Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


The Marcus Aurelius Meme

One of the tacit themes of Balthasar’s Gift is that everyone we meet, whether we like them or not, has something to teach us. It’s an adage I strongly believe in and try to remember, though not always with success. In novels, we like to see protagonists learning and achieving something with that knowledge – it’s called character arc, and if it doesn’t happen, we feel that characters are flat, wooden or too self-satisfied.

Litlove’s Marcus Aurelius Meme made me think of this, and so I am shamelessly plundering her ideas bank on this Tuesday morning to give you Gifts I Have Received from Other People:

From my mother, the Gift of Relentless Optimism: Her glass is not just half-full, it is overflowing. She believes in a benevolent and provident universe, and although she doesn’t have much in the way of material things, she leads a life that is surprisingly full of good luck and serendipity and Things Landing in her Lap. It’s been the experience of a lifetime being the child of a person who lives like this – guileless and believing in the good.

From my father, the Gift of Willingness to see the Funny Side. He is one of the funniest people I know and in another world, would have been a stand-up comedian instead of a lawyer. I love his take on the world and, when I remember to see the humour in a situation instead of freaking out and railing at unfairness (which he is also known to do – call it the Gift I’d Prefer Not to Mention), problems do diminish.

From my children, the Gift of Living in the Moment. There’s nothing like a baby to make the best-laid plans transmute into a spaghetti of terrible chaos. Though I have, and often still do, fight to plan ahead and organize, the moments when I allow myself to to sniff a child’s head, feel their warm limbs wrap around mine and melt into the joy of right now, this very second, are the best in the world.

From my husband, the Gift of the Oblique View. He has never been one to follow the pack, even when I first met him as a 17-year-old teenager. He holds the surprise factor of having viewpoints, ideas and ways to explain the world that knock me off my perch. My office (what my bedroom is known as during daylight hours) is next to his and I get a kick listening to him explain software to his clients on the phone. When a sentence starts ‘It’s like broccoli …’  I lose track of my protagonist’s problems and tune into the vagaries of global human resources management, because I have to know why software is like broccoli.

From my friends, I receive the Gift of Being Vastly Entertained. I love people to be amusing, witty, intelligent, provocative, a bit off-the-wall without injuring others and I have a treasure trove of people who do all of the above.

What gifts have you received from others?


F is for Fifteen


Married fifteen years on 1 October 2009

Tomorrow we celebrate 15 years of marriage and to celebrate, I’m breaking with the memoir theme to give you Fifteen Things I Love About My Husband.


1. Makes me laugh, and finds me funny.

2. Buys cleaning products, and uses them.

3. Is co-dependent in the book habit.

4. Not scared of the gory jobs – anything to do with toilets, vomit, dead animals, he’s the one.

5. Let me win at Scrabble twice this week.

6. Cherishes our family life.

7. Loves and keeps up with his friends.

8. Found me at least eight of my best girlfriends.

9. Enjoys answering questions like “What makes an aeroplane fly?” and “How many seconds are there in a week?”

10. Makes a salad with as much flair as he cooks a steak.

11. Does all the crafting so that I don’t have to.

12. Is a wonderful mixture of dreamy and practical.

13. Recovered our dining-room chairs in three hours last weekend.

14. Has to leave the room during key scenes of The Office.

15. Is more hot and handsome than he was when we got married.

I love you my darling. Thanks for all the years. You are my one and only.


C is for Cowries

Cowries were the shells. We collected fans, mussels, spirals, sea-smoothed pebbles, chips of oyster, cuttlefish, lambs, interestingly formed driftwood, but we would exchange a whole day’s booty for just one cowrie. It had to be perfect – a chipped cowrie, or worse, a half, was like the unfulfilled promise of ice-cream; disappointing. We loved their heft, the heavy way they lay on our palms, their curved humpbacks, their chiselled parallel channel a river through which we could whistle a pirate air or summon a dolphin. Cowries, like their ancient use, were our beach currency, to be bartered, admired, competed for, battled over. If we spotted a cowrie churning in the shore-break, we would draw blood to be the first to snatch it. The winner would crow over the loser, taunt him or her, but the fight was soon forgotten in taut admiration of the new find. We noted colour, shape, smoothness, perfection of shell, like two ancient farmers discussing the qualities of a dairy cow.

