Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The 21st century family: A short story for the new year

I wrote this story a few years ago, but somehow it seems even more relevant today.

Mother is in the kitchen making the family meal. She has a cookery book open on the table, and as she reads down the page with a floury finger, she glances over at the blackboard sitting on the fridge to see if an ingredient she has run out of is on her chalked up shopping list. Good. She smiles to herself. It is. Then her attention is distracted by the calendar on the wall next to the blackboard. She mustn't forget her pottery course that starts during the week. She's looking forward to that. She always meets nice people at these courses. Oh and yes, on Friday she's going to the ballet. Alone probably. She smiles ruefully and looks through the kitchen door to where father is sitting, laptop on his knees, typing furiously, jabbing the keyboard with his heavy fingers. His face is expressionless, but the speed and violence of his two pronged attack on the computer suggest heavy matters are going on in his Internet world.
Her thoughts are interrupted noisily by the entrance of Emily (In a relationship with Stephen White. From London, England. Born on May 18, 1996. At least that's what her Facebook page says).
"Mum, where's dad? I need to ask him something?"
"Where do you think he is, pet. On the Internet. Surely you can see that from here!"
"Yes, but where is he?"
"How, should I know, lovey! Have you tried his usual haunts?"
"Yes, but he's not been on Flickr, or MSN or Pinterest, and I couldn't find him on Facebook! He hasn’t even done a blog post since he came home...."
"Well, sweetie, you could try just going through that door and asking him yourself. You know. Speak to him? In person?"
"Oh come on, Mum," scoffs Emily scornfully. "That's sooooo last century! Get a life, won't you?"
"I thought I had one," sighs her mother, looking wistfully over at her calendar.
"Oh, I know!" Emily exclaims suddenly. "He's started a Twitter account now. He's probably tweeting. I should have checked!"
"Twitter? Tweeting? Isn't that what birds do?" Mother asks, slightly bewildered by her husband's apparent metamorphosis.
Emily shrugs her shoulders exaggeratedly. "Maaaarm! When are you going to get...."
"...with it. I know." Again Mother smiles apologetically at her daughter. Emily’s thoughts have already changed track, though.
“I’ll just send him a DM...” she decides happily, and bouncing out of the kitchen she heads upstairs to her bedroom.
Mother’s eyes follow her, a thought struggling over her face. “A.....DM?” She wonders if she even speaks the same language as her daughter anymore. More or less used to her husband’s internet addiction, she knows that if she wants to talk to him, she has to dial his mobile phone number – this being about the only way she can break his concentration from the screen in front of him. Her daughter, however, makes her feel even more alien in her own home. DM’s? Tweeting? Whatever next?
Just then the front door to the house opens again, and Justin walks in (Single. From London. Born on October 5, 1994).
"Hi Mum," he mutters, grabbing a handful of raisins from the packet on the table.
"Justin! Where have you been? I've tried calling you four times and sent you three Whatsapp messages! It was your dad's birthday yesterday and you didn't even come home to wish him a happy birthday!
"Sorry mum. I left my phone at Dave's. I couldn't call. And anyway, I was in the middle of a serious international gallactic battle!"
"Yes, dear, I'm sure you were, and may the best side win, but even that shouldn't have stopped you from letting me know where you were. There is still such a thing as an email, you know."
"Oh come on, mum....anyway, I did wish dad a happy birthday. I did it on Facebook. Didn't you see? Oh no, of're not there yet are you?"
He smirks slightly at his long-suffering mother.
At that moment, Emily rockets back into the room.
"Wow, mum! Dad's having this amazing row on Facebook. D'you want to see? It's getting quite vicious!"
"I thought he was on this Twitter thing?"
"He is, but you can link it to Facebook of course," Emily's look says it all "and that's what he's done. Anyway, take a look at this! It's wicked!"
Mother is torn between looking at her daughters iPad screen and stepping through the kitchen door and asking her husband what on earth is going on. The iPad wins.
What she sees bemuses her. The slanging match going on between her silent partner in the lounge and someone called David Malkovsky (In a relationship with Anastasia Chownyk. From Kiev. Born 15 January 1962) about the Ukrainian question is loaded with expletives, ugly threats and virulent remarks. And she hasn't heard a thing. Except for the two-pronged jabs at the keyboard of course. It seems like years since the two of them have had any conversation lasting more than a few seconds, and this one has to have been going on for at least an hour. Totally without her knowledge!
Looking at her offspring, she is suddenly amazed that they are even still speaking to her. Verbally. With their mouths and tongues, that is. Her husband only seems to communicate in grunts these days, or through the Internet. Her children, on the other hand, know far more about his life than she does, even though she spends most of every day in the same house as him. And the reverse is probably true too, she realises, as Emily skims down her Facebook profile displaying comments and 'likes' made by her father.
Mother makes a decision. Throwing down her tea towel and washing her floury hands, she grabs Emily's iPad from her daughter's protesting clutches.
"Right then, you two. Show me how to make one of these Facebook accounts. It's obviously time, as you so succinctly put it, that I got a life!"
And with silent regret, she glances over at her calendar, mentally crossing off some of the activities listed on it. If you can't beat them, you have to join them, she supposes. And then she envisages the long evenings ahead - sitting with her loved ones, in hopefully companionable silence, but all the while getting what they call 'a real life' on the Internet.
Watching as Emily and Justin argue over the details to put on her profile page  ("Should she be married, or just in a relationship?"), she smiles at their shared enthusiasm ("And let’s just put her birthday and not the year. We don’t want our friends to know she’s that old!"), and wonders when it was that her children last did something together. Will this be the last time? And what is she getting herself into now? She squashes the doubts resignedly. This has to be the way forward if she wants to share any kind of life with her family.

