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Rosemund Handler

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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

A hairy debate

This piece was first published in the Mail & Guardian



Years ago, the young son of a good friend approached me. His mother was making tea, and he and I spoke on the balcony. He asked me if I would tell his mother that he was gay and, to boot, HIV-positive. Shock on my part; heated persuasion on his. In the end he agreed to tell her – in my presence.

Much more recently, the daughter of a friend asked if she could have a private chat. A memory of the previous encounter surfaced and I hedged. ‘Why me? What about your mom?’

‘Her? You must be joking. I wouldn’t tell her if I was nine months pregnant!’

Ominous. ‘You aren’t, right?’ She giggles. ‘No, I am not pregnant and if I was, what would you do?’

‘Tell your mother.’

‘No, you would not, I trust you. You’re nothing like my mother.’

‘Surely,’ I say despairingly, ‘if this is a private matter, your mother is still the best person to speak to.’ All of 15 years old, she laughs again. ‘Would you tell your mother that you watch porn with two of your friends? That sometimes we play at being porn stars ourselves?’

Put like that, no, I wouldn’t. ‘Why are you watching porn? You may think you’re 25, but you’re still a kid!’

‘That’s what I want to talk about.’ She bites her lip. ‘I want to shave.’

I roll my eyes. ‘You already do.’

‘No! I mean down there.’

‘You mean you want to shave your vagina.’

‘That’s not what they call it at school.’

Sigh. The c-word and p-word are pretty banal these days, even when rolling off the tongues of babes. The weird part is that I have just read about a teenager who shaved off her pubic hair and lacerated her labia in the process, which turned into a medical emergency. Apparently, the craze among teenage girls is to remove all body hair, especially pubic. As in the harems of sultans.

‘My boyfriend keeps telling me it’s much sexier down there without any hair. It reminds him of the baths he used to take with his little sister. He says it will also be safer for me.’

‘Safer? How?’

‘Well, he wouldn’t – you know – force me, because I remind him of his little sister.’

‘How old is this guy?’


‘What movies is he watching? Has he forced you before?’

She avoids my eye. ‘No, but he is a good – talker.’

‘About what?’

‘He likes us to watch porn together. And do – stuff.’

I don’t want to hear anymore. I want her mother to do the listening; I’ve done mine. But I do tell her two stories, which probably won’t help but make me feel better.

Back in the day when my daughter was 12, she demanded to shave her legs. I inspected the fine gold down and informed her she would be embarking on a life sentence and should wait until she was 14. If she still felt the same way, so be it.

She would have none of it. It didn’t seem worth another pitched battle, so she began shaving. Today, a vocal feminist, she hasn’t shaved her legs in years and is proud of her hair wherever it’s located, like the European women who have flaunted their body hair for decades and haven’t lost an ounce of style or sex appeal.

Then I tell the girl about a man whose first wife was German and his second French. He said the best thing about both was their pubic hair – blond and dark. Secret, suggestive; sexy.

‘Yuck!’ says my young companion. ‘Smooth is in. My friend has a ring through her labia and still manages to shave around it. I would love a labia ring but I’ve got a low pain tolerance, she said it hurt like hell …’

We women owe a vote of thanks to good old Gillette. In 1915, Gillette declared female body hair unsightly, launching the ‘Milady Decollete’ razor for women, an ‘innovative’, very successful marketing campaign to rid women of their hairy scourge.

Even my pragmatic mother-in-law began eyeing her sparse facial hair with a jaundiced eye and plucking out the odd bristler in front of a mirror.

‘Here’s the ugly truth,’ I say, aware that I might as well be talking to myself. ‘If you’re dark, you have dark body hair, and dark people – like you – are more hirsute. If you’re blonde your body hair may be lighter but you could have a nice gold moustache to make up for it.’

‘I know,’ interjects the girl, ‘a kid in my class has wispy blond hair above her upper lip and the boys call her Pubic Lips. That is the worst!

It’s crappy, but not the worst. The worst is that females are viewed as nothing more than marketing targets – the very fate feminists have harangued us to avoid since the dawn of feminism. Judging by what I’m hearing, what’s on TV screens, online and in the flocks of gaudy magazines on the shelves, being female continues to be less and less about becoming womanly and more and more about staying girlish.

I take a deep breath and dive in. ‘Let me say this: you should try very hard to separate what you really want, what makes you feel comfortable, from what others tell you to want, and from all the noise out there. Try to see your entire body as something to be proud of. It’s yours, after all, nobody else’s, so you have to take care of it. And only you should make decisions about what you do with it. If my daughters could manage it, so can you.’

