Toggling my life

Ball and chain

When my ex-boss, or ‘project leader’ as he liked to be called, told me I needed to sign up to a time tracking site, I was a bit put out. ‘Standard practice for contractors,’ he told me. ‘Ankle monitor,’ my husband called it. But there it was, like it or not, I was about to be trussed up and tracked.

The site, the boss said, was called Toggl, which immediately set my teeth on edge. How was one meant to say that? Was it pronounced Tochel (Yiddish and rude) or Tog-Ler (Danish and wholesome), or did one just pretend the ‘e’ was there all along? Being over the hill, in tech terms, or even perhaps halfway down the other side of the slope, I thought I’d probably need to watch a video to work out how it all operated. As it turned out, there was no need. You simply entered a task and the timer started. Press stop and the task with its accompanying duration was entered on a list.

There were, however, moral issues to consider. Should you press stop when you went to the loo? What about a cup of coffee? Surely an office pee was a reasonable thing an employer could be expected to pay for? I mulled over this while doing my work eventually opting for the guiltless pee. I stopped the clock and spent a fair amount of time dawdling to the bathroom and back. I felt self-righteous and virtuous – feelings worth any price.

By the end of the morning I had a sizeable list of impressive-looking tasks:

  • Blog article: Automation 0:18:34
  • Sync weekly meeting 0:45:55
  • Questions for upcoming blogs to interviewees 0:15:04
  • Team sync notes 0:01:36
  • Infographic: CS vs Bootcamps, updates 0:19:00
  • Annual tech study 0:18:04
  • Blog article: StackOverflow 2019 0:26:54

Looking over this, I realised I’d done a complete full circle: I loved Toggl. How could I have doubted it? Look at what I’d accomplished, so neat and square and black and white. How could I have worried about that missing ‘e’? My day looked sharp and in focus. I even considered whether I should have added ‘Trip to bathroom’ and ‘Making Coffee’ to the list and Toggl(ed) them. Could I cut down on their duration next time? Could I discover trends – toilet visits on Wednesday taking, on average, longer than Monday? And what would it all mean?

Because the big issue about life is, of course, Time. What to do with it? How best to use it up? It’s said that time is the great leveler, but that’s not entirely true, is it? Sure it’s the big leveler between the rich and the poor – it doesn’t matter how many millions you’ve squirreled away, you’ve still only got a set amount of time. But Time certainly differentiates between the ‘healthy’ and the ‘ill’, and the ‘young’ and the ‘old’ – it’s what makes these groups largely invisible to each other, their different relationship to Time: the sharply dwindling supply in the case of the ill and the old. Time, perhaps more than anything else in life – even things like what work you should do or whom you should hang out with – is the problem that needs to be solved.

Here’s my advice: solve it with a time tracking app. I’m kidding of course – there’s no solution to the Time Problem, but even if the thought of how much you have left is the fundamental existential question that traditionally causes terror and dread, there is at least something rather satisfying about recording everything you’ve done with it so far.

A very Zen kind of Fame


Zen tree corridor in Newlands forest

Since Greg started his new IT and financial services training company, Celerated, he’s been obsessing about LinkedIn. I’d always thought LinkedIn was a bit of a joke – the hipsters flocked to twitter, the Mums to Facebook, the nerds congregated on LinkedIn – but apparently this ‘is just not true!’ LinkedIn is ‘imperative for networking’.

No wonder I’ve never taken to it then. I don’t think I’ve ever networked with a single person ever, anywhere, or at least with any measure of success. I have, however, sidled up to people at cocktail parties but mostly because their snacks looked better than mine, or at least they displayed greater dexterity at managing to hold drinks, serviettes, toothpicks with blocks of cheese and gherkins – and this surely hinted at broader skills.

