A rose by any other name doesn’t always smell as sweet

baby

 

I’ve never liked my name. It reminds me of a little girl twirling her curls while sucking a lollipop. Lisa Lazarus: that is not a name with serious intent. When I gabble it down the phone, I sound all tangled up. Backwards, it’s Asil Surazal and if I say it right, it rhymes, making my name lilting and light. But I can’t use my name backwards, so basically I have a life sentence with the forward version.

I could have lost my name when I married but that didn’t seem right. I’d been stuck with this odd-sounding abbreviation of me for close on 30 years by then and had kind of made peace with it (in the same way I’d got used to never tanning.) Like untanned skin, I thought of my name as a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘failure’, or at least that’s what I told myself. And anyway, I didn’t feel right changing it willy nilly, or more because of ‘willy’ than ‘nilly’. Then when Greg and I started writing, we finally had a chance to get it right.

‘What we going to call ourselves?’ we kept asking each other.

shakespeare

Looking sharp in his ruffles

‘Shakespeare,’ I suggested, ‘but just without the ‘e’ at the end, so that people won’t get too confused between us and him.’

‘Rhymes with Robespierre.’

We had a choice: we could either go with the guttural sounding monk with possible digestive problems, Greg Lazarus, or the pleasant but air-headish, Lisa Fried. We went with the monk, which possibly, in retrospect, was a mistake.

I’ve sometimes heard that African writers can seem more intriguing to an international market if they have names that sound exotic to European and American ears. But it’s not as simple as that. I’ve also heard, via the writer grapevine, that some black male writers feel hard done by. It’s fine, good even, to be a black female writer with an intriguing name but if you’re a black guy writing stuff, there’s the usual clichéd response to black men: fear. I can’t comment. Nobody seems threatened by Greg Lazarus.

But when we tell people our writing name, there’s a still a lot of confusion.

‘I’m Greg,’ said Greg to a woman who had enquired about what we called ourselves, ‘and she’s Lazarus – that’s her surname.’

‘Ah, but it’s your first name,’ said the woman, as though this point were telling and indicative of how unconscientised we were regarding women’s rights.

‘Um, but she’s Lazarus,’ he tried again. But that wasn’t going to fly.

Maybe we should just change our name to ‘Lazarus Greg’, make it more African, put my name in front, and see where that gets us.

 

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The Price of Things

Lion Adventure Cover

Remember Hal and Roger? Intrepid teenage adventurers from the 1970s. There was “steady nineteen-year-old” Hal, “six feet tall, with the strength and brains of a man”. Nice! Roger was a bit of a ninny, but then he was only thirteen years old and not “a heavy thinker”. The books followed the brothers’ adventures capturing animals for zoos. Not very PC. Willard Price, the author, came from a family of devout Methodists and might even have spied for America. So at least there’s that.

All very retro. Like Gummi Bears and the Rubik Cube. But more interesting, perhaps, is the price of the book.

Let’s say the book would cost about R120 now. That means that in the last 40 years (Lion Adventure was published around 1973 and cost 60 cents) the price of the book has increased by about 200 TIMES. What the fuck – has everything else also increased at that kind of rate?Back Cover Lion Adventure

No, it hasn’t. Take bread: at the beginning of the 70s, a most depressing and repressive decade in SA, bread was about 25 cents, which means its price has increased by about 50 times in the last 40 years. Okay, I’m only a tiny, microscopic fraction of an economist, having scraped through economics 1A a very long time ago, but I’m still kind of intrigued in a relatively low-level way by it all.

I don’t understand why books would appreciate at a much a higher rate rather than anything else – if that is the case. Could it be a South African thing? Why would a book, that is not even in such high demand here, do this? Is SARS in cahoots with  Amazon’s Jeff Bezos? Are vampires running Exclusive Books?

 

What is going one? Does it make sense to anybody else?

 

 

 

Seven

As a child I remember an addictive game called Sevens. You’d throw a tennis ball seven times against a wall, or a cupboard door if your parents weren’t within hearing distance. It started off easy and then became increasingly more difficult.

Seven is somehow a disquieting and creepy number. It’s not neat like ‘two’. Or useful like ‘five’. Seven years’ bad luck. Seven-year itches. Every seven years one seems to enter a new life stage. Hence, that famous documentary, The Up Series, which tracked people across their life span in chunks of seven.  Over seven years so much changes. Or falls apart.

Thankfully, it’s seven years on from this.

