We Were Good Then

My grandfather gave me one of his favourite rings a few days ago, something which has meant a lot to him over the years. I remember it from my childhood, a tiger’s eye with lateral striations in the stone, set in thin bent gold. It was a permanent fixture on his finger, much like his big silver belt buckle was around his expanding, and now shrinking, waist.

At this family gathering, my grandfather called us aside and with tears in his failing eyes told the three of us that this would be the last time he would ever see his three grandsons in one room again. One of my cousins was down from the UK. With shaking, gnarled fingers he pulled out three rings. He said he would have liked to leave them to us in his will, but when this opportunity presented itself he took the chance. One square onyx, an oval tiger’s eye and a tiny diamond, set in a chunky square ring.

We thanked him awkwardly, my mother’s parents were always ones for grand gestures. Indeed, even fast food experiences with them could be momentous. It’s not often you remember ‘a pizza’ or ‘a steak roll’ and yet at my grandfather’s hand and wallet they have become touchstones for me. My grandfather, a salesman of office furniture by trade and a keen member of the army (how could I forget how dapper he looked in his beret?) was always more of a dreamer. And while he remembers how big the first calculators were (half the size of a desk) and how expensive they were (very), often he prefers to speak of time or space travel. For him, and consequently for me, buying a Hero Steak Roll from the Steers in Gabriel Road, Plumstead for his grandsons was an Event – something to be marked. I remember the rain outside and the immense pride as he clucked over us – his young men. It was the best steak roll I have ever eaten.

And then we shuffled off; the ceremony finished. How do you thank a man for something so meaningful? There’s nothing you can say, not much you can do. My plan is to grill him about the object itself. To try uncover what it means to him – why I was given the tiger’s eye and not the onyx or diamond. Where does it come from? How did he get it? What did he live through while wearing it?

The birth of his first and second grandsons?

The difficult birth of his first granddaughter and the passing of her twin, just a few days after her birth?

My own birth?

My aunt’s divorce?

My uncle’s divorce?

My sister’s birth?

My mother’s illness (and recovery)?

My cousin’s illness (and recovery)?

The gutting of their house, by fire?

The death of their son?

The bolt-from-the-blue divorce that destroyed my own family?

Each shimmering striation in the stone tells a story. And honestly, how do you tie up a life in something as small as a ring? Each of these striations saw us as red-faced children, running through the night garden, fingers burnt by the hot metal of the sparklers and soothed by the cold stickiness of watermelon wedges, destined to become volleys of seeds as we waged war on each other. I spoke about these days, when we were a family, with my cousins (more memories of photographs for me than real memories) and I was touched that they were remembered fondly. We were young and so were our parents. We were all new and uncompromised.

Later, my grandmother handed me a photo – a frozen moment from one of those days, before my sister was even born. My older cousins were arm in arm; so vital, life quivering in their face-wide smiles as I  curled up on myself and tried to hide from the camera, offset and to their left, the bright green garden all around us.

I handed the photo back to her and heard the familiar clack of her bangles, waved in the air for every hello and goodbye, every fierce hug balanced over her tottery legs.

‘We were good then, weren’t we?’ she said.

‘We were.’ I conceded.

But those days are gone. People are dead and others as good as – never spoken to or of again, the weight of our own embarrassment pushing our tongues deep into the wet wells of our mouths. We are old and used, shopworn. There is no going back.

And yet now I have this ring, staring at me from the shelf; a circle of gold with a tiger’s eye winking at me every time I shift perspective.

We were good then.

The Problem with Bucket Lists

When you are a child, you have no real concept of death. Life is one long, sunny afternoon spent with your mother. You don’t understand that things end. That all the things you hold dear will be taken away from you, not because of any malevolent force but because of one of the most basic qualities of our universe – entropy. The tendency for things to fall apart, to become less complex. It started with the big bang, and a piece of that big bang was seeded in you when your parents had their big bang. But you don’t know it yet.

You first see it when your family dog gets grey around the muzzle. As her back hips become weak and her back starts to crumble. She gets thin and when you try to play with her, she snaps at you. You don’t understand and you cry. Your best friend is fearful and in pain. Your mother will tell you it’s because she is old, but soon she will stop eating all together. Depending on your parents and on your constitution, you will either take the last ride with your dog; stroking her head as she stares up at you with dull, silver eyes, or you won’t. You will stay in your room and she will never come back. But you don’t really know where she’s gone.

“To Heaven.” (Doggie or otherwise).

