Social Queues


If you find yourself in China standing in a line, you can thank America. Not for bringing lines exactly, but for birthing McDonalds, which many attribute to China’s redefining que. Worldwide, standing in lines is as good a place as any to understand how or whether the country functions or has a McDonalds. Last weekend a friend’s dad was the one man act for her birthday luncheon, entertaining us with tales from his university days. One semester of his MBA they had a visiting logistics professor from America, distinguished for doing the math to discover winding lines like the airport kind move faster. How that worked evaded me, but I’ve taken a stance this year to just not question what other people say. I’m testing it out as a new attitude, no rebuttal, just acceptance, maybe even a melodic ‘Is that so’.

On a normal errand day in Grahamstown I will need to stand in a number of lines, all of which illuminate how its inhabitants think. My roommates say the people here are cooked. It’s not a compliment. Collective mental instability is then compounded by the emerging progressive and radical ideologies of a new democracy confronting cemented colonial ways of an all-but-dead minority, at least this is what I convince myself I’m witnessing in line at the bank. Behind 15 blue collars I stand with my rent, listening to their conversations in Xhosa. Mostly ‘it’s hot’ and ‘sure is, sister’, and the occasional comment about the person who just left the line giving up too soon. If even the post office in town is held up, the banks are definitely a target. The advanced security door system confirms this. One in, one out, and the out will not release the magnetized lock until the in door is closed. Just the entrance to the bank indicates every minute you spend there is a countdown to robbery.

Having just left the over air conditioned cell phone store where I stood behind two people pricing contracts for 45 minutes, at 3 minutes a transaction per person, the bank is at least a predictable wait. Shifting my weight to the other foot, counting down how many customers until I get to lean against the lobby pillar the line snakes by, I watch a woman in the complicated entrance push the door when the light turned green. She seems confused, like coming to the bank on the first of the month would reward her for not procrastinating bill paying with an open path to a teller, not the line she hovered at the back of. Now comfortably midway at the pillar, between tail and teller, I hovered between thoughts of what else my day held and how there is no way a bank in South Africa could secure a drive thru, in which case, no drive thru suckers. I’d memorized remainder of the line, but suddenly the woman stood firmly in front of two college-age girls looked beyond the cutter, completely indifferent.

I was beside myself. Nothing will ever change if people allow themselves to be treated this way! The nerve this woman had! Old or not, the front of the line is not your white right. Furious that no one else seemed bothered, no one else was puffing! Restraining from asking in the most polite way I could muster, ‘Excuse me, are you just asking a question, because the rest of us have been here for 30 minutes’. Nita would say something, I told myself. Glaring at her, searching for a reason to bring up her social no-no, her country’s past, her unforgivable actions- minutes passed, justice passed. The teller bell dinged. She and her handbag moved along the counter protected from my wrath by the nylon tether line divider and my new attitude to observe instead of rebuke.

Times like this I’m grateful for my new practiced reservation. Over the final 15 minutes in line I worked out someone had offered to save her spot. How kind, yet I’d assumed the worst. It’s not a cultural divide that causes me to miss such social cues, it’s from not having all the information. On the walk from home to school, any time of day there are men standing against the wall as if in time out. Still as statues. Were it not for my curious, insatiable stare I would have found this self-inflicted punishment perplexing. The men are just peeing. On the wall. In broad daylight. Why not. Another local ritual that would have been lost on me had I arrived in Grahamstown one week later is throwing ATM receipts on the ground where the designated ATM trashcan used to be. I assume someone stole it in the night, or after a pee on a sunny day, and claimed it for their own, repurposing it as a laundry basket or mobile fire pit. But a metal cylinder bin used to stand and receive all balances of passersby. Today out of habit people pitch the crumpled slip on the ground, as if compulsive muscle memory pops their right arm out to the side and releases the white wad without looking. One man’s receipt is another man’s kindling.

This degree of laziness astounds me, you see it everywhere, and understanding it cannot be rushed. In the school library, with no other students in line, if you walk to the counter to check out a novel the librarian retrieves her eyes from the back of her head and requests you use the machine. The machine does your jobs better? Is that so, well- ‘I really don’t like the machine’ I half complain/explain. Stare off. She picks up the barcode gun and begins the rote movements of her position.

Hands down the best customer service, therefore the best line to stand in, is at the liquor store. In Grahamstown, even wine has moved off grocery shelves and to the bottle shop. This cashier is worth the wait spent listening to 10 minutes of rugby highlights and recaps from Rhodes boys in shorts shorter than mine told through vocabularies consisting of little more than bru, yoh, and lekker. At the till with my bottle of pinotage, I ask if she’s ever considered putting out a glass as a tip jar, so everyone who came through her line could show their appreciation by pouring a little of their beverage in. She could even tart the cup up like baristas do their tip jars- ‘thanks a latte’ meets the liquor store’s –three tips to tipsy! She said it’s not socially acceptable to be drunk at work. Plus, she wouldn’t want to be drunk when she gets home because then she couldn’t do the sex good.

Is that so.

Thumbs Pt. 1

bus life

A pain like I have never known before swallowed my body limb by limb, the thief of breath snatching for my last escape of air as it released in a scream. I had stapled my thumb.

Unwilling to stick it in my mouth, a psychically soothing and almost comically normal reaction to thumb-related pain, remembering a story Grandma Betty once told me about an incident like this. Tales from her life never had a moral and often ended twice. The first time as a cliff hanger-leaving you with the image of her trapped in an outhouse while her brother attacked it with an ax. As an afterthought she might then add, ‘so girls, never throw a cow pie at your brother’. Since we no more had access to a brother than cow pies, this was not exactly relevant wisdom. You were always left to assume justice was served- I mean the woman in front of you is the same from the outhouse, so while ‘happily ever after’ might not be the conclusion, the story had some form of resolve. Most of these histories were likely made up then and there, pulled from thin air. For instance, if you unscrew your belly button, your butt will fall off.

