Looking for answers that pop through the boundaries of thought

A few thought-provoking ideas, reflections and entertainments from the deep south of Cape Town...

Some serious, some frivolous, some perhaps just ranting - see what you think!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Male Cowardice, Female Vulnerability

This is a story of a young man’s cowardice.

I was that young man, in my early twenties. I was travelling with my girlfriend between two countries that spoke languages which neither of us knew. The train was moving through the night towards the border. We tried to make ourselves comfortable on a long cushioned bench, on one side of the compartment. A solitary man was on the other side.

My girlfriend shook me. The man had been looking at her lecherously, and had his hand down his pants. He was clearly masturbating in her general direction. I should surely have barked at him, defended her from this weird behaviour, shown some sign that I disapproved strongly of his actions.

Instead I hedged and fudged and sat up. I didn’t really dare to make eye contact with him. He did stop whatever he was up to down there, but I did no more. My girlfriend was left feeling vulnerable and unsupported.

Now, the truth is that, initially it took a while for me to come to terms with the shock that something like this should happen – the actions of this man were completely foreign to my life experience till that point, though on further conversation with my girlfriend, it was not totally unexpected to her at all. So one reaction, inside me, was a revulsion and shame yet again about how messed up male sexuality is in the world.

But the second piece was clearly about self-preservation. He was a rough and swarthy looking customer alright. I trusted men about as far as the smallest knuckle on my smallest finger, and had successfully avoided fighting with them throughout my adolescence. I would later get mugged by some, and in my twenties my only tactic was to freeze up and go silent, once flight was clearly not an option any more. I knew I was still on my way through being part of the group most at risk of physical attack (men in their early twenties, also the group most likely to attack, of course) and I wanted to make it through in one piece. Moreover, this close to the border, there was no knowing what might happen with some dodgy officials. Maybe they would even befriend the man. Maybe nobody would believe our protestations, if I made some. So the safe option was to shut the f*ck up and stay vigilant.

In later life, the urge to shout and yell and call for help has at least come more strongly to the fore, alongside a willingness to keep reasonably fit and healthy so that I don’t crumple into nothingness. The awareness that, even without a weapon, I can find inner ferocity and use it if I am faced with danger like this has become an aspect of me gradually finding my centre as a man amongst men, even though in practice I’ve still been caught off guard more times than I’m happy about. But the crude masculinity of violence and sexual aggression, which women are faced with daily, needs more than our willingness to stand up and be individually counted. The idea that a border guard or two might actually take the stranger’s side was, sadly, not unlikely. A friend of mine who recently found himself taking a stand against (white) male intimidation of a (black) woman ended up in hospital – rather than finding onlookers taking his side.

And meanwhile, of course, in the face of the epidemic of sexual violence, we cannot simply leave things up to the police. Not least because the police are generally not the most clued up and sensitive of folks when it comes to crime against women. But the point also is that there is plenty of “low-level” harassment that never gets near troubling the local boys in blue. And as men aspiring to greater awareness of such things, and support of our sisters, it is time we found a way to show our disgust in the moment at sexist, archaic male behaviour without expecting it to lead to intimidation of us in turn.

I don’t have the solutions, but I do have some ideas to throw out. Obviously, as an educator, my hope is to change male attitudes among the boys and young men I work with, and encourage young women to speak up and demand this. Yet we know that many young men are simply not getting healthy role models and mentoring when it comes to learning about women. Obviously we can support any collective marches and protests that women wish to organise as well as organising our own. But there’s a role to be played, perhaps, in the moment and in response to some of the unacceptable behaviour that happens daily. Maybe some kind of crowd pledge is in order to help make sure we don’t always have to stand alone. Twenty men in a suburb agree to turn up rapidly if a woman has been spoken to threateningly and texts us. Or to support a brother trying to speak up for women. Of course this could end up looking like vigilantism and blow up into some minor and undesired warfare, yet it doesn’t have to be vigilantism as we currently know it. We don’t have to necklace the perpetrator (who may well look like a man but is most likely in reality some lost boy whose dad never showed him a better way). It’s just that strength in numbers can certainly help win an argument.