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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The sound of one male ego flapping is enough to banish a whole pride of lions

This piece was first published in the Mail & Guardian



In my tiny tent, wrapped in darkness and my sleeping bag, I revisit the images of the day: lion cubs cuffing one another and their mothers, demanding to play; a herd of red lechwe fleeing as two elegant cheetah stride past; a ground hornbill peering down curiously at our little group from a bole in a jackalberry tree.

Chill air rises from the river. The night is deep and dense and silent, the stars miniscule shards of light, the moon a hazy peel of orange. The quality of quiet is bush-quiet, unmatched by any other – balm to the spirit, to sleep, to uncluttered dreams. An owl hoots softly, a nightjar calls. I close my eyes.

A low, monotonous buzz severs the silence. I sigh and turn over, reluctantly awake. The Buddha of the bush, in his tent 20m away, is expounding yet again; no doubt his acolyte and partner, beautiful Melinda, 23 years his junior, is as attentive as she always is.

Our small group is a mixed bag of nationalities, unfazed by the rough and tough of true bush – so-called wild camping: no showers, a bush toilet, meals prepared from scratch, lots of lifting and carrying. It takes a few days to observe that one man is making almost no contribution; instead, his partner works doubly hard in an apparent bid to make up for this.

Melinda is easy to talk to. Over the next day or two it emerges that her partner is a kind of guru, though this word is never used. Invited to speak at conventions in the United States and parts of Europe, he is highly respected in his movement. Beautiful, gentle, intelligent Melinda met him while attending one of these conventions, and it is easy to see why she appealed to him. It is less certain why she worships this strutting man, is dazzled by him and honoured to serve him.

The guru insists on choosing first, each time, the best site for his tent at our little camps; he dives for the choicest chop on the braai, treats the snorer among us as if he had leprosy, jumps the line at immigration. He is watchful of whatever small privileges he can garner above the rest of us. Argumentative, short-tempered and greedy, he makes no bones about his rights.

According to Buddhism, desire and ignorance lie at the root of suffering, and the craving for material goods and pleasure can never be satisfied. Spiritual bliss is the ultimate goal of nirvana, enlightenment; karma refers to the good or bad acts a person makes during a lifetime.

Our guru, who presumably seeks to influence others to these ways and holds a prominent position in his movement, seems the very antithesis of these tenets: competitive, envious and generally dismayingly neglectful of his karma, let alone of the opportunities for enlightenment in the bush.

As the Voice from the tent buzzes on, I think about some of the religions of the world: Catholicism, with its straight and narrow, too narrow for many, especially some of its priests; Judaism, which emphasises the importance of leading an ethical life but whose leaders do not always lead by example; Islam, in which Allah’s ways must be strictly followed, and for a few this means killing in his name. The list goes on. As does the Voice.

I climb out of my sleeping bag for a toilet visit, just outside the tent; the bush toilet is too far and the night feels cold and slightly dangerous. When I return to my tent, the Voice is finally subsumed by a snore. The guru’s snore – surely less offensive than anyone else’s? – is infinitely preferable to the Voice.

After five minutes of shivering in my sleeping bag, I am finally warm. I feel myself drifting off.

A deafening roar shatters the night. I sit up, shaking, and switch on my head lamp. Just past midnight. A lion on the prowl behind my tent. I hear snuffling, far too close, and a rustling of dry leaves. Something is out there. My karma assures me it’s only a honey badger and it isn’t after me, but my trembling tells another story.

Surely the lion will want the prize of our little group? After all, what predator wouldn’t choose a guru above a skinny creature like me? A second roar reverberates through the dark and my bloodstream. Then a third – roars from all directions like a crowd baying for blood at a soccer game.

Lion brothers. My heart feels like a football, bouncing between them. They’ll make mincemeat of all of us and the guru won’t do a thing to prevent it!

But they don’t. They leave. And believe it or not, I finally fall asleep. The next morning, the guru eyes my bleary face with apparent concern. “You had a bad night, my dear?”

“It was the lions,” I say. “Surely they kept everybody awake?”

He compresses his lips. “What lions? You heard lions in the night? I think you must have been dreaming.” The others heard nothing either. How could anybody sleep through that?

Melinda appears behind her man. “I was terrified – they were right behind our tent, my love. But I knew your karma would protect us.”

She smiles beatifically. I succumb to bleariness.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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A Weighty Obsession

My mother worshipped in pounds and ounces. Every day of her working life in downtown Johannesburg, she prowled for a parking space, entered Stuttafords store and confronted her sentence, meted out by the huge, impassive face of the scale. Had she earned her daily bread? An ounce over – no bread; an ounce under, her single block of Cadbury’s chocolate was assured.

