Monday, December 13, 2010

Obtuse Over Obligation

To be obligated is a sticky feeling. It is so difficult to move ahead, to enjoy, to take time for whatever else is distracting you whilst the obligation hangs over your head: Got to write to so and so; must phone him or her; should see that one or this one; have to buy a present for when I see…. And the time slips away and the intentions become so intense that sometime you can swear you actually did send that card. Really! A difficult thing, obligation. Birthdays. Christmas. Special events. Things that one must remember to…
The Christmas letters from others arrive. In January we did this, in February we did that. Then there’s this one’s health and that one’s wedding, and… one wonders where the time got to. So much of life wrapped up in those annual reports. Each day is as important as the next, really, yet of all of the weeks and months the isolated moments are those we feel others may like to hear (or at least those that we feel we’d like others to hear!) and we send them or receive them and hope our missives may be answered, privately, individually, caringly, personally.
There were over 100 friends at my wedding. There are over 100 friends I work with. There are over 700 students a year that I know by name. There are more than 100 theatre friends. There are other intimate personal friends, along with couples as friends and then business associates and overseas connections, and then there’s, oh yes, also the family, my family, her family, and our family. And the sheer volume of correspondence to each, if all of us did write, would take up hours of writing and reading. So we hope that somehow people just know we love them, we care for them, we think often of them, we consider and pray for their welfare, we hope the best for their futures and we may even treasure the past, but we can scarce write to each and every one, we can scarce send a card to each and every one, and perhaps all too true for most of us, we even can scarce spare much of a thought for each and every one. Ever flipped through an old address book? Gee, when did I last…?
Thing is, obligation would have us send the card, ensure the contact, reach out, buy the present, and even go and visit, and that sense of obligation is rather sad, for me. The commercialization of obligation is both subtle and crass. It yells at me from the department stores and the TV, and it lurks at me from the seat of my heart where I feel its laziness to get up and go write the letter, make the call, lick the stamp, walk it to the post-box. Even an e-mail, given the volume of correspondents, has become too much; and so we send the generic letter, posting it out to all and sundry, basically stating a really significant truth, for me: When I see you, I love you very much. Always.
Merry Christmas! Happy Birthday. Bless the Occasion! And to all, may every day be bright, and every sleep a very good night!  G’night!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Kohlberg's Coals

What fire imbues each of us? Why is it that in moments we are so mediocre, so average, so complacent? What is it that makes us glow, makes us impassioned, makes us reach for a Heaven even though it be beyond our grasp? How do we accept the intensity in others and yet be satisfied with its relative lack in ourselves? When do we make that essential shift that allows for what once was now to become yet something more? Wherein lies the furnace, the light, the ember that invigorates growth, potential, paradigm shifts, and the attempts at perpetuity itself? Rage, the poet says. Rage against the dying of the light.

Perpetuity. Incoherent as is the concept, it is not the stuff of stasis. For an organism to stay alive it must move, indubitably,though indistinctly, and some things even indefinitely. It is the definite end that defines life. To be alive a thing, a being, any one of us must resonate in response to the very atoms around us, or desiccate, dissolve, immolate, and die. Yet denser things do live longer, paradoxically; the fragile and specialized die from non-adaptability. The average persists longer than the rarefied. Is that why we more readily take on the relief of not having to think about our thinking, of not having to question our right to be?

Kohlberg (1927-1987) held that we are fundamentally imbued by one of eight moral precepts. Such alternate stages of thinking may well invigorate us in a given moment, but we tend predominantly to confine, define, habituate, and template ourselves in only one of the eight stages as a general continuum. As such, given Kohlberg’s levels (and par-phrasing liberally) we tend chiefly to be self-centric, ego-centric, family-group centric, socio-centric, city-centric, nation-centric, globe-centric, and universal. After all, said another 1950’s poet, weep not for whom the bells tolls, it tolls for…

And being at large in Stage Two thinking for the vast majority of us (according to Kohlberg) is where we predominantly are at. We do or do not do according to our ego-ic need of others to affirm our behaviour, existence, feelings, thoughts, intentions, habits, perceptions of life itself. So yes, I am concerned that you’ll think badly of me for forgetting your birthday. So yes, I am hoping that you’ll like me for sending you a get well card. And yes, I do drive in fear of the police.

But of the internal fire that provokes me or you to want to be yet more ~ how do I get past the need for your approbation, your approval, affirmation or commendation? How do I just do what I do because that which I do is done out of a sense of becoming a tree and not staying an acorn, being a butterfly in the making, a tadpole, a frog, a prince? And yet even more significantly, whether a lion or a lamb, how does the one allow the other just to be?

Not all of us like invigorated embers, like metamorphosis, like growth. So let us just be. Not all of us want to be different individuals. We’re individual enough. And not all of us wish to be other than we are. After all, as the good book says: Go to the ant thou sluggard, consider her ways and be… well, yes, elephant or mouse, we each have our place.

Still, how then do I improve my thinking in this essay? What fire drives me to be yet more? To be, or…

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Positive Disintegration

Positive Disintegration

by Richard Michelle-Pentelbury on Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 7:41pm

 We all disintegrate. And we rise again. We leave one birth-year for another. We leave one grade for another. We move from one place to another. And for the most part we’re lucky if we see these shifts in place, time, and experience as positive. We grow. But we also experience the loss of a pet, the sudden accident, the brutal betrayal, the death of what was in exchange for what is now. And we disintegrate. How to make the experience, whatever experience, positive?

Shipwrecked, we examine and unpack the flotsam around us. Awash with memories, we may feel the fragmentation of the present but as an unwanted gift. The relative stasis of what was had a comfort, a familiarity, an expected quality that allowed our habits more readily to adjust to the slight rhythms of the seasons, of daylight-savings time, of stopping at alternate times at the usual garage for gas, or the usual store for groceries. But when that rhythm is really distressed, broken, disengaged, and afloat around us, we have little but the inner resources of experience and trust and hope that this too shall pass. And then? We arrange our new life, assume a new route, visit different stores, keep different hours, make different friends, and we grow in more knowledge, grow in having yet more, grow in exploring some other area, enter numbers into some larger phone-book, make an advantage of having once been so dislocated, or sadly acknowledge the disadvantage of no longer having that which made us once before more at ease. But do we really grow?

Our primary habituation is with ourselves. What if it is our predominant habituation? We do need the factor of ‘the self’ met, our want for sustenance and the immediate and our need for self-gratification. At its most elementary level of operations our jails are full of such persons. Next comes the factoring in of our need to satisfy the ego, best satisfied in the eyes of others, so we make left-right choices ad infinitum, perpetually choosing one thing over another in order not only to satisfy the self, but to be accountable to our continuing perception of some other’s approval. And then, now only at a Secondary Level of Positive Disintegration, if we’re brave enough predominantly to take on the vicissitudes and verisimilitudes of a vociferous populace, we vacillate vicariously between the exigencies of being our own person and wondering whether everyone else, or at least someone else, if not a group, club, clan, or ideology is actually perhaps not ‘more right’ than we ourselves dare to be.

To be or not be? That is the third level of Positive Disintegration. The theory, posited by Kazimir Dabrowski (1905-1981), holds that in the Third Level one is predominantly conscious of holding onto one’s very own paradigm, yet still is integrative of others, being not distressed by the disavowal and disassociation and fragmentation and divisiveness of the ‘vox populi’. To be or not to be? And in ‘The Fourth’ level? There one serves entirely the needs of others, has sublimated the self to an extent that the ego needs no gratification, to the extent that the self has no desires, to the extent that the flotsam and jetsam of life has become but the boxes of mankind afloat in a universe of mankind’s own making.

And me? And you? As I look at the stuff that surrounds me, and at my attachment to it, I realize how very far I am from letting go of the things that still define me, the photos, the books, the music, the paintings, and the curriculum-vitae of a lifetime. And as I unpack yet another box, I wonder: at which point, beyond it all being consumed by some accidental fire, can I truly just… let go? To do, or not to do? The art, in either case is… letting go.

Message in a Bottle

Message in a Bottle

by Richard Michelle-Pentelbury on Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 10:54am
This will be my last missive from this address. I write as though having at last found a scrap piece of paper and a bit of charcoal. Around me is the detritus of my last life, the garbage bags, the devilish dust, the odd bits of flotsam from the surging seas of activity that has, wave after wave, altered the shore-line of my existence, rendered asunder my ship of state, and tossed me into a fragmented and dislocated existence wherein mere snapshots of free time allow for the looking up and grasping onto any memory other than the immediate. Moving houses will do that to you.
Some error in timing was made. We transitioned from the one shore to the other over a week, but the new refuge does not yet have telephone or internet connection, and since i have no cell-phone, no satellite connected palm-pilot, no ready address book, there was this distinct sense of being cut off from the past, from friends, from YOU, from life as I’d known it. And now  I write only because around me the sounds of the cleaning and dusting and last-minute packing done by the hired service is being done, affording me a moment in which to gather these thoughts in an effort to send them out to you. Soon this connection will be cut off too. Shall I post this in a bottle, this last message of mine from this last time in this old place?
While I was at work at Centennial the demands of picking up the pieces after my so very recent sojourn to Africa held me so captive that only the immediate was given focus. And given that one drives to work in the dark, and comes home in the dark, and is in a building of artificial light all day, it scarce seemed real that once, just a week and a half ago, I was under the African sun and skies, whilst now, here, I am as in Plato’s cave, the shadows on the wall dancing before me as if to make life real again. And that week and a half has been so filled with the students, the classes, the demands of mounting what is to be my last show, Pride and Prejudice, and then leaving in the dark to come here to this old house and to pack and take car-load after car-load to be emptied at the other house. Then too, there was the address to 2,000 persons to deliver at the Remembrance Day service.  Pride? Prejudice? Eschew the thought!
Boxes are so impersonal. They bear names like Kitchen, Basement, Bedroom, or R’s Stuff. And one carries each as though some sacred ashes are being transported; the condensed remains of what once was. Are our friends like that too? Are the names of Ian and Justin and Gus and Brian and Mike and Rob and Simon and Tony and Bert and Johan... well, are these persons and you too also to be but boxes in the jumble of memory for which I search as I scrabble yet once more for familiarity with things on some strange new shore?  The new tends to do that, for me. The new takes on an immediacy that packs up and condenses the past into entities given labels, at best. The new is examined and organized and mapped and referenced and made much of as one adjusts to the domestication of acclimatization. It’s much like the pot-plants that will need the new days and night times to adjust to their own new frames of new enlightenment. And the old memory remains packed up, or at best get searched for and then unpacked in terms of an immediate need. (Now then, just where did I put my precious marmalade?)
But of messages in a bottle, hoping that they’ll perhaps reach you, well.... here this one at last goes!
Now, do you receive me?  And if so, I really look forward to your response!


