Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


39 Things I Have Learnt

Next week, I will be 39. I am thrilled about 39. Really, I am. I’m convinced that my fortieth year is going to be the most exciting year of my life. I feel it in my bones. I sense adventure, success and happiness and I’m embracing it all with joy.

To celebrate my birthday, here are 39 Things I Have Learnt:

1. If you don’t have the time or inclination to polish your boots with polish and a brush, a baby wipe will do just as well.

2. Cooking, if you have time and sufficient inclination, is not drudgery. It is relaxing, calming, recuperative, creative and feeds people.

3. We all breathe too shallowly.

4. Walking is better for our bodies than jogging, but swimming is best.

5. The only way to keep weight in check is to balance input and output. Eating fewer carbs helps too.

6. We can’t all be famous, but if we blog, we can pretend we are.

7. Writing every day leads to writing every day.

8. There is no such thing as “finding your other half” or “being completed” by someone else – the only way to have a successful relationship is to be a whole person already.

9. Living for your family, while satisfying at the time, can be pointless if you carry on doing it after they have left home.

10. Even very old people want to have sex.

11. Empathy is more useful to another person than sympathy.

12. No one person can be “everything” to another person. We get what we need piecemeal from all the people around us.

13. Love is all around, actually.

14. Children need time and laughter from their parents far more than they need expensive stuff and trips to fun-fairs.

15. Women should stop judging each other’s choices and stand up for each other – if someone’s anti-fashion or obsessed with her looks or works or stays home with her kids or breast-feeds or bottle-feeds or eats local or eats vegetables from Kenya, you don’t have to be her friend but don’t judge her.

16. We can’t protect our children from every little hurt or wound, but we can provide a safe place for them to come home to and talk about it.

17. I am scared of global warning and the aftermath of AIDS, but I am angry about patriarchy.

18. I don’t think any woman anywhere will be truly free until no woman is raped, abused, forced to wear clothing to hide her body from the gaze of men, prevented from getting educated or expected to carry out all the home and child-care in exchange for men’s benevolence.

19. Getting out of bed to care for the children when you’d rather lounge there, eating chocolates, filing your nails and watching Friends reruns hurts, but is also rewarding.

20. Speaking your truth is brave.

21. When you do speak your truth – without the intention to wound or hurt – you are not responsible for the reaction of others.

22. Fear is a bad philosophy of life.

23. Children get far more joy out of paper, glue, scissors and paint than they do out of big shiny plastic things from the toy-shop.

24. Being passive-aggressive is abusing the truth.

25. Whether you’re a man or a woman, earning a salary is only a small part of your responsibilities.

26. Whoever earns the most money does not own the remote control.

27. Partners who ask “What can I do to help you?” are very, very sexy.

28. What goes around, comes around.

29. A half-finished household task makes a job for someone else. Always complete.

30. We don’t have “one chance to accept God into our lives”. God, or the divine, is already there – whether we like it or not and whether we believe or not. And if you don’t believe me, climb a mountain, listen to music or hear a baby’s gurgling laughter.

31. Gossip hurts both the gossiper and the gossipee.

32. Using children as a weapon is low.

31. Having good friends, even if it’s just one or two, is essential to a happy life.

32. People who use others as audience, or mirrors in which to view their own reflections, are bores and best avoided.

33. It’s better to have a warm and friendly home than a perfect one.

34. Money, while great to have, is not the be-all and end-all. Love is.

35. Shopping destroys, in more ways than one. It’s soulless, bad for the planet, addictive, pointless and far too much fun for its own good.

36. Those who abuse apostrophes should apologise.

37. People who have benefitted from an iniquitous system – Apartheid, patriarchy, national socialism – should find a way to give back.

38. There is no such thing as too many books.

39. The only way forward is with love, and a sense of humour.

(I pinched this idea from the lovely Sognatrice of Bleeding Espresso, who recently turned 31.)


Domestic BPO

I am outsourcing my business processes to an external provider, who is enabling me to focus on my core capabilities, thus impacting favourably on my profit margins and allowing more scope for my work/life balance and output targets. My KPIs are on track.

Granny Toni has arrived to look after her grandchildren. Hooray!

Can I just mention that I am tucked up in bed while she entertains, feeds, hugs, wipes the noses and stimulates the imaginations of my three children? We are clearly leveraging our synergies.

