Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I Am My Mother

It's official. I've turned into my mother. Something I swore at the age of 16 would never happen. There were several good reasons I could never act like her, but the most important one was that I am a Sagittarian and she's a Virgo. Anyone who knows even a little about astrology understands the importance of that single fact in securing the impossibility of my ever turning into my mother.

There are also examples.

In 1987 or 88, the song It Takes Two by Rob Base was released. Simply hearing the first thumping beats of this song would raise my heart rate and make me gyrate. My mother and I would be riding along calmly in the car, that song would come on, and I would scream... "THAT'S MY JAM!" and crank up the volume. She would purse her lips, frown at me, and say, "Oh my Lord! Are you deaf, Child? Why does the volume have to be that loud for you to hear your song?" And she'd turn the volume so low I could only hear whispers of my jam. If I was lucky, I got to keep listening to the song, but on some days, it was WLOQ, the local jazz station, that she switched to. She always played her music so low you really didn't hear the smooth jazz until you were stopped at a light.

I'd never be like that.

In 1984, I started high school. I was involved in a lot of sports and clubs and activities and was invited to different social events. Sometimes, there would be activities on Friday and Saturday nights. When I would ask my mother to go to the events on both nights, she'd always complain and say I'd just gone out the night or weekend before. Hm. What does going out on Friday have to do with going out on Saturday if you don't have anything to do on Saturday? Why does the fact that I went out last weekend have any bearing on my desire to go out this weekend if I'm an A-student, good kid and all my chores are done?

I'd never be like that.

But the one that really got me. And I think I have a witness on this one from my younger brother and a few cousins that stayed with us from time to time. The clincher was... if I was ever caught sitting still watching television or talking on the phone or looking in the kitchen cabinet for something to eat, my mother would search, hunt, scavenge for something for me to do. It's almost as if my mere presence of relaxation annoyed her and she was determined to alter my status. She'd walk in from the garage and see me flipping through a magazine at the kitchen table and start looking around. "Althea get up and put these things away," she'd say, gesturing to boxes of food on the counter. Or, "Althea, put these dishes away," as she would open the dishwasher to see clean dishes resting on the racks. "Althea, why is your room so messy? Make your bed and put these clothes away."

I'd never be like that.

Or would I?

"I refuse to be like Mom," I say silently when I catch myself about to do it. But most times (and I hate to admit it), I can't help myself. Something about those boys sitting in front of the big screen playing Call of Duty - Black Ops when there's folded clothes to be put away, and dirty dishes on the counter, and an overflowing trashcan...

"Un Unh! Turn it off. I know ya'll aren't in here playing that game when this place looks a hot mess."

I see the knowing looks pass between them. I hear the sigh that little one hasn't learned how to stifle yet. And, yes, he got more work because he sighed out loud. And yes, I also did that thing my parents used to do if we acted ungrateful. I went through the full list of how grateful they should be to have me as a parent.

"I know you didn't just roll your eyes. Look around. You have a nice house to live in, clean clothes and dinner on the stove. I take you where you want to go and let your friends come over and play. You have every video game known to man in here. I wish you would sigh again!"

Not only have I turned into my mother, I've gone beyond where she was. I admit it. And I'm not sure how I feel about it. Perspective changes as we get older. Perspective changes as we have children. Perspective changes as our children get older.

I am not completely like Mom - I let the kids play their music loud with me in the car (except for that one song by Soldier Boy, Hey You There - what a stupid song); and I let them go to as many social activities as they want as long as they do well in school, do their chores and have good manners at all times.

And today, when my son was leaning on the door of the kitchen pantry, looking for something to snack on, I stopped myself from glancing around to find something for him to do. I resisted the strong, strong, strong urge to tell him to do the dishes, take out the recycling and get started on his homework. I allowed him to eat, text and sing a song before I asked him to do all that.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Watch What You Wish For

It's my birthday week. I've been anticipating and planning it for more than six months. My 40th. A true landmark year in terms of birthdays.

For my Sweet Sixteen, my parents planned a beautiful formal affair at a local civic center. My father, a professional photographer, took the pictures of the guys in their 1980s suits and matching Jerricurls. My boyfriend at the time, Jamal, had on a tuxedo with tails. I wore a fuchsia satin floor-length gown made just for me by a family friend - the same seamstress who made my debutante gown and wedding dress years later. I love to celebrate birthdays.

For my 30th birthday, I planned a grown-and-sexy pajama party. The pictures are under lock and key and what happens at an Althea party stays at the party, but I will tell you that the lingerie and silk pajama coed fashion show was something that will be remembered in many people's minds for various reasons. Uh... well... those that were sober and can recall the events of that night. I love to celebrate birthdays.

I love birthday celebrations so much, I go as far out as I can with my sons' birthday parties. I was just reminiscing with a cousin last weekend about Lil Maurice's 1st birthday. He wasn't even walking when I scheduled the inflatable bouncing machine, the husband-and-wife clown team, and ordered an elaborate Sesame Street cake that was large enough to feed our entire street of neighbors - many of whom came to celebrate the birth of the wild-child's baby. I love to celebrate birthdays.

Anyway, I'm three days away from the big 4-0 celebration. Six months ago, I was trying to decide between a huge bacchanal adventure on a Caribbean island I hadn't visited yet, or a month of partying with my friends in various cities where I'd lived. But in August, my close girlfriend and studio manager became very ill, and my mindset and daily life activities were... what's a good word?... altered.

After two months of daily and weekly hospital visits, teaching multiple fitness classes, handling studio issues I hope to never see again, and still being an attentive mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend, I didn't want to party. I didn't even want to talk about my birthday. I just wanted to sleep. In fact, two months turned into three months and then four months. Hard and difficult decisions about life, and my business, and my family had to be made during those four months. Really hard and difficult decisions.

So, a month ago, my husband asked me - for maybe the 10th time - "Althea..." (when he says my full name, this means he's really serious) "Althea, what do you want to do for your birthday?"

I sighed, and rubbed my eyes and sat back from whatever task I was engaged in. I blinked a few times, as though that would help me find the answer in my crowded mind. After a minute or two, I replied with a weary voice... "I just want to go to the mountains alone and sleep. I want to meditate and think and read and write and plan. I want to get a couple of spa treatments while I'm there and I want to eat good food that I don't have to cook." There, I'd said it. I'd made up my mind. And I meant it. No party, no people, no major celebration. Peace and quiet and me-time. No problem, right?

Big Maurice made all the arrangements. A long weekend at Chateau Elan. It wasn't the mountains, but it was far enough away to be away and close enough to have dinner with hubby, the kids and my brother on my actual birthday. Chateau Elan - known for fantastic amenities and top-notch spa treatments - was my new focus. I just had to make it to the week after Thanksgiving. No problem, right?

I started with getting substitute teachers for my classes at the studio. Then I started wrapping up open items on the studio to-do list. Then I started planning what I would do with 4 quiet days to myself. I'd start on Wednesday with a late wake-up, breakfast with my twin who is also celebrating his 40th on the same day, an acupuncture session and then an afternoon of shopping at the outlets. Then on Thursday, I'd wake up late again, pack my clothing slowly and take a leisurely drive up 85 to the resort. My list of birthday weekend to-dos included things like planning my 2011 creative calendar, reading about chakras and meditation, soaking in a hot tub of scented water and listening to lounge jazz with a warm eye-pillow resting on my face.

What really happened was Big Maurice had a major meeting at his office on Wednesday, so I woke up early to get the kids off to school. I got stuck in traffic trying to get to my birthday-twin breakfast. My twin was in a bad mood the whole morning, so I spent the morning trying to cheer him up. I raced to the office after my acupuncture appointment to handle payroll and still missed getting my younger son from the bus. I sped through the crowded afternoon streets to meet him and do homework, cook dinner and begin laundry. My husband fell asleep on the couch around 9:30pm while I cleaned up the kitchen and yelled at the boys to "GO TO BED NOW! I MEAN IT!"