In South Africa the thumb and bottom have a noteworthy relationship. Where Americans would say ‘to pull something from thin air’…or one’s bottom, South Africans physically put their thumbs in their mouths and say, ‘I’m just sucking this out of my thumb, but say she never loved him’ or ‘this is just a thumb suck, x, y, z’. I was deeply disturbed upon witnessing this for the first time. You could just say it- why do you have to actually do it?! For someone who bites their fingernails as a part time job, it doesn’t make sense that I would be so appalled, but for this I believe Grandma Betty can be blamed.

I don’t actually know if Grandma Betty grew up with an outhouse, but it is the featured setting for many of her stories. I never thought to ask if it had the classic crescent cut out from the wooden door. It certainly had ax markings. And as she explains, a hole in the inside wall with a little shelf underneath it on the outside. And a hammer. In the days of 10 mile walks up hill both ways to one room school houses, there was a short supply of toilet paper. Grandma explained the thumb strategy. It involved your thumb and a hole, the hole in the wall and a hammer. Well, a friend was needed too. After cleaning up, you’d stick your thumb in the wall hole where someone on the outside slammed the hammer on your thumb. Thumb in mouth- tp problem solved.

This is the first thing I think of when I see South Africans make this gesture. The second thing is the week I was convinced everyone I knew had caught their thumb in a door or between two blunt objects because they all appeared to have a bruise. Completely confused, I asked my roommate Lauren why all these brownish purple thumbs? She explained to me that’s the mark they give you when you vote.

I knew voting day was soon because here it is a public holiday. From 5am to 11pm you can take the time standing at a poll to submit your choice. Everyone seemed to know the African National Congress ANC would win, retaining the president who no one seems to be too happy with, Jacob Zuma, endearily called by no one JZ. But South Africa has a progressive power structure and for the most part I think the actual election runs smoothly. So smoothly that you wouldn’t even know it was election day. I have a Chinese friend who is a PhD candidate in the Linguistics department, but also reports for a Chinese newspaper and had to be a tad creative in reporting such an unexciting event. The 20th anniversary of voting in South Africa. The first vote since the death of the honorable Madiba. Goats for Votes!Bribes from the controversial revolutionist EFF party. Don’t worry China, Voting-not so popular Afterall! As the South Africans would say, she did a bit of a thumb suck.

I thought at length about what voting means to me as an American, how maybe if the real Jay Z was South African he would have initiated a Rock the Vote campaign. Maybe it’s only countries where voting has been available for more than 20 years that people have to be reminded to do it, why it’s important, that others have died for the opportunity. I’m not so extreme as to say complacency is a crime- evidently in Australia, a place South Africans happily inform foreigners is an overprotected nanny state, it’s illegal not to! I thought about the oval ‘I Voted!’ stickers we get and how some places even give free coffee if you proudly display yours. It wasn’t obvious if the markered thumbnail bruise was to stop people from voting twice or to make your actions visible to others, and my roommate didn’t know either. The mark was a stain. It stayed two weeks, eventually growing away from the root, dangerously close into nail biting zone.

I pushed in the match-type staple box back together, closing the little sliding paper drawer just big enough to fit my own thumb inside. Grateful for many things that day. A nicely bound document. A newly reloaded device that connects the most important pieces of my life together, the ability to operate it myself with my opposable thumbs, and knowing where it is on my desk per chance there is something else to bind together. I wonder about the other stickers we could create that broadcast to the world we helped ourselves today. If there are other activities we decide to not take part in because we simply do not care, or our voice doesn’t matter, or nothing is going to change anyway. Maybe you have a reason in that thumb, or bum, or can find one in thin, hot air.

A Wild Visit


Madi and Elena are visiting next month, so in preparation for their trip I went online to look at travel books for South Africa. Amazon reviews are known for being hilarious- don’t believe me? Search 3 wolf t-shirt for an essay on how it compares to the previously bought 4 wolf t-shirt.

The review I found for Rough Guides South Africa, used $11.14, stated as follows:

Found this to be weak on animal descriptions. For example, there is much more to distinguish blue and black wildebeest than coat and tail color. Just look at the horns… Also weakly stated truths. Elephants don’t just die when their teeth wear out, they starve.

For a person intent on identifying their environment, you’d think they would be a better comparative shopper, hipper to distinguishing the sort of comprehensive guide capable of telling you where to get a hat tailored in Durban from one best suited for unique animal husbandry and taxonomy references. There is however other information in that review, for instance the correct spelling of wildebeest- who knew? I’ve learned how to spell and pronounce many words this year- naartjies for example. You know the little orange clementines or tangerines. Turns out it’s onomatopoeia, an Afrikaans word derived from the sounds we make when eating them.

Joking. But not joking this time, I know Madi and Elena are going to want to visit a game park and go on safari. I’ve always been partial to safari fatigue tones, so one would think I’d jump into any of seven khaki cargo skirts packed for this occasion just at the mention of game drive, but this is not the case. When my mom and sister visited in July, we went to a very nice park just outside Grahamstown, Kwantu. It’s nothing like Inkwenkwezi where I heard you can groom lion cubs like they do in the wild and feed elephants, but at least the 2 hour safari at big cat feeding time isn’t on a 4-wheeler.

Had I visited Aspen in Portland and she told me we’re going to visit a really great $50 zoo, I would have told her to go kick rocks. But that’s what people come to Africa for, right?! Groupon probably unloads the majority of its priced-to-sell Nikon cameras to tourists impulse clicking, an afterthought once pressing BUY on their package safari vacation deal. I can think of few things worse than signing up for a 10 day trip through Rwanda with 9 other random Groupon enthusiasts. Well, other than going on another safari. It’s not that bad, but I hate the post-animal low. After an elephant walks right next to your car, how could whatever happens tomorrow compare? I’m not much of a one-upper, but I told another American here zebra and giraffes poke their heads out everywhere, but I would really like to see a rhino. Between bites of salami she told me she saw two albino ones last week.

This isn’t an Africa thing, it’s a Grahamstown thing. Animal conservation is everywhere you look. People affix crimson plastic rhino horns to their Land Rovers to show remorse for the extinct red rhino or promote awareness of those not yet gone- I haven’t worked out which yet. One Rotary club meeting I went to was a roundtable discussion of how to prevent poaching locally- they were talking about poaching donated barbeque grills from the cargo box they’d bought from China to hold their annual junk sale items in, but the principles of local action could be applied to animals as well.