Bigger than the Moment (The Remembrance Day Address to Centennial, Nov 10, 2010)

by Richard Michelle-Pentelbury on Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 12:55pm
 Collateral damage. Innocent bystanders.  It is the stuff of war. It is the stuff of enmity. And it is those who come after us, who are closest to us, that suffer. You and I do things that are horribly human in the moment. We can get ugly. We can lie, cheat, steal. We can feel outraged and angered and brutal. And we each can pick up a gun and defend ourselves. We do not necessarily have to be conscripted into an army before we realize that we too can kill. I happen to know that much. As a young man I was forced into the South African army, 1971 to 1975. That’s what conscription does; it forces you into a certain way of thinking, sends you up the border, into the war, and demands of you that you defend your country. Go fight for your country. Fight for us! Fight for your place. Fight for your name. Fight for your sense of you. And should others be damaged, should the innocent bystanders of war be damaged, should the people, the populace, the children be damaged, well… that’s the collateral damage of war.
Here’s a little demonstration. Hold your hands out to the person to either side of you, like this, palms up and outwards. Connect, and one of you give a little push when I say so. Ready? Only one of you pushes. Push! Good? Now, hands down please. Now, who did not push back? Hands up, who did not push back? Great. Great. Well, pushing back, that’s instinctual. That’s how enmity and wars begin. We almost immediately push back. We push back when someone teases us, when someone is cruel, when someone hurts at us. We push back and do not necessarily allow for time and reason and distance and care and compassion to take its place. We choose to push back. And sometimes we have no choice, or so I thought.
Just over a week and a half ago I was in Africa. There I witnessed the ongoing collateral damage of a country still very much in the birth pains of post-war apartheid. The country is in a fearfully besieged mode. Fear rules. Self protection is constant. There are gates and spiked palisades and barbed wire spirals everywhere.  In the giant city of Johannesburg alone, I was told, there are over 20,000 rapes a day. Think of it, 20,000 ugly awful brutalities in a single city a day, to which we add to the whole country the robbery, the abuse, the murder, the molestation, the drug and alcohol vice, and that insidious and then horribly invasive disease, corruption. In fact, as I was driven through the once posh downtown district, now a third world ghetto of tension and strife and survival-ism, my entire being filled with frustration and heartfelt despair at the lot of the innocent children, so victimized by the ravages of the South African Apartheid past. Innocent children. Suffer the children. Collateral damage. Like the children in the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden, like the Slaughterhouse 5 victims of Kurt Vonnegut’s true life novel, the collateral damage to the innocents goes on and on. War after war.
In my Yotes-Time class last Friday I was talking about the early 70’s, when I was conscripted into the South African Army. Conscription. It means I had no choice, especially not if I wanted to honour my Family’s expectations that I defend them. Or what of the boyhood expectations inculcated in me by my old Pretoria Boys’ High School, where our cadet training was with the purpose of defending our country? Or what of my Church’s continuous urging that we defend ourselves against the very devil, communism? Or what of South Africa, my own Country’s belief back then that racism was to be legalized in the name of Apartheid? Ironic Afrikaans word, isn’t it? Apart-hate. A system of legalized racism. It was not abolished until 1994. Back in the 70’s, when I was in the army, the northern borders were to be defended against the warring insurgency of communist-backed rebels wanting to overthrow the white supremacy of our Apartheid Institutions. They wanted to gain control of our Economy. They wanted to reverse the order of more than a century of Colonialism and Nationalism and perpetuated Legalisms of privileges endemic to an all-white society. And the fact that the whites in question were bent on the self-serving ends of extracting from the invaded country its minerals, its ready and cheap labour force, its blood diamonds and gold was seen as a Right, given the history of nearly two hundred years of occupancy.
Sounds a bit like what we’ve done in Canada, eh? Yet here the First Nations people are but a small group.     
In Zambia, central Africa, where I was born and raised, the Bantu of Africa outnumbered us 20 to 1. And so they rose up against our injustices. They went to war against our perpetuation of incursions upon their freedom, our denial of their dignity, our removal of their opportunity, our economic disincentives for them to prosper. And the wars of Apartheid went on and on. All of my boyhood the war was “up at the border,” and I knew with a certain fearfulness that I would get conscripted to it too. Then, in 1964, we were forced to leave Zambia. Pets were shot. Things were burned. I knew then that one day I too would have to pull the trigger.
“Well, did you kill someone?” a student asked me, just a few days ago. I blinked. And in that blink I knew that my doing it was not as important as his being able to do it. The question for each of is: Could you do it too? Well, I’ve lived long enough and seen enough to know that even the meekest of you can be brought to kill another human being, given the right circumstances. After all, if it’s easy to push back, wait until someone is shooting at you. That’s what I want to address here: your part in all of this. Your choices! After all, we think we have choice, and then we fight or we succumb to the events, to the circumstances, to enforcement, expectations, and to the cultural inculcations of others. We find ourselves a weapon. Any weapon. Even a bad word will do. And we decide to use it. And we fire. We fire! We fire with hate, with thoughts of vengeance, with blows of anger, or with the certainty of self-righteousness. We fire with the self that feels defensive of its needs, its wants, its desires, and its dignity. We fire back if the self feels its aspirations threatened, its ego quashed, its resources overwhelmed. And it is in you and in me to do so, for we are all too human. This giving over to anger will happen ~ unless we be inclusive, assimilative, integrative; in fact, unless we become Bigger than the Moment. Let the other push. Give a little, smile, and work with him or her. Do the dance; give respect. Find your commonality. It all is a microcosm of the macrocosm; the smallest of things symbolic of the largest. It all is a spiral of activity advancing our evolution, the choices we make, one by one, each by each. And one minute of awareness makes all the difference, let alone the choices we make, moment by moment.
Just ask George Lawrence Price, if you could. He is said to be the last soldier to be shot in World War One, on this month, November 11th, ninety-two years ago. One minute made all the difference. A Canadian, born in Nova Scotia, conscripted (without choice) to the army while he was living in Saskatchewan, George Price was fatally shot in Belgium at 10.59 a.m., just one huge minute before the armistice. One minute before the cessation of weapon-fire! Had some miracle of modern texting, a cell-phone, twittering, or even an ancient carrier-pigeon delivered the essential message that the war was over... would the other have pulled the trigger? Strange how in one minute “the other” is the enemy, and then in another minute by some stroke of the pen, some order from above, some word from beyond, some inner call to the private conscience.... one can altogether stop from pulling that trigger. One minute more, and George may well have lived beyond his 25 years.
25 years old. That’s what I was when I went AWOL (absent without leave) from the South African Army. After five years of conscriptions, in and out again, I came to my senses. I made my decision. I could no longer defend racism. I would no longer fight. In 1975 I stowed-away aboard the S.A. Oranje, a Union Castle steam-ship bound for England. In my renunciation I became a fugitive, an expatriate. When I reached London I borrowed an old Raleigh bicycle, got a tent, a sleeping bag, a knife and a camp-stove from the Salvation Army store and cycled all the way up Britain. I traded my sketches for food and the right to sleep in a field, and even bartered my sketch for a ferry across the sea from the northern tip of Scotland to the Orkney Islands. And there I met a Canadian who suggested I come to Canada as a political refugee. And so, in 1980, I became a most grateful Canadian citizen. I made my choice! But then again, speaking of collateral damage, I did not see my mother for over 35 years. Dad died before I could see him. And just 6 years ago my two brothers and our sister and I were at last re-united. And then, just this last month of October, only three short weeks ago, I was reunited for the first time in over 45 years with my youngest brother, Johan. Why only now? Well, having gone AWOL in 1975 I was under too much threat of court martial or worse to go back. And now, this year  invited back to Africa to do a series of presentations on guess what?: Interpersonal Dynamics, I was honoured to be sharing a message about being considerate, being compassionate, being integrative, being assimilative, absorptive and responsive, just as I’m doing with you. Responsive. It is not about pushing back!
Choices. You? We all make sets of predominant choices as we move within the elementary needs of the Self; submit to the dictates of the enclosed Family, adhere to belonging to an esoteric Club or to the dictates of a fixated Clan. Our Egoic nature wants to be the best, even if it means hurting others. We may wrestle with our inability to accept another Group due to their politics, their religion, their beliefs. We may need to have others’ admiration, to Control others, to Dominate others. We may desire to have Fairness, and we may feel anger and revenge at injustice. We have all of these warring things spiralling within us. In simplistic terms, it’s a perpetual dichotomy of Fear, or Love. Choices.  Our world is rather a mess because of it. So much around us is fragmentation, divisiveness, and war. Then too, there is heroism, honour, ethics, and love.
Essentially, it comes down to our Choice. And choice, straightforwardly, is about our Evolving, or not, whether conscious of choice, or not. In the act of meta-cognition, in the very practice of thinking about our thinking, we’re able to make decisions before we pull that trigger, before we say that word, throw that punch, or give that attitude. We do have choice! And the death in wars of every person in the long history of hate and enmity toward this very Today is honoured, if we remember: most of us want Peace. As a Goal it began and continued with each of our Fallen. As a Goal it can find its home in you. Peace. It’s about the Choice to be Inclusive, Integrative. In essence, it’s about being Bigger than the moment. Lest we forget.  Peace. And please, make good choices!