I am working (writing a white paper on business process outsourcing), but From My Bed In The Daylight Hours While All is Happiness and Light Downstairs. Someone Else Has Tidied the Art Table, Folded the Laundry and Even Ironed Some. We have substantially offset the risk of people not having clean clothes to wear.

Tomorrow, despite its being school holidays, I may achieve a key goal of Going Grocery Shopping Alone. There is every chance that I will fulfill this week’s target of Having My Teeth Cleaned, Going for my Bi-Annual Hairdresser Visit and possibly even Visiting Ikea.

The thrills, folks, are too innumerable to contemplate. I may just explode with excitement.

I do love a grandmother. Everyone should have one.



Is what I will NOT be doing for the next six days because I’m off to Berlin and Dresden with my friend, K. We’ve got an apartment, a show and a bike tour booked in Berlin, and a hotel booked in Dresden, and the rest is up to chance. You can’t plan too much. My main goal is not to cook anything for six days, not to fold anyone’s clothes apart from my own, not to worry about anyone’s sleep or nappies or vegetable intake, or having to find a babysitter so that I can go out for dinner and stay up ridiculously late and be as silly as I need to be. I also plan not to touch a computer.

When I get back I would like to do some housekeeping here at Charlotte’s Web. If there’s anyone out there who links to me or has me on their blogroll, and I don’t link back, please let me know. Leave a note in the comments.

With that I wish you a big Tschuess. Berlin, watch out, the Pietermaritzburg girls are coming!


Rock On, Melvil Dewey

One of the classic stories my husband loves to tell about my utter uselessness in the domestic sphere originates from when we first lived together in Johannesburg. One Saturday morning, we decided it was time to address the mess that was our home. He took the kitchen and I floated vaguely in the direction of the sitting-room. After about an hour of muscular and manly cleaning efforts, he came to see how I was doing. He found me idly flicking through the bookshelves, with the sitting-room still in a state of disarray.

“What the f****** hell are you doing?” he asked, all sweaty from his labours and justifiably irritable to find me reading.

“Oh,” I replied airily, “I’m alphabetising the books.”

He dispatched me forthwith to the bathroom to do some real work there.

I do love a displacement activity: baking when I should be working, reading when I should be working, writing blog posts when ditto. To me, alphabetising the books seemed like a perfectly logical and useful way to disburse my time. To my husband, understandably, it was less so.

So you can imagine his delight when, on returning from a recent business trip, he discovered that my friend from Dubai (let’s call her G) and I had spent a pleasant wine-fuelled evening doing this:

That’s right. We decided to colour-code the books. Oh, and the CDs. I can’t find anything but I think it looks fabulous. So does G. Thomas, on the other hand, is bemused.


In other news, I need to acknowledge Kit, who awarded me this:

I’m a girl, I blog and apparently I also rock. Thanks Kit! If any WordPress users could tell me how to upload it to my widgets, then I’ll really be a rocking blogger. Also, I may want to colour-code my side-bar.


Procrastination Plus

You know how when you have multiple deadlines and are under stress, and it suddenly becomes imperative to declutter the kitchen – a job that has been looming for about, oh, two years – and rewrite the prologue to the novel you’ve been closeting in the cellar since 2004? That’s where I am today. It’s deadline city here at Charlotte’s Web – one project handed in this morning, another due tomorrow and another on Friday, some more next week, on and on until the end of the year. I’m thrilled to be busy and earning money, don’t get me wrong, but why do I choose this moment to need to clean out the knife drawer and throw out all the Tupperware lids that no longer have containers to match?

Anyway, while I was working very hard to avoid my work, some real distraction flew in, some genuine, not-to-missed procrastination action. It’s as if the Procrastination God just took pity me. Look at her, he said from his plump pillows, look at her messing about with rubber bands and cleaning cloths, it’s a bit pathetic really. Let’s send her something that will keep her staring out the window all afternoon in an open-mouthed daze so that tonight is a tense and horrible all-nighter. And to keep her at it, let’s make it something so fabulous that she’ll have to blog about it too, thus wasting even more time.