Her weight took precedence over punctuality and work obligations unless she was sick, and even then her dearest wish was that being ill would make her lose weight. She spent a lot of money at doctors who put her on courses of injections to induce weight loss, and endless hours sharing diet tips with her sisters and friends. A curvy, shapely woman, she despised her curves and longed to be skinny. ‘But you aren’t fat, mom,’ I often told her. ‘I feel fat,’ she replied. ‘And I want to feel thin.’

There is nothing new about dieting fads and fetishes, only creative salespeople and ever-inventive gurus and zealots. These kooks of corrective consumption, some better-intentioned than others, all share one characteristic: they are fiercely committed to their cause. The list is long, but there is no doubt that Banting, Atkins and our very own Tim Noakes and his team have created industries in their wake. They have raised our consciousness of health and diet to the status of a religion which has enslaved followers in ways that some regard as so invasive that their influence extends far beyond the dictates of good nutrition.

Walking behind a hiker on the Banting diet, I was treated to an amalgam of smells redolent of an over-used toilet. When he turned to chat, his breath was mephitic. He noticed my involuntary recoil. ‘I know I stink,’ he admitted, ‘but once my body adjusts – it’s called ketosis, you know, when your body begins burning fat for energy instead of carbs – it’ll be fine. And I feel fantastic.’

I didn’t. I couldn’t help wondering how his wife felt.

In the company of Julianne, I am treated to a diatribe of what superfoods do for her. ‘I feel so good all the time and people tell me how good I look. The Banting diet has saved my life!’ Holding her nose, she gulps down kombucha (a tea made from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). ‘Ghastly stuff but sooo good for you!’ She pulls out a bottle of homemade kefir and invites me to taste. ‘Marvellous, isn’t it?’ she enthuses. ‘Puts yoghurt in the shade for probiotics!’

Julianne consumes a cupful of supplements a day, some of which cost R20 a pill – ‘it’s worthwhile paying for the best, don’t you think?’

Worthwhile for the nutritionist. Julianne is herself a Banting coach, and no student could wish for a more devout instructor. Those whose nutrition she is in the process of upgrading, she says, swear by her. Breaking her Banting diet with a small glass of white wine seems, by her expression, to be the equivalent of an alcoholic falling off the wagon. Almost biblical in her fervour, she grumbles and sips. ‘I know I’ll regret this, but my gym instructor will fix it.’ She follows this expert devotedly whenever and wherever he instructs.

Her eight-year-old son helps me cover potatoes in foil for the braai. ‘My mom never eats these,’ he remarks. He does a great job, and I ask him if he’d like to be a chef when he grows up. ‘Ja,’ he says, ‘but I’ll never cook healthy food.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because I’ll never eat it, I hate it,’ he retorts.’ His brother agrees, and the three of us scoff a forbidden pre-braai feast of Aero and pretzels.

Miranda exercises strenuously daily, gobbles her Bubbly every evening and monitors like a Nazi every other gram she consumes. Her hip joints ache and her ankles tremble in anticipation of the next day’s price in workouts, but her programme never varies. Victor has over-exercised and dieted to such an extent that his dedication literally consumed him. He lost a fortune of weight, but his knees gave out. In agony as well as financial difficulty, he has taken to binge eating and is now enormous , diabetic and depressed. Tim Noakes’s new bible has failed to recruit him to the cause.

We are all born free, our minds and spirit unfettered. Today, more than ever, our socialisation seeks to pervert this freedom, to subject us to wholesale, subliminal indoctrination through marketing and technology, and a diverse arsenal of mind-bending tools. The purpose is to make us captives, to deprive us of imagination and individuality, of the essence of our humanity; to the point where we lose the capacity to know our own minds, or make our own decisions.

In his day, my father’s response to such pressures was to adopt a tried and tested, but still largely rejected, mantra: moderation in all things brings balance to body and mind, and liberation to the spirit.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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Can tattoos stand test of time?

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Thursday, 30 April 2015, entitled “Can tattoos stand test of time?”

Body ink is widespread, but will the tattooed feel good about their body art in old age?

In a department store in Los Angeles, a man leaves a sharp, woody scent in his wake. I do something I’ve never done before: I follow him. He is a familiar stranger, and I want to know why. Engrossed in selecting a tie, he holds an intricate specimen against his T-shirt and gazes into a mirror. At what I judge to be a safe distance, I observe a scorpion tattoo on the back of his neck.

Finally, it dawns on me: he’s a well-known movie star. In LA, they’re two a penny.

Recently, I followed someone for the second time – in a store in Cape Town, but not because I recognised her. I went as close as I dared, to see a tiny woman handling layers of sweaters and squinting at labels. She was without doubt a candidate for the biggest boob job on the planet: they ballooned from her flimsy tank top like twin characters in a Woody Allen movie.

Giggles behind me: “How does she fit into anything? She’s, like, a six or something, and those – things must be size 58!” The young woman who said this didn’t bother to lower her voice. Her companion hushed her. The breast queen was oblivious.

