How to be terrible at meditation

People know that I get up early, but they are always a little surprised by how early.

I start a part-time online news shift at 6am, and stagger out of bed at 4.50am.

Most people, when they hear that, wonder what I can be doing that takes so long – the general response is that quarter to six would seem more than adequate (as in clean your teeth, make coffee and sit down in your pyjamas).

Well yes – but I do need a shower to wake up properly, and to feel as though I am a professional preparing for a day of work (no lockdown PJs for me).
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Small joys and enduring pleasures

I have a venerable old Honda Ballade which looks like, and is, a mom car.

It is a staid green, and all the seat belts work, and it has ferried many a child across the city, with bags and sports equipment stowed in its sensibly big boot.

But it has a secret: in that same boot, there is the biggest, badass-est sound system you have ever seen. My sedate-looking Honda can outplay any minibus taxi, any day.

The sound system was installed by my stepson Ryan, just because. And it is one of the joys of my life. It has never failed to impress my son’s friends, and more importantly, it allows me to listen to Bruce Springsteen, played very very loudly. As is only proper.

I was thinking about my car and the secret it holds in its boot because a recent morning meditation suggested it might be a good idea to appreciate the small things in life.

And I have been doing that – the first sip of coffee in the morning, the noisy congregations of sparrows in our tree at sunset, the soft fur on my dog’s ears. That sound system.

Long-haul sustenance

Over and above those small daily delights though, I got to thinking about the things that sustain me over the long haul. My family, close and extended, are the cornerstone of everything I do. Life-long friendships are in that list too. The habit of reading will be a comfort always, as will pleasures like tending a garden and making a quilt.

And then there are what I think of as life themes, the enduring relationships I have with people who I don’t know and stories that aren’t real.

Three things

The first of these enduring pleasures is the Star Wars universe. I saw the first Star Wars film as a dislocated and discontented teenager in East London (a backwater-ish coastal city in South Africa) and was transported with delight. I had never seen anything like it, and the thought that Luke Skywalker could get off Tatooine and fly meant that I was going to be able to do that to. I have seen all the Star Wars movies several times and don’t really care all that much if they are good, bad or indifferent. That cast of people and those faraway places are just part of my life.

Another enduring pleasure has two parts: the novels of Terry Pratchett, and in a minor key, the Hitchhiker’s Guide books by Douglas Adams. The two things came into my life at more or less the same time, and both have stayed with me ever since. These are books I will read again and again, for their familiarity and their fun. And, in Pratchett’s case, for his deep humanity, his intellect and his vision: he is the Charles Dickens of our times.

The third strand of my life for which I am always grateful is the music of Bruce Springsteen. When he came to South Africa in 2014, I wrote a column about his place in my life, which you can read here. What I wrote then sums up why it is that certain artists or writers come to mean what they do to us. I repeat it here, with words that start by referring to the joy of attending Springsteen’s 2014 Cape Town concert:

“For me it was not seeing the best live band in the world do their impossibly fabulous thing… It was the real-life embodiment of the long walk of faith and trust I have had with this artist: that he will keep writing, that he will keep performing, that he will keep being the best he can be for his fans… He is telling me… that he understands what it is like in this arc of life, now. He is telling me I can still get out of bed every day and take on the world and its wrecking balls, even if my hopes and desires are scattered to the wind.”

I’m aware that not everyone gets Bruce Springsteen, or likes Terry Pratchett books, or can sit through a Star Wars film. These particular things resonate with me, and provide a set of reference points as I navigate the world. My hope is that sharing my list will provide a springboard for identifying or finding your own compass in life.

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Main photo: Jordan Madrid on Unsplash

What I saw on my walk

I write these blog posts on a Friday afternoon, based on an editorial calendar that I use to list ideas for future posts.

My rule is: no matter what I said the topic was all those weeks ago, I will just write it, whether I feel like it or not.

But today I just couldn’t. The topic (editing-related) just didn’t work for me. Nothing worked for me.

