In memory of my friend Barney Van Heerden

I am struggling to deal with and work through the terribly sad news I received late last night.

My good friend Barend J Van Heerden, better known as Barney, was brutally murdered over the weekend.

I woke in the middle of the night and could not fall asleep again, my thoughts returning to him.

Barney and I met each other in 2001, when we worked at Standard Bank in Johannesburg. I was Project Manager and Barney was an allocated resource to the project. I forget the details of the project, but I remember Barney and his sharp intellect and inherent ability to solve problems, especially complicated ones. Another of Barney’s great asset was his people skills. An openly gay man, Barney had the ability to engage with both gay and straight men and women, and simply bypass many of the preconceived silly ideas people had about gay/straight relationships.

Barney was the first gay person I really got to know. I asked openly naive questions, and Barney gave me totally frank answers. About lifestyle choices, about desires, about love and about relationships.

Much of my development as an open minded person over the last 10 years can be attributed to our friendship. I learnt to understand that Barney and his friends were just like me and mine – we wanted to enjoy life to the max, build lasting relationships and grow intimate friendships.  Barney taught me that it was possible to be good friends with gay men. Never did he cross the boundaries and never did I feel in any way uncomfortable in his company. Yes, eyebrows were raised at work at our growing friendship, but I was secure enough to smile at the corridor sniggers, Barney simply ignored them. Having had to deal with adversity for most of our lives, Barney and I shared the common theme of being shoe boxed into preconceived moulds, moulds we strove to destroy wherever possible.

Barney was a lifelong student. In his constant desire to make a difference to the world he lived in, he often made choices that most others found bizarre. I remember that when I met him he was driving a gold coloured BMW. A little while later he sold this car and downgraded to something simpler and more fuel efficient. He decided to buy a Citroen, against the common thinking of most of his friends, because he believed that driving a diesel would make a difference to the environment.

Later, he enrolled for university courses at Stellenbosch, in sustainable development and development methodologies. We had many talks about the impact of continued unconstrained development on the environment and he firmly believed in a better world. The tragedy of the unmitigated disaster of global expansion was high on his agenda and I am sure his study partners learned much from him during his time with them. Last I heard he was doing a masters course in something or the other, continually striving to improve himself.

I am especially saddened by the timing of this horrible thing. Just last Friday we talked about the significance of Pride Weekend, to both gay and straight people. He posted saying that we must not forget that not long ago, gay people were not allowed to walk hand in hand in the street in South Africa. Barney used this opportunity to highlight the plight of other gay and marginalised communities in Africa, calling on his close friends to be mindful of this fact. My response was that Julia and I are both aware of discrimination in all forms and make a concerted stand against this sort of thing.

For me, Barney was a friend I never really lost touch with, even after I returned to Cape Town. I will remember my friend as a fun loving warm person, a caring individual who made an effort to really listen and not simply hear, someone I could bounce ideas off, without fear of ridicule. But mostly, I will remember Barney for the easy way he made me understand his gayness, how it never became an issue for us and how over 10 years our friendship grew stronger and stronger. The real tragedy here is that many people will not ever know this about him, never know how much love and caring he had within him, for his friends and even those he knew only fleetingly.

You will be missed my friend, by all who knew you, and those you did not yet meet. Your kindness and compassion will live on, even though you will not be here to see the works through to fruition.

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Crazy English

I picked this beautiful little piece up on a forum – the author is a chap by the name of Les, and I love the way he has put this piece together. Some food for thought (another one of those crazy sayings 🙂

Let’s face it-English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant; nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England nor French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat.

We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb thru annals of history but not a single annal?

If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it? If a teacher has taught, why didn’t a preacher, praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue? Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.

In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Send shipments by car and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another?

Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable? And where are all those people who ARE spring chickens or who would ACTUALLY hurt a fly? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it? . . . English ain’t bein’ spoke no good no more. Enjoy this week!

Tears

I sit here this afternoon, with tears pushing at the extremes of my eyes.

I have not given in to the desire to let them flow, as I am still holding on to the last vestiges of emotional strength I can still muster. But, a few minutes ago, while going through my daily readings, and in between doing the work I am currently busy with, I came across this blog, and again, those tears are straining to come out.