Three minutes later, in line to pay, I turned to grab a chocolate and was confronted by two enormous breasts – only this time they jutted from the well-covered body of a much younger woman. Her cleavage boasted dazzling tattoos atop each breast.

I couldn’t resist. “Are those paws your dog’s?” I asked. She smiled and nodded. “Did your dog have to go with you to the tattoo artist?” She nods again: “Ja. He was very well behaved. Four separate visits and they took hours.”

Openly eyeballing the rounded paws of the tattoos, I say: “That must have been incredibly painful.”

“Not too bad,” she replies. “I wanted to do it for a long time. I couldn’t wait to get it done.”

Couldn’t wait? She looks about 20. “Is he an old dog?”

“Not at all. But if he dies, these” – she brushes the paws with her fingers – “will ensure that I never forget him.”

“You don’t think you’ll ever get tired of them – there?”

She shakes her head. “He’s always with me. What could be better?”

A lot of things, but that depends on your attitude to body art. Pain is one aspect clearly not a problem for many, considering the proliferation of the culture. Affordability is another: I’m told wage slaves save up for months for bigger tattoo works.

But it’s the permanence that keeps me pondering. What happens when change comes along, a new partner, perhaps children? Above all, the unwelcome but inevitable spectre of ageing? Those massive reconstructed breasts on that minute body, ludicrous now, would become even more cartoonish with advancing years. Tattoos on arms and thighs and God knows where else will sag along with ageing skin and musculature.

Yet in the United States one in five adults has a tattoo. I’ve inquired: here in South Africa, the numbers are vague. Judging from passers-by on a street in any South African city, they’re high. Once deplored, they are now reduced to relative insignificance.

A young guy with a complex sleeve of a nude woman and a colourful network of mermaids and dragon-like creatures on his back claims his tattoos make him feel different, individual. “Do you have a girlfriend?” I ask. He answers: “She loves my tattoos. She’s got a black and red chess set on her back – it looks great, you know, original. A fashion statement.”

A man tells me his tattoos have given him a new lease on life. “I have vitiligo,” he explains. “My entire life I’ve been trying to cover up hideous white blotches. A tattoo artist saw me on the beach, hiding under an umbrella, and offered her services.”

Then there’s the young woman who sells space on her skin for profit – to advertisers of cosmetics – and the man who lost a lower arm to a shark and has a tattoo of a shark’s head on what’s left of it. Samantha Cameron, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife, has a dolphin tattoo on her lower ankle, perhaps a discreet way of promoting the cause.

For many tattoo fans, discretion is not the point. And the future after 40 barely exists. Tattooing and body-sculpting have everything to do with the present, with youth, hope, identity. It’s a way to attract the eye – to display, in the way a peacock displays his magnificent plumage or a gorilla beats his immense chest.

But growing older for some may become scary. Dorothy, slim and muscular, is tattooed in every visible place on her long-legged body. Her workouts, she says, are not saving her skin.

She shrugs. “I never thought about the future much.”

I wonder how many tattoo fans do.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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Us and Them by Rosemund J Handler
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EAN: 9780143530282
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Listen when your body talks

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Friday, 27 March 2015, entitled “Listen when your body talks”

We may be too busy with email to bother reading our own bodies’ messages. It’s a form of illiteracy we can ill afford.

He has an audience of four and relishes it. Words pour from him: saliva flies, he shakes slightly. Obsessed with finding the elusive snow leopard, he besieges us with details of two unsuccessful treks to accomplish this quest. I find his passion infectious, and the snow leopard’s almost mythical status is compelling. But the other three listeners are immune: fidgeting, facial twitches and even the odd sigh telegraph their disinterest.

Eventually, one of them, clutching a full wine glass, mutters about “a refill” and takes off in mid-sentence. The other two follow. The enthusiast turns to his remaining audience – me. “Damn rude, don’t you think? Why didn’t they just say they’re not interested?”

They did. Enraptured by his own discourse, the body language of his audience, which I found distracting, hadn’t registered. He failed not only to engage them, but also to gauge them. Rapid eye movements, small gestures, lip-biting, all semaphored desperation to escape – and all completely escaped him.

As annoying as it is to be bored stiff, the victim of someone else’s egotistic spouting in a social setting, it is insignificant in the larger picture. Far more dangerous is a failure to observe, listen or reflect on what our own bodies tell us – or changes we may observe in those we love.

Our bodies are in constant conversation with us and, sometimes inadvertently, with others. They talk away, day in, day out; most of the time we tune them out, to the point that we have become desensitised to the diversity and significance of the messages. Our stomachs hiss and catcall after a big meal; grumbles and rumbles signify a need to eat. The digestive system is our most vocal messenger; our sensitive brain does not brook being ignored.