The outright goal of a beach holiday was who collected the most cowries. There were three methods. The first, and most commonly employed, was taking a low-tide walk and examining what the high tide had delivered to the top of the beach. Like everything, this was competitive. We ran to be the first to get to the new dump of shells, and would scour it expertly for the telltale cowrie shape. Distracted by other finds in the mass, one might stay shifting through the layers and be rewarded while the other ran on, impatiently, to the next shell mound. Mocking laughter would drift to the one ahead if he or she left an unspotted cowrie in his or her wake. We would make our way across the beach, overtaking and leaving each other behind, like the crabs that occasionally goosed us, but subjecting the beach to a thorough inspection.

A less scientific but more rewarding method was the thrilling shell-wash, usually at mid-tide. This involved getting into the water and sifting with our toes and swiftly diving fingers in a wash of shells within the waves. A cowrie found tumbling in the water was a huge prize, involving screaming, inhaling sea water and then running up the beach to showcase it to the nearly indifferent adult who was with us. A better class of grown-up would join our excitement, but theirs never lasted as long as ours. Shell-wash cowries could produce thrills days and weeks later, as, back in our bedrooms at home, we’d turn them over and remember the salty triumph of intuition, of knowing that shape in the water.

A third method was taking a walk to a distant beach, where perhaps there were no cowrie-mad children like us and we could have them to ourselves. If we could make it beyond the far rocks, which we achieved perhaps once a holiday since we usually ran home for the loo or something to eat, then we were in foreign territory, a new, uncharted land where we believed mounds of cowries lay waiting for us. Once, accompanied by the uncle who roars at lions, we chanced on a shell-wash beyond the far rocks and found cowries beyond our wildest dreams. Accompanied by the smell of the sugar-cane mill that was drifting burnt sugar downwind, it was a throat-burning thrill, and my brother still has a giant tiger cowrie hauled from the sea that day.

He always won. Younger than me, he was less distracted by things like books, penning letters to friends and watching our parents’ marriage pick apart. He would go out for lonely walks. Our cottage perched on a hill above the beach, and I would watch him, wandering in a pattern that I knew was not random, occasionally lifting one arm in triumph to let me know he’d scored. Sometimes he would disappear round the corner, and I would hold my breath, not fearing for his safety, but worrying how many cowries he was finding unseen. On his return, I’d swallow my envy and admire his haul. Kindly, he allowed me to hold them, to weigh and measure and decide on the afternoon’s best shell. We offered each other our cowrie currency as comfort. It was our new language, an activity apart, one that kept us from the cottage and its atmosphere of loss. As the beach winds whipped our hair and made our skin salty, we were united against now and future pain. We watched for cowries, saw their humpbacks against our retinas at night, felt the heft of them in our dreams, counted our real and dream collections, and left our parents to the sticky business of unravelling our lives.


His Reputation Proceeds Him

My husband went to San Francisco this week to brief a company, who paid all kinds of money for him to be there and included the ultimate of carrots: a business-class ticket. When he walked into the meeting, filled with people whom he had never met before, someone asked him, “Aren’t you Germany’s Top Husband?”

It was my blog-pal Miss Honeypiehorse, over from Munich to attend the meeting.


Getting to Know Germany’s Top Husband

My husband is a star. He has been known to wipe vomit off my favourite pink satin shoes, he will happily take the children off for a skiing weekend and leave me alone to pick my hangnails and eat popcorn for breakfast, and he has a great sense of humour. First über-blogger Dooce did this meme, and then my good friend the very Noble Savage tagged me, so here’s a small tribute to Germany’s Top Husband.

What are your middle names?

Mine is Elise, after my maternal grandmother, and his is Witham, after family tradition. I can imagine a novel, set in the mid-nineteenth century where, after meeting at a dance, Elise and Witham fall in love, are separated for many years, then meet again, realise they have always been in love, move to Germany and have a vast brood of children.

How long have you been together?

Wow, a Maths question. We have known each other 22 years, have been officially together 17 years (there were forays, folks, during the wilderness years, but we needn’t go there) and married for 14.

How long did you know each other before you started dating?

The first time we met we were 17 and there were, oh, about 22 minutes between meeting and kissing. We dated for two weeks, I dumped him, then there was the wilderness. When we met again, I chased him mercilessly until he gave in. Elise was a shameless hussy.

Who asked who out?

Well, on the second time around, he asked me out, though he swears it was just platonic. He had just moved to Cape Town and thought he would look me up so that I could introduce him to some of my friends. Hah! I took one look and bagged him for myself. Elise was not going to let Witham slip out of her rapidly-aging fingers again – there would be no shelf for our bold heroine.

How old are you?

Both 40. He is six weeks older.

Whose siblings do you see the most?

