Friday, February 24, 2012

A different perspective

“My cat was arrested for stealing my neighbour’s milk and fish. Need money for bail.”

I had to look twice to make sure I had read the message on the street beggar’s sign correctly. Normally I’d avert my eyes and sheepishly fiddle with the radio or my cellphone each time a beggar or vendor sidles up to my car window, silently pleading with the robot (traffic light, for the Americans) to turn green so that I wouldn’t have to unsympathetically shrug my shoulders and shake my head. But this guy tricked me.

I laughed. He saw me laugh. His cheesy, toothless grin didn’t help, either. I had to give him the R2 coin, reserved for helpful car guards, that was lying in my car door storage compartment. He tucked the sign under his arm, screamed thank you in my direction, before rushing off to collect more money from more outstretched arms. His tactic was working.

This got me thinking. The “industry” this guy operates in is so saturated. It’s uncommon to see a robot (traffic light, for the Americans) sans beggar-slash-street-vendor-slash-child-abuser. We’ve become immune to the “No work, no food, 5 kids, 3 wives, 20 dogs” signs; they’re as common Julius Malema’s word vomit.

Until one guy thought up a way to stand out from the rest, to force people to notice him.

Sure, we quickly wind up our windows as we approach intersections; avoid eye contact with those regarded by most as a nuisance. But the fact of the matter is that the government has failed them. There are no jobs, no skills training. This guy made the smallest change to a tried-and-tested model and probably got R10 in the two minutes I was waiting for the light to change.

It’s something we should all apply in our lives; one small change could make the biggest difference. Rewrite the rules, don’t be afraid to break away from tradition, and force people to acknowledge you.

It’s too easy to go with the flow, to blend in. It takes guts to dare to be different, with the thought of failure looming in the background.

For the street beggar, it’s the only way he’s surviving.

For those of us who are already surviving, one small change could be the key to living.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Stephen Fry is my hero

He really is.

Although this obsession only recently started gaining momentum.

It all began with this tweet:

Swoon indeed. I didn't even know he had produced this documentary series. I eagerly read the blurb to my husband, part of which reads: "The series travels the globe as Fry takes viewers on a journey through the thousands of years since man first mastered speech to the cyber world of today ... Revealing how language is used, abused and continues to evolve, Fry's Planet Word looks at whether we are any closer to understanding the most complex activity of the human brain."

"Well, I bet that made your day," said my husband, after I paused for breath.

And, boy, did it! Until I discovered that the documentary - all 291 blissful minutes of it - is not (yet, I hope) available in South Africa. Damn and blast!

The book is, however. And I need them both. NEED them!

And then this too-awesome-for-er-words video appeared by chance in my inbox yesterday, in a newsletter forwarded to me by my boss. I've watched it ten times, and it's playing in my ear as I type. Two Stephen Fry nuggets of gold in one week! What luck!

AND it just so happens that a Top Gear re-run on SABC 3 on Sunday featured none other than the man himself, although I must say that he's better at steering language than he is a reasonably-priced car.

I think the universe is trying to tell me something...

I'm only glad that I have a handful of friends and an awesome professor who get as excited as I do about all things language, grammar and punctuation. It might be a good place to point out that I am in the language business and am also a current language student. No bias, whatsoever, then.

Now you'll excuse me while I watch that video for the 11th time....

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A racial storm in a misplaced teacup

The Virgin Active “racism” saga is not sitting well with me, and although I shouldn’t be, I’m a little annoyed.

I’m annoyed because the issue at hand was never about race to begin with; it was about inappropriate behaviour in a public environment, but being South Africa, that card had to be played. It always does.

In a nutshell, a Virgin Active member, Liz Hleza, claims she was a victim of racial abuse when, in a spinning class, she was attacked by a fellow spinner who didn’t appreciate her enthusiasm, which was expressed by yelling ‘yebo’ every so often. Hleza claims she was called a cockroach, a c**t and a k****r.

The Internet and social networks have run wild with this, slamming Virgin Active for not reacting appropriately and calling for the alleged racist to be named and shamed.

Here’s how I see it.

Being an avid spinner myself, I know that it is not uncommon to have the odd over-excitable spinner who likes to make his or her enjoyment known through the odd whoop or whistle. Nothing wrong with that. Spinning classes are, after all, about the energy rush and the pure satisfaction you get after completing a level 10 climb without bursting your main artery. Hell, one of my instructors makes us sing that awful “Hey baby (I wanna know if you’ll be my girl) song; if we don’t sing loud enough, she makes us turn up the resistance. Making a noise is encouraged.

What annoys me to no end in a spinning class are the two friends that sit next to each other and jabber the whole way through the class, straining their voices over the blaring music. It’s enough to make me want to squirt them with my water bottle and tell them to “shoosh”, as the alleged Virgin Active offender’s friend did to Hleza.

