paper. When I got home I realised that I’d forgotten the loo-paper at the till, so I walked to the corner store and bought some more toilet paper, and also a slightly unripe pear. As I was leaving the store, chomping the unwashed pear, I heard the proprietor shouting after me that I’d left the toilet paper behind! I felt ashamed.
Then, yesterday: I took the small change lying around our room and walked half an hour to the printing shop to print my CV, following Rory’s advice: bringing your CV to your interview is the done thing—the interviewer says, tell me about your experience, and you say, sliding the crisp document across the table, sure, here’s a copy of my CV. I agreed that a prop would be useful. Producing my CV at the right moment would make me seem organized—exactly the impression I want to create. On the way to the printing shop, I was thinking, ‘I could toast some muesli when I get home, but I don’t have enough pecan nuts.’ I decided to nip into Tesco and get some nuts, then go print my CV afterwards, since there was still ten minutes before the shop closed. So I bought the nuts, feeling very efficient using the self-checkout machine, dropping my coins into the slot—feeling also quite thrifty for using coins—until I realised that I’d dropped nearly all my coins into the machine, all but ten cents, and now I didn’t have enough money left for the printing! I couldn’t bear to go home and tell Rory what I’d done—he’d seemed a little worried by my loo-paper stunt the day before—so I went to the printing shop and asked the guy if I could print my CV for free. He was very nice. He said ‘sure, no problem’ and didn’t want my lousy ten cents. The page came out of the printer a little crumpled, with a crease down the middle like a fault line, but I didn’t think I could ask for another go.
So, interview day dawns. I am about to leave—I have my creased CV ready—and Rory spots a spelling mistake! I had to correct the error in black pen, but I think it looked OK—I scribbled on a bit of scrap paper first, so the ink didn’t blob (calm under pressure).
Wherever I happen to be living, there are some absent friends who are always present. I need only picture them to feel them in the room. One such friend is James “Archie” Hughes, Mississippi born writer and teacher, who has recently died.
I am certainly not the only person to have met James Hughes and kept him with me. I first looked him up in Thailand with my friend, Patrick, on a recommendation from Damien, our writing teacher and friend from New Zealand, who had become friends with James during their MFA at Washington University over twenty years ago. In Damien’s stories about his time in America, his best friend Archie was so vivid that we were surprised to learn that Damien and Archie had not seen each other or corresponded since their MFA. Despite the friends’ twenty-year silence, when Patrick and I moved to Thailand, Damien gave us James’s email address and told us to contact him, assuring us that Archie Hughes was the most generous-spirited person he had ever met, and that we would love him. We did love him.
This morning the doorbell rang downstairs. Rory and I decided it was probably a package—we have no drop-in friends yet, and from what I can tell, neither do our housemates. Listening, hoping neither of us would have to go down there, we heard one of our housemates slowly emerge from his room. We agreed that it was Ulrich. He went to the door, then went back to his room. So the package was for Ulrich—a meteorite chunk, or a modem.
Now our minds were on the postman. I knew Rory and I were both fruitlessly counting weeks, wondering when my work authorization would arrive. We posted the application a little over a week ago. The official processing time is up to six weeks—“maybe more,” the website says. Going by the efficiency of other offices we’ve been at the mercy of here, “maybe more” seemed likely, but for some reason, I said to Rory: “I feel like it will arrive very soon, any day now.” Rory laughed—a worried laugh. He reminded me about the “up to six weeks, maybe more,” then we started making jokes about civil servants. This led us back to our earlier conversation: before the doorbell rang, Rory had been filling out an illogically put together tax form, and we were making jokes about the people who work at the tax office, to ease our worries about the form we need them to process within their stated processing time: up to four weeks (maybe more). Rory got ready for work and went downstairs. A moment later, I heard him coming back up the stairs: my work authorization letter had arrived! This is very good news: soon I’ll have a job and our income will cover our living costs. I also need to visit the dentist, which (if you’re me) costs a month’s earnings.
I just read over what I’d written, noting the meanness and snarky tone: I must be feeling threatened by the prospect of working. A job could put my writing on hold for a while, and a long break at this stage could be very bad for my novel. Rory is also a writer and has been facing similar fears—at least I can model myself on him (gracious, brave).
Also: sorry, civil servants, you don’t deserve it. And Ulrich is an extremely cool guy—someone should write a novel about him. Yikes, this tone, I really can’t shake it. I do think Ulrich is cool; I like him very much.