Okay, so Wednesday didn't work out as planned. No biggie. The real birthday activities weren't supposed to start until Thursday anyway.

Today - Thursday morning - I woke early again to get the kids ready for school because Big Maurice had to race to the office. My older son walks downstairs and calmly informs me that he forgot to tell us, but the band concert schedule was printed wrong at the beginning of the year and he actually has a band concert tonight at 7:00pm. As I look up from the computer screen of emails waiting to be answered, I gaze around the room at all the stacks of mail, unfolded laundry, shoes and bags everywhere and I remember...

Four months ago, I started asking - repeatedly - for a day with no appointments, classes or meetings. A day to be in my house to clean and declutter. In fact, I wrote two blogs about the clutter in my home and how my life was not allowing me to tackle it. It all came back to me. And I realized, at that very moment, that I'd gotten exactly what I'd wished, prayed and asked for. For my birthday, no less. A full day with no appointments, meetings or classes.

I now have a full day to clean and declutter my house until my younger son comes home from school and needs a snack before homework. I now have a full day to clean and declutter my house until my older son needs to find his band shirt and a clean pair of black pants and needs to be taxied to the school early to prepare for the concert. I now have a full day to clean and declutter before running to Walmart to restock the pantry and cabinets with food and toiletries before I leave for the weekend. And I will do all of this with joy so I can truly relax and enjoy my leisurely drive up 85 with my meditation books and scented eye-pillow.

I love to celebrate birthdays. Especially when I get exactly what I wish for...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Spa

No Pain, No Gain.

That's the slogan I expect to see at the gym in the weight room where men with muscular arms and fat stomachs are groaning beneath bars of weight to show off their prowess to other men groaning beneath bars of weight.

However, that same slogan should probably be stuck in big, bold letters on the front door of every spa in America. I know, because I love going to the spa as much as I love the grueling workouts of trail running, Ashtanga Yoga, and kickboxing. There's something in me that likes the pain of the challenge and the success when I push through it to the end. And the results - firm legs, shapely arms, a flat stomach. It's worth every drop of sweat in my opinion.

But it's spa services we're talking about right now, not fitness routines.

This weekend, I went to the spa to try something I hadn't tried before - a full facial. Everything started off wonderfully - like they always do. Dim lights, soft new-age music with Native American flutes and the sounds of waves crashing on a beach, the faint but distinct scent of some deliciously perfect essential oil permeating the room. In this particular instance, I was lying naked between soft sheets on a heated massage table with a bolster expertly arranged beneath my knees. Perfect. Heaven on Earth. Exactly what I needed after a week of 12 and 13-hour days of intense work, wifing and whisking my children to this event and that appointment.

As I said, everything was blissful. I should have just paid the people to leave me alone in the room and wake me when an hour was up. But NOOOOO. I wanted to chalk up a new adventure in my spa experience. It was at the point when the aesthetician began to press firmly on my right nostril (she claimed she was removing a white head) and I could no longer breathe, my eyes began twitching with the pain of the blunt instrument pressing down on my skin, and I felt that blood had been drawn, that it all came back to me. Everything. Every "first" spa experience.

There was my very, very first massage - pregnancy massage when I was 28 years old and in the final weeks of my endless pregnancy with my first son. All I have to say is I was carrying a 9.5 lb baby and he was 9 days late. No massage could comfort me - physically, mentally or spiritually.

Ah - my first bikini wax. Before I go into this, I have to share that I endure the pain of a bikini wax EVERY 2-3 months because the results are indescribably sexy and smooth in an area that is not naturally very sexy and smooth if you don't get a wax.

Anyway, I was presenting workshops at a hotel on Biscayne Drive in Miami Beach. On the last day of the conference, my presentation ended early and I didn't have plans until later, so I decided to get a pedicure and try a bikini wax since I'd heard so many wonderful things about the results. Strangely, no one had EVER mentioned there would be pain involved.

The Puerto Rican woman working on me was pleased I spoke Spanish and we exchanged pleasantries in her native language as she swiped alcohol on the inside of my right thigh. I was laughing about something she said when she applied the first layer of burning hot wax on my pelvis. I stopped mid-laugh and sat up abruptly from my supine position. "Uh, wait. What was that? Is it supposed to be that hot? Can it be a little cooler?"

I remember the aesthetician looking at me with these dramatically made-up smoky-eyes and asking me in heavily accented English, "Is this your first wax?" incredulously. Like every woman in the world over the age of 18 gets bikini waxes every other month. Come to think of it, they probably do in Miami Beach. But whatever... "Yes," I answered cautiously. What did this mean? Should I be prepared for something?

Too late. She had already begun pressing a rectangular cloth to the waxy area on my pelvis and inner thigh, and RRRIIIPPP. The hair was gone and all of the air in my lungs was too. I grabbed the woman's wrist as tears came to my eyes and I whispered, "wait." That's all I could manage. And the technician - dear, sweet woman that she was - just smiled and rubbed the back of my hand like the nurse in the labor and delivery room when I gave birth to that 9.5 lb child a few years before.

A procedure that normally takes about 10-15 minutes, took 30 minutes that day. I cried, I whined, I prayed out loud in two languages. The nice waxing lady held my hand, patted my thighs and pelvis, and cooed at me in calming tones.

I remember the drive from Miami Beach to my mother's house in Miramar like it was yesterday. I had every window on the car down, the sun roof open and my panties and shorts off. I had my left foot propped out the window and my right knee as far to the right as driving would allow. My seat was reclined as far back as I could go and still see the highway. I didn't care about the truckers driving next to me and honking their blaring horns. I just needed the breeze to cool the painful fire of the waxed areas and I didn't want ANYTHING to touch my skin around "there."

I called my girlfriend, Yvonne, on the cell phone and recounted the horrifying (but beautiful results) story as 18-wheelers honked and SUVs beeped at me like I was a porn star driving on the Las Vegas Strip. She laughed and I could tell she was crying from laughing so hard.

Two months ago, I decided to try something called a "Hip Bath" at JeJu Spa. JeJu is an authentic Korean bath house outside Atlanta. One day I'll share my first experience going to JeJu and meeting 8 strange women I didn't know for a birthday party completely butt naked. But that's another story for another blog.

Anyway, during previous trips to JeJu, I'd seen women sitting under heavy drapes on short stools talking quietly to one another. It seemed like a peaceful experience and one I might enjoy. So, one weekday evening, when the spa was practically empty, I stripped down to nothing but my bikini wax and signed up for the Hip Bath. The animated Korean woman pointed me to a low box with a round hole in the center. I squatted down, got as comfortable as possible on a box with a hole in it and allowed the woman to encircle me in a rubberized drape that sealed at my neck - kind of like at the barber shop or beauty salon. But this drape completely covered me and rested on the floor around the box. A pillow was propped behind me and the woman brought me an ice-cold bottle of water. Cool. This was going to be nice.

The Hip Bath technician parted the front of my drape and began to stir herbs and leaves and what looked like salts into a crock pot beneath the hole in the box. Soon it seemed like a good-smelling stew was brewing beneath my va-jay-jay. The tech stirred the concoction with a big wooden spoon, then resealed the drape and went away to talk with her friend in the body scrubbing room. At first, things were fine. I was getting warm and I could feel beads of perspiration gathering beneath my breasts and running down my torso. Good. Great. I could literally feel the toxins pouring from my body.

Hm. Wait a minute. Things were starting to get a little hot "down there." I opened my eyes and starting looking around for the technician, but I was completely alone in the room, tied into a floor-length drape, sitting on a box with a crock pot boiling steam up a hole into my cootchie. This was no longer comfortable or feeling good. This was hot and I desperately wanted to drink the water sitting only inches from me on the floor. But I couldn't get my arm out of the drape. As I looked, longingly, at the beads of condensation rolling off the sides of the bottled water, my mouth literally went bone dry and I thought I was going to pass out from dehydration right there on the Hip Bath box in a Korean bath house on Pleasant Hill Road.