On a run once with a friend, we were jogging through town and I started telling a story about men who for the love of conservation had hiked Kilimanjaro in a rhino costume, but nearing the home stretch and winded couldn’t remember who it was so I said Grahamstown Rotarians. Once home and rested I realized it was the founders of National Geographic. Close enough.

There are countless public and private parks within a stroll from town and everyone seems to be one point of separation from rescuing an endangered native species themselves. My friend Ralph studies cat and dog sharks. A girl in my yoga class rehabilitates cheetahs in Namibia. Another girl I know, her sister lives in Antarctica monitoring zoo plankton- what a life.

It makes me wonder if there will ever be a dinosaur park. When Gary visited we went to the Albany Museum to visit a Rotarian Paleontologist. Since the building is on campus, the professor asked me often to come by for coffee and a look around. He designed an exhibit that spans millions of years, marked out on the carpet. You walk in and the floor starts at ‘The beginning of time’, when Grahamstown, Idaho, and everywhere else existed in primordial goo. And as you continue, arrows on the carpet point you to exhibits representing epochs and their corresponding creatures of sea, land, and sky. It was a creationist’s nightmare.

Billy, our guide, had discovered a chicken-sized dinosaur he named Kirky, but these days was intensely interested with both the geology and pronunciation of Montana. Gary, knowing a good deal more about how the world and all that’s in it works than me, talked to Billy at length about how many layers of rock lay between us and the sea, rising temperatures, shifting plates, and out of place earthquakes. I stood like a child waiting my turn, afraid of asking something that proved I live on the earth, but know nothing about it. They say there are no dumb questions, but I once asked Gary if islands float, so I know that’s a lie.

When it came my turn, I asked Billy if he had a favorite dinosaur. He pointed to what resembled a legged manatee and explained that people think dinosaurs are such a big deal, but what interests him is the missing link, the animal in between sea slug and Jurassic Park terrors. Answering my last question about dragons existing with a thorough explanation of large fossil discoveries in China and local theories thereafter, he wished us goodbye and asked that we tell others about the museum.

When Madi and Elena ask to see the animals of South Africa, now I know where to take them. Off the beaten track, where no guide book has gone before.

Holy Water


Grahamstown was out of water this week, but our house curiously was not. At least on the three most important days, the ones when Tobeka comes. I can deal with me being dirty, but somebody please polish the silverware. Amanzi! Tobeka shouted to me in the garden, water! Ewe, I responded. Yes, we have water, but your voice is gone. Why are you shouting?

As a deeply religious person, she has never tasted alcohol and is always attending out of town church conferences. I was in Cape Town for Easter when I realized all my time spent listening to Tobeka’s gospel concerts was paying off. Xhosa songs of worship were being played on the bus speakers and I could understand the chorus, dah dah dah Igama yakho, lah lah lah Igama yakho- We’re praying, we’re saying your name, your name. I know those songs are supposed to make you feel good for other reasons, but I was filled with peace and joy in that moment certain I was in the right place at the right time. Surely these are the moments missionaries wait their entire careers to have, except in reverse. This was the message of God coming to me in the language of the natives. The church’s work here is done.

The angles in my life take a different form, and I have tried to tell Tobeka about my belief system but she is happy to take part in just the communion. As we drink tea, I show her my latest package of goodies from above, bottle caps from favorite beers and a jar of homemade rose hip jelly from Athena’s Boise bounty. I’m spreading the pink fruits found in an Eden on the other side of the world onto crackers for us both to enjoy, and on Tobeka’s request trying to count the number of friends I have who believe in God. ‘Yeah, none that I can think of back home, but you know what, you’ve never met nicer people’. With a raised eyebrow, she took another cracker- Ndiyabona. I see.

Tobeka told me the event she was at this weekend took her voice because she sang the entire time to the Lord Jesus Christ. But now her throat hurts. I went into my room to get her Halls.

So you’re saying if you hadn’t prayed to God, you wouldn’t have a sore throat.

Wena (brandishing the mop at me) You, she says.

Do you ever pray for me, Tobeka?

Listen girl, when my prayers are answered, then I say one for you. We’ll see what he can do.

Are you afraid God will get your prayers out of order?

Why must I pray for you? You have water- you are already blessed.

8 Hours in Moscow


For 8 hours last week I thought I was going to Moscow. A month ago I met a South African who teaches English in Moscow, and when adding one another on Facebook, we exchanged the standard ‘if you’re ever in California, look me up’ and ‘If you’re ever in Russia!’ Americans and especially Clontz’s are very well-known for invitations of this type. My Rotary counselor from Germany took an RV trip through Oregon with his family and stayed with my aunt and uncle for a week in Redmond. Now they write Christmas letters.

My dad tells a story about Russians mom met once in Kansas who she invited to stay in our basement. This was the first time I remember watching his impersonations of vodka-guzzling foreigners and thinking- I want that to be me one day. Master story spinner, fur-donning Pushkin, still working on those, but bedless foreigner- yes, this has definitely been me. Knowing that my mom would be all too happy to uncover the details of those men from the days before email, I decided to stick with my 21st century connections and message my new South African comrade.

Language and Politics in the New World- I’d been looking for a conference to attend and what better reason to see the Kremlin. Just on international education business, don’t mind me. Maybe I’ll have tea with Snowden if Putin is busy. As soon as I read the email from Rotary giving the go-ahead to attend, I couldn’t contain my excitement during the first 3 hours I text-blasted every Whatsapp contact, finally having a reason to use the emoticon man with the tall black hat!

Hour 4, Airplane tickets from the tiny local hub here to Moscow were $800. There’s no way I thought, one stop over- Dubai. Must be a popular flight? This year has been an introduction to the Southern African connection to socialism. Not the outdated Mugabe-type, but tight beret, would move to Cuba tomorrow-type. The late Mandela and Castro were famous friends. At least once a day in the computer labs you’ll hear boys greet one another, hello comrade.