We still don’t really understand it. We still can’t really comprehend the nothingness. Millions and millions of years of evolution have shaped us to do nothing but seek out sensations. We want to see new things, we want to feel new textures (emotional or physical), we want to taste, we want to hear, we want to drink it all in. We want to gorge ourselves on the sensory overload that is the world and roll around in it. It is in our very DNA. The first cell that could sense food and predators around it had an advantage over the cell next to it that couldn’t. The first multi-celled organism that could distinguish between light and dark had one over the multi-celled organism that couldn’t. And so it grew, in ever-expanding complexity, until we found ourselves here today; taking too many drugs, drinking too much booze, eating too much food, doing our best to have sex with as many people as we can (no matter how demeaning), meditating until we can touch the void, looking for existential feelings outside ourselves with more religions than you can shake a stick at (religions don’t do carrots, remember?) and still – what are we doing but obeying our circuitry?

We live because we live. Because we cannot and will not know anything else. We cannot know what it means to be dead. No matter how much our fragile ego protests, kicks and screams; it does not will any god, energy or afterlife into being. Wouldn’t there have been some evidence by now, other than some mangy old books that make less sense than the Twilight novels?

And so? Where to from here? How are we to make sense of our fleeting time on this planet, with all its terrifying beauty and beautiful terror?

We create lists of things we feel we should do before we die. So that when we are the hunched dog in the back of the car, reeking of piss and grey in the muzzle, we can think to ourselves: I led a life worth living. I jumped out of a plane when I was 28! I went bungee jumping! I had a meaningful date tattooed on my ankle! I said yes more often! I went to the gym (at least) twice a week! I ate more veggies! I phoned my mom more! I went for walks in the forest! I went to movies on my own! I finally went to Paris! I made up with my father! (Not likely.) I drove a Ferrari! I learnt to talk to strangers! I had that extra glass of wine! I took the time to smell the roses! I learnt a new language! I went to pottery classes! I learned how to make sushi! I took up painting! I learnt carpentry!

As the car jolts over the potholes and the smell of the vet’s rooms come closer, as his cold rubber hands reach for your neck to hold you down, is this what you have to offer?

What about people like me? People who haven’t got bucket lists? Have we led good lives? Have our lives been ‘worth living’? Have we missed out on some ‘awesome’ party involving bacon, memes and American Idol? And what if you haven’t managed to tick things off this bucket list of yours? The greatest marketing ploy of all time – seeding the idea that your life is somehow lacking unless you have performed a number of rote, generic tasks somehow deemed by consensus to convey meaning to your life, all rolled up into a movie.

I say fuck jumping out of planes. Fuck getting meaningful dates tattooed on your body. Fuck strangers and fuck foreign languages.

If the quality of your life is defined by a list of things you feel compelled to do because of the worldwide cult of positivity, then something is going wrong. What happens if you fail to complete your aforementioned tasks? What if you have been unable to dance in the rain with gay abandon or backpack across Europe with nothing but a toothbrush and a sexually transmitted disease? If you don’t finish the list you’re a fucking failure.

I am afraid of dying. I am terrified. But when the vet comes for me and parts the scraggly fur on the back of my neck, I’m not going to roll over and say: Hit me buddy – I saw the Great Wall of China. I’m going to turn around and bite his fucking hand, because that’s what being alive is.

PW

From the air

There are brief moments of blinding clarity that flit into your consciousness like moths and explode with magic dust. They occur in strange places and at strange times, but in my experience they tend to occur at least 30 000 feet above the ground.

I believe this is linked to the very physical nature of our bodies and the in-built limitations on our cognition. We are used to being able to extend our abilities – we are androids who can see far, speak over great distance, move faster than our physical bodies allow – but in the air we are entirely useless – unequipped and unevolved.

We have spent millions of years of evolution specialising in our ability to perceive our immediate surroundings and recognise patterns, threats, collaborators and potential partners. This has led to our brains working in very specific, very specialised ways.

To wit, we know that there are 7 billion people alive on the planet right now, but we have absolutely no way of visualising that number. It is entirely beyond us, despite our confidence that this is an irrefutable fact. Our brains cannot do it.

Similarly the perspective we gain when we are physically above the earth, suspended in a magic tube, is astounding. The hidden patterns and utilitarian beauty of our transport system are laid bare. From the air there are no potholes, no red lights, no slow drivers and no beggars at the traffic lights, making you feel like a worthless piece of shit for spending R40 on a sandwich.

Life from up here is abstracted. The cars move, but they move slowly, driven by empty vessels into which I can pour my own meaning and create my own noise. People go to work, lovers have clandestine meetings under the trees, hearts beating and eyes magnetic, children go to school, hearses drag bodies down into the ground – the system works, because I see it as a whole.

The same beauty finds a home in the convenient nature of the footpaths across unused land. From the ground, their multifarious routes are a mystery, as people trudge from home to work, from work to home. From up here, they skip home to their families and kiss their children on the cheek, they stalk the ground and grind sorrow under their heels. Life and death and everything is mapped out in human laziness, or is that inventiveness?