Waiting to Be Filled

To sleep or to arise and go now? The reality of early morning alertness percolates in my brain. I am brought awake as if returning from a journey in the foreign land of sleep, and the images clarify as out of the mists of the mind i am become restless by my own comprehension. And then, worst of all, the eyes open. Regularly. And i lie there in the 4.00 a.m. Canadian dark, but begin again to hear the internalized birds of Africa. They start at the first sliver of dawn, soon after four a.m., and the initial tune-up becomes an orchestra by 4.30 a.m., when there is light enough outside to read. In Africa. But here in Canada the dark is a heavy cloak that undisturbed weighs down around the house and presses up against the windows, black and impenetrable. And in its solidness, though i rise regularly to type at this communication and await the exact minute at which i must prepare to get ready for work, i become ensconced by the framework of artificial light that i click on around me, even as i eventually prepare breakfast, and then must inevitably get into my vehicle and head East, along the top of the ridge that leans down into the continuing darkness of the valley; there on the horizon at about 7.53 a.m. to see the first horizontal crack of the dome being lifted from the earth, and light, red and orange and then yellow, begin to pour in.
We make much of different time zones. We make much of the immediacy of our lot. Like the cat that belonged to Schrodinger, we come alive only when we are observed to be observing, for until then are others, are the birds, are the elephants of Africa really not just pop-up phrases closed down under the subconscious lid of our own cognizance? Are we really on a perpetual loop, repeating and repeating and repeating our lives intertwined with other lives so that as we intersect in the multi-dimensionality of our existence we give unto that which we see an accord, a recognition, a value, a substance even, but having passed beyond we make for ourselves only an immediate past, present, and future? Does that elephant still stand in the scant shade of the Mopani tree under the blaze of the Kruger sun? Does he sleep in the dark? Does the Denman Island ferry run? Does the kanoodle-rock of God’s Bay still feel the heat of my bum? Does the life of another bruit and boil and percolate and perpetually produce and also run?
Simplicity is deceptive. It is accomplished at the intersection of a myriad molecules made manifest in a recognizable action. To one that same action is chaos, to another it is sense. And in the mind of the early morning riser, simplicity is in that there is no rest. So we meditate. We breathe deep. We do the alphabet backwards. We regret the lack of sleep. But eventually we get up and try to make the light come to us by virtue of the things we do, and in the turgid toiling of exposition toward some fruitful dénouement, we find time wasted, restructured, reframed, or perhaps made productive.
Retrospect is preferably about meta-cognition. We review the situation. We check into our dreams, our past, our journey, our present, and the now. And in so doing we bring on the light, bit by atomic bit, sliver for molecular sliver. Or does the light then in turn arise to find us, but wee bits of dross and drab, waiting to be filled with its very gold?  

The Gift

13) Listen Here (I don’t like to talk about myself but...)
(A Reunion Retrospective; An Esoteric Evocation). (29th October: The Last Day in SA!)

It began with Brian and it ended with Brian. He’d organized the Committee. They invited us. We came, we saw, we went. Veni, vidi, vici. Brian met me in Jo’burg airport, came to see me off there too. And he bore gifts all the way. Then I met Quenton, who came to visit my hotel with a gift from Harold Thompson. And that night I met Mike. And Mike brought groceries, the transport, provided the room, and slept on the couch. And then arrived Rob, who surfed into our spirits, gold as the sun. Next came Justin and then Bert, and that was followed by Tony and Simon and Doc and Peter and Don and Ken and Glynn and Gus and Mike-Mc and Gerhardt and Vernon and Cameron and Leonard and… well, you’d know so very many of them if you were there too.

There were teachers of yore, and of now. Keith and Ted (and his Jenny too) and Tony and Digby and Mulvenna and Erasmus, Laredo, and…, well, you’d have had to know them to appreciate the myriad memories each conjured.

And there were the old Pretoria Boys' High School grounds. The speeches. The tea. The Assembly. That song. There was the luncheon. Mike’s Last Supper. There was that water-shed breakfast, followed by sports for some, the Jo’burg drive for Mike and Rob and Justin and me. There was that late dinner and the speeches and the presentations. There was the waking up to know it was the beginning of the end. There was the drive to the airport for Rob, and the going to the BBQ for others. Then there came the parting from Simon and Tony and Tony and Sandy and Justin and the doing of the long drive with Bert and Rita to the dorp-hotel en route to the Kruger. And then there was great Letaba and the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of birds and animals and the ‘grr-rr’ of the road-surface. And that Thursday night there was the return to Pretoria to the posh paid for City Hotel, and dinner with Roy. And Roy’s friend Neil came in the morning to take me to go and do the BDO presentation, where I met Gill, and… but you’d need to have been there. And then came Brian again, and we drove back down to Jo’burg, and then back up to Pretoria’s Blue Crane for lunch, and I presented for the AIDC, where I met Pat and Colli and the Prof and Johan and… but you’d need to have been there too.

Brian, after driving me through my old haunt of Danville, drops me off at my Aunt’s in Valhalla. First meeting since circa 1967. Then there is her husband. Late into the night. One learns yet more to listen into in an African night. Then there was the next early morning drive with my first (time ever met) cousin, Stanley, to the Joburg Civic theatre for my presentation, with the meeting of the incredible Gladys and Andrea and Janet and… but you’d have to have been there too.Vernon Matthysen and Quenten de Kock were! Then it’s back to Pretoria to meet with Bernadine and to have the distinct privilege of being presented to by Stanley, and then to meet Betty and to have yet another African night with Clive where one listens, oh, how one learns yet more better to listen. Then came Stanley again and once more we were off to the airport, where who should be waiting in surprise for me but… Brian! Brian who…

And now, shall I go on? Or has this diary-like entry caused even you to cease to… listen?

The Family of Man (kind)

12) The Family of Man (Friday 29th October, 2010)

Pleased to meet you!
We have our own comprehension of the re-created past, our own apprehension of the ever-present, and our own projection of the foreseen-future. It lies often in the immediate contact with another individual. This South Africa reunion (October 13 to 29) brought me very many new friends; gave back old friends; and even revealed a brand new family. And while the microcosm is endemic to the macrocosm, there is the relevant reality of the moment by moment integration of new places, new faces, and old memories. I am, in brief, grown altogether more aware of The Family of Man. It arises in that a name no longer is just a name. No wonder the listing of Biblical ‘begats.’ Just names? No, ancient Souls. Names were, are, and will become people. And therewith my long-held walls of indifference and abeyance and judgemental-ism and self-protection and self-interests have all but vanished. Names have faces, and faces become people, people with a name.

I’ve gained a brand new brother, Johan, eleven years younger than me, seen last but for a week or so when he was 16. His wife is Estelle; their son is Scott. There has also evolved a renewed inclusion of my long-lost sister, Carol, seen only three times since I first met her in 2004 for the first time since she was a baby. Her husband is Pierre, and they have Pierre-son, and Jean-Mali, and Ivan, all grown young men with a mission and a spirit and a soul. There too has been a reintegration after 45 years with my aunt, Meisie, only seven years older than me (being my mother’s youngest sister). Her husband is Clive. I got to befriend, respect, admire, and include their 36 year old son, Stanley (with his soon to be bride, Berdine). Then too, there is Stanley’s twin sister, Betty. And what of Betty’s children and husband? Also, what of the call from Dubai of Meisie’s oldest, Engela, and her husband Jerry, and their son…(?) And speaking of Dubai, that’s where my youngest brother Andy and his wife Elsabe are working, and now there’s their grown-up daughter, Tammy! Then too, what of my brilliant middle brother, Peter, and his wife Brenda, and their Xavier, with his Michele and their Talia and Damon? And then there’s their Peter-son and Canadian wife Laura, and their two-year old, Sean. And their brother, Aaron, is teaching in China (where he’s met a Suzie!) And what of the remarkable 25 month year old, Aiden; Zoe and Deon’s child, who are the… well, what a complicated and complex thing is not this extensive Family of Man? So too, back in Calgary, what of my own lovely Linda and her 26 year old son Keith? Yet, how is it, really, that any one of us can really call another ‘mine,’ or ‘theirs’? Which part of it all is not of the Divine? Which part of it all is not The Family of Man? And which one of the names (any name) is not given dimension by an adjective, like talented, tall, accomplished, beautiful, thoughtful, kind, considerate, caring, generous, and smart? After all, each name has validity beyond the obvious. We’ve not yet mentioned Aunt Joan. An individual’s existence is as full of potential and fragmentation and integration and the sense of life longing for itself as is the next, and we discard, demerit, disown, disavow, and disdain one another at the precious price of our very own making.
Come, let us be kind to mankind; let us share the burden. Perhaps that’s why we are called man-kind. Perhaps that’s why we indeed are one big family, the Family of Man.