Gawd. We both see our brothers (he has one; I have four) about once every three years. However, we are going to South Africa this year and to Greece for a family wedding, so 2009 will be Year of the Brother. Elise and Witham were devoted to their families, but sadly did enjoy the felicity of their company quite often enough.

Which situation is hardest on you as a couple?

Finding time to be alone together. Living far away from family, with no support, we have very, very few opportunities to do the kinds of things we enjoy doing together, like having long breakfasts in cafes and meandering in bookshops. We have a great babysitter for when we need nights out, but we very seldom have DAYS together. Elise missed the days when she would embroider while Witham read to her in front of a roaring fire.

Did you go to the same school?

No. I went to an institution for young ladies and he went to an institution for young barbarians.

Are you from the same home town?

Technically, no. His wandering parents lived in many, many places, and eventually landed in the South African version of the Burg, where my family had lived for generations. It was inevitable that one day, under the right circumstances, young Elise and Witham would meet.

Who is smarter?

Ooh, dangerous ground here. He beats me at Scrabble; I correct his spelling. Can we leave it there?

Who is the most sensitive?

If that means the one most likely to tear up while watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics, then me. Elise was the type to weep at the sight of a withered bloom; it was this that made Witham love her all the more.

Where do you eat out most as a couple?

Various restaurants in Heidelberg, but our special date restaurant is in the Burg. And very lovely it is too.

Where is the furthest you have travelled together as a couple?

Is the southern tip of Africa to Germany far enough? Or London to Atlanta, Georgia?

Who has the craziest exes?

I win! Bat shit is not adequate enough to describe.

Who has the worst temper?

We both tend to grumpiness and muttering and a bit of inanimate object kicking, but I think he controls his better than I control mine.

Who does the most cooking?

At the moment, me. But there have been phases in the relationship when he’s done it all.

Who is the most stubborn?


Who hogs the bed most?

Oh, that would be me. Je suis the duvet thief.

Who does the laundry?

Mostly me, but with very staunch back-up.

Who’s better with the computer?

He is.

Who drives when you are together?

He drives there, I drive back. Elise and Witham enjoyed a very even marriage, sharing responsibilities, and taking care of each other’s needs. Whenever they had dined out, Elise would happily drive the trap home, her darling snoring gently at her side.


Help My PhD Student (And Me)

I live with a PhD student. He is also a full-time worker and father of three,  so he is a fairly busy guy. With his dissertation and my novel to finish this year, 2009 is going to be interesting for us. One of the ways you could help us avoid marital strife – if you work in software – would be to fill out his survey. Please forward it to any software types you know.

The survey is to be found here.

His latest blog post about the dissertation is here.

My grateful thanks are here:



The Marriage Meme

My dear husband has also become a web worker, and now works from home. I am seeing a lot more of him than I am used to and thus far it is working well – he joins the family for lunch, is available to take kids to school in the morning when I have an early morning gym class (moi at spinning, who’d a thunk it?) and there’s always someone here to open the door when the postman brings a parcel.

As a late nod to Valentine’s Day and a token of appreciation to the lovely man in my life, here’s YogaMum’s Marriage Meme:

1. Where/how did you meet?

We met at a rugby party. I told my friends I was off to get a beer and I met him at the bar. We spent a lot of time talking poetry (he knew how to win me, even then) and then some more time … not talking.

2. How long have you known each other?

That was in August 1986, which means we have known each other, like YogaMum and her husband, for almost 22 years.

3. How long after you met did you start dating?

We dated immediately for two weeks. Then there was a five-year hiatus and we started dating again in March 1992.

4. How long did you date before getting engaged?

We agreed within 10 days that we would get married and have a spring wedding, but it took another 18 months before I accepted one of his many proposals – unfortunately, it was the one in the supermarket, somewhere between the dog food and the toilet paper. Unromantic, but memorable.

5. How long was your engagement?

Nine months. We had to wait for spring.

6. How long have you been married?

In October, it will be 14 years.

7. What is your anniversary?

October 1 – easy to remember.

8. How many people came to your wedding reception?

About 100.

9. What kind of cake did you serve?

A trad fruit cake. I don’t know why I didn’t go for something more interesting. Clearly, I was not yet a baker.

10. Where was your wedding?

We were married in the Michaelhouse Chapel (the school which my husband, brother, brother-in-law, father, uncles and grandfather attended) and had our reception on the cricket field at Hilton College (the school where my stepfather taught and which my three stepbrothers attended). It was a perfect spring day.

11. What did you serve for the meal?

Can’t remember. I do remember drinking some champagne, though.