I once sat at a dinner table of men attending a conference of their own, business partners and old friends from Johannesburg together for a golf weekend. It was late in the evening, without wives dinner was pizza, dessert a box of cookies. The networking opportunities in South Africa exist very much from 1st grade on. The first question you are asked is what school you went to, as if it was college. There are multiple private schools in Grahamstown where children are shipped off, seeing mommy and daddy every so often. A year of tuition and board at the boy’s institution is $18,000. That’s serious money. These men had both attended and sent their children to such academies, but tonight were telling war stories over Oreos. After finishing school, but before wives, before children, before becoming titans of industry, they defended former-Rhodesian, current Zimbabwe. After an hour of discussion, recalling nights in places that today are known by different names, I shyly asked the dad next to me who exactly they were fighting in Zimbabwe. Questions of this type always prefaced with, ‘I’m sorry, I really should know more about this part of the world”. A face bronzed from the golf greens and polo so crisp daisy yellow it might have been bought from the club house that afternoon smiled and said, ‘the communists, my dear’.

In the 6th hour of my excitement, I looked into the process of acquiring a letter of invitation to the former USSR and thereby a visitor’s visa. The American-Russian website states: scroll down to which country you are applying for a visa from. Angola, Mozambique, no problem. South Africa was not an option. Not to mention that would mean I have to put my passport in the South African post- I would rather smuggle a bee hive to Russia in my pants.

During hour 7 I read up on every type of alternate entrance situation- you could enter the country by cruise ship without a visa for 72 hours, the exact amount of time the conference would take. Fate! I decided. Fine print- must be accompanied at all times with a dock-appointed cultural liaison in St. Petersburg, 5 hours from where I need to be. Just as well I thought, I’m sure this dock worker will know where the University of Moscow is and who am I to shunt what basically amounts to a body guard? In the 8th hour of planning, I let go of Moscow. All I knew of Russia before coming to South Africa was glasnost, perestroika, and everything Gary Shteyngart had shared. But something tells me I’ll have a long flight to answer my own question- ‘what were the communists doing in Africa?’ from Cape Town to Brisbane this October. Plenty of time to prepare for another conference on Language and Politics by reading Idiot’s Guide to the rest of the World.

Politeness Revisited


I’d been invited to a campus rosé tasting earlier in the day and while I’d rather drink a boiling PBR than a good rosé, I figured it would be worth going to see the type of students who would join a wine tasting club in Africa.

The friend I went with was the evening’s guest of honor. He runs the coffee shop where every student in wine club starts their day. Before priming the palate with a choice blend of single origin Arabica roast there’s the 20 minutes wait for his one-man, 4 drink choice operation to cycle each of us through. When I flew into Port Elizabeth, the boy sitting next to me on the plane told me I would be drinking coffee there because it is the best in town. I thought there wasn’t any harm trying every place on campus out- only to resolve that it was in fact a superior cup of coffee.

Fast forward three months, the barista and I are sitting across from one another making up insightful hints of this and that from what we were sipping. ‘Indeed the elderberry hint gushes to the edge of one’s senses before cascading into an edgy berry blend’… Elevating each pour above the table in stemmed party-ware did nothing for the $4 bottle of rosé, but this opinion was not shared by those around us staring seriously at their tasting wheel, guessing the grape and the region, age of blends and picking seasons.

Anytime I find myself ridiculing others for being snobby about alcohol, my memory sends me to the back of a Swiss grocery store line in Davos. I was buying a bottle of the cheapest Red available, pooling mine and a friend’s Francs together. After snowboarding for three days eating packed lunches, the thought of returning to our final hostel meal of the exact same salami and cheese sandwiches could be improved, we thought, with a bottle of wine to split. The cashier looked at the bottle and at us- ‘You know wine under 5 Francs is only for cooking?’

From this point on I’ve always thought it’s wrong to judge who drinks what. There’s certainly a camaraderie in enjoying the same beverage, but I’ve also dealt myself the blow of humiliation in remarking once that what I’d been given just tasted like really good apple juice and couldn’t be Veuve…when it was. And I wanted to die. Feeling as though I should hand the little flute back, clearly not refined enough to enjoy such luxuries, not wanting its bubbles to be wasted on me- instead I drank it as if it was a potion to prevent such a shameful event in the future. Liquid humble pie.

Here I was again surrounded in tongues better trained than mine claiming to taste lychee and sulfur notes. Knowing mine could wound bystanders without thinking, I’ve spent the better part of my twenties trying to tone back the snark. As a product of taking on the burden of manners, one thing I now have no patience for is people who don’t think about what their words mean to others. Maybe because I’ve become hyper aware of how what I say can affect people. The girl next to me at this event tested my resolve to not insult strangers, but more specifically her. In a baby pink cable knit sweater and equally juvenile teddy bear necklace charm, she told me the story of her life including one too many admissions about her relationship with her father. I became increasingly uncomfortable as she gave me an unsolicited guided tour through her phone folder titled ‘Daddy’. ‘Isn’t he old!?’ she squealed more to the photo of him fishing than me. Keep the blinding wine coming- terror gushed to the edge of my common sense before cascading over the edge to blend with fascination.

Unfortunately for her, I had recently found out it is normal for South African daughters to kiss their fathers goodbye. That equals dad lips on your lips. My English friends say it’s an English tradition, the Afrikaans friend says it’s part of her culture- they can fight it out, I want no part of this farewell. When I tally the mythical beasts I would rather kiss than my father, it is not out of repulsion for one of my favorite people that I shudder. A bit conflicted I remember the process of earning hello kisses in Germany- a place few would consider cultivating compassion or emotion in general. But the friends I found there were amazingly warm, with morning greeting habits bordering on French closer than their own nation-state lines do. Out of respect for my non-kiss culture, the first few months I accepted good morning high fives- television must have taught them this is something we do on and off the basketball court. But halfway through the year, I’d had enough respect. I wanted to be German too. I wanted cheek-kissed greetings. It became my favorite part of coming to school.