You! And You too.

11) You. And You. Yes, You. (Wednesday, 27th October, 2010)

The frustration is in the immediate. The dependency on electricity, on the Internet, on the phone bills of others who caringly guard the time allotments, the projected bill-payments, and on those who hover around the proximity of a possible overhearing of privacy, all of it cuts me off from you. You. Yes, you.

Third world country to first world; what a difference! One savours the emotional feel and the intellectual images of the journey, saves snap-happy snapshots with a digital-camera at the myriad memories, and suspends the inevitable frustration with power-outs. Yet when able, one quickly pastes in the daily deluge of an essay despite quite anxiously tap-tick-tacking at the dire threat of a curtailed email. After all, when will this connection be cut off? And one feels… well, I for one feel cut off by the lack of contact and its continuity. Such is this traveller’s savouring, saving, and quietly background niggling sense of a decidedly sustained suspense.

Juxtaposition is everywhere. Over here is tidiness and orderliness and cleanliness; over there is disorder and filth and squalor. Here is richness; there is poverty. Here is a man working; there is a man begging. Here someone smiles; there someone scowls. But everywhere, there is the furtiveness of self-protection, the need to be on one’s guard.

When do we just be?

Like the bray of the jackass-penguin. It comes seemingly out of nowhere at me as I trundle along this boardwalk of Betty’s Bay, in the South Eastern Cape. That haunting haw-hee-haw sound surges from afar in a long wail of winds amongst the rocks. To my left the sea bashes up in white fury at the boulders of its boundary; to my right the slopes of sand-dunes and rock-outcrops and scrub-brush conceal the holiday village. Directly below my wheel-chair the narrow planks turn with the wooden railings, and the superb vantage snakes along the coast amongst the unbothered birds of the penguin colony next to the sea. And then I see the town-crier! That astounding bray from a bird rivets me; it is a cry to the soul. Perhaps it resonates as the ubiquitous call to the ear of mankind in the chord of a B-minor? Still, I give the experience an A+.     

Comical is how they are described on the plaques alongside the boardwalk. They can live up to 25 years, swim underwater at speeds of 22km per hour, and mate for life. And they wear the burden of their years with a patient dignity, a grace of disposition, a slight pluck and tuck and nibble of necessary grooming, and then they waddle off, often like a little group of tuxedo wearing men, in a gathering of great importance toward some selected sanctum. I see them as multiple as mankind, each so very similar, yet each as unique as a fingerprint. And they stand looking back at me in the bulkily rumbling contraption of my conveyance, and then at Peter, my beloved brother, pushing from behind me with his one hand, while with the other he aims his well-experienced video-camera.

Who indeed laughs at whom?  

Particular penguins seem to suspend themselves in air waves, rather than cling to the rocks. The lift of their up-stretched bodies, the outreach of their stubby arms, the uplifted foot by uplifted foot, like marionette puppets appended to the sudden jerks of their gate, and then the very intent-full purpose of their passage all adds to the sense of the colony having a place, a perpetual predicament, and a mission (despite so many being rooted to the rocks in the long domesticity of their habit.) And still, here and there, a lone sentinel keeps watch.

Just like many of us. We travel at the expense of losing the contact with others. We make new friends, collect cards, swap addresses, hope to re-connect, and plunge yet once more into the voyage. We gather up belongings, discard the unwanted, the useless, the dross and the drift of time, and we savour the valued, save the memories, and suspend the disbelief.

“Real” reality, for me, is in finding oneself in stasis; it creates a sense of the weight of time. Magic is in seizing the moment; it is as a call from an atavistic past to an instinctual recognition of the present, and it moves one along the continuum of what was, what is, and what shall be. And when I now hearken back, it is as if it all was caught up there, in Betty’s Bay, deep and haunting, in the long sea-sad bray in the age-old memory of a once much damaged donkey. Then again, that much is all for yet… another story.

Now then, if only I had more instant and frequent contact! With you. You. Yes, you.  

Brothers, Buddys, and Friends

10) Of Brothers, Buddy(s) and Friends (Tuesday, October 26, 2010)

New friends arise from old places. They emerge from within the continuum of our existence as though by déjà vu and we at a single instant are given accord in the collective soul. It is so, was so, and shall be. Even those subtle distinctions of variations in the tug and pull of the journey are felt as though somehow, ephemerally, we’ve all been down this road before. And while we settle into the rhythm and the rhyme and the reason, we realize that real reality hovers around us like a hyena, waiting to devour our weakness; is that which I feel, that which he feels, for real?

Names conjure entire stories. For me. For you. And they make of things a heading in the chapters that could become books. Brian, Quenton, Ken, Vernon, Roy, Mike, Rob, Justin, Bert, Vernon, Glynn, Peter, Doc, Simon, Tony, Tony, Alan, and… well, the list goes on and on, for each unto each, ad infinitum. It is so, was so, and shall be. And some one meets in the first instance, and some one meets as a reconnection, and some one sees in the background, waiting their turn to be fully embraced. Such is the brotherhood of men.

How does one acknowledge the debt of gratitude, the tremendous sense of respect and appreciation and connectivity that so invigorates the moment, the passage of the journey, the feelings of wanting continuity, the awareness of lost time in the past? Words are but imperfect conduits transposing the music of the moment. We are bound by the fingers of fate as in a chord played on the instrument of time; it takes the correct positioning, the appropriate pressure, the precise timing to create a tune that harmonizes with the progression, chord for chord, fret for fret, string for string, and song for song. In being attuned, so do we avoid the dissonance, the out-of tune experience, and the frustration of perhaps not being able to play along.

But some of us have real brothers. I have Peter, and Andy, and now Johan. And we all have real friends; friends that have swapped stories and shared souls and made genuine connection in a free-fall of surrender to authenticity, stripping away the guard and garb of awards and accomplishments and battle scars. Those things indeed make the man more secure, make the man more wealthy, more experienced, more mature, but they still do not define character and personality. Those things of the past bring us to the present, as they were, as it was, and as it shall be. But character and personality are the things of the moment, as seen in the immediate, as continually evaluated by the other in terms of reference to the tune that one hears. And the longer the song, the longer the orchestra is kept at following the conductor, the metre, the measure, the rhyme. Accord is as ephemeral as a broken bow. It let’s loose the arrow of an intended aim, and the barb may plunge deep into the skein of one not so thick or dense or impenetrable as one might have supposed; we are the purveyors of our proclivities, and we are the molecules of the collective mind. Character and personality are the things we wear as a result of that which we are; soul and connectivity are things we are as a result of being all too human.    

Johan and I were reconnected yesterday. Eleven years younger than me, I’d once dropped him on his head. Forty five years later, he forgives me, and our parents do now smile, even though they all are now dead. Such is the brotherhood of mankind. Broer for broer. All men. Amen!

Beyond Boundaries

9) Beyond Boundaries (Sunday 24 October, 2010)

Hear me now, even though I speak to the initiated. The test is perpetual. Our perception of things drives our habitual reaction; we are, if not judgemental, then at least given to expectations of that which we think and feel we might regularly receive. In fact, as psycho-cybernetics would prove, we habitually calibrate ourselves toward the norm we set ourselves, and if we perform in one test at 87%, but believe we are really a 60% average, then we’ll self-sabotage in another test, and at the end of the day, virtually self-regulate ourselves along a 60% line of continuum. We need to re-think our thinking!

That was the gist of the presentation to which I was privileged in the late afternoon in the intimacy of my Aunt Meisie’s humble kitchen, her 36 year old son, Stanley, presenting for my critique from his computer’s power-point, his fiancé, Berdine, occasionally adding a phrase of further explication, his father, Clive Becket, sitting quietly, proudly, beside me. It was the first time they’d seen him perform; the first time they were given awareness of what it means for him to be pursuing a career in public speaking. And he was impassioned, articulate, inspired, and inspiring. I am so proud of this new friend of mine, Stanley, my first cousin.

He’d arrived at Meisie’s Valhalla house at 7.45 a.m., as promised. (I learnt later that it was a mark of particular sacrifice on his part to be up that early.) I’d never met him before. He was throwing the ball for the Alsatian when I emerged on him, and he brushed the side of his pants with his hand before shaking mine. Taller than me, handsome and vibrant, there was a look of intelligent intensity in his eye, and the air resonated in sudden accord between us. Stanley struggled mightily to get my chair into his vehicle, trying several which ways, most of the chair coming apart before we managed. Eventually, the GPS unit set for the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, we whisked along the mounting patterns of traffic, his Mother Meisie in the back seat, me at shotgun. And the questions began. Within minutes, the pleasantries over, we were talking about paradigms.

The nine year old boy, his nephew to be, holds several swimming records. “But I feel fearful that big boy over there is going to beat me today,” the son told his father. And then, during the heats, instead of crossing his fingers and wishing bad luck on the boy now speeding in the water, the nine year old ran along the poolside, shouting down, come along, you can do it, faster now, faster, you can beat the record, go for it! And when that other boy did do so, the nine year old congratulated him, saying, I knew you could do it!