But if Greg were on LinkedIn, then I, too, was going to do it, because I’m competitive as fuck supportive and helpful. I dusted off my old LinkedIn profile only to find that a whole lot of people had endorsed my skills. Me?!! Skills??! I read through them appreciatively. It seems I’m good at:

  • negotiating (I have conducted some psychological experiments on my family that have involved negotiation)
  • strategic planning (sure, why not) – whatever that is
  • Microsoft Office (that’s like endorsing someone for eating lunch)

This was all very flattering, until I looked at who had endorsed me. That’s when the penny dropped. I’d never heard of most of them, which meant that they couldn’t possibly know me. This made sense when I considered that there was no photograph of me on LinkedIn. Nobody knew who the hell I was! Clearly that was why they had endorsed me. They were probably confusing me with other Lisa Lazaruses. (There’s a whole pack of us out there. Be warned!) I wondered if this insight could be taken much further. Would I be much more popular on FB, Twitter if I just wasn’t me?

I feel I’ve discovered something crucial here: about how much better it is not to be really known. I’m told that fans of Justin Bieber are called Beliebers. Presumably they appreciate the presence, now and then, of the Bieber himself. But things might be different for fans of me. Maybe the Belisas are kept at the right pitch of excitement when they never encounter their star at all. Certainly works for me.

A New Use For Zoo Biscuits (Or: More Dodgy Psychological Experiments)


If you want to understand a person’s mind, why mess around with ink blots when you can use animals? The Rorschach test is over-rated in my opinion. As a friend of mine said, ‘Who wants to look at a bunch of vaginas anyway? Not me. A total waste of my time. Why do they feel the need to make all the inkblots look like privates?’

But everybody loves an animal, and the great thing is it’s not always the same kind. You get cat people versus dog people – though who, for example, is a cockroach person rather than a grasshopper person? They’re out there. And what about those who prefer millipedes to centipedes – is the millipede the Donald Trump of insects (‘the most…the longest…’)? An ex-boyfriend of mine’s favourite animal was the stick insect.

If you want to do a projective test, a type of psychological test where the individual


An axoloti having a good time

responds to ambiguous scenes, words or images, just ask somebody what animal they would like to be. For example, I want to be an axoloti, or Mexican walking fish. Tellingly, axolotis don’t develop adult characteristics but retain their gills, fins and other larval characteristics throughout their life. Their name is derived from the word ‘xoloti’ meaning monster. Make of that what you will.

When I asked my spouse, he said he wanted to be a mountain gorilla, but then he changed his mind and said, ‘No, a more patriotic choice: a Cape baboon’. Fitting. The kids were keen on dinosaurs naturally. If you’re powerless and vulnerable, what better choice than a big and vicious T-Rex? Of course nobody in the family chose a battery chicken or a pig. You don’t want to be any animal that humans have set their rampant appetites on.

And let’s not stop at projective tests – what about dating apps? You put yourself on as your favourite animal and look for something that matches you. I don’t imagine a gazelle would choose a lion – or perhaps I’m wrong and that’s exactly how it would pan out. Would venture capitalists throw their money at this app plan? Maybe not. But I think it could be an entertaining way to burn off one’s life savings in a month or two developing such an app.

So leave off the ink blot tests and go for the animals. Perhaps they could even be combined. I was at a family dinner party a while back where an elderly French lady described her experience of giant beavers in Patagonia, and how much she enjoyed watching them swim in the icy streams. ‘Do you like beavers?’ my mother kept hectoring a friend of mine, who was also at the table, until eventually he cracked and admitted to liking them rather a lot. This confession of fondness somehow triggered a new question from her. ‘Can one eat giant beavers?’ she asked him. Now she would have been a good subject for a Rorschach test.













Is memoir writing therapy?

People who want to write a memoir often compare the process of writing that memoir to therapy. They say things like, I need to tell my story, I want to feel better about what happened to me, I want others to know my experience. But is writing a memoir like therapy? Are there ways in which the two processes are similar?

I am a memoir and fiction writer who trained as a psychologist and worked as a therapist for a number of years, so I find the links between writing a memoir and experiencing therapy fascinating. I can see two kinds of similarity.