As I go further the rivers reveal themselves, cutting through the rusty dust of the Karoo. Through nothing more than erosion, rain and gravity the most beautiful lines are created, ribbons thrown by a precocious child.

And I note those wonders, true wonders, and hold them close. And I know that they are wondrous not because some Being decreed that all rivers should flow thusly, that gravity should work the way it does, but precisely because they have done so with no intervention at all. Not one guiding hand has touched an oxbow twist or daring double back – these things have happened. They have Happened – with no sentience or idea of what beauty could even be.

The clouds dot and scud. They meet over mountains and split into their constituent parts. They show me new lands and their dynamic, doomed geography – mine and mine alone. There are mountains floating above the earth as light as a feather we have never seen. To see their hefty peaks, not their drab underbellies as our ancestors were doomed to for years, is a privilege I refuse to downplay.

The hidden valleys perched on top of mountains call to me, ask me to find their doorways and bask. Bask in their very middle as their arms, laid down millions of years ago, hold me close and buttress me.

 

In the rare times it is revealed to me, the Beauty is almost too much.

Moths and tuna mayonnaise sandwiches

I never used to have a problem with moths. Or tuna mayonnaise sandwiches. Moths were nothing but interesting pictures in wildlife books, mild annoyances around candles and occasional subjects for little jar-shaped glass jails. Tuna mayonnaise sandwiches were, well, sandwichy. They carried no more inherent malice than a cheese and tomato sandwich (on brown or toasterloaf – their wheaty bookends had no influence on their fundamental motivation). Perhaps it might have happened differently, if only that moth had not flown down the passage, or I had had a polony, tomato sauce and mayonnaise sandwich that day instead, all of these problems could have been avoided. Fate, random events, Jesus shooting little moths out of a plastic gun when I wasn’t looking… I can’t speculate on the Wheres Whos Hows and Whys of the situation, but when a captured moth and a tuna mayonnaise sandwich collided in a dusty, wheaty mess my young life was never the same.

 

Moths are disgusting creatures. They exist to butt heads, to drop dust and to fuck for the next generation. Butterflies flit and flap through the air, looking for pretty little flowers to kiss. Moths barrel and stutter, unsure of where they’re going. The sight of a moth, the staccato shadow of its wings across the periphery of my vision, sends cockroaches crickling across my neck. Sandwiches, on the other hand, are really quite amiable things.

 

The moth was huge. Its outstretched wings would have overlapped the borders of my pink palm. I heard it flapping down the passage, thick and dusty wings beating at the air and the cream-coloured paint. My Mom called me to look at it, ever one to impart knowledge, showed me how big it was, explained the life cycle of the moth. Eggs, caterpillar, blind pupa and finally, crashing through the dried-out walls, a full grown moth in all its fuzzy-antennaed, demonic glory. It came to a stop, halfway up the wall, just above the reaches of my seven year old fingers.

 

“Shall we catch it?” she asked, despite her fear (which I only learnt of later).

“Okay. I can take it to school,” I replied.

“I’ll go find something,” said my mom, trudging into the kitchen and digging through the cupboard to find an old coffee jar. She returned triumphant, the squared off jar obscured by the remnants of adhesive paper. At that moment, it was no longer a jar to provide coffee to partner her cigarettes; it was a sacred urn, a golden chalice. She strode triumphantly over the tiles and carpet and clamped the jar against the wall.

 

“Why don’t you get a piece of paper?”

 

I scuttled off to my room and returned, magical paper in hand. With surgical precision, she slid the paper between the wall and the jar, closing the moth inside. With a deft movement, she righted the jar, removed the paper and screwed on the thick, brown lid.

 

“We should make holes in the top, Mom, so the moth can breathe.”

 

The next morning, I had my sandwich packed in my little red lunch box. Tuna mayonnaise. I sat with the moth on my lap on the way to school, checking that it was alive, rattling the jar every now and then to elicit a listless flapping of its gigantic wings.

 

“Don’t hurt it, Paul,” said my Mom, looking across to the passenger seat. My cheeks burned.

 

Showing the moth to the class was a success. Our teacher was very impressed, if a little apprehensive of such a large moth. The entire class shuffled past, passed it amongst themselves, tapped at the glass with their clumsy pencils.

 

“Should we let it free now?”

 

The class agreed. Mrs Frye and I opened the institution grey-green door and set the jar down on the scuffed clay tiles. I unscrewed the lid and lifted up the jar, so that the moth could get to the floor. It travelled across a tile or two, then stopped.

 

“Let’s go back inside, Paul.”