Dear readers, when I returned from collecting a Kind from Kindergarten (in the pouring rain, with wet shoes and a slight temper), I glanced out of my kitchen window to see not one, not two, not even three, but six (SIX! you hear me cry) European Eagle owls roosting in the pine tree opposite. I am watching six Uhus, folks, about six metres away from me. It being sleep-time, they aren’t up to much. There’s a bit of wing shaking going on, a bit of stretching and preening and head twisting. But most of the time the team are asleep.

I know these babies. We think they were born in the two pine trees in the bottom of our garden that our delightful neighbours asked to have chopped down. On dusky evenings we’d watch them cavort and play on the lawn, all squeaky with excitement, and then they’d be off with the parents for a bit of hunting school. Two summers have passed with no owl visits, until my friend from Dubai – who was also visiting that summer we got to know our owl babies – arrived last week. She and I enjoyed a lovely evening owl show, of swooping and prancing. We counted what we thought to be eight owls, but since they kept heading off on laps around the neighbourhood we were never completely sure how many.

I now confirm, dear friend from Dubai, that there are six owls. It’s autumn now, and they have returned to the garden of their birth to settle down and make some babies of their own. If you come back next summer, there’ll be more owl shows for you to watch. And luckily some of my other neighbours have lots of lovely trees for them to roost in. Maybe they’ll lay their eggs right here in front of my kitchen window.

If I didn’t have a hallway to declutter, a prologue to finish and a deadline to meet, I’d google me some connections between owls and the Romans (there was once a Roman temple where our house and garden now stand) and toss in a few literary flourishes for your amusement. But I really have to go and work. If any of you want to do that for me, I’d be so grateful, because right now I’m dragging these fingernails right off WordPress, saying good-bye to you and to my beautiful owl babies.


Asking for Help

I grew up with the twisted notion that being a grown-up meant not asking for help. To me, being an adult signalled independence and the ability to cope with whatever life threw at you. I don’t know where this came from, because my mother always seemed to have loads of friends who fluttered around her helpfully when crises arose, and nobody ever said me, “You’re going to have to go it alone”. But somehow I acquired the idea that you’re on your own and that’s the way it is.

After my recent dose of the blues, a few people said a few things to me that made me think. One friend said, “When you get depressed, you disappear into your house and you don’t tell anyone. We think you don’t want to see us.” Another friend said, “It makes people feel loved when you ask them for help.” My husband said, “How can I tell you’re feeling depressed if you don’t tell me?”

I’m starting to realise that asking for help is part of being a grown-up. Admitting that things are hideous and you feel terrible and you want some comfort is actually quite a mature thing to do. On that note, dear bloggers, here is me asking for help. The problem is: housework. I don’t want you to come round and do my housework for me, but I need some advice.

Apparently, French women enjoy doing housework. Are they mad? I am crap at housework, and have mixed feelings about that. Why I am not a deliciously bustling French woman, keeping my home spotless and my man firmly under control? Part of me takes a stupid pride in the fact that I don’t have the housework gene and thus far have not tried to acquire it, while part of me is faintly ashamed that we don’t have a perfect home. My lovely husband appears to suffer from none of these kinds of self-doubt, so maybe I should take a leaf from his book.

When we made the decision years ago that I would stay home and look after our kids when they were little, I had no idea how many hours of housework that would entail. I’ve always had a cleaner once a week, so am lucky that I don’t have to do the really hideous tasks, but three children do make a lot of cooking/laundry/dish-washing/planning/preparation/tidying. My motto has always been “people before objects” and that is the haphazard way my kids are being brought up. I’d rather spend time with them than polish the silver, or organise the toys into logical groups, or swab the floor (it was done two days ago – that’s enough, surely?). But I do try to aim for order of a sort.

In South Africa, having a housekeeper who turns up for work on a daily basis, or even lives in, is the norm. This means that the horrible tasks are delegated to someone else, which is fine in terms of job creation in a land with 40% unemployment, but has meant three things for me:

1) I have no idea how to do housework well. Anything I have learnt I have done so by trial and error. I am unlike the French women in that I have no idea what is the “right way”, if such a thing exists. And the same goes for my husband.

2) I don’t know how to teach my children to participate in housework, because no-one ever taught me. And unless I go back to South Africa, or somewhere else where low-paid houseworkers/nannies relieve parents of their duties, I am going to have to teach them how to help. I don’t want to turn them into little household slaves but I also don’t want them to become brats, so I need them to learn some skills in order to become useful adults one day. I would also like my son to grow up as housework-savvy as his sisters so that he can be a good partner in the future, and not a man-child in his home. (See Rachel Johnson’s article on the very same topic.)