The first has to do with the content of the memoir. With a memoir (or therapy) you can write (or speak) about whatever you want. You can mention whatever events you choose and also how you felt or thought about them, even if those feelings were embarrassing or humiliating. There are no constraints – the therapist often refers to therapy as ‘your time’ and the memoir is clearly ‘your space’.

But perhaps the more interesting similarity between therapy and memoir writing has to do therapywith the process of doing both these things. Therapy, at least therapy that aims to reveal unconscious content, works a lot with something called the transference. The transference is the relationship that develops between the therapist and the client. Because the therapist is largely unknown, the client will – so the theory goes – project a whole lot of things onto the therapist based on previous pivotal relationships, almost always the parents.

For example, if you grow up with a critical mother, the therapist comes to seem harsh and judgemental to you. Alternatively, if your relationship with your mother or your father is overly enmeshed, therapy, and perhaps even the therapist herself, comes to seem constraining and claustrophobic. Perhaps you end therapy a few minutes early every time just so you can get away from her.

With an experienced therapist, the transference is given the chance to develop and then interpreted at the correct moments. The transference develops because you are projecting your inner world onto the therapist.

Is the blank page that different? I think there is transference happening in how you approach that empty page. For example, you might think that what you write is absolute rubbish and you’ll be judged harshly for it. Or you may be reluctant to edit anything you write, because it’s all so amazing. You may write extremely fast or painstakingly slowly, because the empty page has assumed all kinds of characteristics which are, of course, not objectively there. You’re projecting aspects of your inner world and your relationship dynamics onto that page. Of course, with memoir writing there is nobody analysing that transference, unless you choose to reflect on it yourself.

In short, memoir writing can be very therapeutic, particularly if you think about not only what you’re writing – the free expression of your thoughts and feelings – but the writing process as well.

For interest, here’s a link to a memoir course that I run. And here’s a memoir that I’ve co-written.






Six Stories from Struisbaai

1. There are lots of fishermen (women) at Struisbaai. They set up their lines and fish from fish5the beach, but there’s not much to catch. Often they hook only sand sharks. Often they don’t bother to chuck them back. Round a braai, last night, I herad that the
sharks are just left to die slowly  on the beach. Nobody eats sand sharks, I think. Here’s a dead fish I saw on my walk this morning. There is something eerie about a dead fish. It seems to be smiling at one.

2. Still with the braai, I told a man last night he was a ‘very good cook’. He looked offended and I thought perhaps there was an error in translation – he was Afrikaans (‘cook’ / ‘koek’). No, no, he said, he didn’t cook; he ‘braaied’.

3. On the beach yesterday afternoon I saw a man in lateish middle-age, portly around the middle, in a cowboy hat and a peach shirt (plus shorts – can’t remember the color), hit his partner, a fatter man dressed entirely in black, rather hard, with two slip slops. ‘That must have hurt,’ I said. The one in the peach shirt flashed me a grin. ‘I like to abuse him.’  I had a sense they were probably the neighbors.

4. We passed a tractor fair on our way back from the OK Bazaars yesterday. I thought of getting out and having a look around. I even imagined that we had one which was getting a bit rusty. But then it was too hot and the queues at the OK had gone all the way to the back of the shop right to the bakery.


5. A guy died yesterday in Porterville, I head last night. He’d traveled there from Israel to go paragliding. But it’s dangerous to paraglide at Porterville because you use the thermals, which is what birds do as well. This means you can shoot up very fast into the air, at something like  55 km / hour, and of course that makes it very unpredictable. The Israeli websites were already reporting the man’s death, though not yet in South Africa.

6. The water was so warm that the youngest child became delirious with delight. He danced and marched and went running into the waves, despite that fact that he can’t swim. Okay that wasn’t  a story really, more of an observation. So it doesn’t actually count.

joshie beach.jpg

Ten things I’ve learnt about travel

I hadn’t been overseas since a year before Joshua’s birth (he’s now five) and now I’m doing two overseas trips – Mauritius, Rome – in quick succession. Like having an extended *dry spell* and then having two rapid one-night stands in a row, you suddenly realise there’s fun to be had, if you can just set it up right.