There are individuals who step into the light, and lift us up with them. They demonstrate the potential in us all, the vastness of our being. They go beyond boundaries. That much was my distinct privilege to see within the gleaming edifice of the impressive Civic Theatre. Gladys Aghullus, life coach to the disenfranchised, hosted. I came to teach, and was taught yet more than I had time to learn. The audience was made up actors, dancers, the blind, the mute, television and theatre and administrative professionals, the Deion of Arts, and the teachers and choreographers and technical personnel that make us all thespians, appreciators and purveyors and performers of Life. And they gave me a standing ovation. I had exhorted them to break the boundaries of the territorial imperative. I had them catching on to Psycho-geometric icons, explicated Spiral Dynamics as it pertained to the Rainbow Nation, taught the Actors Alphabet as it pertains to integration and continuity and collaboration and compassion and awareness and the nurturing of The Soul of us all. After all, which part of Everything is not everything? And in our integration and letting go of judgemental-ism and fragmentation and divisiveness and in putting people before product and in consideration of consequences on a Dabrowskian, Kohlbergian and Gravesian paradigm amongst the models of mankind, we swam together in the pool of potentiality and possibility and preferential personality inherent to character and ethics within the fluidity of our medium as a matter of intelligent choice.

They stood to applaud me. They invited me back, want me to give workshops, will pay all my expenses to return as early as April to deliver them. And they were warm and embracing and made speeches and commentaries of appreciation. But it is my entire being that rises up to applaud them. And it is my very core that is so deeply humbled and grateful to history that here, in South Africa, where once such people and I were not even allowed to congregate in a room together, let alone hug and kiss on the cheek, and hold hands, and share ideas and call each other by our first names and swap cards and talk of our common future... that here I am honoured to be of service, and also given so much to learn. Incredible that during the Apartheid Era, before 1994, blacks and whites were legally divided, quartered, and potential was dismissively deemed decidedly desiccated.

It is for the reinvigoration of the theatre arts in South Africa that these theatre professionals came to my presentation to bolster. It was the thirst for more practical knowledge, for greater interpersonal efficacy, for the methodology and management co-ordinations of theatre societies such as Calgary Acts, and at the end of the day, for an invigoration of the intra- and trans-personal habituations endemic to the passion of creative individuals that will, with awareness, augment, help to sustain, and nurture the inclusive, integrative, absorptive, compassionate and evolutionary proclivity in us all.

But lest my fancifulness of words be a mere dance in the mind, allow me here to get at last to the gist of the boundary by which we might expect one such as I, who grew up in a racist South Africa, to be restrained. The articulation of passion arises out of intrinsic energy made manifest. Some 95+ % of my audience was black. So? The blind girl, led to the stage, beat on the drum whilst the mute girl, her entire body a conduit to the rhythm, told a story of co-ordination and contrition and compassion that had the blind girl releasing her drum and dancing, dancing to the scratch and ka-boom and tap-tap of the borrowed instrument, until the music ceased and they together, in an accord of silent and lyrical integration, moved as one.

The articulation of passion arises out of intrinsic energy made manifest. There was a five or maybe even four year old little boy, one whom I was once taught to hold in disdain as a picanninny, who wore the gift of his Canadian maple-leaf pin proudly, who gazed on, applauded, held to his chair, wandered during the many speeches politely and silently, and who picked up the dropped business card for me and advanced it toward me, without my even asking; his tiny hand, advancing that essential connection to the future. Breaking boundaries.  Africa… arises.   

Early Birds

8) Early Birds, Expurgation and Exegesis (Saturday 23 October, 2010)

They bring me to my senses at 4.00 a.m. each morning. Whether Pretoria, the Kruger Game Reserve, Johannesburg, or Valhalla. And as I sit here and type in the dawn, their happy sound is a chirp-chirrup of greetings to the slightest slivers and smudges of light.

Would that mankind be so cheerful. Would that mankind be so free. But I have heard the long moan of man for his lot, and it is a smatter and a chatter of what’s the matter almost continually. And the problem with this country is, is the pitch-phrase. Then comes the diathesis, the antithesis, and the catachresis. Then comes the complaining and the explaining and the pontificating. Then comes mankind in the throes of his self-assumed dissolution with the evident greyness of the dawn in his ineluctable evolution, for he sees but through his perpetual pain darkly, and he draws the curtains lest others look inside. It is the dirt and filth and fear and locks, bolts, gates, barbed wire, dogs, and caution with his lot that causes man so to enfold. And in the long years of his essentially self-protected life he withers and desiccates and looks hardly even within for he is too busy in his watchfulness for the without. We are neither birds nor animals; it is not natural for us so to live in perpetual fear.

The dogs alert me. I’d stopped writing even to raise my head and peer through the crack of the curtain next to me, as though perhaps I may espy, dark as it is, what the commotion is all about at what sounds as near as the neighbour’s house. And I realize that my vulnerability is aroused. And I realize that I am becoming immersed in the ebb and flow of the populace, that grand sweep of faces and bodies and glances and voices that are somehow each so caught up in the: what’s about to happen to me? Do the birds sing so too? Or are they giving songs of praise for a new day?

She was the song-bird of this experience of my time here in Africa, Colli Fora. She was the new blackbird, the new South Africa, the rare species of my cognizance in a country that has shown me, both in my life here before now as well as in the present, a female populace of generally uncommunicative dimension, chiefly for my own lack of knowing beyond the contextual meaning of their sounds. But Colli, a journalist with AIDC, spoke my language, perfectly. Cauliflower, the kids used to tease me, she laughed. She was beautiful and elegant and cultured and sophisticated and educated and perhaps only 26. And she interviewed me for the paper and she accepted my token of the maple-leaf pin and she asked for my card. She was appreciative of my old man’s presentation, and then she waited on the periphery and took photos of those others who came up to my chair to greet me. And some others too were black birds of all shapes and sizes amongst the usually bland. One other, in particular, could not articulate sufficiently for my untrained ear to gather sense. And I thought of the maid at Courtyard Hotel, Ebwon, who tended to the room and our laundry for four days, who had not spoken but five words of English the entire time. Even her name, repeated about four times, escaped me, until she lifted her name tag for me to read. Oh! Yvonne. It is difficult for man to discern intelligence when we make no sense of another’s sounds. Is that why we sometimes call the birds and beast dumb? But sing for me birds, sing that I may yet learn your language too. Sing for us all, until yet another day in the evolution of Africa, in the evolution of us all, is done.

To Seize and Besiege

7) To Seize and Besiege. (on visiting the Kruger, October 18 to 21st, 2010)

They are extremely wary. They may look casual, used to our passage, our staring, our taking from them, of them, and our clucking and clapping and clicking, but in an all too brief moment they snort, stomp, and are gone. So are the animals of the Kruger Park. So is the animal in us all. We live in a constant state of being besieged.

Yes, but they don’t seize until they have to, they don’t intend harm, says Bert. Not like us. They don’t rob and steal and brutalize and rape and…


South Africa, with its barred windows and bolted gates and sharp palisades and spikes and barbed wire and eyes that perpetually search for safety, with its hiding things of value and stopping only where it’s safe and its warning signs of high-jack areas and its horrors of tourist traps in which an innocent looking way-side stall of curios hides a gang of thugs waiting like vultures to rip you out of your car, seethes. And in the heat of the day or the dark of the night one comes alert to sounds, to movement, to the out of the ordinary; it makes for spotting the strange, the unexpected, the far-distant, the slightest of disturbed rhythms very well indeed.

Some of us are crocodiles. Some are hippos, buffaloes, elephants, egrets, guinea-fowl, kudu, klipspringers, kingfishers, chameleons, snakes, kite-hawks, bataleur-eagles, hyenas and wolfs. Yes, it’s not only in Africa, I’m thinking. We each are somewhat given to the rhythms of our species, our group, our regular routes of habituation, and we graze and fodder and claim our territorial imperative and raise our ire at those who stomp, trod, or question our physical, intellectual, or spiritual property. It is difficult for us to be universal, integrative. Look how different we are! Even as individuals. No two zebra are alike. No two giraffe. Even in our collective distinctiveness we are, like fingerprints, as differentiated as the very concept of an ‘I’ would have us believe. And inasmuch as we have all these hierarchies of needs, it is only when we are feeling safe that we can afford to lay back, close our eyes, and be at peace.

South Africa is not safe. It writhes under distrust. The bills for food and gas are checked, the accommodations secured, the valuables taken with you instead of entrusted to the car or the room or the closet or the suitcase. We do not get petrol-juice there. We do not sleep here. We do not eat there. Our house has six sets of locks to get inside. We have alarms and dogs and guns. We are the people. We are the fearful. We are the desperate. We are the irate, the dissatisfied, the distrustful. And yet…

Faces screwed up into belligerence at the heat, pierced by an eye to an eye, open like flowers to thirst for love and care and interest and friendliness. The smallest token, like a Canadian lapel pin, is received with great joy, great humility. The petrol attend removes his cap, dips with a little bow, and beams at the gift. One being to another, brief and tiny as the gesture is, lifts the barricade of siege and besiege. Oh Africa, wither wilst thou go?           

The Standing Ovation

6) The Standing Ovation (October 16th, 2010)

That a person should receive one in a lifetime is good for the soul. It’s a measure of approval from an audience who feels treated. But it is not the measure of a man. And that a person might take it personally, either way, had the others stood or not, is also not a measure of the treat. Some speeches, performances, events have this sobering, quiet, tearful end; and who would stand for that, except out of obligation, or because everyone else is standing? Yet they stood for me, at the beginning and at the end. They stood for me, these old boys of my yesteryears, along with some of the old masters, and together we celebrated the moment. Still, let me not fool myself, some were indeed obliged.