In spite of this, a friend of a friend experienced worrying symptoms for a year, including regular bleeding. Eventually, he reluctantly consulted his general practitioner, whom he thought of as “alarmist”. Needless to say, the doctor was not: the patient, finally convinced to investigate further, was found to have bowel cancer that had over a year to spread to the liver.

The plaints of a myriad other organs are easier to ignore: a tension headache, aptly named, will pass if we rest. A headache that lasts two or three weeks may not. Through pain, the body is texting us: something is amiss and needs attention.

Last week an acquaintance experienced such a headache. Despite the discomfort, which at times became debilitating pain, he thought it would pass. It didn’t. He had a massive stroke and as a result his body has split into two halves: the right side won’t work at all – the doctors say the likelihood of recovery is small – and the left works poorly. A formerly active man, not yet 60, he is destined for an old-age home.

His body had been dispensing information for some weeks. If only he had bothered to heed that information, interpret it and act swiftly to stem the damage.

“I’m convinced,” says a dermatologist, “that some men are blind. They are the ones who die of melanoma because, unlike my female patients, they ignore lesions until it’s too late.” She thinks it’s part fear, part ignorance.

I think we may be too busy with messages from smartphones and email to bother reading those of our own bodies. It’s a form of illiteracy we can ill afford.

There is the physically fit medical professor whose life-threatening pneumonia was only diagnosed when a colleague observed that he couldn’t make it up a few steps. There was a doctor who specialised in sports medicine and became obsessed with running. The mother of two children, she ignored the stress messages of her exhausted body; by the time she dropped dead during a run, aged 43, those messages had long since expired.

Then there’s the teenager who ate enormous meals and made frequent visits to the toilet during and after. Her mother didn’t notice; nor did she hear her daughter’s agitated, increasingly raspy voice. She adjured her to eat less or she would gain weight and “boys didn’t like plump girls”. The teenager went on vomiting. Irregular heartbeats didn’t stop her but, eventually, a ruptured oesophagus did. She almost died.

Most organs in our body have their own voice; some, unfortunately, are silent. “So many body parts,” an old woman bemoans, “and now there’s a different doctor for every single one.”

As we age, the cacophony can become deafening, and more significant changes are sometimes disguised by lesser aches and pains. By the time real pain asserts itself, it can signal an advanced threat to health.

Separating out the messages of our bodies, taking the time to read them intelligently, can be disturbing. But it is essential, and it may save your life.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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EAN: 9780143530282
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Good sex irons out the wrinkles

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Friday, 27 February 2015, entitled “Good sex irons out the wrinkles”

Sexy old women: mutually exclusive terms, some would say, unless you’re referring to “cougars”, whose legendary prowling gives them their beastly nickname. This species is female, middle-aged and is to be found in the jungles around well-known watering holes. The title is an advance on the old days, when such women would have been described as sluts – or, as a well-padded chap behind me in a café put it (not in the old days) as “fat old sluts”.

They aren’t fat, notes a muscled youngster of my acquaintance, at least most of them aren’t, they’re Botoxed, anorexic and bloody uninhibited. He should know – he’s spent some of his growing-up time in those jungles.

Males on the bar circuit, young or old, are of course doing their thing. “Men should still do the prowling, don’t you think?” remarks a safely married matron, pointing to a short-skirted lamb with a mane of blonde hair that belies a pair of ancient eyes. “Look at her, all of 50, and in the bars every weekend. Pathetic, no?”

No. Just lonely. What’s so pathetic about choosing your company like a man does? I keep hearing that women after 40 are past it and after 50 invisible. The distinctive beauty of actress Kristin Scott Thomas is a case in point: when she walked into a room every head would turn; now, at 54, she claims nobody notices her. Beautiful women clearly struggle more with ageing – their plainer counterparts have long been forced to find other ways of boosting self-esteem.

Being “past it” is largely a male view of women’s ageing, but women, ever self-critical, particularly about their appearance, have readily endorsed their invisibility. For many, inner beauty is poor consolation – the world doesn’t see it, men don’t want it.

But are older women desexed by the ageing process? If your skin is lined and your body sags does that imply that your sexuality and desire are desiccated too?

Maybe for some, but over time I’ve talked to a fairly wide spectrum of older (and old) women, and guess what? Quite a few of them, married and single, let me know that they’re admirably sexually active. And not always with whom you’d expect.

Among the highlights was a lively discussion with a wizened 82-year-old who confessed she has a boyfriend a year younger: he, she twinkles at me, “can still get it up”. A woman of 65 has had an affair that began when the guy was a bachelor of 22 and she was 48 years old and unhappily married. She’s long divorced and he’s married now, with two young kids, but still visits her, and they still have sex. She has tried to convince him that they’re a thing of the past, but he won’t give her up. His wife thinks they’re just old pals – after all, why would her husband sleep with an old woman?