Here are ten things I’ve learnt:

  1. There are many ways to get to the same place. That’s not a deeper psychological point. It’s just that if you miss one bus, you can always take another.
  2. Going to museums is like sifting through rubbish: most of it is junk, but sometimes you’ll stumble across a treasure. One person’s treasure is another person’s trash. At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome (mostly fairly dull), I walked into a room that showed photographs of a man ageing alongside a duf-duf-duf soundtrack from a video some distance away. Perhaps it was the strange pairing of these two media, but I had an intense, and utterly memorable, feeling of death anxiety and vertigo. At a sixteenth century rich banker’s house down the road from us, I saw how small his bedroom was and how lush and sumptuous he kept his dining and waiting room.
  3. Wherever you go, someone is taking a selfie. Learn to walk around selfie sticks.
  4. Related point: over time, everywhere becomes a spot for selfies. The Colosseum colosseummight have once been a venue for mass executions and blood-letting (the Romans swept the floor regularly to prevent the slipperiness of the blood impacting negatively on the ‘games’), but now it’s an agreeable selfie-spot, especially for Japanese tourists.
  5. South Africans regard themselves as a friendly, nice lot. But others are just as nice, if not more so.
  6. Be direct. Greg met an ancient academic at a conference who, when he’d heard enough of what Greg had said or didn’t like what he was saying, would calmly say ‘Enough,’ and Greg would then keep quiet. This strategy, if applied more widely, would probably lead to fewer fights, bad feelings and divorces.
  7. There are three stages: recovering from the trip there, feeling you’ve been there a million years, girding oneself for the trip back.
  8. Sometimes the most foreign feature of a place is the colour of the sky. Even a slightly more intense shade of blue lends a surreal tone to experience, made more dreamlike if no one else is remarking on it.
  9. The sense that you must always be having a good time is a throwback to the eighties and best avoided. Similarly, the feeling that trinkets must be purchased for everyone at home.
  10. Tsunamis generated in the Indian Ocean pose a threat to all the countries of the region, including Mauritius. Remember: a tsunami will get you one day, but not yet.


Romans drink their cappuccinos tepid

There are two groups of people in the world: those who read guide books before going on holiday and those who don’t.

‘Your father was always trying to make me do that before we went away, but I never did,’ my mother said to me this weekend, part scathingly, because how could I do something so nerdy, and rome guide bookpartly triumphantly, because she’d escaped all that guide book reading over the years. She’d caught me at my dirty worst, reading a book on Rome. My mother’s only interested in a place once she’s visited it already, but then she’s someone who prefers the past to the future.

To be honest, guide books are fairly fucking boring, but that’s their advantage. It’s just a way to calm my holiday anxiety. Apparently, it’s a big thing: travel anxiety. I am not alone. A quick perusal of the internet has revealed some tips:

  • Travel anxiety is often due to life anxiety.

Well, that’s bloody unhelpful.

  • You can have travel anxiety and not know about it.

Then who the fuck cares? If you don’t know you have an anxiety, then how can you have an anxiety? My head is hurting.

And this advice:

  • If you find that your anxiety on your trip is acting up, then take a short break from your vacation.

I feel an endless loop coming on of small holidays within larger holidays: Babushka doll nightmare.

I have, however, learnt a few interesting things from my guide book. Romans, apparently, drink their cappuccinos tepid, not hot. I’m happy about that. I’m a big fan of the lukewarm coffee.  And there’s a place around the corner from where we’re staying

Cupd and the three graces3

Cupid and the Three Graces- Raphael. 1517-18. Villa Farnesina. The mistress of the Sienese businessman apparently has her back to us.

that used to belong to a Sienese banker and businessman from the early 1500s. His residence is covered with lavish paintings, including one downstairs that features the back of his mistress. Upstairs is an unimpressive painting, poorly finished because the artist felt he wasn’t bring paid enough. This all sounds familiar: covert bragging about affairs, petty resentments from artists.