So much is in the moment. There was this moment that we first passed into the grounds of our high school; the moment we first met a new friend; the moment we first joined a team, tried out, did our homework, had a cigarette. So we wound our way, moment by moment, to the present. So too for each of us, even unto the moment that you read this blather of exposition, waiting as it is for the interesting moment of the inciting force.

Collisions of the long ago ran rife. Hands were shaken. Eyes met. Souls searched for recognition, validation, depth. Bonds were made. Bonds were broken. Touchstones became weighted in the psyche, the heart, the instinct, and lives were taken on or cast aside. Have we really grown up? There were men there who gave each other accord, locked into avowed renewal, whilst others gave a brief nod, a passing glance, a hail fellow well met, and slid by. Such is the stuff of life. Were we really expecting more?

They stood for me, mummy and daddy, they stood for me. I’d not yet even opened my mouth and your old son from a poor family was suddenly given a peer’s recognition, or was it pity? No, better not go there, although, given my wheel-condition, one may hardly blame me for wondering. And then, once I settled into the delivery along with the unfamiliar awkwardness of a clicker in my right for changing pictures that I could not see on a screen behind me, the speech in my left hand that at times doesn’t work so well or so steadily, I wrapped them in the past, led them picture by picture toward the present, and exhorted them to consider the future. They liked it! They stood again; clap-clapping. The committee congratulated me. And the thanks went on and on.

But more important than the climax is the denouement. What now? How do we really contribute to a campus burgeoning with the evidence of wealth and privilege despite its appeal to our pockets, to our bank-accounts, and to our senses? How do we foster an ongoing scholarship for needy students? How do we determine such a student’s potential, the worthiness of our investment, the validity of the involvement, the value of the gift?

Gifts given are like standing ovations. We usually earn them, but what we do with them is up to us. We take them for granted, or we thank the audience, or we take them as challenges to continue to do the good work, but at the end of the day, the end of the speech, the end of one’s life, it’s time to continue to pay. The value is not in how much, but in how sincerely. One stands up for things that are meaningful. One gives to things that have value. One stands up for the good in us all; clap, clap, clapping for one and all.

To Be or Not to Be?

5) To Be or Not to Be

The quick hand that reached into the car, past the steering wheel, and grabbed the dog-collar off the dash-board won’t release its clench on my mind. I like your car, the youth said, it’s very nice! We were stopped at the light. Mike had the driver’s window down.

Saturday 16 October, 2010, D-Day. The dinner of my delivery is tonight. How to summarize the Pretoria Boys High five seminal years of 1966 to 1970, to give them historical value in the retrospective, and also to invigorate and inspire toward contributing to the future?

Yet even more in the immediate, how to face into the tears and hurt of the morning’s jaunt into the CBD and the Highbow that was?

We’d left the very worst of the neighbourhood, were on the fringes of entering the open spaces, and then this thing happened. There were four of us in the car, Justin and Rob in the back, me at shotgun. We all had had our cameras clutched up tight, our belongings ensconced away, the windows up. Speaking for myself, we all were still somewhat nervous, still painfully dismayed, still somewhat shocked, as Mike had expertly and carefully driven us through the streets clogged and narrow, past the buildings broken and shuttered and barbed and gated and fenced and spiked and peeling and stained and dark yet crawling with the carcass-like maggot-writhe of humanity in its natural display of very little evidence of care for regulations, civilities, cleanliness, courtesy, or fellowship.

‘Careless defecators’ is the scientific term for mankind. Left to his own devices he regresses to the survivalist and animalist instincts of the self, and given the statistics Mike had earlier quoted, in which rape and child abuse and murder and theft and graft and corruption and coercion and collusion and conspirators collude to create a cutting edge society that bleeds in its struggle for the light, our drive amongst the elements of what was, what is, and what yet shall be began to squeeze at my heart, overwhelmingly.

The CBD, or central business district, was once the height of Johannesburg’s opulence, and Hillbrow, though not a fancy neighbourhood was never like this. No never. Mike’s old house, the four-plex where he stayed alongside the whorehouse, was still there, although the disrepair, the sawed down childhood tree, the multi-repaired wooden ladder, the roles and roles of spiked wire, the sullen, insolent, bleak, despairing, and space occupying faces, in some measure, had been germinating in the throes of an apartheid era that spawned the overflow when the racist lid was taken off. And what the people are living in now, actually, is better than the shanty-towns of yore, when a brick or stone on your corrugated tin roof was all that kept the big-bad-wolf from blowing your house down. But oh my God, the children. The children. Suffer the little children to come unto me. And the churches, though named and not as unkempt, are as barb-wire protected and bolted up as is any other besieged building we slowly pass. It is for the children that my heart is so squeezed, my gut made so wretched, my tears eventually so freely flow. How hard is not the future yet for them to be?

 We’d made only one stop. Eventually we’d found Justin’s old Brenthurst Clinic, where the burn-unit during the trauma of his childhood accident had taken him in and cloistered him. Our eyes on his 6 foot and fit looking frame, he looked yet once again lonely, vulnerable, as he walked from the car and went in search of a better vantage for his camera. But he had no desire to go inside. The thing was done. And speaking for me, the neighbourhood seemed to seethe with his presence, with our presence, as though the very whiteness of our large vehicle’s colour itself was an affront to the daily goings-on of a populace freed from the oppression of our dictates, and freed to feast on the foibles of itself. The tension amongst us was high. The entrance to the clinic from the other side boarded and barbed, and no sooner was Justin back inside than we began to get out of there.

But then that snatching hand came through the open window frame.

 I like very much this car, he said, and he was smiling and friendly. I give you this, he said, it’s a present! And before I could focus the black belt, about the size and length of a dog-collar, was thrust onto the dash-board. Then he asked for money. We didn’t want the belt. We didn’t want to reach for a wallet. We thanked him, but to no… Then the lights changed, and as the vehicle began to move he reached in for the belt, quick as a flash, but Mike’s big forearm warded him off, yet still he managed to snatch the thing out, and in an instant there was electricity and fire and brimstone in his eyes and the curse of hell made microbial in the interaction, but split seconds later the man laughed, and we drove off.

Could have been a knife, Rob said.

To be or not to be?  Oh Africa, ask not for whom the bell tolls, I weep for thee.

We Shall Arise and Go Now

4) We Shall Arise and Go Now…     

 …and go to inners-free. By 3.15, Saturday 16th October, 2010, the day of the Official Reunion Dinner, we three are up. Our world is an accord of coffee and chat and laughter and freedom. And how does one transcribe the flights of fancy from the ridiculous to the sublime? We take choice not for granted but as a responsibility. No man, we create a new order; the Church of Chook. Chu-ook. Chickens! We’ve already got one, called Kentucky Fried. No! They’ve got the franchise? What about Turkey’s? Americans already have that one. Kentucky is in South Africa? No, it’s in the USA. Ha! Mike’s at his pulpit, behind the couch, under the arch. The interior arch of the apartment; the inner arch of the self: We’ll create yet another new order in which all are to be held accountable for vagrant thoughtfulness, for the fragmentation of fun, for the lack of purpose, for dissolution of the whole. And our new church shall, like an egg or like a chicken, be at once both first and last, alpha and omega (or was that like a chicken and then an egg?) Everything? Which part of the whole does one not include? Which part of everything shall we discount?  What part of no do you not understand? Both up and down; below and above; oh, and sideways too. Which way sideways? Depends. What depends? How full of strond we are, ha! That’s exactly what is anderkant die long-drop. Long-drop? You know, the other side of the kak-huis? Oh! Outhouse. Yes, that’s what Koos Kombuis sings. Listen. Mike goes to play the CD. An Afrikaans Leonard Cohen burbles iconoclastically. Incorrigibly. Indelibly. Indubitably. Rob rattles in the sink with the breakfast dishes. He turns and begins to clear the table. Now what’s happening? The sink’s overflowing! That didn’t take long. That’s a waterfall with a long-drop. Ha! Rob in my mind metaphorically runs to get his real-life surfboard out (he truly had carted it into the apartment on first meeting in what resembled a giant tin-foil wrapper, and anyway, this is my story and I’m sticking to…) Waves! I’ll plunge in with the dolphins. Dolls have fins? Well, only if they marry them. Ha! Even the knife and fork drawer is full of water! The plastic things are floating! Floaters are in the drawer? Whose drawers? The guy who somersaulted. So? Why don’t you take a shower? Show her? She’d first have to be in the Church of Chook. No man, there’s nothing not accepted, no one is to be excluded, even if they know it or not. Soon as you’ve eaten chicken, you’re in the House of Chook! And before that? Well, then you’re in the egg stage. Egg-static! But you’re gonna be a…. We are what we eat. We are what we think. We are what we do. We three are. Which came first, the chicken or the..? What ‘is’ is not an ‘is’? No level of education or financial circumstance or ideology, no cast or creed or chicken or no turkey is to be excluded. Turks! We’re including Turks? I remember turks-vye? Man, long time since I had one of those. Yes. And koeksisters. Swee-e-eet! Gentlemen, we’ve got to get us some of those. Maybe for Tony Stockwell’s barbeque tomorrow. Rob? What time’s your flight? Flight? He’s gonna surf all the way out. Man, ever been to Plettenburg bay? Only women go? Picked a sand-dollar up off the beach there. Put it in my pocket. It became pebbles. Always loved the image of placing pebbles, picked up one by one and meticulously placed, one by one, into a sand picture. Monks. Coloured pebbles, one by one. When the amazing product is done, they immediately rake over it and start yet another. It’s the immediate, this moment that counts; the product is fleeting. Time marches on. Marches. Slips. Slides. I hear the tramp of the thirty good men. Why was it thirty? A rugby team. Oh, and there were… two sides! Yes, pitted against each other. Follow up, follow up, follow up! The forwards did all the work. You wingers never even saw the followers; you were always out in front. Out in front? Yep, now I’m out so far it’s the roof over the tool-shed. Ha! Vintage wrecks. Linda wants a 57 Corvette. Nice cars. I’ve a Mustang. Restored. Man’s gotta have what he can have so he can spill over into something else. Good thing he’s not a sink! What I want to know is: what idiot would install a sink without an overflow-drain-hole? No madam, is not for to be my fault, that sink is for to not be having a drain-hole for the plug when she is in. Ha! Is not for to be my fault that bus was gone when I was waiting on the bench. Is not for to be my fault there was no star when I was driving without my light. This lamp post, it was put in the wrong way. Which way is up; which way is down? Sideways! That’s the platteland. Flatland. Life’s gotta have some ups and downs to keep it interesting. Will I be safe on my run? We’ll follow you in the van. No man, I’ll just be half an hour. Ok, if you’re not back in forty minutes we’re coming to fetch you. Rob? Rob? Do you also run with your eyes closed? Rob? Rob? He’s sleeping. And the story was all for him! That’s Ok, we’ll tell it again, someday. Someday; we take responsibility not for granted but as a choice. Why not today? Moment for moment. Memory is selective; we re-invent it from the last time we filed it, and so we make it so. Sew up the pieces. So? So, we will arise, and go now; go running bravely toward the light.