So I went for a walk, to see if that would get my thoughts going.

It did. I started thinking about the things I was seeing.

What did I see?

The warm winter sun shining on the tarmac.

Green grass on the pavements.

The man who walks his two Maltese poodles every day, and doesn’t greet.

The house where an indigenous garden has been lovingly planted on the pavement.

Two hadedas honking their way from one garden to the next.

A quiet suburban street.

What I didn’t see

Death and destruction and looting and poverty and desperation and fire and shouting and police and soldiers.

But I did also see

The house that is being renovated, where the building has just stopped.

The wall that should have been painted ages ago, and just hasn’t.

The electric fences.

The burglar bars.

The barking dogs in nearly every yard.

The gang-tag graffiti on the walls.

The signs for the armed response companies.

The little girl, playing on her private jungle gym behind the six-foot fence.

A quiet suburban street living in the state of fear and anxiety that is what it means to be South African.

So that’s why I couldn’t settle to a post about editing.

By the time you read this, things will (I hope) be back to “normal”. There will be bread on the shelves of the supermarkets, and petrol in the tanks. And, elsewhere, children going to bed hungry.

And so I hear the words first sung by Bright Blue in 1986, wondering how it is they they resonate still, decades later:

It doesn’t matter now
It’s over anyhow
He tells the world that it’s sleeping
But as the night came round
I heard its lonely sound
It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping
It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping

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Main picture: Nicholas Santoianni on Unsplash

Everything I know about rescue dogs

When it comes to dogs, I am a foolish person.

I have been a cat owner all my adult life. I got my first kitten just two months into my first job, when I was all of 22, and decades later I still have cats. I know how they work, I know how to make them happy, I know how they make me happy.
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Musings on the meaning of work

What is work? A place people go to earn money? The thing people do to earn money?

The dictionary says the word work can refer to all of these things:

* Activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result
* Mental or physical activity as a means of earning income; employment
* The place where one is employed
* A task or tasks to be undertaken
* The materials for a task
* Good or moral deeds
* A thing or things done or made; the result of an action
* The operative part of a clock or other machine
* Cosmetic plastic surgery

So it’s a word that has many uses – from “she’s had work done, I’m sure of it” to the reminder I send to my crafting group, reminding them to bring their work with them our next meeting.

It is something we all do, all the time.

And yet, some work is more valuable than others. Some work earns money and praise and gets noticed by the world, and some doesn’t.

When did the world decide that going out and killing buck, or fighting enemies, or slogging it out at the office, were deeds worth honouring? And sweeping and cooking and cleaning and caring for babies were deeds that no one even noticed being done? Why is what happens at home so much less important than things that happen outside of it?

And why in so many places in the world is the work of the home done by women? And if the work they do in the home is not valued, then they themselves are not of value. Or is it that we don’t value the work, and so don’t value the women?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. They plagued that fine writer Ursula le Guin too:

“I always wondered why the makers [storytellers, in the context of the book] leave housekeeping and cooking out of their tales. Isn’t it what all the great wars and battles are fought for — so that at day’s end a family may eat together in a peaceful house? The tale tells how the Lords of Manva hunted and gathered roots and cooked their suppers while they were camped in exile in the foothills of Sul, but it doesn’t say what their wives and children were living on in their city left ruined and desolate by the enemy. They were finding food too, somehow, cleaning house and honoring the gods, the way we did in the siege… When the heroes came back from the mountain, they were welcomed with a feast. I’d like to know what the food was and how the women managed it.”
From Voices (Annals of the Western Shore Book 2)

Terry Pratchett reminds us though that the invisible can be powerful. His character Lu-Tze is a powerful History Monk who can stop time if he chooses. And yet he is a sweeper: “Lu-Tze’s appearance is that of a hunched, harmless old man. He is always smiling and when asked a question he simply nods and continues with whatever he is doing. What he usually does is sweeping the floor. Lu-Tze found out that nobody worries about a sweeper. Sweeping practically makes people invisible, and certainly anonymous.”