This businessman was a bit of a tricky customer. In 1518, he organised a lavish reception to honour Pope Leo X, but he held it in his stables. He was driven by the desire to embarrass his neighbours, the family across the street, by demonstrating that his stables were as elegant as their dining rooms. He also held another reception party later that year on the riverbank where he had the servants throw the silver into the Tiber after each course. Unbeknown to the horrified (impressed?) guests, he’d strung a net below to retrieve the silver when they went home.

You see. Guide books aren’t all bad. I’ll feel I have a friend who’s living – or at least being dead – right around the corner from me. Or if he’s not a friend, at least he’s a kind of person utterly familiar to me who would fit right into this day and age. And that’s some kind of comfort.


How to conduct a psychological experiment on your family

Children are not good for many things. You don’t, for example, want to take a child on a long plane trip. Or have them with you when something disastrous happens. My oldest son has a habit of blocking his ears and closing his eyes at the approach of a bad thing. At least it’s more sophisticated than my mother, who actually has been known to duck when something untoward occurs.

‘Mum,’ I say to her, ‘I heard a strange noise outside.’ – She ducks, her hands over her ears.

‘The kettle’s broken.’ – Duck. It’s not helpful.

But children are wonderful candidates for psychological experiments. I’m not suggesting you get them, Milgram-style, to administer shocks to unsuspecting people – god, can you imagine! Nobody would emerge unharmed – but you can set up subtle changes that reveal a lot about the psyche.

Like this experiment that I devised for the five-year-old last night. I’d been given a box of Elephant chocolates as a gift and, partly as bribe (‘first eat the avocado’), partly as kind-hearted motherly deed, I sometimes give them one after supper.

The youngest one came toddling along to ask for his chocolate.

‘Okay,’ I told him. ‘You ate your avocado?’

‘It was disgusting.’

‘Very good. But listen,’ I said to him in flash of brilliance, to be modest for a moment, ‘I’ve had an idea. Tell me what you think? You can get an Elephant chocolate – ’ joshie with chocolate


‘But your brother gets two.’


‘Alright, then you both get none. Either you get one and your brother gets two, or you both get none.’

‘Okay. Fine. We both get none.’

And that’s it in a nutshell, the problem with human beings, or at least one essential problem.

Let me lastly add that if you are planning a psychological experiment with family members – and I do believe this is an area worth developing (you might wish to choose from this list of 10 famous experiments that you could never do today*)  – you have to plan for a lengthy post-experiment time. I had to endure a very voluble five-year-old for a lengthy period of time**. In fact, my only response was to put my hands over my ears and duck.


*I’m rather taken with making half the family prisoners, the other half prison guards.

** Despite rescinding my earlier offer, and giving them each one chocolate.



How to be good (on Facebook)

It’s difficult to be good in real life. Things are frequently so complex and fraught. To an extent, it’s probably much easier to be good on Facebook. But how? These are some ideas I have.

  1. Sharing is not Caring

I’ve spent a lot of time observing Barney (the dinosaur) for obvious reasons. Why, for example, do small kids love him so much? I think it comes down to shape, those big maternal hips. Or perhaps it’s the catchy slogans dropping from those grinning purple chops like, ‘Big or little, you are all wonderful just the way you are’. Maybe. But that doesn’t mean one wants to views one’s wonderfulness from last night’s drunken dinner party through the harsh glare of the computer screen the next morning.

Rule one: never post and tag a friend in a picture where he / she looks shocking but you look great.  If you must post that pic, crop and cut.

(Somebody I know once posted a picture of somebody else tagged as me. This other person, this non-Lisa Lazarus, was dressed up as a clown with a big plastic red nose. It stayed online for years.)