Anyway, what was the saying from that long forgotten movie? "Resistance is futile".

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Audience? What's that then?

This is a post I've had as a draft since last year and never published. It seems quite a good moment to post it now as I'm in the same place again teaching-wise, not to mention being too immersed in work to write a new one. 

Just in case any of you don't know this by now, I'm a teacher. It's how I make my living and it's the day job I'm not about to give up because truth to tell, I really enjoy it. I know, I know. I moan and groan about having to work, but the rewards of really helping my students achieve something they've previously been unable to do is verging on addictive. Oh did I mention that my subject is writing? In English. Surprised? No, well, maybe not.

Sometimes I teach oral English skills. I'm doing that now with two groups of first year International Business students. They are a delight, but as yet, they haven't grasped the fact that seventy percent of their oral communication is about non-oral communication and reaching out to their listeners or audience needs more than mere words.

Like most teenagers, they think that surly and sulky looks lean and mean. They'll learn in time that a smile will leapfrog the inch and carry them a mile. They'll also learn that while accuracy in spoken language is admirable, it's something few people - even native speakers - achieve, so it's not the most important consideration.

Mostly, though, I teach writing skills to Master's students, Phd'ers and administrative staff, and I love that. I feel that accuracy and variety of language are much more important in the written than in the spoken word - not that I count myself as any kind of expert, especially as I'm nowhere in the PhD'ers league. But what I can help them to understand is the importance of knowing that whatever they write is largely determined by the expectations of those reading it. It's also about the craftsmanship of putting ideas, thoughts and opinions into textual form in a way that exactly suits the reader - or as we like to call it, the audience.

As a writing teacher, I've become very aware that this aspect is often ignored but incredibly important. I show my students models to demonstrate the difference between an academic text, a narrative text and a business text - how to say essentially the same thing for three different readers. It amazes them, and to be honest, it still amazes me too. I love the fact that we can re-shape, re-structure and re-package our language in this way and for me, this is one of the major delights of the written word.