My friend Meno has a few suggestions and the experience to go along with them. Her name (among friends) stems from her claim that the best sex she’s ever had was after menopause.

Before that she was too busy with home, kids and job to relax; having sex with her husband became another chore and she, with his co-operation, whittled that chore down to once a month. Her kids, she says, grew up before she did. When two of them left home, she followed and met another guy. At 53, after menopause, she began meditating and learned to stop worrying about other people’s problems and things she couldn’t change, like getting older. She avoided mirrors, stopped dieting, put on a bit of weight. To her surprise she began to feel good about herself. With guy number three (youngish) she was able to have fun. Being more relaxed and open made her more sexually adventurous.

Then there’s Lil, 64, and Bill, 52. They met at the bowling club, which Lil says is an old-age den of iniquity, women on the prowl while the men drink. “Those guys have outgrown sex,” she says. “They’re just not interested. Their eyes are out on stalks for a shapely young chick, but they’d run a mile before doing anything about it. A couple of them use Viagra, which one old bugger says isn’t fussy, giving him the same hard-on for a vacuum cleaner as for a woman and far less trouble.”

Bill loves his wife, but hasn’t had sex with her for years. Good-looking, 10 years younger than him, she dislikes sex; can’t see the point. She’s got the kids, has never had an orgasm and doesn’t want one. Bill visits Lil twice a week and tells her she’s the sexiest woman in the world.

Maybe he knows something most men don’t: that good sex has little to do with appearance. That there’s something to be said for those who claim that true and enduring beauty comes from within.

If only more women agreed, and put their time and money into seeking and finding that beauty rather than into cosmetics and the eager paws of plastic surgeons.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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EAN: 9780143530282
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Dying to talk about death

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Friday, 14 November 2014, entitled “Dying to talk about death”

Say them quickly, then forget. The dying words. Terminal. Dead. Deceased.

Friends and acquaintances die every day. We go to their funerals, but we try not to think about death.

Most of us have never spoken to a dying friend about death. We ask how they are and then talk about everything else rather than how they feel about what they are going through. It makes us uncomfortable. And it hurts to lose a friend.

We forget that the dying may feel abandoned when they most need our empathy. We choose not to confront that finality with them, not because we lack compassion, but because someone else’s death forces us to contemplate our own.

Talking about dying seems to be the work of somebody like Dr Sean Davison, who helped his mother in New Zealand to die and paid a heavy price for it. Or it is the work of hospice staff, or those who deal in death anyway, such as doctors – many of whom are not of Davison’s calibre.

In San Francisco last month, a family reunion was marred by the death of my daughter’s good friend, Erica. She had died hours before our arrival after a three-year struggle with breast cancer. She fought hard for her life. At 42, with two young children, she had much left to do. It wasn’t to be.

Victims of terminal illnesses appear to find resources in themselves that they and their families didn’t know they had. Some almost become different people.

Erica came to accept the inevitable, yet also rejected its dreadful finality. She couldn’t accept that she was leaving her children forever. Despite her duel with drugs and pain, she felt an immense pressure to make her days count, to spend time with her family during well-loved getaways, to travel to exotic destinations. Instead, as her health deteriorated, she found it difficult to be around her children, and even the thought of leaving home exhausted her.

Between extended bouts of chemotherapy, Erica wrote in her blog about her heightened sensory awareness: binocular vision in which colours sharpened and sounds increased in volume to the point when even birdsong seemed too loud. She found pleasure in nature, but was often overcome by a frightening sadness and apathy. Her seesawing emotions, she wrote, were not contradictory but existed side by side, more so as it became clear her time was running out.

An acquaintance mourning a friend who died of cancer tells me that the friend fought like mad, hoping for a cure and suffering pointlessly through ghastly treatments.

A recently widowed woman confides that her oldest friends are avoiding her. “They are the people who know me best, yet they don’t know what to say. They don’t need to say anything, but it would be nice if they would listen; if I could talk about it.”

An emergency room doctor in a public hospital recently wrote in the New York Times about her experiences with terminal patients and with her colleagues. “They treat the illness. Keeping a terminal patient alive seems more important than ensuring that the patient is made as comfortable as possible.

“It’s not the patients who must change, it’s us, the doctors. We need to become human beings treating a fellow human being who, given the choice, may choose palliative treatment rather than aggressive support of failing organs.”

In his recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon and New Yorker writer, explores illness and death, suggesting that we exalt longevity over quality of life. There are two issues here. The first is the care of those who have been granted great longevity. The second is how the decline of the body is managed when there is no cure for its affliction.