 

And then I forgot about the moth. I was learning to read, which was much more important. In an hour or two, the bell rang. Little break. The only break we had back then. I let all the people who had to be first out the door, then followed at my own pace. The moth crashed through my mind. I wondered if it had flown off, where it had gone.

 

“Gross! Look at that!” shouted one of the other boys, pointing to the floor. I looked down and there on that terracotta killing-floor, the moth was just dust and insides, not moving. Dead. The split in its body where the guts had spewed out scratched an image onto my brain that’s been there ever since. Its guts looked exactly like tuna mayo. I swallowed a few times, then followed the boys out into the quad – there were games of zap to be had. When I was hungry and tired, I opened up my lunchbox to be assailed with the fishy smell of tuna and mayonnaise, the way it had sogged into the bread, like clammy moth guts. I took one look at it and threw it away.

 

When I went back to class, the moth was gone, interred in a black plastic bag somewhere. I took the jar home and threw it away. Seven years later, I could eat tuna mayonnaise sandwiches again.

Culture is Accelerating

I remember when I was twelve years old. I had two Alternative Press magazines and a Hit Parader I got from The Kilo Book Shop. They taught me all I needed to know about the world – KoRn is awesome. Marilyn Manson is scary (but awesome). Metallica T-Shirts are awesome.

That was all the cultural knowledge I needed. I had watched Wayne’s World a few years earlier and I had an older cousin who taught me that Soundgarden – Superunkown is still one of the best albums ever (despite Black Hole Sun). Those tiny black and white T-Shirts in the mail order section at the back of the magazines were all the fashion advice I needed. Those three magazines were my most prized cultural artefacts.

Playing Quake and listening to Marilyn Manson was good enough for me. I did it for weeks. My favourite albums were on rotation again and again and again. I listened to the same KoRn song getting dressed for school for what feels like a year. At the time, I was closing in on twenty CDs. I was rolling in it. All of this cultural knowledge, all 150 pages and 20 CDs of it, was enough to feel a tacit connection with other disenfranchised-feeling young teens wearing NIN T-Shirts at the local craft market. Yin-Yangs were awesome. They were all you needed to show to get in the club. Not that my club existed of anyone other than myself, dreaming of true American teenage misery.

And then the Internet came along. And we got IRC. And the most interesting question we could ask anyone was a/s/l? And as the Internet, masturbating iron fist in a velvet glove that it is, took over – we expected more and more. Where before it was enough to watch the girls through the fence and hope one of them would do a cartwheel, revealing their sensible cotton briefs, now we could send emails. Now we could do things like type ‘hustler.com’ into the address bar when our parents were out, and close the window and delete the history with jagged breaths before the 14.4k modem had revealed the first dark flash of areola.

This was the time of Starship Troopers and Screamers. We took out the same shitty tapes from the movie shop again and again and we didn’t mind. We were happy with what we had. There was no MTV. I had recorded tapes of music videos, which I would watch over and over again. Now, YouTube burns with newer, artsier videos than ever before. And you can watch them whenever you want.

In those days, your friend who had rummaged through his father’s cupboard and found one pathetic porn tape from the 80s was a champion. He was in charge of rewinding it to make sure it was at exactly the right place, while you both sat uncomfortably with ever-tightening underpants. And it was enough!

And that was just the start. Now – all my CDs are in boxes at my Mom’s house. My precious magazines are recycled, possibly seeing second or even third lives as cereal boxes or toilet paper. My music collection is bigger than ever, but I can’t name all the CDs I own any more. I can look at porn whenever I want. I’ve got an Xbox and a Wii. And the more culture we produce, the faster it goes.

I remember when the culture I wanted to be part of could be found under one rock. I fought and begged and pleaded with my mother to be allowed to turn it over. And once it was overturned, I spent weeks and months analysing every single grain of sand, every ant and every earwig. I knew the names of every person in every band that I liked. I knew the names of their songs as well as the order in which they appeared. And now, when I look back over my shoulder, I can see nothing but overturned rocks. And borne on by this cultural wave, I’m encouraged to turn over ever more rocks, with barely enough time to look for interesting bugs before it’s on to the next one. The Internet has made everything accessible all the time, but there’s only so much time I have. I can never truly be a fan of one thing like I used to be.

And while I appreciate the choice, Richard Dawkins knows I appreciate the choice, I feel like my life is less for all the music and all the culture I have. The choice paralyses me. Do I feel like French Lounge Jazz, Early 00’s Trip-Hop, West Coast Gangsta Rap From The Early 90s, Orchestral Music, Orchestral Movie Soundtracks or Whale Sounds (Sigur Ros) while I look out the window today? And what about the new new Jack White record that just came out, which has the Internet abuzz (for the next six hours)?

In those days, when I had just the one rock, I could choose Manson or KoRn. And I loved them both equally.