I sit here and contemplate for a moment, what it could be like to have someone tell me that I have a limited span of life remaining. For just one moment, I transport myself to a place, a sunny room in a medical practice somewhere, having had some routine tests done, and with some mild trepidation, sitting and wait for the doctor to call me into his rooms. I sit, in this holding pen, and take in the view through the big mirrored window, thinking of small things, like the fact that doctors no longer where white coats and stethoscopes around their necks. That waiting rooms now have current and up to date magazines. That a large 42” screen is showing a hit blockbuster movie on DSTV, that the couches are comfortable, stylish and very luxurious. Alongside me, I see a young mother nursing a toddler with streaming red eyes, snot dried around his nose, and yet the child is still able to smile at me. I smile back, yet resist the temptation to talk mindlessly to the child or mother.

The doctor arrives, a bland face, devoid of any emotion, a mumbled greeting. Leading me by the arm, the touch of his hand warm on my exposed skin. I glance down at his grey haired hands, a surgeons hands, large, confident, firm. He beckons me to sit down on the hard brown chair in front of his desk. Again, I take in the neat picture in front of me. Deskpad, prescription pad, framed photo of the family, slightly off center a small trophy of a man swinging a golf club, with a date I cannot decipher on it. The doctor takes his seat now, folding his hands before his face as if in prayer. I sit quietly as he opens the yellow manila folder lying before him. A cursory scan, as if he is seeing the results for the first time, a small frown creases his already lined forehead. And then the bombshell. Details. Blood counts, protein counts, white cells, red cells, bone marrow, stem cells, details…All I hear is…Cancer.

I swallow involuntarily, my parched throat sore, my lips dry. Finality. I ask the question everyone in my position asks – How long do I have to live? The answer is also standard. More words, more details. More scenario sketching. More tests to be performed. My thoughts are reeling, all over the place like a bad rash, breaking out as I scratch them, surfacing as red blots on my mind. I recoil. I deny. I listen to the sound of the words coming from the doctors mouth, seeing his graying mustache rise and fall like the swell of the sea, more words crashing on my already drowning ears. I hear the sound of his voice fading into the background of my consciousness, my thoughts now over riding the words of reassurance coming from his mouth. I reach for small glass of water before me, struggling to swallow the tasteless substance. I stand up slowly, reaching out my dying hand to thank the doctor, unable to get any words out, mumbling something. He sticks a piece of folded paper into my hand, unlined and unruled with a simple two things written on it: Oncology – 021 555 4232.

I walk out of the room, sensing rather than seeing the waiting room before me. The mother and child have left, replaced by another older mother and an even older child, with red eyes, this time the mother looks like she has been crying. The child has a look of rebelliousness on her face, eyes narrowed as she looks at me, then looks away quickly, not wanting to look at the dead man walking. I reach the security gate, pushing against the locked barrier. A young receptionist looks at me with more than mild irritation, pointing at the sign asking for upfront payment, expecting me to know that she does this a thousand times a day. I reach for my wallet, pulling out my faded gold card, noting absently that the card too will expire in 2012, in the 2nd month, wondering if I would be around to renew it, or if the card will outlive me. The young girl swipes the card, passing me the terminal to enter my pin. I enter the 4 digits 0270, my month of birth and the year I was born in. I sigh deeply, hearing the machine spitting out the confirmation of payment, realising that I did not even look at the amount, not caring, just wanting to get away from this place.

I am transported bask to reality now. The phone is ringing, someone needs to talk to me. My tears have not come, and I am filled with other thoughts. I cannot really know what this feels like, as it had not happened to me. It had happened to a million other people though, and most recently, it happened to Jacky G. Not 41, but approaching 68, I asked him what the worst thing was about this thing. His reply was simple – What do I do with what I have left with my life, to leave something more behind?