As a tear began to form in my right eye, the tech came walking into the room. I really thought I could hear angels singing around me. Deliverance had arrived.

"You okay?" she asked me in choppy, heavily-accented English.

"Um," I croaked through cotton mouth. "It's hot." That's all I could manage to say.

She mumbled something in Korean to herself, parted the drape in the front, and I sighed with relief as fragrant steam billowed out of the front and a rush of cool air enveloped my private areas.

"Water. Please." I whispered faintly. She unscrewed my water bottle for me and put in my shaky hand sticking out of the front of the drape. I put it to my lips and sipped gingerly. There are not words to describe the feeling of gratitude that rushed through me in that instant. As I sipped, she stirred more herbs and plants into the crock pot.

"You get hot - you open this," the tech said as she pointed to the crack in the front of the drape. I won't bore you with more details of the Hip Bath experience, but I will tell you that I truly enjoyed resting in the cold whirlpool afterwards.

Anyway, you get the point. Some of the things that happen in spas are not always pleasant experiences. But I for one am addicted to them. I get acupuncture, massage, reflexology, and pedicures every month. I love sitting in steam rooms and dry saunas or whirlpools. I even take my sons to the spa.

My 8-year old has enjoyed reading next to me in an "igloo sauna" while his older brother swam in the coed lap pool at JeJu. I want them to know that a massage, meditation, or a body scrub is for everyone regardless of sex, age, income, race or religion. Hopefully they will have more gain than pain with their spa experiences. Woo Sah...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Clutter Monster - Part II

The Big CM - otherwise known as the Clutter Monster - is still lurking on tables and ottomans and beneath my bed and around bureaus and next to chairs and sofas. And I'm still irritated by its simple existence.

As I explained to you in full detail in my previous blog, "stuff" - a.k.a. the Clutter Monster a.k.a. CM - is affecting my sleep, work and peace.

I know the simple solution is to just handle it - clean it up, throw stuff away, shred paper, give away never-worn clothing. But there's one thing necessary to make it happen that is in short supply most recently - time.

I am the queen of time management. So much so that I lecture on it... yep, that's right. I have a full multi-slide presentation with bullet points and fantastic graphics and hilarious photos to illustrate the simple steps to being successful in the daily juggle of managing life. Time management.

One of the key points that I not only stress in my workshop, but live by, is the realistic to-do list. It's on my computer, in my cell phone and constantly running through my mind - in order of priority. Seriously.
  • A form with a past-due deadline for the IRS related to my business's sales and use tax: top priority, gotta happen today, no matter what.
  • Need to find a substitute teacher for our most popular class which starts in 2 hours because the teacher just sprained her ankle and I am teaching another class at the same time: top priority, gotta happen in the next 1 hour and 45 minutes, no matter what.
  • 500 word magazine article that's both humorous and informational about acupuncture for seniors due yesterday because it's going to print at 5:00pm today: top priority, gotta happen today, no matter what.
  • Water is leaking from the ceiling onto the hardwood floors of our studio in the middle of the youth jazz and hip hop class from three different pipes: top priority, gotta handle it NOW, no matter what.
You know, stuff like that. Forget the other small things like scheduling physicals for the kids before the registration deadline for soccer, or getting an updated passport before the international flight departure of two days from now at 7:45 am. Those are 2nd tier priority items.

But what does any of this have to do with CM all over my house? Everything.

When I wake up in the morning, I start hustling kids. I roll out the door with them and step right into the front of a class. I step out of class and put out at least 1-2 fires before I jump in the car and head to the next class or meeting. I get back in the car - nibble on a banana or grape or (more likely) a few gummi bears - and drive back to the office to attack items 1-3 on the priority list and head back home to meet child #1 and give him my undivided attention for 40 minutes before child #2 comes home and they begin to fight and argue and wrestle and break things. While they fight, I cook dinner and assist with homework simultaneously before packing them in the car/van to drop someone off somewhere and drive quickly back to the studio to teach one or more classes or workshops. There are two alternatives at this point. I either drive back home to break up a fight between the children, check homework, write checks for this trip or that year book, become a nurse practitioner in order to sew up the gash on the ankle of some child, and listen with rapt attention to husband on phone in another time zone about something work-related; OR I dial in to catch the end of a conference call for some organization I'm an officer for, or run to an evening meeting in Yoga-attire (apologizing simultaneously for being late and being inappropriately attired), or do a quick shower and change to make it to a business networking event or charity event to promote my business. Regardless of the choice, by 10:00pm I am finally sitting still and I relish the silence. I just want to lie down. The last thing I want to do is tackle the clutter surrounding me as I sit like a zombie.

In fact, the reality that I am constantly in my car, changing clothes and shoes and accessories and bringing props and music and mats and blocks and belts and oils to and from one destination to another means the CM has followed me out of the house and into my car. My husband calls our minivan the Disaster Recovery Vehicle because it's full of food and bottled waters and mats and blankets and... stuff.

I think that all I need is a day or two without interruption and appointments, and I think I can tackle the CM. I really do.

So as fate would have it, I got just that. Last weekend. The fairy godmother of women-who-do-too-much waved her dainty wand over my dredloc'd head and POOF... kids and husband gone (sort of) and only 1 appointment at the studio. I had a whole afternoon and evening, two days in a row, to clean my house! Yay!

Uh, no. What actually happened was... I laid on the sofa in my most comfy yoga attire and watched movies and ate oatmeal cream pies and doughnuts. For real. I'm not lying. And I had a great time, too. In fact, I didn't really see the CM all around me. All I saw was the sun shining through the window, warming my bare toes as they wiggled off the end of the couch above a stack of utility bills and credit card statements lying on the floor where I left them next to the shredder. Bliss.

The Clutter Monster

This is gonna be a two-part blog. I can't fully impart the reasons why I'm being attacked by the Clutter Monster (hereinafter referred to as CM) without taking time to explain why CM continually exists. So, there will be a Part II to this blog.

CM has been a part of my life forever. It's a part of my personality and dynamic. There are some people (typically Virgos) who are very ordered and neat and organized. Files neatly labeled and color-coded, or storage bins neatly filled with cherished personal momentos are a natural part of some people's lives (Virgos). Well, to a degree, that's me too. As I indicated in an earlier blog, I have a little OCD regarding folding clothes and having a neat closet and drawers. Therefore, the only storage bins I have neatly ordered are those related to seasonal clothing and shoes for my children and me. Outside of that, clutter is taking over my world.

Yes, clutter. It's gotten so out of control, I have changed the general term of clutter to the living, breathing object of... The Clutter Monster.

When I was a teenager, CM was stacks of journals and notepads and stationary and office supplies scattered in careless piles around my bedroom desk and bed. Every few months, I would spend a couple of hours carefully going through everything, discard what I didn't need, neatly stack the books and journals and file away the papers. But I was just as busy in high school as I am as an adult - I went from school to track or swim team practice to FBLA meetings to Charmettes events (don't ask what Charmettes is - that's another blog) to church activities to hanging out with my friends. I would rush in the house, quick change my wardrobe, throw my bags of books and papers on the bed or the desk and grab what I needed for the next activity.

As a young adult in college, not much changed. Instead of FBLA and Charmettes, it was Student Senate and my sorority activities after classes. Instead of cluttering up my bedroom at home, now I had a whole apartment to house my papers and journals and school books and applications and stuff.

Then I graduated from college and moved into various apartments in several different cities and I had to box up my "stuff" and take it with me. Instead of stacks of papers and books and journals and crap, I had boxes of papers and books and journals and crap. Some boxes I never unpacked - I used them for tables and stands to put my plants on, or to drape my clothing over.