But I am no longer there and must now learn to navigate social customs all over again. When she asks me what I’m doing in South Africa, I told her the polite version contrived for strangers. ‘I’ve come to learn Xhosa.’ There’s more to it than that, but we just met. Why burden someone with unnecessary details. ‘Kosa!’ she exclaimed. Even around white people I try to click the X. I need all the practice I can get, and from the sociolinguistic point of view, I think pronouncing it correctly engenders respect for the language and by extension its speakers. ‘Our Domestic tried to teach me how to speak Kosa, but I never could get the clicks’. Which means she learned the entire language except the clicks? I mulled that one over and tried to suppress the unrest that stirs in me at the choice of ‘domestic’. Imply if someone pays you to cook and clean, you are now domesticated. Pushing out the mind photo-shopped image of her mouth kissing dear old dad, my attention was diverted.

Directly across from us a boy bumped away two standing girls from a chair, takes a seat, and introduces himself, shaking hands with his Rhodes coffee hero. ‘Your name is Cornell, as is West?’, I asked?

‘As in the really important school. Yeah, so as in West. I take it you’re American then, if you know my name’, he said taking a quick sip of pink wine, swish, swish, swallow. Indeed I am, and just that morning I’d met a woman who went to Cornell. I’d asked her if Icitha was nice. ‘Ithica was great’, she corrected kindly. Without asking our names he continued, ‘I got a scholarship to be a reader in English at Oxford, but I wanted to study Law instead.’

It’s good these two are meeting, I thought -Two people in one evening who could seriously benefit in a life-changing way from learning Grice’s Maxims. They are, as I teach my students: Be relevant. Only supply as much information as needed. Keep it on topic.

No conventional wisdom implores us not to mention our fathers too often or the opportunities we’d eschewed. More importantly, Grice did mention to be honest but I’m assuming that also has a constraint, like not too honest or no blurting out ‘You kiss your dad- that’s weird!’ when someone is sharing their cultural practices. When a boy at Boise State told me he’d passed up a full-ride to Yale, I informed him that he was an idiot. Looking back on this, I probably should have started holding my tongue sooner. Learn to raise both eyebrows and say OK. In my life when polite conversation turns to how I once had a decision to live in Germany or Brazil, people rarely think twice of countering my choice- you should have picked Brazil. You have no idea who I am- it’s like suggesting I drink a wine you heard was good- for a year! I’m perfectly happy with my decisions and shouldn’t judge others for theirs, after all, I made a resolution to be nicer this year.

The first person I met in Africa was the above average height and weight boy who, though looked my age, was reading Asterix comics. Trying to glean as much information as possible about the pale boy without interacting, I watched him tuck a Zimbabwean passport away. I worked to add it up, traveling alone, but with a child’s comic book- was he mentally ok? One thinks about these things on planes where your seat partner could at any point be your responsibility, or your life theirs. 240 Rand!? I saw the book price as he laid it cover down to buckle his seat belt. In doing so I asked him my favorite in-flight question of strangers. “You really think that’s going to save your life?”

For the most part, we do and believe what we’re told from the time we are young. Place hands over hearts, repeat in confusion ‘for witches’ stand’ during the first 5 years of school. Bow heads in respect of gods who aren’t our own to be polite. And abroad you’re sometimes affronted by your own ontology. Forced to consider how you’ve structured your reality- why for me it’s just ‘wrong’ to peck my father on the mouth. The boy on the plane studies Law at Rhodes. I judged him by his book’s cover and countered his airplane safety habits, and that was unkind. I would try harder next time.

My roommate Lauren asked me last week if I believe in karma. It had never once occurred to me that karma didn’t exist. I’d never questioned aspects of the principle- but its most basic tenant is one that I would jump to ridicule believers of other faiths for, ‘So you’re telling me you’re only being nice to get through heaven’s door?’ But that’s essentially the golden rule with a prize at the end. What then was I practicing these manners for?

I stood to go. Excusing myself to make copies of handouts before the library closed. The girl in pink asked me why I was leaving early, had I not enjoyed myself? There is still more wine to drink. ‘It’s been lovely. Thank you.’

Bus Life


Maybe this was like any other Amber story. I’d built the bus experience up too much. My friends from high school were always patient as I spun normal two minute interactions into a 30 minute event. Not like one that goes on and on, but a gripping tale with twists, turns, facial expressions ebbing on delight, flowing to horror. Life on the bus was a bottomless well of material and until I moved to Twin Falls, I only had one story about the bus and it had nothing to do with me- my least favorite type of story. Aspen had evidently once fallen asleep on the school bus. End of story.

Life in Twin Falls also only offers one bus ride.

First day of school at O’Leary Junior High, I stood on the corner of Candleridge Circle with four other nondescript middle schoolers. Swearing under breath made visible in the October morning chill the name of our real estate agent. Three months earlier when we came to look for homes, I asked the most important question a 13 year old posed with a life-altering decision of choosing between two public institutions of learning has- what are the school colors? Robert Stuart is green! I own tons of green. I want to go there. “Well,” the agent squeezed between a mouth of equal sized teeth, “it’s not where kids like you go”.

Sitting in the tea room with my friend Sanet, it had been weeks since I’d seen her. In Amber time that meant she’d missed dozens of stories. Nudging the earl grey bag with a finger I watched my tea cup water stain darker and considered which story to tell her first. But Sanet was quicker, and asked if I’ve noticed a class difference in South Africa.

Lately I’d been thinking about my first tussle with the idea of class. That day in 8th grade, when I stepped onto a full bus of kids. Kids, a man that sells houses evaluated to have the same amount of lunch money as I did. But not a single kid had the class I was told I could expect to share their seat. For this reason I’ve always believed manners rather than money define class, but manners are culturally defined so this is a difficult judgment to make in a society which is not my own. I asked one girl sitting aisle-side and alone if I could join her and she responded with an abrupt no. Living with 5 South Africans has reaffirmed that treating those who can do nothing for you well is not a matter of culture but nurture. Here, like at home, some do and some do not.