These are the places and moments where we need to win men back to the fold. The horrendous headline-grabbing crimes are the tip of a general iceberg of ancient entitlement and sexism that needs to be countered on a daily basis. If that iceberg melts I’m pretty sure the headline stuff, the stuff the police really do have to get involved with (and we need to keep ramming that point home too of course), will hopefully diminish too. Men need to think more creatively about how to support a cultural shift. Sitting at home and meditating for world peace, as I would much prefer to have done throughout my twenties, is all very well. But we need to recreate the warrior archetype, in a post-patriarchal form. Many women have clearly had enough of all our broken promises on this one. And yes, I know that women are not above a little stirring themselves, but that simply is no justification for condoning rather than confronting terrible behaviour in men. We do have to find creative ways to get our own house in order if we ever want that battle between the sexes to end.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Fires, felines and vleis (not vleis)

Tyka has just arrived upon my bed, the kitten-cat who lives here sometimes; playful, wanting feline sensual attention and getting it even in the midst of my morning musings on the page. He gets me present again, while the geese honk overhead en route to the vlei. The green shimmer of a goose feather is a new adornment to my shrine, following a walk to the video store yesterday with my girls – partly a run, as the younger one gave three quick sprints and the elder took a well-paced long-distance jog through the vleiside grass to the swings beyond. The vlei must form such a rich part of their childhood memories (held, most particularly in childhood perhaps, in the body) just as Norwich parks are such a part of mine. One swing was where the older one tumbled badly aged two; climbing frames, like dome-shaped igloos; monkey bars for us all to test our growing upper body strength. A see-saw, empty now but earlier holding an embracing pensioner couple, delightfully full of innocence.

For the last few years trips to the vlei have usually been accompanied by Biscuit, our crazy beautiful digging dog, trying to find moles and molerats, though if they appeared she’d howl off pretty quickly. Her own social journey is patchwork – largely nervous of other dogs, whatever their size, she quickly makes human friends (though barks at any with an ounce of fear, including unfortunately the reviewer from a famous travel guidebook visiting our B&B). This was set off by a rather gruff bite from a grumpy old dog when she was still a pup, and it’s clear that dogs like humans have their own destinies to play out.

I’ve had many feline friends in my time, and their temporary demands were rather more familiar to me than the hard hairy slobber of a lovable canine, though now I can hardly imagine life before dog. Yesterday we had to trick her into diving into the vlei to wash off – fortunately she loves swimming – after one of those doggy backrub rolls into the smelliest thing she could find.

Back home the kitten-cats munch cockroaches (yay!) and geckos and butterflies (boo!). The trail of destruction that these apex predators leave in the cities vexed me a while back. Yet the birds, for the most part, fly out of their reach. In the Cederberg a few nights ago a feline yowl on the mountain in the night was a reminder of the essence of wildness around us: followed by a more searing croon of some other being which the leopard or caracal had stealthily stumbled upon. The hungry baboons, perhaps, who’d been approaching our campsite seeking food more than usual, as the long dry season took its toll; or perhaps the tame grysbok the lady in the camp shop talked of with concern, last seen two weeks back. The cycle of life and death, so clear in the mountains then: a river barely flowing and bringing with its slowness a green slimy algae in the rocks, and fish forced into the few places still deep enough for their colonies to thrive, easy pickings for any lazy fan of canned hunting. The soft and soapy tap water was, for once, a preferable drinking option to the mountain stream. At least some thunderclaps and sprinkles of rain came down the morning we packed up.

This was the first time I’d really set up camp independently with my girls: our own little braai grid (you only need a small one if you’re virtually vegan), some vegetable-oil-based firelighters (fantastic!), one of those great coffee steamer Italian steel thingummies, and a new grilling pan-top for toasting over the camping gas. We had our mishaps – a duiweltjie thorn in the girls’ tent put paid to one airbed, a rock on the road flattened a tyre – but both were solved with elegant speed thanks to the grace of life. On the Good Friday gravel road this came in the form of some Afrikaner angels in a 4x4, who had more experience of punctures on excessively tightened hubs, and a pressure gauge and pump to boot to make sure my spare was up to scratch. The airbed issue I solved in the time-honoured fashion of parents everywhere, by donating my own and sleeping on a blanket for the night myself, while the full moon cast its light and the willow above my tent danced lunatic patterns.

My girls find it extraordinary that my own camping childhood contained no fires. I do a little too, particularly as my dad had been a boy scout and we camped regularly throughout my teenage years. It was always small camping gas stoves, perhaps because the real motivation for camping was during daylight hours climbing the mountain peaks; the joys of potjiekos and baked spuds in foil was not part of my youth; toasted marshmallows were a thing I read about curiously in American books. I loved being close to the fireplace of my home in winter, and the annual outdoor Guy Fawkes’ spectacular in the back garden with sparklers and fireworks, but the majesty of a campsite fire under the stars was as new to me when I first arrived in Africa. So too was the sight of the real-life-non-metaphorical Milky Way (a Korean student of mine saw this too for the first time on a recent camp into Africa. The deep joy felt at this realisation will live with us both, I know, forever).