I would have continued in this fashion for the rest of my life if I didn't decide to get engaged and had to co-mingle my "stuff" with my fiancee's "stuff". Suddenly, I enjoyed giving things away, throwing things away. I had to. Two people with 20 years worth of "stuff" can't fit in a one-bedroom apartment without some drama, and I don't do drama.

Purging things I didn't need or use from my personal space was uplifting. I felt like I could hear angels singing in the heavens and the sun seemed to shine brighter in the apartment. It looked larger and I enjoyed sitting on our couch and simply looking around the living room or out the window. Why didn't someone tell me earlier about the de-cluttering thing?

Fiancee turned into husband and one-bedroom apartment turned into a 1940s cottage nestled in a wildlife reserve. We turned the master bedroom into a party suite with a big-screen television and a huge sectional sofa so we could entertain guests all over the house. Our hard wood floors gleamed and the minimalist styling was airy and fresh. No clutter and life was good.

Baby number one ended it all. Party room - gone. Clutter-free zones - gone. Airy, minimalist styling - gone. In its place - stuff. I won't even take the time to explain what some of the stuff was - it just existed and grew and I couldn't purge fast enough. In the end, I gave up - literally. We sold the house and moved away from CM.

So now, here we are in a beautiful spacious home. A room for every person and thing. An empty basement housing some of the "stuff" we couldn't part with in the move from the cottage to here. A garage housing more "stuff" we couldn't part with in the move from the cottage to here. In fact, I was okay with "stuff" in areas of the house where I couldn't see it on a daily basis, but slowly CM started to creep back in.

It started with the living room table where the boys do their homework. Pencils, pens, notebooks, gaming magazines, sneakers, backpacks - they just seem to gather on, next to, under, and around the living room table. It doesn't matter how many times I clean it up or ask them to clean it up, the living room table and the surrounding area always look like a 3rd grade classroom.

It moved to the dining room table where I would drop the mail and magazines and newspapers and things to be signed and returned. Anything important would end up on the dining room table.

Then "stuff" started accumulating on the kitchen table, because that's where we would sit to eat and discuss field trips and class pictures and new insurance and the new schedule for the studio and test results from the doctor for a childs' fractured foot.

Then "stuff" started growing in the family room around the gaming storage unit, because GameCube became a Wii which became a PS3. There are different controllers and games for each system and manuals explaining how to get to the next level of each game and chargers for cordless PS3 controllers and chargers for batteries for the Wii controllers and a BluRay Disc thing and an Apple home unit that syncs all of this technology together so we can watch movies and family pictures all in one spot. Yeah, okay.

Finally, "stuff" attacked me in my only sanctuary - my bedroom. And I can't blame anyone except me for it. It's the only place for my books and journals and pens and pencils and booklets from conferences and scraps of paper with email addresses on it and thoughtful cards from family and friends and Christmas gifts from the last three christmases which I haven't gotten around to using yet and important papers I have to attend to at some point. It's where I go as soon as I get home from a class and quickly shower and change to go to a meeting or an event. Shoes are all around my side of the bed - flip flops and sneakers and high heels - because I will wear three different shoes to go with three different outfits every day. Every day.

Like the monster children are afraid of under the bed, my "stuff" attacks me in my sleep. I can see the mounds of "stuff" around me in shadow form as I try to doze off and it bothers me. When I wake up in the morning, it's surrounding me. When I try to work on the computer in the bed, it's staring at me and calling to me to clean it up, put it away... DECLUTTER DAMNIT!

So easy, so simple. Just clean it up.

I tried. But I got frustrated and distracted and I couldn't stick to one room or one pile or one area. The entire first floor of my beautiful home is covered by the CM, and I can't seem to get myself together to tackle it. When I do get around to cleaning off one table, the kids come home and a week passes and it's covered again by our lives.

I hired a house cleaner. They can't clean clutter. Only the owner of clutter can de-clutter. So I have shiny floors and well-made beds amid mounds of crap. Depressing.

So here I am at 5:00 in the morning blogging about my clutter because I can't sleep with it looking at me, haunting me, teasing me, daring me to do something about it. When I'm done, I'll spend a few minutes and put a couple of things away. Maybe by Christmas I will have gone through the items from last Christmas and put them away to make room for the new "stuff". I'll let you know how that goes.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cancer

I'm in the hospital. I spent the night here. Today - September 6 - marks the one-month point of Yvonne's hospital stay.

In June, my family and I went away for 3 weeks on summer holiday. When I returned to work, my studio's General Manager and close sister-friend of the last 11 years began complaining of fatigue. The next week, she didn't have the strength to teach her high-impact Kickbox classes, and I started to substitute teach them for her. The following week, she didn't show up for a scheduled class and I knew something was wrong. Yvonne D. Carroll does not miss a class, appointment, meeting or any scheduled responsibility... so this was serious.

On August 5, my other sister-friend, Lisa, and I went to Yvonne's house to find out what in the world was going on. She was laying limp in her bed - she hadn't eaten in days, hadn't bathed or moved. We tried to get her to go to the hospital that minute, but she refused... wouldn't budge.

In my anger and frustration over her refusal to get the care she obviously needed, I started to clean. I banged pots and pans and silverware around in soapy water. I slammed cabinet doors. All in a vain attempt to suffuse my mounting emotions. I cut up chunks of watermelon she had in the refrigerator and almost force-fed the pieces to her. Lisa lay in the bed next to her stroking her hair and arms. God knew to have two people there - one to stroke and one to fuss. We were both needed to give Yvonne what she required at that moment.

Kitchen clean, watermelon gone, and half a bottle of water drunk. I was satisfied enough to leave Yvonne napping in the bed. But our journey had just begun.

The next morning, as I'm leading a business networking presentation, I see an incoming call on my cell phone from Yvonne's number. I watch the clock on the wall, slowly ticking off the minutes to 9:00 when I can officially end this meeting and go to a private place to check my messages. Just as I knew it would, the message indicated Yvonne had been taken to the hospital by one of our instructors, but they sent her home to see her physician. What?!

I quickly went home, changed into my hospital transportation outfit of jean shorts, t-shirt and flip flops, and headed straight for her house. I met her in the driveway, as she limped from the truck of our studio instructor. We didn't pass Go, we didn't collect $200 dollars, we went straight to her physician specialist 40 minutes north in Johns Creek.

Yvonne sat listlessly in the waiting room, struggling to stay coherent enough not to fall out of the chair. I called my mother and fussed. I called my husband and fussed. I stood outside the waiting room sucking up rays of sun and fumed. Why would my girlfriend wait so long to get care? Why did I have to fight her to go to the hospital and doctor just for her to turn around and go the next day.

My phone rang constantly... Did you send the email? Are we still on for our 10:45 training meeting at the studio? Why haven't you returned my call about the program? Who is teaching Yvonne's class tonight, we're getting calls at the studio? Where is the deposit bag? Are you participating in the Chamber of Commerce event this evening? One thing after another. I patiently and cheerfully answered as many calls and inquiries and messages as I could. I didn't want to have to explain what was really going on in the private life of my friend and studio manager. I smiled as I spoke into the phone, trying to mask the fear, anger, and frustration that might creep into my voice as I patiently responded to requests for my time, energy, knowledge and person.

Finally, about 40 minutes later, Yvonne was called into the sterile, small box of an exam room. I'll spare you the details of the examination, but the end result was the doctor looking extremely concerned and calling Emory Johns Creek Hospital to have a room, bed and medications prepped and ready when we arrived 15 minutes later. That was August 6. Yvonne hasn't been home since. In fact, she hasn't been outside of the hospital except the day they transported her from one hospital to another to get more specialized care.

AML - Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. That was the final diagnosis. Blood transfusions, bone marrow tests, chemotherapy, antibiotics in an IV drip. That's been Yvonne's daily reality for the last month. Doctors, nurses and specialists poking and prodding and invading her private areas. Tears and fears on her face and in her spirit. But she was strong. Stronger than the hospital staff thought she would be.

