Friday, August 8, 2008

insights that are queer but true

What a great weekend. I explored some cool places and met interesting people with strange skills. When I say strange skills, I’m using a poorly worded phrase from my own mental dictionary. I just found a better definition of what I mean from Kurt Vonnegut. He calls them “insights that are queer but true." In his novel Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut gives the example of Claire Minton, a master indexer. Not only could she index a book perfectly, she could learn things about someone when they indexed their own book. In Cat’s Cradle, after examining someone's self-indexed book, she rightly concluded the author was gay. A fictional example but such “insights that are queer but true” abound and I love finding them.

They tend to turn up when least expected like at a crappy rock show in the back of a bar. At the show I have in mind, I left the annoying music and dead looking crowd to sit a table by myself with a beer and a notebook. Shortly, a waifish blonde sat down next to me who we will call the Analyzer because I'm a lousy journalist who rarely remembers a name. She said something in Afrikaans, the bastardized Dutch language of South Africa. Looking like the classic little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke (Dr. SS: can we please spell it this way instead of dike to see if anyone catches on, twenty bucks says you don't hear a peep), I understand how she mistook me for a native in this white as Wonder Bread neighbourhood. She told me, “I'm waiting for your pen.” After I gave it to her, she opened up my book and wrote something that could be paraphrased for a family paper as “I wish I had huge tracts of land.” (How many Monty Python fans out there?) Then she simply smiled impishly and wandered off into the crowd without another word.

I shook my head in bemusement and amusement. Several minutes later, the Analyzer showed up again and we started talking about science. I don't remember how we started on it but I tend to bring up science fiction ideas a lot (too much?) so the topic probably branched off that. As it often happens, just when I think that this conversation will go nowhere, I get surprised. In an abrupt change of subject, she tells me that I dress funny. I'm wearing suspenders and a T-shirt so I tell her that I look normal where I come from and she would look weird in Lancaster. As the talk turned towards clothing, she gets more animated. She points at various people in the bar and tells me about them based on their clothing. I start writing down her words because I sensed I had something interesting here. During her lecture on fashion and personality, my girlfriend, Astrid, comes up with her friends. I tell them about the Analyzer's skill and she offers to tell Astrid about me. Before she pulls Astrid out of earshot to give her the Lex rundown, the Analyzer has me pull up my pants to show her my socks.

Astrid gave me the summary on the ride home and I found out that this girl picked up a lot of information from suspenders and big woollen socks. She said some general things such as me being sensitive and emotional but she found me sitting alone in a bar writing. A pretty easy guess. Then she said I had grown up in an outdoors environment and had a collection of something back home of which I was immensely proud. Sure enough, I had all of the Boy Scout camp for a backyard and I am proud of my book collection to the point of arrogance. For her most impressive point, the girl told Astrid that I wasn't well behaved up until 9th grade but then I got into trouble. She said my parents gave me a stern talk and I straightened up after that. We don't need to get into my middle school self control and kleptomania issues but I'll just say she got that one right too. Somehow, this girl talked about me for several minutes and got everything right including some fairly precise predictions. Astrid also told me that the Analyzer was an exotic dancer who married someone from Astrid's high school and now they live happily together with three kids. Things started falling into place. In her profession, she must have excelled at reading men and learning how to massage their ego, the true purpose of male entertainment bars. Interesting insights, “queer but true.”

When my friends woke me up Sunday morning, I tried to shake off a massive hangover and ready myself for a big day. A bunch of us were going to the Guguletho township (slum) for the infamous MZoli (SS: this is correct spelling and caps) restaurant. Not so much of a restaurant as some tables where beers cost a buck and $3 gets you a heaping plate of sausages and chicken. While we waited for our food, I walked around the neighbourhood with my friend Sarah.

The houses ranged from nice multi-room concrete structures to shacks made of spare wood with a corrugated tin roof. Children ran happily all over the streets while men and women sat in circles enjoying the lazy Sunday afternoon often with the help of beers and a car blasting some tunes. Whenever I caught someone's eye, I got a nod with a smile or a “howisit bra?” I found friendly people who didn't overwhelm me with questions like in India. We ended up sitting and joking around with a few guys enjoying some beer on the street corner. They knew everybody passing by and beautiful girls tended to sauntered past slowly as they exchanged flirtatious yells with our new friends. The young men wanted to hear my impressions of South Africa and seemed proud when I told them I enjoyed my experience so far.

I also learned the magic word of South Africa. In India, I would say how much I loved the Indian people for their “big heart.” I meant it every time but I also knew that phrase would always make people like me. In South Africa, I learned to tell people that you like their country for its spirit of ubuntu. Not an easy word to define but I'm starting to realize it contains the continent. Ubuntu is a spirit of unity and watching out for others. I always hear that this sense of community pervades the townships, which they are the place to be if you're down and out because people will take care of you.

Not to say the townships don't have an extremely high crime rate, massive gang infestations and entrenched drug problems. However, that happens anywhere young men cannot get work from Moscow to Paris to NYC. Would America be so orderly if a young man had a choice between letting his family go hungry or joining a gang to fight turf battles over the methamphetamine trade? I believe a creature hungry for survival lurks below the surface of most people and if you're lucky you never have to call on it. How many of us have faced a true survival situation with little chance of escape? How civilized would my reaction be against hopeless odds of survival? I (maybe) have a lot of years left on Earth and who knows what kind of trouble the human race could create in that time? So many doomsday scenarios with life becoming cheap and survival hard to imagine. Alright. Enough pessimism. I've been reading too much about the evils of the past again and that always puts me in a dark mood waiting for them to return.

Back to this township: Once we returned to the restaurant, the area had turned into a block party with dance music and people just enjoying the day. I loved the scene. Everybody out talking to their neighbours, having a great time. I love places where you know everyone and people slowly pass the time together. Hopefully, I'll get to know more about this very soon. It looks like I'll start teaching kids in the townships this week. I'm damn excited.

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greg said...

uhhh. Wow. I was about to leave a comment about how much I'm enjoying reading about your travels ... but that come-on for massage chairs is incredible. I don't think you could pick a more perfectly inane first "comment" for a blog post.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your insights and spirit on here. It's a breath of fresh air.


Neal said...

Nuff' Said