12. How many people were in your bridal party?

My husband had his brother, my brother and his best friend as attendants, and I had my three cousins.

13. Are you still friends with them?

We’ve lost the best friend. He lives in Zimbabwe, and we can’t find him.

14. Did your spouse cry during the wedding ceremony?

No, but like YogaMum, I cried as I starting walking up the aisle and pretty much cried throughout – happy tears.

15. Most special moment of your wedding day?

Driving away into the sunset with my new husband in his fabulous little sportscar en route to Zimbabwe, leaving all the people we loved behind us. Alone at last.

16. Any funny moments?

My Altzheimer-sufferer grandmother and her likewise brother missing the ceremony because they couldn’t remember the way to the chapel. Luckily they soon forgot that they had missed it, and got swept up in the fun of the next bit. My father made a very witty speech. The band got the wrong food. The waiters served the wrong wine. Our first dance was hilarious: it was a foxtrot and everyone thought it was a rumba. A cousin from Scotland fell “asleep” in the corridor with his kilt all hoiked up over his bottom to reveal he was wearing it in the traditional fashion – knickerless.

17. Any big disasters?

I plead the Fifth.

18. Where did you honeymoon?

Zimbabwe. I got the runs. It was very romantic.

19. For how long?

Two weeks.

20. If you were to do your wedding over, what would you change?

We had the wedding of two first-born 25-year-olds trying to please everyone. It was wonderful, but there’s a lot to be said for eloping.

21. What side of the bed do you sleep on?

Left-hand, near the window.

22. What size is your bed?

King, to accommodate all those co-sleeping children who now all sleep in their own beds but who still like to visit and cuddle in the mornings.

23. Greatest strength as a couple?

We make each other laugh. We love each other’s company. We are both dreamers, readers, writers, travellers.

24. Greatest challenge as a couple?

Neither of us is particularly practical.

25. Who literally pays the bills?

He waves them and I pay them. (He probably thinks it’s the other way around.)

26. What is your song?

Oh. Er – Tom?

27. What did you dance your first dance to?


28. Describe your wedding dress?

The last of the great meringues.

29. What kind of flowers did you have at your wedding?

Pink, purple, blue, white, yellow – spring colours. Roses, and other things.

30. Are your wedding bands engraved?


Anyone else want to play? Kerry – how about getting your blogging mojo back? Kerryn – would this grab you? Francesca – how about you? Alida – is this for you? Or you, Kit?


Some Things I Love About My Husband

(Mr Pomo warns: Includes sentimental schmaltz, reference to underage drinking and worms.)

My husband is about to turn 38. We met almost exactly 20 years ago, when he was a very young first-year university student and I was a rather knowing schoolgirl. It was at a rugby after-party, and, having no interest in rugby at all, I was there for the boys. And I found one! I told my friends I was going to get a beer and somewhere in the beer crush, met him. My friends didn’t see me again. We spent some time propped up against a wall talking. He recited Blake’s The Tiger to me. We danced. We spend some more time propped up against a wall … not talking.

We started a passionate, wonderful, letter-writing, book-sharing relationship. I was thrilled to have a boyfriend who didn’t want to talk about rugby. It lasted, er, two weeks. All I can say in my defence is that I was very young and very superficial. If you ever come for dinner and we drink enough wine, he will tell you his version of events. I will blush and possibly run screeching from the room. I really was a dreadful teenager.

Anyway, five years later, when he knew a bit more about girls and had a job and a car and an attitude, he found me again. During that time, I had come to appreciate that qualities such as kindness, trustworthiness and gentleness were actually desirable in a partner. I was in my last year at university and he was working, so he wined and dined me in every posh eatery the length and breadth of the Cape Peninsula. He kept proposing, and I kept saying, let me write a novel first, let me pay off my student loan first, let me go to China first. One day, in the Spar near my mother’s house, buying a few last-minute Christmas groceries, he made his umpteenth proposal. By then they were becoming somewhat offhand. To his surprise and mine, I said yes.