The Last Supper

3) The Last Supper (Friday 15 October, 2010)

And the four multiplied until they were twelve. Do you mind if my brother comes along? Mike’s paying! Mike has invited us to supper! Where? Wombles. Where’s that? No, not Australia. Not a wombat! It’s tonight!

We gathered as a clan, a club, a group. We were the boys of PBHS. We are the men of PBHS, and we now have wives and sisters and cousins and nieces and nephews and grandchildren and uncles and aunts. The family of man, gobble-gabbing at and about the precious earth; time to give back. Give yet more? Really? No man, I’m gobsmacked.

Generosity comes in many guises. It is so much more than the evident, the obvious, the wallet. And that Mike Jablonski, in his spirit that pours out so much light, should so be enabled also to pay for our supper is not only a testament to the gesture of gratefulness, but the grace of gesture toward the testament of man. We do for others. We give unto others. We live for others. We participate and we provide. And in so doing we become richer.

Pity the miser who hoards his thoughts. Pity the miser who guards his sentences. Pity the miser who cloaks his assumptions. Pity the miser who keeps his cards to his chest. Pity the miser who fears the judgement and disapprobation of others. Pity the miser who keeps his body from hugging others, who wraps up his heart in a secret place haltingly to be given in morsels or measured chunks. Pity the man who feeds mostly his stomach, who thrusts indiscriminately from the loins, who barges uncaringly past the tender, who barks unthinkingly into the peace. So be the tenets of the Church of Chook. Pity those who do not see past the front door, who sit in one place, who scratch at stasis, who belch but old memories.

Mike Jablonski, you’re the man! What you see is not what you get. Not what you get. You get not what you see. What a paradox that therein lies the real authenticity. There is no suit, no tie, no long trousers, no fancy shoes, no caring haircut, no flashy ring or watch or car or manner; there is just the man! And from such a soul as this we gain insight of that which we all are, indeed Everything. Score a point at a time; take care lest you lose nine. Shakespeare, Mozart, the Bible, the Bogs the Togs, Kris Chameleon and Koos Kombuis; real sacrilege lies only in the avowal of eschewing the value of each or either. What part of everything do you not understand? Allow for each to be, as it was, is, and evermore shall be. But nurture that which you see. Preference is all; let Judgement be. For love is kind, forgiving, does not boast, holds no record of wrongs, is ever patient, wants not, wastes not, and gives. Such is the exemplar, the knight’s quest, the grail, the star, the infinite depth of a man; the journey for us all. Now then, let us give thanks, and let us eat!       

Excuse me, says Mike, would you like to have my seat?

Then again:

Familiar Faces

2) Familiar Faces; Three Voices, then Four, then yet More (Friday 15 Oct., 2010)

How can one be lost amongst familiar faces? We see them, especially when we shut our eyes; they guide one back to where one came from. They emerge on the road running to the present, like faces on billboards, and they lurk around the corners of the memory advertising where one has been. Where to go. (?) But not everyone runs. … Alright, walks then to the present. Some shuffle. Some sleep. … To sleep, to dream, to shuffle off this mortal coil. How about wheels? ha! (Isn’t it always really about me?) The wheeler dealer recollection of familiar faces brings us to this moment. Particular memories of particular people who each in their turn brought one to this here and now. How can you trust those faces? No mate, not everybody wants something from you. No, but some give you what you don’t want. And each shapes you along the way. Friend and foe impacts you, and contributes to the life you lead, the pathway you took, the road you ran, the…
Rob? Rob? No mate, it was just a 5 second nap.

Even asleep, we are awake. Especially if you’re Rob. Even at 5.00 a.m.

Jacarandas are in bloom. Purple low lying clouds caught up on the periphery and perpetually smudged against the suburban backdrop. Imagine the streets without them? Yet still the barbed wire and the walls and the palisades and the contravallations and the… What? The barricades. Ah, well, everything is in a constant state of siege. Look!

Remember, Rob, here’s where the cave is? Yes, I should have left you down there with your dead brother, man? That rope was never gonna hold both of you, never mind you alone. Thought he was really dead! Had to run all the way back to fetch your parents! (Ha! We change things in the memory file, and when we take it out again the thing is as we last filed it; changed.)

The entrance to Pretoria Boy’s High School has changed. Two are blocked. Now there’s a guarded gate at the old third, and the gated grounds. Here let me take a picture through the fence for you. Wow! Here’s where we used to… this is new! That’s new! A wild-bird sanctuary? Fenced lower fields. Buildings. This road wasn’t tarred. Meticulous grounds! Sign posts everywhere. No, not ‘just’ for us. Look, there’re some schoolboys. Same old uniform! Yeah, he got my hand-me-downs. To think, we looked like that? Here’re two familiar faces. Are we late? No, it’s only 8.00. Hello! Hello! Hello! I say, hello! Familiar faces, worn out places. But… man the grounds look good! So do you! So do…

There is a sense of being stunned amongst the waddle and fiddle-fuddle and huddle and gaggle of us. There is a slight awkwardness. When did we last meet? What story do we have in common? There’s… Justin, and Bert! And Brian, and Ken, and Tony! Hello Doc, Charlie, Andy, Glynn! And hello Alan, and Peter, and… Ma Erasmus! Ma Laredo! Mr. Gibbs. We grow progressively animated. Some beam with welcome. Some old friends hug, pat the back. Some give a hand-shake; look away. Some hold hand to hand, hand to wrist, unashamedly over-long; once again connected. Maybe 60 of us. Sixty going on 60. (Well, almost.) And thank goodness for name tags. Where? Solomon Boarding House, front of lawn. Welcome speech. Headmaster, Tony Reeler, young at a mid-thirties-look, handsome, friendly, casual and yet appropriately formal. Be-gowned as a modern-day graduate. All the masters looked like that! Still do; like black be-gowned ghosts who come sailing in on the wide-coated wings of the long ago. Do they still use a cane? No…

And then there’s the guided walk of the grounds, with the two prefects and modern-day master John Ilsley (no, no relation to Keith), and facts and details and figures and accounting and explanations and feelings and… faces. And… who’s pushing me along now? Vernon! Quenton! Ken! Brian! Faces. Simon! Tony! And the names one recalls, reads, remembers, and the faces one recalls, now reads, but then there comes no other remembrance. Oh, but yes! Eyes alternately slide, glide, surface, grab hold in the mind, and then in the heart, and we embrace the past in the now, giving so much promise to the future.

The grounds are truly magnificent. Yes, they are among the most prestigious in the world. The costs are staggering. The upkeep. The staff of 200. The boys of 1500. The boarding houses. The staff housing. The new This and the new That and the sheer cost of it all, with a government subsidy of only 12%. We owe. We owe. It’s off to the bank we go. Yes, but does such a relatively small % of boys really need a several million dollar playing surface? Look at that field hockey pitch. Look at the implicit cost, the explicit need. How many pools? How many pupils? Differentiated pools for such divers and differentiated talents. Yes. But what lies deeper than the material edifice? What is really beyond the very evident politeness, control of curriculum, rigidity of uniformed expectations? How does the individual fellow, the boy without the benefit of deep-pocketed father or mothers, father and mothers, or some even without parents, a parent, how does he not only survive, but thrive? 22,000 Rand for a Day boy, about 26 ,000 Rand for a boarder. Yes, per annum. Per augusta ad longata. Per virtute et labore. Per the Power of Four! What? Esoteric. What? Per pedagogy! Oh! Yes. It all adds up.

The tea is in the old art room, with its access to the courtyard above which the koppie-classes still parade. Desks are still the same. Look! That’s my name! What’s your name? Ah, yes, the boys are now still Sir This, and Sir That, and Sir May I help you Sir, and Thank You Sir, and they are the new South Africa. Colours disappear. Faces reveal souls. People become persons. The future lies here! We need no longer fear. We… need.