"Honestly... we didn't think she'd make it when we saw the condition she was in upon arrival." Those were the words of the amazed cancer doctor 2 weeks after Yvonne's arrival at Johns Creek. We were sitting in her hospital room laughing and talking as if we were shooting the breeze in her living room at home when he came in to update us. I appreciated his honesty and saw the pleasure in his countenance at Yvonne's miraculous recovery and strength.

But we weren't out of the woods yet. The bone marrow and blood tests indicated she needed more intense chemotherapy to fully eradicate all of the leukemia cancer cells. And she would probably need a bone marrow transplant to help her start generating infection-fighting white blood cells. The Bone Marrow Center at Northside Hospital would be her new home. So, the next day, my husband, Maurice, went to Johns Creek and helped pack up the hospital room that had become Yvonne's new home and my hang out. He stayed with her until they packed her into an ambulance and pulled out of the circular drive of Emory Johns Creek.

Northside's Cancer Center is a maze of buildings and floors and sections and rooms. My first visit was with another sister-friend, Lindia, who had flown in from Virginia to see our girlfriend. We got lost, turned around and finally made our way to the entrance to the Bone Marrow unit. We dressed each other in scrubs, shoe covers, and gloves... all required to even get on the floor where the patient rooms were located.

As usual, Yvonne was smiling and playing hostess when we came in - "What do you want to watch on television? Move that pillow and have a seat right there. Is it too dark in here? Althea turn that light on for her. Move that stuff on the couch and get comfortable, Ya'll." No one would know she was even sick. The only give-away was the multiple lines and tubes hanging from the metal "tree" into her arm. She starts exclaiming about how good the food is here at Northside and shows off a plate of grilled chicken, a perfectly baked potato and bright green veggies. My stomach starts growling immediately, but I have to stay focused on the purpose of our visit - to cheer Yvonne, share information and cards from the outside, and find out the status of the day's reviews and reports from the doctors.

So here I am. September 6 - Labor Day. My husband and the boys went to Mississippi to visit family. I was supposed to go, too. But I couldn't leave my sister-friend in a hospital room alone while everyone was barbecuing and partying. It wouldn't feel right. So I packed an overnight bag, some books and my journal and, after church, a nap and a pedicure, I made my way to the Bone Marrow unit at Northside Hospital.

My mom, brother and his wife came and hung out with us for a while during the evening. We laughed and talked like we were at one of our houses. Eventually, they left and Yvonne and I went to sleep - well, as much sleep as you can get while nurses come and go testing, squeezing, poking and proding. I, of course, slept through it all - it's a gift.

She's eating breakfast, I'm blogging and we're watching Good Day Atlanta. The exact same thing we'd be doing at one of our houses on a lazy Labor Day morning.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My Family's Safari Adventure

What should one expect to happen on a trip to a South African game lodge and safari? I thought I knew, but reality trumped my expectations.

We woke early, dressed and met the Lion’s Roar van at the entrance to our hotel. Immanuel, our driver, answered our questions about Port Elizabeth and the surrounding coastal country as we drove the 50 minutes to Hlosi, SA.

Upon arrival, we were met by Chris, an Afrikaan who was obviously nervous. He kept wringing his hands and had a difficult time meeting our eyes as he introduced himself and the lodge.


Maurice & Chris @ the Lodge

The lodge was beautifully and simply appointed with fine dark-wood furniture, comfortably cushioned chairs with hand-carved frames, and a wood fire burning in a two-sided fireplace. All of the doors and windows were opened to allow a 60* breeze to move throughout the house.

Salani, one of our hostesses invited us outside to the back deck for “high tea.” The sun was just coming up behind the ridge of mountains in the distance, and began to warm sections of the deck. Malik, my younger son and the pickiest eater of the crew, reluctantly tried what appeared to be a palm-sized pancake with cream and jam on top. “Mm,” he proclaimed, and I released the breath I was holding. My younger child hadn’t eaten more than 1 full meal since we’d left the U.S. 3 days before.


Malik Taking Tea in Hlosi, South Africa

“You’re our only guests today, so the lodge is yours to explore and enjoy,” Chris told us as we finished tea. “Anytime you’re ready to go, just let us know.”

Our safari was scheduled to be a mini three-hour driven tour of the South African countryside. Not like the multiple day tours where visitors sleep outdoors in the wilderness and interact with wildlife. So I didn’t expect much more than a guided tour similar to the safari drive at Animal Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando.

Harry, our tour guide, told us to climb up a ramp to step into an open-air hummer. Once my husband, mother, two sons and I were in, Immanuel, our driver from the hotel, decided to join at the last minute. I got the feeling he didn’t usually do this type of thing, but Harry, a pretty cheerful guy, was more than happy to have him along.

Already, the winter morning had warmed to about 65* and I was able to remove my shawl as we drove over a dusty, bumpy dirt road and passed an odd-looking animal Harry called Sneezy. He sneezed at us and we drove away.

For 10 minutes, we drove over hills and around curves before we came to an abrupt stop at the end of the dirt road. We were perched on the edge of the mountain overlooking a huge valley that reminded me of a scene from the movie Avatar. It was breathtaking and all of us were speechless. I tried to take a picture, but the image looked flat and didn’t really capture the depth of the mountains, valley, river and trees spread out before us.


A view of Hlosi, South Africa

After a few minutes of moving around the ridge taking pictures and video, we climbed back into the jeep and Harry bumped us down the side of the mountain. We came to another clearing where huge, sturdy mounds covered the ground as far as we could see. Harry stopped, hopped out and grabbed a chunk of one the mounds.


Harry Shows Termites

“This is a termite mound,” he explained. He described the type of termite found in this region of SA. “They’re a great source of protein,” he said as he picked one out of the chunk of earth and put it in his mouth! Ew. Time out.

“Are any of you interested in trying one?”

Silence. No one moved, we just looked at him like we couldn’t understand his accented English. Even Immanuel sat like a rock in the front passenger seat.

“I’ll try, why not?”

Who said that? Was that my husband? I thought to myself, “I will never kiss him again if he puts that termite in his mouth.” But… ew, I’m gagging… he put it in his mouth and started to… chew.

“Hm, it tastes minty.” Whatever.

But then, here comes my older son with that look on his face. The look that says, ‘if he can do it, so can I.’ Sigh.

“Just bite the head off, Man!” Harry said cheerily.

A bite and a chew later, another termite gone from the face of the earth. “Hm, it does taste minty!” I’m disgusted and ready to go. So we left and moved on.

Out of nowhere, a huge black ostrich jumped into the path and started running in front of us. Next to us, a small family of warthogs scampered into the brush. As we rounded a curve, the brown dirt of the road changed to white and became soft. Harry pointed and we could see the backs of elephants moving through the trees below. The white dirt turned instantly back to brown and rocks were imbedded in it. We bumped up and down along the path until Harry slammed on the brakes.


Male Ostrich Running Down The Street

“Look!” he exclaimed. “A nursery.” Sure enough, an adult giraffe was surrounded by 3 or 4 baby giraffes. Their necks looked short and their heads small compared to the mother giraffe. “This a female giraffe watching several babies. She’s probably not the mother of them all, but it’s her job to watch them for the herd,” Harry explained. He spent another couple of minutes educating us about how they sleep, the difference between the male and female and their eating and mating habits. Cool.


Baby Giraffes Peek Over the Trees

Eventually, Harry decided it was time for us to take a break. He stopped the jeep, pulled out a cloth and spread out wooden dishes and bowls. Out of nowhere he fills them with fresh veggie slices and pieces of dried meat. Amazingly, it didn’t feel strange to be eating eggrolls and samosas a few yards from a herd of zebra drinking from a water hole along the path.


Zebra @ Watering Hole

Althea, Malik & Mom Snacking on Safari

Another hour and several animals later, we witnessed a zebra, an ostrich and a gnu standing together like they were sharing a joke during a coffee break at work. We saw all kinds of unique animals and birds – some I’d seen, but several I’d never even heard of. The 3-hour trip had turned into several hours of excitement and exploration. It was all so interesting, we didn’t realize how much time had gone by until Harry announced our return as the sun started going down behind the mountains. We had to have been out there for about 4 or 5 hours.