  1. What Goes Around Comes Around

In the broader sense, I actually don’t believe this at all. Life doesn’t hand back what you

Saint Catherine of Alexandria___Source2

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Caravaggio.  I think she’d post some interesting stuff on FB (after she’d finished her spinning), but she’d be hard to please and you wouldn’t get a lot of likes from her.

give out. Life is arbitrary, frequently cruel and relentless. But when it comes to Facebook, you can level the playing field.

You know the person? The one who is loath to like anyone else’s stuff, but keeps collecting the ‘easy likes’?  Play fair. Give what you get, or at least in some kind of reasonable ratio.

  1. Reheated Leftovers

Supposedly there’s no such thing as bad pizza or sex. Yet most people have encountered both, sometimes even together.  Don’t serve reheated leftovers on FB.

So it goes down like this: something terrible has happened in the world and everyone starts posting exactly the same pieces from the same sources. I know, it’s tempting. You’re so horrified etc. that you can’t stop yourself – but it’s tedious. Post new stuff.

  1. Sharing is not Caring (yes, again)

I’ve done this. In fact, I did this just last week.

You know how FB shares a memory from a few years back and compulsively, you share it? (It’s often of your kids, because, you know, they look so cute two years younger.) Even though shared memoirs are the cornerstones of most relationships, somehow FB doesn’t quite work this way. It’s the fresh, sensational stuff that captures our attention.

The fun thing about not sharing an old memory is the profuse apology you receive from Facebook (after you’ve rejected the memory). It’s like they’ve just made you witness your old boyfriend right before he told you he’s actually been cheating on you all year, but he’s very sorry, and, really, maybe you would consider an open relationship.

  1. Telling On

It’s a major strategy at age three, four, even five, but it’s one of the harsh truths of growing up: you realise the teacher, most of the time, just makes things worse.

‘Telling on’, however, is very popular on Facebook, especially during a fight: rounding up your posse to go after a common enemy. Childish.  Fight your own fights. Or call up your posse in private.

Those are my rules for good behaviour. What are yours?




Shall I compare thee to a sea-monkey?


Remember sea-monkeys?  Those adorable, underwater creatures one saw advertised in comics with the slogan, ‘So Eager to Please, They Can Even Be Trained’.  So cute and humanoid as well – you could actually differentiate the ladies from the men, who naturally had whiskers under their chins.

I saw lots of these adverts when we lived in Hawaii in 1983, probably because I read a lot of comics, and had very few friends (nobody understood what the weird girl from Africa was doing there). But I wanted those sea monkeys badly. I wanted to teach them how to obey commands. I wanted the ‘bowlful of happiness’.

My parents finally relented; perhaps the tropical heat of paradise had dulled their decision-making abilities. Or else, as most children know, incessant nagging is wildly effective. What I received, though, was a squiggle: a tiny and unimpressive floating line. Nobody in their right mind could call that a ‘frolicsome pet’.

Sea-monkeys are actually brine shrimp, a group of crustaceans used as pet food, that were the brain child of Harold von Braunhut, an American mail-order marketer and inventor (including X-ray specs – remember those?). His marketing strategy was simple: bomb the fuckers (that’s us, not the sea monkeys).   “I think I bought something like 3.2 million pages of comic book advertising a year. It worked beautifully,” he apparently said.

But if you missed the sea-monkey advert, don’t worry. Because the world is flooded with sea-monkey experiences.

  1. Facebook: wall-to-wall sea-monkey adverts.
  2. What is an early infatuation or a crush, but sea-monkey advertorials from him to you and vice versa? A long-term relationship is really just the peeling away of the advert to reveal the underlying sea-monkey – and if you find you’re happy with the floating squiggle, and if you can somehow still see the advert while enduring the squiggle, the relationship might have some legs. (God: so many mixed metaphors, I’ve even confused myself.) donald trump resized
  3. The novel? It’s the grandest sea-monkey advert ever. Nothing is real: those people don’t exist, those things never happened.
  4. Donald Trump. Okay, he’s more of a sea-monkey than a sea-monkey advert. Or is he? Maybe he’s the advert again.

They’re all over, sea-monkey adverts. I’m sure you could come up with a lot more examples.