The assembly is really in the gathering of the individuals, here in this old hall. It is the collective homage to the past, the recall of what once was, the evidence of the changed now, the direction and reward of the future. Forty years on when afar and asunder, parted are those who are singing today! And in the hands of all of what was, is, and shall be. Ad infintum! Amen.

No, not amen. We go now to lunch. Down at the old cricket pavilion. Atop those stairs? We’ll help each other up. It’ll take more of you. Assist. Assist! Pipers. Amazing grace. Old school tie? For me? Thanks! Thanks! Amazing!

14 ESSAYS while in AFRICA (October 2010)

1) At The Feet of Mandela

There is an imposing grandeur to the statue of Madiba, as he is known, the great soul. He stands perhaps 60 feet high, his huge bronze shoes all bright and shiny from those touching or sat at his feet. The rest of him soars aloft and imposing in the subtle greens and browns of Africa. It seems incongruous that opposite him, through the courtyard with its sprouting fountains, there is a model-shoot with an attendant gaggle of cameramen and vanity poses and exaggerations of stance and outer-wear. Madiba is plainly attired, plainly authentic, very real, and as iconic as the statue itself is.

Mike Jablonski takes me there over lunch. We first were in the Sandton Mall, adjacent to the Mandela square, and Mike one-handedly pushes me, walking beside me, and we share stories from childhood and swap memories, yet at each intersection of our thread find meaning and significance in the fact that each ‘then’ brought us to this ‘very now’, even as I type.

Esemplastic and complex is my new friend Mike. He drew attention to the thousands of hands and hearts and steps and thoughts and feelings and ideas that wrought about our very reunion on the same day and moment of time that brings even you right now to be reading these very words. And we agreed that living in a state of gratitude and grace was the way of the present, as had Mandela led the way, rather than to be harping on the very past that we cannot change, not for all our wishing.

We whiled away an hour or three on the square’s patio over Alfredo and Rooibos, and we also went and purchased some gifts for those we love. In the CNA (Central News Agency), a company in which I was the branch manager at Wynberg, Cape Town in 1974, I bought an Afrikaans novel of short stories by a recent writer, Deon Mayer, called “Karoonag en ander Verhale” (and the more adventurous of you might Google the translation). Mike buys me a Herman Charles Bosman compendium; the kind of short stories written from a Boer point of view, in English, full of wry humour and insightful pathos. And at the feet of Mandela I am wheeled close by a contingent of tourists. An elderly Japanese man in a wheelchair, pushed by his daughter, locks eyes momentarily with me, and we both break into smiles at our comparative similarity of predicament, and as we pass we reactively give a high-five, right there, right below the beneficence of the man, the great soul, once incarcerated for over 27 years, yet who instilled the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Madiba reached across the racial tensions of the proverbial bloodbath that so very many expected in 1994. And now that Japanese man and I, below Mandela’s gaze, are in no need of a common language other than the indelible recognition between us of our very humanness. So are the colours and the distinctions and the differences given blend, given oneness, given yet one more push along the turgid river of hope for accord within the natural boundaries that contain us all.

Mike’s rental van swallows up my chair. As I type he is away with it to the airport to go and pick up Rob Zikmann. It is 6.00pm. Rob’s plane got in at 4.30. I stayed behind to meet up with Quenton de Kock. Quenton, you see, was our classmate back in 1970. In fact, he was the last Pretoria Boy’s High boy that I saw, when I went to his house to collect my package of five class photos that he’d had reproduced for each of his friends. And I never saw or wrote to him again. But at 4.45pm today he arrived at my hotel door, jovial and full of camaraderie, and gave me yet another package; a book of South African Writing compiled by John Clare, with its picture researched by a mutual old Pretoria Boys High friend of ours, Harold Thompson. Harold, in gratitude for our Facebook tick-tacking that was initiated just this year, had emailed me about two months ago to say he was bringing the book for me, but now, with the sudden and unexpected discovery of having had an only child, 36 years later, he was on his way to London to meet his new-found son. Still, in all that it must have taken for Harold to come to terms with his new treasure, he’d remembered to parcel the book, to drop it off to Quenton, and then good old Quenton had bothered to find and bring the book to me. And Quenton’s story gave rise to my own, that of our discovering our only sister, 44 years later. Carol was met and fully embraced by my own father, just 18 months before he died, 2004.

We give value to things. We take for granted gestures that may have cost thousands of minute little steps, begun even before Gutenberg’s 15th century printing press, or Caxton’s  1475 introduction of its efficacy to the West. As Mike had alerted me, all the hours and hands that had floated that book of Harold’s along the river of life into this particular moment of significance, even as I now type, and even as you now read, deserves one’s gratitude. What then do we do with the seeds we so easily sow? What might our awesome responsibility not be were we yet more meta-cognitively to examine our motive, intent, and meanderings?

It is now 2.10 a.m. I’d eventually bid good night, at about 10.30, to Rob and Mike, and was asleep almost instantly. But now the darkness of the early morning and my sudden alertness to the expectations of this first official day of the 40 year Reunion has me waiting for the men to get ready for a very early start to manage the snarling roads and the emergent exigencies of getting from Johannesburg to Pretoria on time for the PBHS breakfast gathering. So, in the privacy of my room I softly go tick-tack on the keyboard with these thoughts of communicating with you. I am alive to the presence of my new friend, Rob, met for the very first time last night, though we’d spent 5 years in a school together.

Rob is this 6ft lean and handsome Comrades Marathon runner. At 88km that marathon’s k.m. stands for kill-me, I think. He’d once run it from Pietermaritzburg through the Valley of a Thousand Hills down to Durban, with a very bad flu, an exceedingly high temperature, and had had to be conveyed at the end of it with saline drips and severe dehydration to the hospital; but he’d done it. When they picked him up in stretcher at the finishing line he was ashamed to be on the stretcher, and covered his face with his track-suite top. That was when he was younger.

Younger. I shared with him the months of 1973 with my being a stoker on the SA Railways, based in Mason’s Mill, just out of P’maritzburg, and working at those old Bongols and Gammats, the coal-fed steam engines on the torturous route to Franklin.

The vanity that drives us is predicated so very much on our past. He’d had a very tough childhood. It was filled with material things. But he had a dominating father who hardly ever praised. The father would take the chamois (shammy) from Rob after he’d been relegated to spend almost the whole Sunday cleaning the Jag and (says Rob, now getting right up from his recline on the couch cushions that he’d set up on our hotel sitting room floor specially so that I would not have to turn my neck alternately to see him and Mike as we three formed a triumvirate of communiqué) “My father would find some spot I’d missed, even if it was in the middle of the car’s roof (and here Rob leans his 6ft height over the TV stand and in classic semiotics, and rubs at the surface) and he’d show me that I wasn’t ever good enough.” There’s a catch in this giant of man’s throat. It was just one of the several times we each had swapped stories and revelations of the past. Rob’s father had two jaguars, and the gold E-type was renown amongst the boys of the school. But Rob used to be skinny, shy, asthmatic, introverted, and pre-pubescent. Even in the army he was but a boy amongst the men. And then one day he discovered he had an academic gift, and that he could actualize his potential by the discipline of redirecting his habits, and he began running. In the late-bloomer stage of his life he entered the bar (no, he did not become an alcoholic, ha!) he became a barrister. He even learned to avoid the reaction people give to lawyers, to pronounce as a barista (ha!) and people presumed he tended bar, not that he served at the bar, (ha! ha!)  And he kept on running, and he grew, filled out, and one magic day, in his late twenties, he crested a rise on one of his marathon runs and there, unexpectedly, was his father, actually jumping up and down with excitement and pride for him, cheering him on.

The conditionality of love, of forgiveness, of acceptance, of receiving or giving love; is it innate or do we acquire such things as a result of watching those around us? Are we like babies who implicitly begin to understand that we too one day, like those older ones around us, will walk? We each gave examples for both contentions.  

Well, Mandela stands rooted, his arm outstretched in welcome, the famous smile now an icon of a time when man began to cross the final frontier of legalized racism.  So it is in Africa. But is it so in our hearts? What other lines stretched taught at the edges of our own individual paradigms do we need to cross before we are free to integrate the yin and the yang? How to flow with the continual balance of calibrating to the vicissitudes of this journey of life? If it is inherent in the moment to particularize, itemize, judge, prefer, co-ordinate, and pre-occupy ourselves with the demands of our self-centricity, how do we easily, simply, let go? And we, individually, by group, either at our own or at our collective peril eschew the letting go of the very constraints that would chain us to the earth, to our habits, to our value judgements, to our enslavement to the need for the approbation of others. We are mimetic, and so, lemming like, we run and turn and sway with the immediate mass of energy swirling about us, even as you have followed with your eyes the back and forth lines of this missive. 

This has been the gist of our discourse. As Rob intoned, tears in his eyes; every one of us has a story, and that story is sacred. It is our story, and it matters not that others validate it or identify with it; it matters that we find our own voice. As Rob quoted from a plaque he’d once come across near a mountain-top. “Death is just a horizon defined by a line of sight.” Yes, we create our own limitations. Rob Zikmann, Mike Jablonski, Quenton de Kock, Brian Cameron Haynes Smart, and me; all men in the late half of our sixth decade, all with a desire to find and share hearts filled with compassion and the search for wisdom, paying homage at the feet of Mandela. How some of our ancestors would turn in their graves!