Powerful, invisible, undervalued – this is the nature of work done in the home. But I yearn for a world in which all work is valued, in which a clean kitchen is as valuable as a pay-cheque. A world in which chores are a daily walking meditation on the value of life, rather than things we do because we have to do them. A world in which men and women can together clean house and honour the goddesses of the hearth.

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Main picture: Lucas van Oort, Unsplash

Covid-19 vaccine rollout – why the government needs a lot of help from its friends

I am not yet 60, and so I won’t be getting a Covid-19 vaccine any time soon.

But it’s not clear that anyone over the age of 60 is getting a vaccine any time soon either. The South African government’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout plan has it that phase two begins on May 17, 2021 – but there is general skepticism that this will in fact happen.

A May 1, 2021 Moneyweb report notes that:

The country’s rollout is proceeding at a pace much slower than expected. To date just over 293 000 South Africans have had received their jab, which represents only a fraction of the 1.25 million healthcare workers who are first in line. This adds up to about 0.5% of the general population. The initial target of having 67% of the country’s citizens vaccinated by the end of 2021 is now unlikely to be achieved.

The same Moneyweb article notes the many and real issues South Africa and many other developing nations have faced in laying their hands on the precious vaccines. It then goes on to say:

Secondly, (the government) needs to clarify urgently what the requirements are for the involvement of private medical providers in the vaccine rollout. It also needs to expand the number of platforms (such as local clinics, GP practices, pharmacies, and private and state facilities) on which the vaccines are rolled out. If ever there was a need for public-private collaboration it is now – both in terms of funding vaccines and in providing platforms. This would enable large-scale vaccination to occur at the pace needed to turn the tide against Covid-19 in South Africa. (My emphasis)

I’d go further though. It’s going to take more than collaborating with private medical providers to get this show on the road. Many, many South Africans will simply not be able to get to private pharmacies, and their local clinics (if functioning) are likely to be overwhelmed.

Other ways of getting millions of people vaccinated in a short space of time are going to have to be found.

The expertise is there

Looked at from a project management perspective, there are a lot of moving parts: procurement, safe distribution of both the vaccine and all the associated medical supplies, a wide array of venues in sometimes inaccessible areas, pharmaceutical prep areas, trained staff to administer the vaccines – to name just the main things I can think of off the top of my head.

On current showing the government is simply not going to be able to get this done.

But I can think of several organisations that have the know-how (or parts of the know-how).

Venues: The Independent Electoral Commission runs successful elections in all the far-flung areas of the country every couple of years. Their database of venues large and small is surely the place to start when thinking about vaccination venues? And could their database of workers be roped in to help with the administration at each of the venues?

Distribution: There is not a tavern or spaza shop in the country that cannot be reached by the trucks of South African Breweries and Coca-Cola. Even if their vehicles are not able to offer adequate refrigeration, their intimate knowledge of getting products into every corner of the country would be invaluable.

Project management: South Africa organises several world-class mass events every year – the Argus Cycle Tour and the Comrades Marathon spring to mind. The people who organise these events must know a thing or two about juggling a lot of balls and getting things done to a schedule with deadlines. Could a think tank of these experts not be put to work with the Department of Health to figure out how to get this done?

I’d wager that if any corporates were approached by the government they would be more than willing to pitch in, in service of their long-term bottom lines.

Look… I’m aware that a mass vaccination project has complicated ethical dimensions; I know that things are rarely as simple as they look. I know that bringing corporates into a medical setting might be fraught with issues. And there are undoubtedly transformation and equity issues that would need to be addressed.

But the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s time to use all the expertise we have to get as many people vaccinated as we can, as fast as we can. That means partnerships at every level of this massive project.

My message to the government is simple: ask for help, people!

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Main photo: Spencer Davis on Unsplash