But in a society still incubating post-colonial preferences, it’s not always our actions, but our vocabularies that betray us. Calling a man you serve ‘chief’ just to bolster his sense of importance is a Pyrrhic victory, for now he may like you more but respect you less. I cannot stand being called Madam and I refuse to call someone a Domestic or ‘the help’. But again, these are just my impressions. Unflinching, friends tell stories where the women who raised them refer to the child’s father, their employer, as ‘Master’. In Robinson Crusoe, he teaches the indigenous man he captured, calling him Friday, to speak English. As Friday learned more English, he asked Crusoe what Master meant. A W K W A R D

I told Sanet the only time I’d been a part of South African society in any real capacity was not at school but on the bus. And from what I noticed, you never wanted to take the cheapest bus- yes, they will sell you a ticket to travel from what mile-wise is Idaho to California, from Grahamstown to Cape Town for $25. But for $15 extra dollars, you could arrive alive, even rested on another bus line. So I always choose the $40 ticket with a company called InterCape. Greyhound is here too, but they are $5 more expensive and once made me wait for 3 hours, which I was not happy about. With five or six bus companies to choose from, quality ranging from Box-with-Wheels to something suitable for wealthy retirees. So I believe you could say the bus line you choose is a good approximation of the class you might belong to- that said, perhaps the bus is where you can to expect to set culturally defined manners from those within your class.

I was leaving that afternoon for Cape Town, another trip with Intercape. By now I’ve learned to pack all three meals for the 12 hour trip. While I’m dipping sliced carrots and cucumbers into hummus watching the en route movie, a 15 year old girl next to me is in a 45 minute staring contest with my ear. In rapt concentration or fascination, I can’t tell which because I’m too shy to stare at someone in a lit bus when they’re 2 feet away. It’s dinner time and she’s looking at me like I’m the one eating a single fried chicken thigh, four slices of unadorned white bread, and two yogurts without a spoon, but with her left pinky finger.

Maybe she was intrigued because I packed my hummus in a reused butter container and she had never seen anyone dip vegetables in butter for dinner. During the first 6 hours there are two stops. As people reboard I eat almonds one by one and diagnose who is going into early onset diabetes, and who is just a little heavy set.Ok, I’m the one staring now, as you drink 2 liters of Coca Cola, but only because I didn’t know it could be done, especially not on this 6 hour stretch without stops.

Feeding time is over. The lights are off.

Prying open the back of my headlamp to insert a new triple A. She’s staring again, not deterred by the dark, as if I was performing open heart surgery. I was a little flattered she found this more interesting that Drumline, the second en route movie. It was proving difficult because I’d bitten off my strongest thumb nail earlier in the day. It was getting in my way of texting friends updates about the bus ecology- every ride presents new environmental challenges. This headlamp issue was my own undoing though, there were countless chances to prevent this moment and the bus gives you 12 hours to reflect on each.

Last August at a concert in Salt Lake City, out of the entire 2,000 audience, the three boys filing into assigned seats next to me were brothers from Twin Falls. Having endless local topics to discuss, conversation with one brother derailed at the sight of my fingernails. As a school psychologist maybe he was looking for hints of mania or OCD in asking ‘why do you think you bite your nails?’ I use them as toothpicks, impromptu floss, what other reason is there? Every January first I resolve to stop biting them. Most recently my dentist requested I stop using my teeth as tools, yet here I am on the bus, stabbing finger flesh into a space clearly meant for something pointy and strong to release the latch. How was I going to finish Roots without a light?

Ten days later as my mom, Aspen and I walked to the bus station in Cape Town to buy tickets for a return trip to the Eastern Cape, I’d spent the entire morning telling them stories from the bus. Tales of publicly breastfeeding mamas, enduring hours of torrid phone call break ups in the seat behind me, witnessing young love bloom as two strangers meet, screaming Xhosa conversations across the bus as old friends recognized one another and decided to catch up, window rattling snores, and plenty of evangelical fervor on Sunday trips where impromptu church service is held.

When we got to the counter the ticket agent said prices had gone up $15 because it’s a popular weekend. I assured my mom and sister it was worth the money rather than renting a car because South African bus life has to be experienced. The next morning we caught a taxi to the bus terminal at 5:30am, for early departure at 6. Packing our bags away, we boarded a white washed bus. It could have been a mobile Clontz family reunion. Each seat occupant sat as if in monochromatic order from blond to grey. Aspen and mom looked at me confused then amused, this is ‘real Africa, eh amber?’ they teased. Joining the other Aryans, I asked myself if this is the difference of a $40 and $55 ticket. Does $15 represent a class divide that I had never noticed before, always deciding I fit in the $40 class not the $25 City to City bus.

As the pensioner couples around us grumbled about when they would be served tea, I thought about the real reason I love Intercape. No assigned seating. And how its redeeming quality protects me from ever knowing what the people I consider to be in my class since I avoid being told ‘no’ and instead sit alone. Intercape, afterall, is for those who can afford to pick their own seat.

Whiter ain’t Brighter


The month of July is a much awaited one in Grahamstown. It is when the city hosts the second largest arts festival in the world. ’12 Days of Amazing’ the promotion posters read. Music, dance, theater, comedy, and fringe shows, Hare Krishna delights, wares peddlers, Noah’s own variety of wood-carved and beaded animals. Something for everyone. Even if you just spent a day walking about the stalls on the Rhodes Campus Great Field, you could not see or taste it all.

On the 13th day, campus was swept by the silent hands of countless workers, corralling stray items forgotten from vendors, picking even tasting toothpicks out of the grass. That morning my friend Bela decided our run would skirt campus en route through town. 7am, grateful to not be running alone, we set out. In awe that the streets which in normal weeks were trash strewn with goats poking about the mess, on this morning they were swept, orderly, and livestockless.

Not bad Grahamstown. Earlier in the week a roommate asked me if my mom, sister, and I made it to the other market in town, the more ethnic, global, non-larny (South African word for richy) one, where the tents were tighter and you didn’t see people, let alone children running about. No basil starter kits, vegan cookbooks, or chickpea fudge could be bought there, but plenty of cell phone batteries, stiff rimmed caps glitter inscribed ‘You know you liked it’, and a guy selling sandwiches out of his car trunk.