3) I am used to a clean house, that is kept so by someone else, so my standards and my ability don’t match. That gap is the place where I beat myself up, usually in my mother-in-law’s voice or in that of one of my exceedingly clean neighbours. An hour or so of that kind of internal criticism is enough to bring on a bout of depression.

So for those of you who grew up in countries where people looked after their own homes, and where children were expected to help, here are my questions:

1) At what age were you expected to start doing household chores? What were considered age-appropriate chores?

2) Were you ever paid for doing chores? Did you receive rewards in any way, or was it expected?

3) How did your parents regulate your chores? For example, if you didn’t do them, was your pocket-money docked?

4) Were the chores in your home sexist? Or did boys and girls do the same work?

Any ideas or comments are welome.

(Feeling very grown-up now. May have to go and put on some lipstick.)


Housekeeping in the Name of Beauty

I see from a recent Dooce post that she has been springcleaning. (And I feel sorry for her, so I’m giving her some link love – she really needs it.) There has been some springcleaning going on chez Otter as well. We have disrobed the Christmas tree, prior to putting it out on the street where, for a small donation, a charity will collect it and give it a humane ending. All the Christmas decorations have been packed away in the cellar. This has inspired other housekeeping action: a severe edit of the children’s art table (I threw out two black bags full of outdated artwork), finally turning Lily’s bedroom from a room with a bed to a stunningly pretty (even if I say so myself) little girl’s room, and some tidying action on the other childrens’ bedroom.

I’m finding the newly edited spaces rather beautiful. I don’t have any real resolutions this year (except to bake bread and write more, you know, just little things), but instead have made a theme for the year. My theme is beauty. I want my eye to light on it and my heart to be warmed by it. If I have to purchase something, it must be beautiful and more importantly, be beautiful to me. For many years, I have subscribed to other people’s asethetics and I’m finally feeling grown-up enough to champion my own. From a style point of view, I think that if you love something it will work in your home. I don’t like homes that look like show houses, or as if they have been lifted straight from a decorating shop. I like houses that are lived in, friendly and welcoming, and that work for the people who live in them. So I have no style, per se, but I do have a house full of things inherited and new, and all there because I love them. If there is anything here that I don’t love or find beautiful, be sure it will move on this year.

There are still spaces that need attention – a nasty little corner in the kitchen where I file pile all the papers we should be dealing with, along with notes from the kids’ teachers, bank statements and bills, and of course THE WHOLE CELLAR. Whether we get to that or not is not yet knowable. We hope, we plan, we intend to, but it’s so large and so horrible (my mother-in-law refers to it as The Dungeon), that we may just sweep it under the carpet and not let anyone go down there in case they get lost and are only found months later having survived on dust bunnies and mouldy rainwater.

Moving on swiftly, I am busy doing some housekeeping here at Charlotte’s Web. I’ve given myself a new tagline, more in keeping with the book that inspired the name of this blog. I’ve created a reading list, more for my own purposes than anyone else’s, to keep track of what I read this year. I’ve also subscribed to Bloglines and moved my entire blogroll there. I’m already finding it amazingly useful for keeping track of what’s new, instead of clicking through my blogroll here, as I used to do in Luddite-style, to see if there are new posts. I will keep the blogroll though, but only for people who write regularly and with whom I’ve developed some kind of commenting relationship. So if you haven’t posted for two months, and don’t find yourself here, I’ve haven’t thrown you out in a fit of tidiness but moved you to my Bloglines list. Or if I read you, but we have no commenting going on (I just don’t know why Dooce doesn’t read Charlotte’s Web), I’ve moved you over.

I also would like to achieve beauty here at Charlotte’s Web. You may find I’ll be experimenting with a new look over the coming weeks. I think I’m ready for something lighter and brighter. Some colour in these grey winter days.

In a brief fit of ego-surfing, I checked on Bloglines to see how many subscribers I have (15) and how many Dooce has (4,009). Sigh. Only 3,992 subscribers to go till I’m a grown-up blogger. But I’m going to be a beautiful one, damnit.