Sadly, as I write this piece, I see a mountain of a man fading away before my eyes. Unyielding, largely unemotional before this, he has now succumbed  to the melancholy of his condition. Withdrawing into a world of chemotherapy induced order, sleep is his only escape. Behind closed doors, and with more and more demands on those around him, he is sliding deeper and deeper into a depression. Small positives are no longer counted, death impending the only thought in his mind, constantly talking about his Cancer to all who will listen. I see pressure mounting on Annie G, a strong woman who has endured much, a tidal wave of depression hovering to engulf her too. Resistant to chemical aid, I see her fighting the good fight for both of them. I see her fighting with Jacky G to cling to what remains of a good life. I see her cares and concerns about money and the future. I see her get up each day, and face this evil bitter foe called Cancer, armed with her bible verses of encouragement, and surrounded by a few good friends providing much needed support. I see the prodigal son who has returned after years out in the hinterland, now facing the indescribable turmoil in a home that was Cancer free and love filled up until a few weeks ago, finding his coping mechanisms in his pastimes. I see this young man, filled with hope and ambition for the future taking this on the chin, watch him take this in his stride and I know that he too will be OK. I see my wife dealing with her fathers illness in her own way, she of the same personality traits, who can see the darkness her father is moving towards rapidly, and finding her coping mechanisms, along with dealing with her personal demons too. And lastly, I see me.

Here I am, expressing in words what I am feeling. I am filled with a range of emotions. I am emotionally tired. I wish the tears would come already. I am angry. I ask why God? Why?? And all I hear is the sound of my own mortality, the ticking of my own little biological clock, my personal countdown to my own worldly demise. I wonder if the years of cigarette smoking will come and catch me out? I wonder if my genetic disposition will be my end? If my diabetes will worsen, leaving me with failing kidneys or amputated toes. And then I smile. And I know that my few seconds of morbidity has passed. This is my way of dealing with this trauma – to write and share it with others facing the same things I am. I smile because I know that I am a fighter. And I know that fighters too need the 20 seconds in the corner, a bucket to spit in, a trainer to wipe the bloody nose clean, to prep with some smelling salts, to whisper some words of encouragement, to advise on tactics for the next round. I see the smiling crowds outside my own battle ring, I hear the roar of  support from some of them – true friends who have stuck with me through all of this, and who will still be there tomorrow,and the day after, and the day after that. I know I am going to be good. I know I am going to live my life to the full, take the knocks and punches, and never ever give up. And while I will walk away from some of these fights bruised and battered, lose some by knockout, win some on points, draw level at other times, I know this. I am a fighter. And afterwards? I will celebrate with my friends and supporters, celebrate this gift of life I have received.

Love,

Truth

So this morning I met an amazing person, Doctor Peter Hill, of Atlantic Beach, Melkbosstrand. Through a number of serendipitous events, I had the privilege of having a consultation with Peter that has changed my mind about food forever. But I am getting ahead of myself here, so let me go back a few months.

Once a year, round June or July, I review my policies, and have a few necessary health checks. Prudent behavior, as this year, during some routine tests, my blood sugar was diagnosed as being higher than normal. After consulting with my regular GP, I was prescribed to go onto two types of medication, to take some exercise and was told that I have type II diabetes and would now be on chronic medication for the rest of my life. Admittedly, my initial reaction to this news was somewhat morbid and morose. I felt a little depressed, and I can now admit, a little angry that I had contracted a disease. Anyway, not being the type of person to wallow in my own misery, I started taking the medication, hoping that the side effects would not be too bad and that they would pass quickly.

I discovered first hand what so many women lament about. Bloated, nausea, and irritability were just some of the symptoms, coupled with stiffness in my legs and arms and painful joints. For the first time in my life, I felt old, I struggled to get up in the mornings, and simple activities became cumbersome. Another visit to my GP and he told me to stop taking one pill, and upped the dosage of the other one. Almost immediately my symptoms improved, and my overall sense of wellness returned. I felt more energetic and able to sit in front of my PC for longer periods again. Happiness! After a few more days, I felt almost normal. I had made some changes to my diet – I had to cut out cakes and biscuits (my yummy shortbread would be missed by all), and naturally cut out all added refined sugars from my food intake. Fortunately for me, I had abandoned sugar in coffee years ago, and was already used to the taste. I miss my cakes and sweets, but I am willing to make the sacrifice if it is going to add quality to my life in any way. I quit smoking (again) and again felt immediately better.