We can keep people alive for longer than ever before, but we have not developed the essential skills involved in palliative care for those who become dependent because of serious illness or old age. Building compassion among staff and a caring hospital environment does not cost more, and the benefits in terms of improved quality of life are considerable. Sometimes, Gawande writes, the most humane decision is to do nothing.

Helping patients to a good death can be the greatest gift an attending physician can give his patient, yet doctors routinely overestimate how long a terminally ill patient has to live – and oncologists rarely confess to a patient that there is no more hope.

Family and friends can play a significant role: listening compassionately and communicating lovingly while there is still time. We would all choose a quick death if we could, but for some of us that won’t happen. We should talk more about it. We’re all going to die. We should make death and bereavement more manageable for those we love, and for ourselves.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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Review of Us and Them from the Cape Argus “Life” Section, October 15 2012

Us and Them by Rosemund Handler (Penguin)

by Beverley Roos-Muller

No family is without secrets. If you suppose yours is the exception, then you are probably outside the loop. Families are the ultimate tribe on a tiny scale, with loyalties as fierce observed as omerta. Those who hold a halo over the glowing ideal of ‘family values’ ignore the painful question: what famlies, and which values? The home should ideally provide a safe and nurturing haven but too often it is a cauldron of catastrophe, hidden from the outside world;. Philip Larkin wasn’t wrong.

Yet the ‘war in the nursery’ is also an essential training ground for the survival of the fittest. This is perhaps a longish way round of saying that Rosemund Handler’s latest book, Us and Them, has superbly captured the internal terrorism of a family unit dealing with issues for which it is both underequipped and bereft of knowledge. It is Handler’s fourth novel and is, I think, her best yet. There is a confidence in her narrative which is unflinching in its directness – startlingly so.

On the surface, the domestic unit of Capetonians Gordon and Jen and their twin daughters suggests a ‘white picket fence’ ideal, but there are buried issues that belay that burnished exterior. “Jen” is Chaya, daughter of Holocaust survivors, bored with the burden of carrying their future hopes, sick of the Sea Point shtelt, longing to fit in like the other blonde girls of her ken. Tall, pleasant Gordon who comes from that seemingly effortless world, offers the perfect passport.

Jen, though, has married out of her faith (despite Gordon’s advocacy of Shabbat rituals, and traditions), and, like so many before her, she struggles with the luggage common to children of survivors – that in order to give meaning to their suffering, she should live well and happily within her own heritage. So, having turned away from this, when the twin blessing (literally) of daughters arrives, she cannot avoid feeling the lurking presence of the ‘evil eye’, the long, beckoning reach of the dybbuk, the uncanny feeling that she will pay dearly for her pleasure and betrayal.

Jen’s undoing is that she had, unknowingly until the birth, carried triplets, one of which was unviable. Despite Gordon’s pleading with her to rejoice in the two sweet girls they have, she finds little support in understanding her loss, the ‘missing child syndrome’ of those who have lost a gestating child. A slow unravelling process begins for Jen, a decline into valium and emotional disarray that profoundly affects them all. Gentle Gordon runs interference for the girls; but what Jen needs is a husband who participates rather than placates. The twins will respond in different ways. Aliza confronts her mother, then flees when she is old enough, returning with considerably reservations to see her dying mother. Paolo displays unmistakable signs of mental illness ignored by a family in denial. It is a ‘folly of two’– a shared, pschotic disorder of the twins, screening out what is all too evident. Family damage has become Jen’s haunting, self-fulfilling prophecy.

Handler has written before about mental illness, the agony of disfuntional families and the possibilities of overcoming the worst of circumstances. Though Us and Them deals with difficult issues, it is not all gloomy. She is brisk, at times funny, and acutely observant. You cannot write about the small fallibilities of a narrow world-view without close and sympathetic insight; and she makes sure that the Lilliput nature of this small, terrible drama is recorded in the face of a much larger world, filled with potential.

We become what is possible, with or without the help of our families and supporters; us, as well as them.

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A Second Extract from Us and Them

Us and ThemThe following is a second extract from my new novel, Us and Them, which will be published by Penguin Books next month. Read the first extract here:

~ ~ ~

Atop towering peaks we breathe the sweet chilled air of gods, privy to godlike views. Luminous stretches of ocean tumble below like fistfuls of stars thrown down to earth; shack cities and flatlands are pulverised in the ruthless high noon of the sun. We lie on our bellies, side by side like crocodiles, basking on a warm tongue of rock over an abyss beneath which the tangled sprawl of Cape Town devours every slope – a plague of locusts that might be dashed away at any moment by a primeval whim of the weather or a rumble and heave of the sleeping Gulliver pressing up against our stomachs.