This market sat at the top of town in Church Square named for the Catholic cathedral which is the only thing Google Images displays other than campus under a search of Grahamstown. We skirted the outer edges of the world market. Mom and Aspen laughed at the billboard for Mississippi Fried Chicken, then slid inside the church. Even here, one wall away from real Africa, as my friends joke, I felt it was probably close enough. It was the difference between going to the zoo or holding the lion in your lap- besides, my cell phone has a battery.

Bela and I cut through town as dawn broke spilling pink sky above Church Square, which was an absolute disaster. Truly like those stories printed in Kansas newspapers- Tornado Hits, Town Church Spared. The cathedral seemed to stand even taller as if to distinguish itself as being above the mess at its feet. We slowed to a walk, both having been there the day before, not believing half the town could be tilled clean leaving the other to go to seed.

Running back to our houses now, planning to shower and begin the day, Bela explained it was probably just a municipality strike. This one maybe spurred by the division Festival causes in town, 20% of town go to shows, out to eat, and celebrate their good sense to discern what is talent and worthy of being called Art. For many in a country rich in ritual, rites of passage, and belief systems- this is something for the rest who feel at times very much without a defined culture.

Leaving 20% of town a job that in their first year pays $1 an hour, though the Festival itself makes Grahamstown millions of rand in tourism at a time in the year when students aren’t there. Perhaps in solidarity with those who make the Festival possible, but are not fairly reimbursed and could never afford to take part, the Municipality workers decided to strike. Let the lovers of arts and culture restore the purity of Church Square themselves.

Huffing in sync even though the path from town is all downhill, together we rounded Somerset Street- almost home, hot coffee awaits! Bela asked what I had planned for the day. One of my yoga students is a dentist, so I would walk to her office that afternoon for a check-up. Expecting to hear it’s time to start flossing or to avoid bleeding gums don’t brush your teeth with city water.

Detail scrubbing each tooth 10 minutes before leaving the house, I got a text from my roommate –Garbage all over Church Square, come help clean up at 2. Good on you, I wrote her back. Would love to help! Going to the dentist though:/

15 minutes of x-rays, talked into a fluoride treatment, ‘would you like cherry, bubblegum, or orange flavor?’ Is mint really not an option? Tears were still streaming off each side of my face from the teeth cleaning. I sat for 8 minutes with a tray of orange goo squeezing between my canines, recalling two weeks ago how much yoga hurt her, how hard she said lowering even just the upper body was in chaturanga. Is this revenge? Did my teeth cleaning really need to be torture? It was impossible to know if she was grinning like a maniac behind that mask as she drilled below the gums for plague. Once looking in the phone book for a dentist in Boise, I chose an office on Broadway, the clinic of Dr. Payne, and that hadn’t been so bad. But I’d never had my teeth professionally cleaned until today.

I paid her secretary as she explained how awful I am at cleaning. ‘You’ve been brushing your teeth wrong for years. The technique is a circular motion that you want’. Noted. I walked out with the orders to go buy floss, to use it three times a day and to stop biting my nails. Wondering if it is possible to overtime saw off a tooth with floss, I set to walking toward Church Square where I could purchase the waxed thread and maybe make the end of Niamh’s cleaning campaign. Practicing what I’d say, ‘Oh gosh, you guys are done. Shucks- hey though, looks great!’ or ‘If I hadn’t opted for the fluoride treatment, I would have been here earlier!’

But as the square came into sight it looked like the Alice’s Restaurant crime scene. The area of mass destruction was taped off and every cop in Grahamstown was standing around, poking each other with brooms, ignoring 10 Rhodes female students in unisex dress, half with hair up secured by bandana bend down and use kitchen gloves to pick wet cardboard up off the cement, and separating Mississippi Fried Chicken boxes from recyclables one by one. Rosie Riveter would have had a conniption fit. The area barely looked better than that morning, however someone had cleared the donkey droppings. Among the mess were 90 Municipality workers sitting, leaning, waiting for the union leader to speak to them in groups.

Upon arrival I was told the floss store also sold plastic yellow gloves for $1.20. The average Municipality worker gets paid .90 cents an hour. I said hi to Niamh. We were wearing the same outfit. Denim blue long sleeve shirt buttons open, t-shirt underneath and black jeans. I surveyed the scene for a moment before asking a police woman if I could use the broom she was holding herself up with. Sweeping glass and broken bits of shattered plastic princess crowns, I watched others chase loose paper in the wind. If the purpose was to clean the square- this was completely pointless. If our goal was to entertain the strikers, putting on a free show like the ones they missed out on during fest-well then it was a huge success. I was the only one using a broom, and striking workers didn’t even budge as my broom swept next to their shoes.

When the press arrived to take pictures of the community cleaners in the midst of the strike, typing the back-breaking story into their iPhones, ‘Both the street and their faces glistened with goodwill!’ I stuck to sweeping as the group gather for the photo. A man hunched on an overturned trash can yelled, ‘Yeah, it’s real clean now!’ His sarcasm didn’t go unappreciated. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and smile wide at him revealing my pearly whites buffed best for a fee by someone else.

Photo Credit: Niamh

Everyday Remembered


There are no fossils of my former success. No sports trophies or report cards exclaiming, ‘What a JOY to have in class!’ No evidence that my existence would be anything but ordinary, and as I remind my friends when we recount who we thought would do well, and what Facebook says they’re up to now- We are hardly at the finish line. We’re only 25. Had someone checked with 8 year old Amber about her greatest accomplishment, it would be a bug collection, cartwheel, and that she asked her 2nd grade teacher 5 times a week if she too can be tested for the gifted program.

Is our past a true indication of our future and are those around us a better or more honest judge of our abilities? Teachers, coaches, parents of friends who peer-review our virtual life, surely there is more value in their criticism than their praise. Only once confronted with how other people see you and interpret your greatest accomplishments of the day are you able to ask, do I really care? The prism of faces through which we can shine in life are many, but online they are truncated- list your career, relationship status, alma matter. But these major events, marriage, graduation, employment, to borrow a phrase, are phenomenon of punctuated equilibrium. It’s the everyday here and there, ups and downs that make the mensch. Even in a different country, as far as possible from former selves, the daily routine hasn’t changed, just your coordinates.