I thought the whole thing was over and we’d drive back to the hotel, but we were asked to wash up for dinner. Andrew, our chef, was perturbed that we’d taken so long and allowed his specially-prepared dinner to get cold, so we had to rush the “wash up.”

We were served a four-course meal that included grilled ostrich, roasted stuffed chicken, and an assortment of vegetables prepared in various ways. Our dessert consisted of chocolate mousse and an exquisite date pudding.


Lil Maurice Eating Dinner @ Lodge

OMG! The date pudding was so good. I made Andrew come out from the kitchen to explain how he made it, show me the ingredients from the kitchen and, in the end, put it in a disposable container so I could take it with me. Delectable. Only Malik was displeased, but Andrew made him a last-minute fruit plate with fruits Malik hadn’t eaten before. So everyone was happy in the end.

After dinner, Chris took us to visit the cottages. They were simple but plush. Each cottage had a queen-sized bed with a pillow-top mattress and mosquito net around it. Each bathroom had a brand-new claw-foot tub, glass and marble shower and the floor was made of heated stones. It opened to an enclosed patio with an outdoor shower, Jacuzzi and a stone bench for sunning or air drying after a shower. No televisions, no internet, no telephones. A male ostrich chased a female across the lawn as we stepped onto the back porch and sat in outdoor chairs at one of the cottages. A monkey scampered up a nearby tree and a herd of zebras ran past in the fading light. I wanted to stay, but reluctantly followed Chris back to the main lodge.

Chris. The Afrikaan had originally been nervous and uncomfortable around us. Now he was making jokes, tickling Malik, and telling us about his life. He told us about moving to Port Elizabeth from “Jo’Berg” (which everyone in SA calls Johannesburg) because it was too fast-paced. He shared how much he loved the relaxed and laid-back nature of Hlosi and the surrounding small towns.

We stepped into the lobby as the sun finally disappeared. I asked Immanuel what time the soccer match between Brazil and Portugal started. He glanced at his watch. “Fifteen minutes. If you’re not in a hurry, I’d rather watch it than listen to it on the radio.”

Ten minutes later, Immanuel, Harry, my older son and I were perched around the bar at the back of the lodge watching the plasma perched above the counter. Salani served beers to the men, wine to me and a South African guava juice to Little Maurice (my kids’ new favorite drink). My husband and mother had fallen asleep by the fire in the library. My younger son was outside chasing a monkey and an ostrich.

During half-time, Salani shared her story of moving to Hlosi from Zimbabwe because of social and economic unrest in her native country. She gave us a real-life account of living in a land of fighting and governmental instability. Her mother and brother were still there, but she and her sister had come with thousands of other refugees to South Africa to look for work and a better life. They were both working and sending money and food home to their mother.

I asked Harry if they often had Black Americans visit at the resort as guests. “No, not really. Blacks from America tend to go other places for safaris and tours.”

“What about Blacks from the Caribbean?” I asked.

“Almost never. Their travel agents and tour guides connect to other townships and countries.”

Is this why we were being treated like family instead of visiting guests? Is this why we were still here when our visit was supposed to have ended 6 hours earlier? Is this why I felt like I was visiting my family in South Carolina instead of a game lodge in South Africa?

When we finally got ready to leave, it was like leaving family friends. There were tight hugs, Facebook names and email addresses exchanged, and it took another 30 minutes to actually get out the door and in the van.

I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to go back to the Radisson Blu in town with its American/European amenities and W d├ęcor. I wanted to stay at Lion’s Roar where it felt like home.

ManChild

I was in the last city of our visit to South Africa when I realized it - my first child is now a man. This realization is different for every mother of a son. For some of my girlfriends, it’s a sad time… one of loss. For others, it’s with a sigh of relief. And they can’t wait for his big rusty butt to get out of the house.

For me, it’s a weird, strange feeling. Almost like I don’t know who he is or where he came from. He still has the same round face, the lashed brown eyes, the happy smile, and that charismatic personality that allows him to make friends with anyone anywhere at any time. He still hugs me, and kisses on me, and (tries) to sit on my lap.


Man-Child in 2009

But now, he’s my height and almost my weight. He’s wearing men’s sizes in clothing and shoes. He’s very discerning in what he’ll wear and how he’ll wear it. He walks with that male assuredness that women find attractive – it’s almost a pimp. Barack Obama – style. You know what I’m talking about.

In South Africa, he was protective of his family – grandparents, mother and younger brother. He was very confident as he walked around and directed my mother and me through a large mall when we’d lost our way. He always opened the door for us and stood back to allow us to go before him – looking around as though he would take someone out if they tried to harm us.


My Brother's Keeper - Table Mountain, South Africa

He and I had to share a room for a couple of days during our trip to South Africa. When he was sleeping was the only time I saw my baby boy. My first child. I could see traces of the infant they placed in my arms to suckle for the first time in the hospital. But then, he turned over, grunted, scratched and woke up. The baby was gone and the man was back. I continued to stare at him in… what - Confusion? Wonder? Amazement?

When did it happen? I had definitely seen glimpses of it on occasion. But I hadn’t had a chance to really sit still, be quiet and absorb it until our trip to Africa.

This man-child transition happens at different times for boys. And a lot has to do with the home situation. Single-parent? Older sister? Older Brother? No siblings? Younger sibling? Multiple siblings? A father in the house? A father who cares versus one who doesn’t? A mother that treats her man-child more like a child than the man he eventually becomes? Cherished versus un-cherished?

Age has nothing to do with it. Experiences, circumstances and lifestyle have everything to do with it. Because of this, I won’t even discuss my son’s age in this blog – it has nothing to do with it. All I know is, he’s a man and I’m stepping back to allow it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Unprepared

I’ve blogged quite a bit about my family’s trip to South Africa – what we’ve seen, done, and experienced. But I skipped a very important piece – how personally unprepared for this trip I was.


I think it’s a mistake most wives and mothers make… we take care of everyone else before ourselves. In case of emergency, we hear the attendant on the plane instruct us to cover our face with oxygen first, then attend to our children. But in real life, we would instinctually do whatever it takes to save our babies’ life, even to the loss of our own.


All of this explains how I’m in South Africa in the middle of the winter completely unprepared.


The Background Story

I love to watch sports. More than my husband. He’ll try to watch an NFL or NBA game on television, but inevitably, he falls asleep – every time. I on the other hand, sit in rapt attention to my favorite team’s match against an arch rival. I’m not a big fan of NBA play, but I love NFL football and I am newly addicted to soccer.


I had my son record the world cup matches I was most interested in seeing. And at the end of the day, after everyone was fed, the house cleaned, and all of my responsibilities as a wife, mother and business owner were complete… I’d get comfortable on the sofa with my pillows just so and watch all 95 minutes of whatever match I’d missed during the day.


I would yell and shout at the screen – at missed passes, poor ref calls, and inept blocking by the goalies. The goal scored against USA by England in the first 7 minutes of play at the beginning of the World Cup almost sent me to the hospital.


But what does any of this have to do with the weather, you ask. Everything. When I watched all 95 minutes of those matches, I noticed that all of the spectators were wearing scarves, earmuffs and wool hats. I remember seeing Desmond Tutu in a triple fat goose 3/4 coat with scarf, hat and muffs and thinking, I’ve got to rethink my wardrobe for this trip. So I did. I mentally began preparing my clothing choices. The main problem was that all of my winter clothes were packed into storage bins in the basement. It’s the middle of summer in Atlanta, GA. The weather has been a sunny 85-90*F every day. So I waited to pack.


I tried to discuss our travel itinerary with my husband. “Where exactly are we going? How long will we be there?” Stuff like that. Because in my mind, South Africa is a big country and we were going to be traveling to the far north, east, west and south. The weather could be different in every city. I needed to be prepared – especially for my children.