So I can understand the guy’s frustration at the continuous shouting throughout the class. Spinning takes a lot of concentration (sticking to the beat while hovering your butt over the seat is no small feat), and that concentration is very easily broken, especially when you’re trying to hear your next orders from the drill sergeant, er, I mean instructor. When you eventually are in your zone, it’s highly annoying to be jerked out of it by mindless chatter or, in this case, constant screaming.

Hleza, who felt she didn’t get the right response from Virgin Active’s management, took her frustrations to the media.

Shock. Horror. Queue social media outcry. Racism is, once again, in the spotlight.

Conspicuously absent from the media reports, however, was the alleged bully’s side of the story or any neutral account from other people in the class at the time.

Granted, if there was tension to that degree in the class, the instructor should have tried to defuse it, asking one or both offenders to leave the class. Granted, too, if the situation did indeed escalate to the point that the ‘k word’ was thrown about, then management should have gotten involved.

Let’s just state for the record that every South African and his dog knows how offensive that word is and how much trouble one can get into for even whispering it under your breath. Throwing it around loosely in the same way that one would, say ‘idiot’, is social suicide. Why would you do that? It’s just stupid.

The problem is, according to a witness account on Ray White’s 702 Early Breakfast this morning, that word was never used. Not once.

According to the witness, the ‘bully’ first asked Hleza to keep it down. In response, she yelled louder and more frequently. The bully called her a cockroach. He deserved to be pushed off his bike for that (with his cleats still fastened). But then … Hleza apparently proceeded to antagonise him, daring him to call her the ‘k word’.

The situation reminds me of a time, years ago, when I would irritate my sister until she hit me, just so I could get her into trouble with my parents. Childs play, really.

This smacks of attention seeking to me. The fact that she took her story to the media and said that he had used the expletive, when witnesses say he didn’t, means something is deeply wrong in our society.

However, what’s even more disturbing is that the media jumped on the racial bandwagon, without once reporting the other party’s side of the story or even bothering to contact witnesses. Unethical and irresponsible reporting to the extreme.

Has anyone ever once stopped to spare a thought for the alleged bully? He’s been made out to be an intolerant racist, yet he was merely trying to enjoy his exercise session.

Added to this the can of worms that has exploded all over Virgin Active’s face. Now people are emerging from cracks in the walls, telling of how they, too, have been victims of racism at the health clubs. Even more worrying is that the Mail & Guardian is encouraging people to share their racism experiences at Virgin Active, designing an entire form for people to fill out detailing the incidents. What are we doing??

Pouring fuel onto an inferno is the last thing the media should be doing.

It’s bad enough that people all over Twitter are supporting the victim, with the word ‘yebo’ even trending and being bandied about like a joke. Mail and Guardian editor Nic Dawes even tweeted: “YEBO! As you heft that weight, YEBO! As you hit the pool, YEBO! On the treadmill and the bike. YEBO!” So much for balanced and fair reporting.

Where’s the other side in this? Where are the witnesses?

The fact remains. This was about inappropriate behaviour, not about race. It’s sad how easy it is to start a racial war in this country. More tolerance, people. It’s the only way we’ll survive.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The truth hurts

But sometimes it needs to be heard.

I have found myself in the awkward position on more than one occasion recently where I have had to tell close friends, family members and colleagues that their words and/or actions have been harmful to those around them and those closest to them.

Never one for confrontation, this was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Ever.

In the past, I most probably would never have said anything to the offenders, turning a blind eye or a deaf ear, but the three encounters I've had over this past month have been deeply personal and my husband gave me a swift kick up the you-know-what, saying it was time I stood up for myself and spoke my mind.

So I did.

And I felt like crap doing it.

But after the fact, I never felt better. And I came to realise that sometimes people just don't realise that what they are saying or doing is affecting anyone else but themselves. I guess it's human nature to be selfish, and in the age we're living in, that's ok - to an extent.

(Image from Google Images, Pro Bono Coaching Web site)

Of course, the flip side is that the person you're confronting might get defensive and/or offended and it's at that point where you need to re-evaluate that relationship and consider whether the best option would be to sever ties. In my case, I lost one relationship, but that was my choice. It was a poisonous relationship and one that wasn't adding any value to my life.

Speaking my mind on two issues actually improved my relationships with my folks and my oldest friend, and though it was extremely difficult at the time, I'm glad I did it.

Of course, if I were on the other side of the confrontation, I would want to know if someone was not happy with something I had done or said. I know it would be hard to hear; I take things very personally and would probably dwell on it for months, but sometimes reflection and correction are necessary in an age of selfishness.