Today, after many camps and many Afrikaburns, fires in the night are a part of my being, as they were for all our ancestors.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Feminine Computer

Medieval times in Europe were pretty much all about binary code, at least from the point of view of literate monks. Good and evil: saints and sinners, heaven and hell, men (good) and women (bad), mind (good), body (bad), celibacy (good), sex and dancing and other associated activities (bad). Etcetera. In many ways this was terrible: and when we look at it in context, it may just be that this paved the way for the kind of rational either/or thinking that defines the modern Western world, and ultimately… perhaps… leads to the invention of the computer. Computers are machines based around two discrete possibilities – on or off. 0 or 1. Right or wrong. They are, in their whole conception, products of left-brain-style polarity. If quantum physics is based on the strange concept that there are both points and waves in light; then the wave aspect is quite foreign to the computer and its cultural origins. A computer “wave” is made up of discrete pixels.

The computer is rather strange for other reasons too. Silicon, the substance that made the revolution in computing possible, is deeply related to carbon, the basis of organic life. In fact it mimics its chemical structure in all kinds of ways, such that it was long speculated as a possible alternative elemental basis for life on other planets. However, it plays another role entirely in the soil, and in plants, animals and humans; a potentially deadly one. Rudolf Steiner had much to say about silicates, but one image that sticks is his description of silica as a “corpse”. To be sure, there is a lot of other fascinating stuff to be worked with around the elements involved in maintaining life, and the role of carbon in the plastic elements of computing is massive in the hardware. Yet I am struck by this use of this strange, mimicking, “dead” element at the basis of our polarised modern technology.

It is masculine, to define it in a modern way, involving the aspect of the bigger polarity of life that delights in limits and boundaries. 
Oops, here I go defining things too in polarities! Well, there's no harm in playing with polarities. In fact, one of the great hilarities of life is that it's pretty impossible not to. So let's play.
According to this game, what would a feminine computer look like? Clearly this would have to be concerned more with continuity and infinity.

Consider the case of the largest number with a defined name – a googolplex. Not the corporation HQ but the very large number. If a googol is 10 to the power of 100, a googolplex is 10 to the power of a googol. This number is considerably larger than the number of atoms in the known universe. In fact, even writing it is quite a feat. Consider that the processing power of our current computers doubles at present around every two years according to an observation known as Moore’s law. It is in fact currently slowing somewhat so isn’t really a “law”, but let’s use it as a principle for our calculation. According to this, computers are nowhere near being able to write this number yet, but, if processing power hypothetically continues to double every 2 years for the next 400 years, it would then be worth starting to write the number around the year 2400. And once it is finally worth attempting, it would take 4 years to do so, and use up more material than there is matter in our solar system to actually write the number out.

Pretty impressive, right? And still a finite number made up of 1s and 0s. And the infinite possibilities unleashed by a feminine computer operating system would be as far off as ever.

Perhaps the quantum generation of computers will actually look rather different, I hear the geeks respond excitedly. And while they head off to investigate and invent, the Divine Feminine will stand aside and applaud them on with congratulations – and offer up titbits of wisdom they’ll call intuition as they solve these problems en route to Windows ∞.0. Bless them!

But of course the feminine computer already exists. We are all computers created on feminine principles. Organic, using carbon for our intelligent electrical impulse transmissions, working with waves and imprecise movements; continuously changing and flowing with infinite possibility and potential; a holistic, right-brain-style of looking at the world, connected to every other element of life around us instinctively, intuitively, sensually. If we can only get our heads out of those social media silicon messages we might realise the incredible potential our designs have installed for us.

And contained within the feminine, of course, is the masculine. For, as Rilke knew, “the deepest experience of the creator is feminine” – not masculine. This is not the mirror of those medieval monks denying the feminine; it is the One from which the two emerges joyously as a dance of life. While Mani was being crucified for the heretical belief that good and evil both had a place in the manifested world, the East was of course celebrating the yin and yang as equally vital and inter-related; from the fluid interplay of Shiva and Shakti emerges the constantly-changing universe. Baby boys are just baby girls who’ve diversified according to the cosmic game of creating two to play.