Gazing down at the crawling armies of steel and concrete, of corrugated iron, wood and plastic defiling the grandeur of the foothills hundreds of metres below, we wonder at the daring of such puny insects.

I feel lucky, says Thandi. Because beauty is not a given. Millions have no eyes to see it; it is a luxury that belongs to those who can afford to see it. The rest have their heads down, too busy working, or doing whatever it takes for their next meal. For their children.

She sighs. I remember what it feels like to be poor. It still keeps me awake at nights. It never really leaves you. It’s not the body that suffers the worst, your body stops asking. It’s the head. And the heart. You wake up in the morning filled up with pus you know will never be drained. And your life just trickles away, a little more each day.

She gazes down, smiling slightly. Until Phil came into my life I didn’t think I would ever be able to take care of my mother. She fought so hard to give me an education, and I couldn’t even take care of myself.

At fourteen or fifteen, I am awed by my older friend’s broad experience and envious of her chic and confidence, her carefree, unfettered lifestyle. Struggle is as familiar to her as it is unfamiliar to me, yet she seems to resent neither my whiteness nor my untouched youth and ignorance of hardship.

I feel blessed the more with my X-ray vision, the musky oxygen of fynbos, the rock beneath that is bone of my bone. I soar like some lordly bird in the vast blue helmet of sky and eyeball the moiling paradoxes of the city below, the tug of war, as Thandi calls it, between beauty and inhumanity that cleaves through its heart.

So the hot skies of summer and rain-swept winters glide by and the craggy peaks, the building blocks of my soul, cradle us in mountainous arms. By the end of every hike petty demons are exorcised, defeated by a new trail, a cups-and-saucers pitch, a rock scramble, a sinuous cave or precarious descent.

I could no more imagine my life without that sensuous love of place than I could imagine my life in a country without mountains. Nor could I imagine for a moment that such a love might be taken from me.

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An Extract from Us and Them (Coming August 2012)

Us and ThemThe following is an extract from my new novel, Us and Them, which will be published by Penguin Books next month.

~ ~ ~

Before I left Cape Town I took a stroll along the beachfront, relishing the winter warmth. Two old people were sitting on a bench nearby, holding hands and feeding the gulls. They were smiling at each other as if communicating a secret. It was so intimate that just looking at them was intrusive. That didn’t stop me. I watched the pair covertly from under my hat for a few minutes, vaguely puzzled that I was so drawn to the sight of them together.

The two were intensely private in their public space. It took me a while, but eventually their silent communion offered a glimmering into the shadows of my own mind.

I was envious. Filled with inchoate yearning. What the old couple shared seemed worth searching for, worth finding, no matter how long it might take.

Fear fluttered inside me then like a butterfly and I knew I had to reach out and grasp it, or let it fly free. The choice was mine. If you die doing what makes you afraid, I told myself, at least you’ll have really lived.

The woman looked up and saw me. She smiled and I smiled back. Her face, lightly cross-hatched with lines and markings, seemed the essence of a well-lived life. The man’s milky gaze was focused on the distant line of silver along the horizon. He glanced at me, then back at her. I gave them a little salute, suddenly grateful for the window of light they unwittingly offered in the confusion and sadness I was experiencing at leaving my twin, my own mirror of light and of darkness. At a tricky time in my life, a time of great change, I felt I had been given a singular insight into what it means to be truly alive.

Instead of fear swallowing me up, the world seemed to open up as a challenge and an opportunity.

Though the sensations were fleeting at the time, those people remain one of the significant recurring images in my life.

The environment I moved into does not welcome the kind of privacy I witnessed; still less the private world of emotional intimacy. A part of this distancing of the self from itself may stem from the all-pervasive obsession with technology, the internet, social networking and all the good and bad these tools have brought into our lives and our societies. For myself, I am clear that if I am not vigilant, they will infiltrate far more of my life than they deserve. They have the capacity to annihilate the quiet innermost self I regard as the most priceless part of my individuality.

No matter how overloaded with work and angst, many of my colleagues don’t know how to be alone, how to work with their anxiety rather than against it, how to become less fearful of emotional closeness to another human being.

Being one of a twin has acquainted me with the essential pain and rewards of a close relationship; it has also made me more suspicious of others. Emotional intimacy, complex and difficult, is all the more so when fear comes into it. Paola and I are familiar with fear in all its guises; we were raised with it. My sister calls it our other shadow sibling – as if we needed another one.

Still, even at times when anything fine and useful in my life seems most inaccessible, as remote as the moon, the image remains. Like the moon, it is inviolable.

The closest I have come is what we shared, Paola and I; what was taken from us. Until I discover the secret joy of that old couple on the bench for myself, I don’t think I will ever be able to let them go. Holding on to them gives me a kind of faith that it’s out there somewhere, just as they were, and will find me in its own good time.

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