So which style do I like best? That's hard to say. One of the most appreciative audiences I've ever had consisted of the management of the health insurance company where I worked for ten years in South Africa. It was my job to write the 'visit reports' - accounts of meetings with member firms I'd been to see as part of my job as assistant marketing manager. In theory, these should have been dry factual accounts, but I enjoyed adding my own take to the reports; brief descriptions of the people I'd met, the offices they worked in or the other employees in the firms, so in truth they were more like short articles or interviews than minutes of meetings. That said, if the managers hadn't told me they looked forward to reading my weekly write-ups, or if they'd criticised my style, I'm sure I'd have changed it, but my audience was receptive and so I carried on.

This brings me to the point that isn't really much of a point. I'm just rambling really. But the point is (yes?) it doesn't matter so much what you write as long as you write it right for the right types. So that's it. The audience is what matters, and in a language generally regarded as being 'writer responsible', it's our task to keep our readers happy by writing in a style they expect and like for the content they've chosen to read.

Sounds easy doesn't it? Well luckily for the teacher me it isn't, because if it were, I'd be out of a job. For the writer me, well that's another story. I wish it were just a bit easier to find the right audience…but I'll keep trying.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

My fourteenth Christmas

This year's harbour lights
My first Christmas in the Oude Haven was at the end of 2001, so this is my fourteenth end of year festive season as the proud caretaker of my lovely Vereeniging. Every year, the winter seems to change. Some are just plain cold, but not enough to stop us having the occasional spuddle. The photo below is one from December 2008, when my daughter and I decided to go for a row with a broom and a homemade paddle (we really did - and they worked perfectly!). Yesterday, we went for another spuddle, except this time we had a smart electric motor and a battery on my increasingly decrepit little rowing boat. Now you'd think that would be much more efficient, wouldn't you?

Well, the occasion will enter the annals of the ridiculously memorable because we wired the motor up the wrong way so everything was in reverse. I'd done about four pirouettes before my daughter grabbed the tiller and figured out that reverse was forwards and left was right! I did feel an idiot, but in hindsight it must have looked very funny.

The fact that we were trying to tow another rowing boat 'to help out' a poor neighbour who was rowing against the current just made things even funnier. Poor Bas didn't know what we were up to except that we were running rings round him. It was icy cold, but I wish I'd had a camera on me to capture the moment.

Then there are the snowy Christmas seasons. I know everyone seems to think we've not had a proper winter in years, but I have photos to prove otherwise. These three were taken in 2009, one of the prettiest winters we've had with lots of real snow and icicles as well as plenty of sunshine to make it all sparkle. Children playing ice hockey on the canals made a beautiful scene and everything was frozen solid.

This one below was, I think, earlier, but I don't know exactly when. The trees on the quayside have been gone for years, so I suspect it was back in 2005 or 2006. My photos are not always dated very well as the cameras were not set to the right date and time on occasions. Needless to say, this was a very snowy winter in the Oude Haven.

Last winter was unusual in that we had no snow, no frost and everything remained growing, even my annual primulas, begonias and geraniums. They all survived to flower again this spring. This last week, though, we had the coldest days since the winter of 2012/2013 so maybe things will be back to normal again. Much as I hate the cold, I think it's probably a good thing. The earth and the land need the ice and frost to kill the bugs, and snow gives lots of good things to the ground, but even still, I'd prefer not to have too much of the white stuff. Give me freezing temps with sparkling sun rather than this kind of whitout.

That aside, Christmas in the harbour is lovely as many of the barges put up lights in their rigging. This year, lighting up evening will be next Friday, so here's a taste of what's to come. I know I've shown this one before, but I love the atmosphere. This was Christmas 2006.

I'll be keeping my head in my books over the next few weeks, so I'll take this opportunity to wish you all a lovely holiday wherever you're going or what you're doing. May it be peaceful and joyous whatever your persuasion. I won't sign off completely as I might post again, but for now…

Happy holidays and blessings to those who value the season's spiritual message XX