Then about a week ago I called Dr Hill and he agreed to see me. He asked me to keep a record of what I ate for the next few days, and also some other basic information I was to bring along. On arrival at his practice today, I shared my food diary with him. After listening carefully, and then explaining to me in detail how diabetes worked, he talked about how cells carry sugar and how they affect vitals etc. Having satisfied himself with my medical history, we moved on to talk about my diet in some detail.

And then he dropped a bombshell. Without any doubt or hesitation, Dr Hill informed me of the biggest mistake I was making in my diet, something so serious that  could have exacerbated my condition by continuing to eat the way I  had until now. The major culprit, for people with my type of diabetes, is the consumption of carbohydrates. Yes, the comforting effect of bread, pasta, pizza, rice and fruit I loved so much could have been worsening my diabetes. Without going into too much detail, the effect of carbs on the insulin resistance of my blood cells would be worsened over time, and  now I embark on a new eating plan. This plan encompasses a complete view of my wellness, from my point of view, and is custom designed for me, and to fit my needs. So after googling around for some more information, I am astounded to read how many people follow the low carb/high protein diet of Dr Bernstein, and how the best route is to follow a course of trying to normalise blood sugar through better diet.

Anyway, I digress. The point of this post (?) is that I wanted to say that the whole experience with the good doctor was sort of surreal. Sort of how things should really be in medical practice – no rush, no focus on the cash payment at the end, just a genuine concern about my well being. I mean, how often does a doctor say to a patient that he is the expert? Never! But not this doc. He asked me to approach the coming 12 months as a journey where I share how I feel with him, and he guides me through the theory of medicine. I felt the need to share this with other diabetes sufferers. You do not have to suffer, there are doctors in the world who practice for the love of helping people. And you will find them in the most unusual places. Dr Peter Hill, I thank you sir, for restoring my faith in your profession.

Words

Sharp words, like knives of stainless steel, cold, sterile, and impersonal, can cut through layers of skin, bone, and emotions, cleanly. Likewise, a blunt blade also cuts, oftentimes causing even more damage than a sharply honed blade.

And so does our thoughtless words, both spoken and written, either cut through sharply and clinically, or pierce others’ emotions with rusted and blunted impact. Words written in moments of lucid clarity can often convey so much more than simple vented emotion, a sharpness that conveys true meaning, encapsulating an experience, bringing out a rawness that simply cannot be found just lying around.

And then, on other day, there can be so much emotion inside oneself, that words struggle to form proper sentences. When grammar and tense and context battle each other like rioters and police in Birmingham. When backspace is used 5 times to get the simple word WHEN typed out, yes, days when the impact of the news is like a sledgehammer, and all you want is a moment of mental respite, to simply breathe deeply, and stop the barrage of endless randomness intruding on your world. The blessing and curse of being connected.

I opened Twitter this morning. I follow 228 people, I know some of them personally. Some of them are friends who tweet random goodies, others simply retweet other peoples stuff. I love Twitter – I use it for keeping up with global breaking  news. I first saw how valuable it could be when I was online one evening, and picked up a trending tweet. That was the night unconfirmed reports broke that Michael Jackson had died. Within minutes, millions of MJ fans were tweeting, and within an hour, everyone  in the world knew that the King had died.  But today I write about how Twitter and FB invade our mental space, cutting through our lives in another way.

Someone I follow, who I have never met, but somehow still feel I have a connection with, tweeted on the passing of Trey Pennington. I clicked through on the link, and landed on a blog. I discovered that Trey (@treypennington) had committed suicide. He was a father to 6 children and had one grandchild. Trey lost the fight against the chemicals in his brain, choosing to end his life. Read the post here. So this got me thinking. A parking lot full of thoughts. The connectedness of the world we live in, and how the lines cross between ‘friend’ and online friend. So how lonely can someone be who has over 111 000 followers, 111 000 people who would have been able to respond, who wanted to respond?The answer is that this man was so lonely, and what he showed most of the 111 000 people who followed his tweets, was just a mask. A mask hiding the pain and hurt and fear of a man living two (or  more) lives. Which makes me ask some questions of life, and the masks we all wear, all over again.