So this “masculine” technology we have devised is an aspect of this, a brilliant mirror of our own innate potential and a rich line of enquiry into possibility; and at the same time, in its shadow aspect, technology is a manifestation of our own sense of inadequacy, of needing to create something outside ourselves to solve our problems and entertain our distractable souls.

The genius of the organic world is only just beginning to be understood. As biodynamic and intuitive agriculture teaches us the weird and wonderful intelligence at play on the cosmic computer that is Gaia, we find fungi who munch up deadly toxic plastics, we find carbon promoting charcoal forms that densify soil and attract more rain, we find food substances that drastically alter the spectrum of what we can experience in our consciousness, we find we can communicate with animals after all and that there are forms of language and connection we used to relegate to the world of children’s books. The next unicorn is just around the corner, and it will certainly not be the product of genetic engineering. The wonder of this massive feminine computer (which forms an incredibly beautiful network, that we’re already part of, and which Apple’s ergonomics team would die for), does not need us to develop it; it simply needs us to understand it so we can work and play alongside it. The game, ladies and gentlemen, has indeed begun.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Weskus Journeys

The sight of a massive, pristine sand dune, inland from the Atlantic coast and surrounded by hardy bush, is one surprising sight on the R27 home. Feeling a little bloated from fish coated in a disturbingly yellow batter, and chips which I hope were made from those prize local Sandveld potatoes (hiding beneath the spartan soil), I am bemused by the uncharacteristic grey skies above, which, today, make the whole setting resonate with some cross-dimensional intrusion from an inadequate north European seaside holiday. Perhaps the one I had on my 8th birthday, eating sausages in Belgium in the rain.

If South Africa is the most beautiful country in the world, officially, then the officials probably visited the West Coast/ Weskus in the spring, when a smorgasbord of flowers drown the mixed metaphors of travel writers. At other times of the year, the specialness of the region is a little harder to nose out. And the moonscape close to Koeberg, Africa’s only nuclear power plant, probably needs to be regularly ignored. My daughter reveals that she took this name rather literally in the past, imagining some kind of enclosure for rampant radioactive electricity-generating vegetation. There was a veld fire around here recently, it seems, and the impact on these sandy flatlands is more dramatic than in the mountains: bush cover reduced to charred stumps in the midst of sandbanks. Elsewhere, by contrast, the wind farms of tomorrow are beginning to dart across the low western hills.

Yet there is a precious wildness, when one gets away from Koeberg, or from Saldanha (that dark Satanic mill at the steel-making end of the interminable Sishen train line). Even Velddrif, where we stopped in the Easter takeaway queues for those fish and chips, had its share of gulls eager for the scraps my children threw, while coasting proudly into the windy gusts off the Atlantic, or racing down to the beards of seaweed clutching at the shore. We looked at the ocean and talked of the lives of albatrosses, riding the air in a way so foreign to us landlubbers.

The West Coast has featured rarely in my travels, and perhaps because of this the memories it evoked today were strong ones: riding our way across that bridge over the mouth of the Berg River, here where it emerges so far from larney Franschhoek, spotting the pyramids of salt, and flamingos in the pink pans, like further up in Namibia at Swakopmund. And we pass the game areas: !khwa ttu San heritage park (where I once took 10-year olds on an exciting adventure into Bushman culture);  the West Coast National Park, with its riot of birdlife and wetlands. Close by, camping long ago (before children) with my lovely young wife, we’d gone horse-riding on a beach, an experience she was skilled at, and at which I was a complete novice, taken for a gallop, careering up the other rocky side of the beach, and staying on most likely through the sheer folly of not expecting to do anything else. This tale, today, is recounted to my horse-mad children yet again, for I have been led to a fascination myself with these creatures, who I still know so little but who I can see today in a far richer way than was possible back in the class-bound Britain of my childhood (where horses were for toffs, and that was all you needed to know about them).

That distant trip was in spring, of course. I recall a hike through the floral magic of the National Park, a picnic on some granite rocks; our first grateful taste of “corn thins” together, which somehow were superior to the rice cakes and avo we had previously survived on; and a fat puffadder sitting in the tar road in the heat of the day, while we drove past in her brown Beetle, and I wondered casually if a pofadder might be able to leap through an open window.

Today we return home to the warmer waters of False Bay, where organic coffee is easily available, where yoga classes are two-a-penny (and not railed against by crucifix-trundling coastal preachers), and where English is frequently heard. Even here, however, there is wildlife creaking beneath the smiles, and – thank the gods – those grey skies are bringing some serious rain.