Once away you get the clearest sense of who you are- I am coffee and toast for breakfast. Without completing the first meal of the day, everyday, how else could I possible succeed with what I set out to do? We are our daily push forward. The final product is impermanent. For this reason I hope to not be remembered as the sum of my parts, but for day to day existence and curious insistence, maybe stubbornness too. Is this who I meant to be? How do others see me?

It’s not as if we all walk around reciting the compliments we’ve been given by others, although I am particularly proud of one. When I was 19 I might have told a little fib about trying to make mayonnaise from scratch, then using it in chicken salad, then falling ill with food poisoning. I croaked out an unrehearsed story to a boss I despised, who I decided it would be most convincing to call at 4:30am to alert him that I would not be going to Bogus that day to build snow kitchens. Taking long periods of heavy breathing in the phone, fake retching, as I quietly packed my bag for Park City.
Bogus indeed and unnecessarily elaborate- I wouldn’t never touch chicken salad if it was the only thing to eat in a snow kitchen. On Monday, after returning from the Sundance Film Festival, a much better use of my time, I was grilled to a chard. Fired is too abrupt- this boss wanted me to feel the burn of my choices.

The more I reflected on the whole process of gaining employment there, the more my appointment seemed made out of curiosity than qualification. My interview had been 30 minutes of asking about my German boyfriend, when he was visiting, how we were keeping in contact during my first year in college. Weird- but ok, I appreciate the concern. Three weeks later I sat in the same office as this man tried to make me cry. It’s true, part of the reason I went to Boise State was for this position, but I will not work $8 an hour for someone I don’t respect. I left town just as he was running an election for a city seat. Good luck and good riddance I grinned, pedaling faster past his face stuck into North End neighborhood lawns. A master’s in psychology qualified him to conclude his Amber roast with ‘you have a cult-like personality’. And I’ll treasure that forever.

Anti-compliments, if there is a fold of grey matter in my brain devoted to remembering the words of others, this is certainly the category of utterance I would tuck in there. Maybe some people have a list of compliments they would one day like to hear from people they respect, or have strangers give them semi-regularly. It’s a goal of sorts, I suppose. I have a list of mental compliments I will offer for a friend’s eulogy, lest they feel in this world that I liked them too much. Here is a short list that even if friends and admirers observed the rule of not speaking ill of the dead, would not lie about at my wake, the chicken salad of Amber compliments, things I will never be told and am in a way happy about.

She had such a keen eye for fashion– Said no one ever. I do own quite a few scarves and spent enough time in Germany to learn black and brown can work together, but it takes more than two acts to start a circus. If only awaylookers could be wooed by frugality in practice. ‘Your get up hurts my eyes, but only $6 you say?’ I could explain so much about thrifting to them. Only buy it if you’d pay full price for it in Anthropologie. Get it tailored, you’re still saving piles of dough. Mystery stain- put it back. Pants for $10, that’s a little steep, but if you wear them once for the next ten days, that’s a dollar per wear and at that point let’s be honest, you’re practically making money.

I wish I could manage my time like her– Even procrastination you’ve got to start sometime. From the outside I think I might appear to have my schedule under control, but turn out my pockets and you will find three days’ worth of graph paper lists, things from the previous two days that I meant to get around to, but decided I needed to learn how to make soup instead. On my least productive of days, with scraps of half crossed out lists around me to add back into this new one, I set out to make today’s list and to get ahead on with the business of accomplishment.

–wake up –write list. In a lead-heavy sweep of the arm I scratch off the first two before continuing the to dos, finishing with a pencil-gripped fist of victory stretched above my head.
My immaculately clean room is a product of this year being one assignment after another due. Note to self, organize your life, then write your paper, err… Rewrite- organize life, bake three types of muffins, write paper. Wait, Organize life, write postcards, go for run, bake muffins, write paper. That’s better!
Unfortunately my approach to money and time is the same. When you truly have no time, deadline is staring you in the face- yes, I think it’s time for a nap. In college I would put aside what I had to spend that month and as the numbers dwindled I consoled myself with proverbs meant for time, ‘Money is like sand, the tighter you hold it, the more quickly it goes’. Yeah! I thought, that make sense, smoked salmon and Haagen Daaz it is.

She was always on the cutting edge of technology– South African students spend an inordinate amount of time watching illegally streamed movies and television, so much so that the Grahamstown movie theater closed last year. I consider it a great success that I don’t waste 4 hours per diem following the next move of this chemistry teacher criminal, that puppet politician, or famed Top Chef. I am an actor in my own daily drama- Amber Untouched.
I didn’t have a phone with internet until I came to South Africa, nor house with an alarm. As you walk through town you see people who haven’t had a job since you arrived to town, because they’re always sitting on the same milk crate in front of your bank. Even this guy has a phone. I’m assuming with internet- nobody likes playing snake that much.

Thank goodness he’s so busy looking down, were he more observant he’d see me hustling from the Blue ATM, holding my breath, walking through 200 people, 400 meters of silent prayers to guardians of cash and 20 something fools, as I physically transfer $300 to the Red Bank. My friends tell me internet banking is possible. One can pay rent, buy the house electricity, or even re-up internet for your phone online. If phone guy looked up, saw my routine and decided to rob me, he’d have enough money to commission a milk crate throne.

Technology is capable of solving 99% of the problems in my life, but because I avoid it, I’ve cast myself in a part where South Africa feels less like California, and more like the village or remote jungle scene I sometimes wish to be. Lucky for me, phone guy is content just being an extra. But by not using the internet functions of the smart phone, I wander through my new landscape worried the device will get snatched right out of my hand if I pull it out to use GoogleMaps, so I don’t use it at all. I’ll find the highly recommended fish and chips place somehow, eventually, then I can cross off –eat lunch.