“It’s winter in Africa, not Chicago,” my husband responded. “It’s going to get to 70* every day. Don’t worry about it.”


And I partially believed him. I packed my children’s suitcases with care. Some short-sleeved shirts and a couple pairs of shorts each. But I filled their suitcases with light-weight long-sleeved shirts, jeans, and thick sweatshirts (just in case what I was seeing on television was more accurate than what my husband was telling me). I also pulled out their fleece jackets that could easily be rolled up and stuffed in a backpack. They were good no matter what the outcome.


I, on the other hand, had a bigger issue. How would I put together winter ensembles without the matching boots? Most of my winter-wear including a matching pair of boots and purse. But I knew we’d be walking a lot and I couldn’t wear my favorite Franco Sarto heeled boots on a safari in South Africa, so I opted for fitness clothing. Stretch pants with light sweaters, and jeans with turtlenecks. All things I could wear with my sneakers.


Problem… the turtlenecks and sweaters I wanted to pack were too thick, and I couldn’t get more than 2 of them in the case along with the rest of my clothing, a pair of shoes and my toiletries. So I trusted my husband and left the bulky sweaters and sweatshirts behind, and opted for thin, long sleeve shirts that I could wear under my fitted vests. Instead of a coat or jacket, I packed 2 wraps – one in beige and one in black. They’d go with everything I’d packed and they kept me warm through most of the Georgia winter, so they’d be perfect for the trip.


First problem: my husband forgot the kids’ jackets on the plane from Atlanta to Johannesburg. So there were no fleece jackets for either of my sons from day one of the trip.


Second problem: it was freezing cold in South Africa – North, South, East and West. It got down to 35-40* every evening around 6:00pm and stayed cold throughout the night until about 11:30am the next morning. So my husband was partially correct – it did get warmer in the middle of the day.


Third problem: we couldn’t get adjusted to the 6 hour time change for about 5 days, so we never woke before 2:00pm. Most of our awake time and activities were during the cold-weather hours.


Fourth problem: the only game we had tickets for was in the warmer city of Port Elizabeth along the southern coast. Great. But when we found out that Ghana was playing the US just 2 hours north of Johannesburg, we traded in our game tickets and boarded a plane for the northern, mountainous city of Johannesburg. We then rented a car and drove 2.5 hours north to Rustenburg. Finally, we sat in an outdoor stadium at 8:30pm to watch the 2-hour match. We then stood for 45 minutes in a queue (outside in a field) to board a shuttle to our car. By 11:30pm, I was frozen stiff in my thin turtleneck, vest and black pashmina wrap.


Now, outside of the point of my being a cold-natured person who is rarely warm enough for comfort; and despite the fact that it was truly quite cold in every city we visited in South Africa; and regardless of the reality that it was windy in and around the mountains and off the ocean (which pretty much covers everywhere we went)… I was also upset because I didn’t look very nice.

In case you don’t know, I’m a relatively natural girl. I don’t wear makeup very often, and when I do it’s only eyeliner and lip gloss. I have long “dred”locs and I simply pull them back into a ponytail or let them hang loose. I don’t really spend much time on my appearance.


However, I do like for my outfits to be complimentary and complementary. That means, my clothes have to fit me well and match. Sneakers with stretch pants is not the latest fad in America or South Africa. In fact, it was African Fashion Week in Johannesburg while we were there. So all of the ladies were wearing skinny-leg jeans or leggings with knee-high or thigh-high flat boots. They had several layers of light-weight long-sleeved shirts and it was covered by short, puffy jackets, scarves and smart hats. Ooohhh, how I longed for my boots in the bin in the basement. And I have short, puffy jackets – at home in the states!


Sigh. I know it’s all vanity, but who wants to be out during fashion week in another country and look like a bumpkin. Just not my style.


To further my anguish, my mother protectively suggested to me before we left to leave my rings at home. So I did. All of them. Diamond, wedding band, silver funky costume rings. Everything.


So… I’m a makeup-less, no jewelry-wearing, sneaker with jeans woman. I look so young, the people in all of the hotels where we stayed kept asking me if Malik (my younger son) was my younger brother. They thought I was traveling with my parents (my husband and my mother who looks young enough to be my sister) and my siblings. Only one man thought my mother was my daughter. Sigh. I just can’t win on this trip!


Last thing – I have no purse. That’s right. My mother scared me so bad, I left all of my purses (big, medium and small) in Atlanta. I didn’t want some petty thief to snatch my Coach shoulder bag. So all I have is a small wallet with a wrist handle made out of pleather with a cracked mirror embedded in the side. To make matters worse, the wrist handle broke during one of our excursions and I had to tuck the wallet in the waist of my stretch pants (no pockets and no purse).


Now, don’t get me wrong. I am having the time of my life. Literally. The things I’m seeing, experiencing and doing are life-altering. I don’t take it lightly that I’m here with my husband, children, mother and father-in-law. This is an opportunity many dream about and may not ever experience in their entire life. I’m cherishing every sunrise over the mountains and sunset into the ocean. I just wish I looked cuter in the photos.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Another Adventure in South Africa

Most of my friends and acquaintances know that I like adventure. I like interacting with nature and hanging from cliffs over deep canyons and diving around reefs in the ocean. Maybe I should amend my joy of adventure to only natural adventure, because I obviously don’t like the kind of adventure we ended up taking in South Africa.


My husband, Maurice, excitedly applied for his international driving license before we left the US. As we packed and prepared for our trip, Maurice and I perused maps and discussed driving from one township to another during our 2-week visit to South Africa.


Upon arriving in Johannesburg’s airport, we went to the car rental and retrieved our Kia minivan. We stuffed our bags in back, got my mother and kids situated in the middle, and climbed into the driver’s and passenger seat on opposite sides of the car from what we’re used to doing in America. We were fine until we looked down…


“Is this a stick shift?” I asked him cautiously.


“Uh huh,” he answered me tentatively.


It’s not that he couldn’t drive a manual shift, it was simply the odd feeling of shifting with the left hand while also getting accustomed to driving on the left side of the road that was concerning us. So he spent a few minutes playing with the gears, adjusting his mirrors and getting his mind right.


Eventually, he looked at me and we held hands for a minute – he said a prayer for our safe travels. Little did we know how much we would need that prayer before the night was over.


Tentatively, he put the car in first, released the clutch and we crept forward a few inches. We turned into the left lane and slowly started to move forward. Maurice and I smiled as he successfully maneuvered out of the rental parking lot.


“Stop by the booth and grab me a map, Maurice,” I said as I played with the GPS monitor.


“No problem,” he replied.


Problem number one: no booth to check out; therefore, no map.


Okay. No problem. The GPS was working and Maurice was handling the road well. We followed the road signs onto the “motorway” and onto the various side streets indicated by the GPS. Thirty minutes later, we were at the Holiday Inn Express just outside Johannesburg.


We unloaded, unpacked and changed to prepare for the United States vs. Ghana FIFA match in Rustenburg, a nearby city. The game was scheduled to start at 8:30 pm. Maurice had timed the drive from Johannesburg to Rustenburg to be about 2 hours. So, at 6:00, we piled back into the van, Maurice programmed the GPS and we pulled out of the Holiday Inn’s parking lot.


Everything was fine for the first 30 minutes until Maurice realized we were avoiding the motorway N4 that he had seen several times and we were on several streets with lights. We stopped, reprogrammed the GPS and agreed to take tollroad N4, which would be a direct route into Rustenburg.


Problem number two: toll roads in South Africa are not like toll roads in the United States.


We drove for several minutes, then smiled and congratulated each other as we merged onto the N4. Immediately, we saw a pair of highlights headed straight for us. Uh oh.


“Maurice! You’re not in the lane! Go left, go left!” I shouted.