The nature of what we do for a living, and how we work in this connected world, implies that there is as a prerequisite of a kind of forced bravado about what say and what we do. And as men, we never show emotion. We are trained from a very young age to not show weakness – ‘don’t cry,’ my mother always said. But crying felt good, so I cried. Usually alone, but I did my fair bit of crying in my pillow. But never in front of my dad, or my other male friends. To show weakness implied being weak, and that meant that you would get picked on. And hard. So mask number 1 we learnt to apply like makeup, foundation layer, no weakness, no crying! Mask number 2 was to not talk about certain things that made adults uncomfortable. Like body odors, bodily functions (no1 was a P, no 2 was a Poo), we were told not to say words that would make adults blush, and so we developed mask no 2 – keep our thoughts to ourselves, talk less, and don’t impose your thinking on others. Mask no 3 developed a while later – show people only your good side. Keep your ugly side at home. So if you felt gloomy, don’t talk about it, leave it at home. Along with Mask no3, and about the time we become little adults, we discover the magic of chemicals, and how a little bit of this and little more of that, can artificially boost mask no3, turning us into the life of the party – naturally, no one would see the consequences of the party, as we would be worshiping the porcelain goddess all by ourselves at 4 in the morning, her Grace, Lady Armitage Shanks…

And was we grow older, we sometimes discover, more and more that our close friends don’t care about the masks. But we continue to wear them, until they start wearing off around the edges. When our close friends see who we really are, they get to make the choice – fight or flight. And the ones who really care – they stand and fight with us. They support us. They encourage us. They commiserate with us. And when all else is gone, and the chemicals have kicked in, and the Cilift, Molypaxin, Urbanol cocktail rushes through our veins, we find some respite from the world around us. We wipe away the mask, the sticky residue of the days and months of constant application of layers of crap, we expose our faces to ourselves, our closest, our dearest, our loved one. We pray that they are still there, that they have not fled to other places – that DSTV is the only refuge they have found, the warm glow of a flat screen the only comfort they received while we were away. And we stare into the mirror, looking for traces of who we once were. And some of us are lucky to see the old self there. The person we once were, before we learnt how to apply the masks. And then we decide. We seek, within ourselves, for that thing that will make it all worthwhile again. A smile, a real tweet, the kind a little birdie makes in the garden. We look for post, the real kind, that someone drops in your post box. A letter from a friend. Ink on paper. And we remember that we are not alone in this world. That there are people all around us. Lonely people. Living people. All we need to do is drop the mask, show them who we are. We are like them. We feel like them. We fear like them. We love like them.

So why ample and divine?

So I got going on the writing thing a few weeks ago, and the story kind of grew around some characters. I took to writing as and when the mood got me, and I was very surprised when people kept asking for more. After the first few stories got out, and people picked up on themes, I just sat down and started writing. Comments ranged from too long, and some said too short, others asked for more on certain characters. But generally, I simply got to grips with defining my ‘style’ of writing, and putting some kind of order to the story, checking for consistency and looking out for poor spelling and grammar, but not stressing out about it too much. I think I want to use this blog as more of a discussion board, where people can ask me things and where I can interact more on a character level.

I have some new ideas, and maybe I can shout them out here. And get some feedback and even take on some new angles?

OK – I have this plan to evolve the characters over time, intertwining them with a thin golden chord, then taking the stories into the heart of some current issues. Thus far,  I have touched on:

  • Death
  • Violence
  • Homo sexuality
  • Religion
  • Rituals
  • Refugees
  • Crime
  • Cape Town
  • Bo-Kaap
  • District Six
Each of the elements are narrated in the 1st or 3rd person, with some local color thrown in for good measure. I am trying to add local events and places people can relate to, in the hope that when people read my stories(hopefully), and pass a place I talk about in my story, the story will come back. I want to fuse some truth into the fiction, and draw deeply on my personal experiences and people I meet and talk to, and the issues that they are dealing with on a day to day basis. Because its fiction, I can blend truth any way I like to get meaning across and highlight issues I want to spotlight.
I was also thinking of adding photos to the stories to liven it up a little, pictures I take when I go into Town, and see people I can relate to my characters.
I am also going to use this space to write about other things that cross my mind, a sort of safe place to rant, rave and vent when  I feel like it and where the story is sometimes put on hold for a bit.
Oh and I can use this space to play with WordPress themes and plugins and other cool stuff, put up polls and gather some feedback.