So to celebrate his birthday, and twenty years of knowing each other, here are some (but by no means all of the) things I love about my husband:

  1. His crooked, sideways grin. This has been inherited by my son, so now I have two of them grinning at me like this on a daily basis, melting my heart.
  2. He has no fear of the yucky jobs. Cleaning the toilet, emptying the nappy bin, swabbing out the food bin in summer (there be w*rms), cleaning the tops of the kitchen cupboards when we have a moth infestation (there be more w*rms), nothing is too gross for him.
  3. He is a great present-giver. He never fails to return from a business trip with a little something for me. Even if it’s just an English-language newspaper he picked up on the plane, there’s always a present. Birthdays are good too.
  4. When Ollie shrieks at 5.30am, he will collect him, take him downstairs, give him his breakfast and play with him so that I can get a little more sleep.
  5. He is devoted to his family – we come first above all else. Occasionally, he gets mournful and mutters “What happened to my Ferrari” but I know that he would rather have us than a garage-full of sports cars.
  6. He LOVES a party.
  7. He is a great friend.
  8. He cooks, favouring the Jamie Oliver style of flinging it all together, nakedly. Which is not to say he cooks naked, though it might be something to think about …
  9. He buys cleaning products, which he actually USES.
  10. No-one treasures, admires, uncomplicatedly adores our three children as much as he does. Apart from me, of course.
  11. He makes me laugh. Actually, shriek.
  12. He speaks fluent, but shamelessly bad German. He has tons of German friends, who shriek at his jokes – in German.
  13. He loves books and travel as much as I do.
  14. He tolerates, no, encourages, my blogging habit.
  15. He leaves all the chocolate for me.

(My husband blogs at Vendorprisey. If you’re of a technical bent, like bikes and well-written software blogs, then check it out.)


Bridezilla, moi?

In today’s Sunday Times there’s an interesting article on how brides get so obsessed with their wedding day and all the minor details that go into making it special, that they often experience a sense of let-down when they get back from their honeymoons and discover that they are no longer the princess. In America, this is now described as a syndrome – post wedding depression (PWD) – and sad little non-princesses can receive counselling for their troubles.

People, but mostly women, become so wrapped up in the micro-details of their weddings (napkins matching the wedding favours, anyone?) that they forget that what they are doing is getting married, to a person, and what they need to focus on is being ready for that. Thomas and I nonchalantly went along to a couple of counselling sessions with the priest who was going to marry us (he insisted on it – the priest, that is). A lot of the churchy stuff we ignored, being non-practising, non-church going, Anglicans, but there were two things he said that, without ever agreeing to, we still stick to to this day. One is the adage ‘Never let the sun go down on your anger’ and the other is ‘Always tell each other before you make purchases over a certain amount’. Emotions and money. All wrapped up. Thanks, priest. He then nonchalantly sent someone else to marry us, but unlike him, we’ve stayed committed both to his advice and to the marriage.

Years on, I look back on my own big day and I have to confess I was a bit of a Bridezilla. I was lucky in that my wedding organiser (my mother) and I were of the same mind, so she very kindly got on with the details for me. The two people who shared my office were subjected to constant long-distance telephone calls about flowers, menus, choice of photographers and so on. Luckily for me, neither complained. I didn’t throw any tantrums about the details, well not many. There was just the little matter of one groomsman deciding he would wear a tux instead of a morning suit, and my making it clear that he would find himself a morning suit in downtown Harare, or be fired from the retinue.

But what did really freak me out, what turned me into Bridezilla’s mad little cousin, was PROXIMITY OF OTHER WEDDINGS TO MY OWN. One of my dearest friends got engaged shortly after me (sorry I mean us), but announced that her wedding date would be before ours. This I regarded as scene-stealing of the worst order, and I had a lot of Bridezillery moments around my family and my intended. I experienced extreme Schadenfreude when she could only get a church date three weeks after my wedding, but this eased when she asked me to be a bridesmaid.

But Bridezilleriness does not extend to brides only; it seems to go further than that. I’ve noticed now that the women around the bride can be even worse ‘Zillas than the person getting married. I’ve been to or heard about weddings where mothers-in-law, mothers, sisters, aunts and even grannies get in on the act, usually to upstage the bride herself. It’s as if weddings are a disease that only women get, and the whiff of madness spreads to all.

When my father remarried (a whole year after me, so it was allowed), my dear grandmother, who admittedly was approaching senility, refused point-blank to wear the lovely suit my aunt had picked out for her. Instead she came to the wedding in tracky-pants and a delightful Zimbabwe T-shirt. If I’m not wrong, her dog came too. She kept asking in a stage whisper ‘Which one’s the bride?’.

I did love my ‘special day’ and, I have to admit, adored being the centre of attention (oh yes, Thomas was too). It was very hard for me, three weeks later, to climb down from my pedestal and be a mere accessory to someone else’s glory. But now I know, thanks to the Sunday Times, that that painful severing from princesshood saved me from months of PWD. So I have to thank my friend – and you know who you are – for her random act of kindness.