“I’m in my lane, I’m in my lane!” he shouted back, but he swerved out of the lane and the path of the oncoming car.


We rode on the dirt shoulder, spitting up dust for several yards while large trucks and miniature cars zoomed past us in the lane where we originally were.


“Get over Maurice. This isn’t a lane.”


“I’m trying! I can’t get back in now!” Maurice yelled back at me in frustration, as he leaned forward over the steering wheel. I could see the intensity in his face.


Maurice was gripping the gearshift so hard, I could see the skin stretched over his knuckles. My palms were moist with perspiration and under my arms was suddenly wet. The spot on the inside of my elbow where my nervous rash pops up when I’m stressed started to itch. My mother began giving directions and suggesting things from the middle of the back seat.


Eventually, Maurice was able to get back in the lane and we all calmed down a little. We nervously giggled and joked about the confusion of the lines on the road as we moved forward.


Suddenly, a slow moving truck swerved to the dirt shoulder, kicking up rocks and dirt onto the windshield. Oh $#!&.


“What’s he doing?” I shrieked. Maurice started gripping the gearshift again and sat up straight.


“I think he’s letting us pass,” Maurice whispered, more to himself than to me. He swerved quickly around the car, and as we looked back, the truck smoothly moved back into the lane behind us.


Hm. Okay. We got it. There was only one lane going in both directions, so if you were going slow, you pulled over onto the shoulder and let a faster car pass you. Cool.


Problem number three: There is not enough room on the shoulders of the N4 for a car to pass without going into oncoming traffic.


Considering the fact that there was not enough room on the shoulder for a car to pass without heading into oncoming traffic, your pass had to be timed perfectly. This wasn’t easy on a toll road as busy as GA400 in Atlanta.


How much longer would we have to be on this road? I glanced down at the GPS. 89km. What?! Oh no, I wasn’t going to make it. It was pitch black, the road was packed with cars, and my husband was determined to get to the Royal Bafokeng Stadium to see the kickoff of his team, Ghana, against my son’s team, USA. He swerved around a slow-moving 1984 VW Golf barely missing an oncoming minivan. This was going to be a long trip.


Problem number four: wild fires are purposely burned intermittently along the roadsides of streets, motorways and toll roads throughout Johannesburg and the surrounding cities.


About 20km down the road, Maurice sees a faster car coming up behind him. As he decides to pull onto the dirt shoulder to allow the car to pass, he sees one of the wildfires up ahead. At the same time, a line of cars is coming toward us.


I’ll spare you the details of the remainder of this trip. Just know, we eventually made it safely to Rustenburg and found a parking lot several kilometers away from the stadium. I scrambled from the van, thanked the Lord for our safe arrival and happily joined the other people walking toward the shuttle bus.


Problem number five: after the match, 35,934 people had to take shuttle buses back to their cars all at one time.


At the end of the game, my mother, husband, two children and I left the stadium in high spirits. We’d had enjoyed the game, made friends with people in the crowd and danced in the stands. We continued to be excited as we filed out into the field outside the stadium gates. We were still feeling good as we moved past crowds of people to the gate marked M104 North. The happy feelings ended as we queued up with about 800 other people to get through one small opening big enough for about 5 people to pass at once.


We were pressed tightly together with diverse people speaking many different languages, some drunk and high. Others were angry that the US had lost. One group of men started arguing with another group of men about whether it was nicer to live in America or England and why. 45 minutes later, my family squeezed through the opening and made it onto one of the shuttle buses.


I was happy until I remembered – we had to drive back home.


Thankfully, God heard my prayers. The GPS brought up a totally different route to return home. Even better, it allowed us to bypass all of the stadium traffic that was completely stopped on the N4 (remember it was only a one-lane road with toll booths). We could see it from the access road we were coasting on.


Just as we were getting comfortable with the drive, we noticed the road we were on was winding, twisting and going up.


Problem number six: South Africa is a mountainous country with small windy, unlit roads that go on for 100s of miles.


I have a problem. My problem is that I love to drive. I love to drive because I like to be in control. In control of when I go and when I return. In control of how fast or slow I’m driving. In control of which lane I’m driving in and when I’m going to switch. I love driving fast and weaving in and out of traffic on freeways.


This is a problem, because when someone else is driving, I feel like I have no control. And I didn’t have control over how Maurice was driving on this dark, winding, hilly road. Sometimes, I felt like he was driving too fast, or passing unsafely, or too close to the left side. I kept telling him, “you’re not in the lane.” But I’m not sure he was really listening to me.


Earlier that day, a brick wall was right on the line of the left shoulder. I tried to tell Maurice that he was too close, but he wasn’t listening to me and… grumprhhhtwphhh. The van slid along the brick wall. I didn’t have to tell him again after that.


But now, we were way up in the South African mountains at midnight. And all of a sudden, we were heading straight down, coming out of a curve at the same time, and there was a huge body of water lit by the moonlight in front of us. I couldn’t help but yell out.


“Oh my God! Maurice, you’re making me so nervous!”


Maurice yelled back at me that I was making him nervous by yelling at him that I was nervous. He wanted me to BE QUIET. So, I sat on my hands, prayed, and bit my lip for the next 1.5 hours. I have never been so happy to see a Holiday Inn Express in my life.


I’ve always respected my husband. He’s a wonderful person, man, son, husband, and father. But after the death-trip of SA2010, I hold him in a new level of esteem.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Travel to World Cup - Day 1

How is it possible for a 16-hour flight to be more comfortable and less boring than a 5-hour flight to Vegas? My mother and I chalked it up to the days of mental preparation we’d put ourselves through for the non-stop flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa’s international airport.


As my family and I got comfortable in our seats, I struck up a conversation with a lovely Afrikaan family from Durbin, SA who told us about their trip with their grandchildren to Disney World. They asked us about our trip and gave us tips and pointers about traveling in Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls. We talked with people who were natives of the US East Coast who had simply packed up everything and moved the whole family to suburbs around Johannesburg. The diversity and pleasant lifestyle were reasons they gave for the move. I couldn’t help but wonder about the possibilities of relocating my family here. What would schools be like? Would there be opportunities for Maurice and me in our chosen industries? What about the post-apartheid relations among the various South African races? I can’t wait to explore and find out more.


3 good meals, 2 deep sleeps, 4 movies and 16 hours later, we were coming into view of the southern tip of Africa. As we began our decent over the edges of the continent, the sun was beginning to go down, even though it was only 11:00am back home in Atlanta. Vibrant golds, fuchsias, oranges and pinks fused together over the outlines of mountains, ocean and grassy flat lands. I don’t know what I expected the city to look like as we descended closer to the airport in Johannesburg, but looking at the city below looked just like flying over central Florida – homes evenly spaced on flat land with tiled roofs and blue pools enclosed in back yards. Busy highways showed traffic slowly crawling through rush hour traffic. A van had flipped over and smoke was swirling into the sky as cars piled up behind it and snaked into the single lane left open.


Tears came to my eyes as we landed on the runway in Johannesburg. I don’t really know why – I can’t explain the feeling that came over me, but it was definitely palpable.


In the Johannesburg airport, a lively group from Germany drunkenly hugged each other’s necks as they sang the German Futbol fight song. South African porters and airport staff joined in. It was one big party of different languages and ethnicities united by the sport of futbol.


We’re currently on a South African Airways flight to Port Elizabeth along with several people from Uruguay, some Americans that now live here, and native Afrikaans and Africans. I’ve used more Spanish here already than I've used in the past 3 years.


I couldn’t help but have a flashback to pre-9/11. It was a breeze getting through security (I got to keep all my clothes on!). And they still serve full meals on all of the flights – whether your flight is 16 hours or 1.6 hours. And the food was actually good (or maybe I was just hungry?). In fact, my mother and I enjoyed delicious complimentary South African wine during our short cross-country flight from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth.


I can’t wait to experience life outside the airport and on the ground. Stay tuned for my updates and some photos...