“The other way we handle the pregnancy is to demand that it explain itself, rationally and reasonably. After our holiday, we sign up for antenatal classes. When my belly is bloated beyond the point of sexiness – I lie in the bath and my pubic mound is no more; it has disappeared behind the white hill of my expanding uterus – we attend our first class.

‘Ladies, when you go into labour, don’t put your head up your koek to check for your babies. I promise they ain’t gonna just fall out of there,’ says Elzaan, our antenatal teacher – she is gnome-like, wearing a top-to-toe bobbly pink tracksuit. She draws the word ‘koek’ out, relishing its coarseness, and mimics a heavily pregnant woman looking up her own vagina. She’s placed a chair on a table and it’s from this vantage point that she surveys her anxiously steaming protégés. The room is hot; too much oestrogen and massive bellies raise its temperature to stuffy discomfort. I feel like a lightweight who has stumbled into the heavyweight ring; I’m not sure I’ll last the distance.

The class laughs at the comic routine, her material polished to vulgar perfection.

My husband’s eyes flicker. Then he’s down, soft snores adding their vibrations to Elzaan’s high-pitched squeaks. I aim my finger at a point midway down his neck and, like a mosquito dive-bombing its supper, ram it hard into the folds. His head jerks backwards; his eyes shoot open.

‘Hey, what you doing?’ he shrieks.

‘She’s talking about the labour,’ I hiss. ‘When are you meant to tell the nurse to turn off the epidural? You tell me that! You’ll know nothing. I’ll bleed to death.’

‘You’ll bleed to death if I don’t control the hospital machinery?’ he asks, seemingly puzzled that his technical adeptness is all that stands between my life continuing and an acutely agonising death.

Each week, about halfway in, Greg falls asleep. The topic doesn’t matter: whether it’s engorged nipples, mucous plugs or fingers in vaginas to assess dilation, he snores softly beside me. I can’t stand it any longer and haul him outside, where it’s fresh and cold.

‘What’s wrong with you? Why do you always sleep as she explains all this stuff?’ I’m flushed and panting slightly. ‘And another thing – why do you wear that mad black trench coat in there? Sitting there like some Berlin spy – it’s boiling in that room. And you look weird.’

‘But I feel so cold,’ he whimpers.”

 

(Excerpt from The Book of Jacob)

 

 

My Day as a 1950s Housewife

I wrote this article quite a few years back for a magazine that then went under. I had to follow the principles of The Good Wife’s Guide, written in 1955.

Beware: Woman at Home
I put on some music to get me in the mood. It’s The Big Bopper doing his thing, singing Chantilly Lace:

That wiggle in the walk and giggle in the talk
Makes the world go round

The 1950s – a decade of simple, if rather unmatched, division: women commandeered the home front and men ruled, well… the world.  Luckily, women had the Good Wife’s Guide (GWG), written during that period, to show them how to keep the home fires burning. Without that, I wouldn’t know where to start to recreate that quintessentially 1950s atmosphere where men were men, women were women, husbands were kings and wives were there to serve.

Starting with a general principle from the GWG:  “Try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his very real need to be at home and relax. “ To check this out I dial my husband’s number at the university, where he works as a philosophy lecturer.

“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Reading a book and eating a hummus sandwich,” says Greg.
“Do you want to come home?”
“When – now?”  He sounds nervous and shifty. But then he sighs and says: “If you feel like you’re going mad, I’ll come home and look after Jacob for a bit.”

Having reassured Greg that our child is safely in my care, I decide now is a good time to “take 15 minutes to rest “, mostly to look refreshed when my husband returns.  I lie down on my back and stare at the white square of the ceiling. I’m starting to imagine a box of chocolates and a novel and that maybe I’m a 50s woman at heart when Luna the dog wages battle number 3065 with its colleague next door.  I kneel on the bed and shout very non-1950s language out the window. My three-year-old comes running to this place of interest.

Housewife

Housewife, baby and stove

“What are you saying, Mama?”
“Dog language, I was talking to Luna.  The kind of things people must never say.”

He climbs on the bed and lies on my leg. “Make digger loader,” he instructs me. I lift my leg with him attached limpet-like to it. It’s agonising on my stomach muscles, worse than Brunhilde’s Pilates class. Any attempt to remove him from my leg draws forth piercing howls of protest. I decide I’m feeling sufficiently rested.

It’s time to move on to the next section of my day. Luckily I spent some time in the morning thinking about dinner, which needs to be ready on time for my husband’s return. The Telegraph website offers some guidance: “The typical 1950s housewife would prepare a stew or hotpot with around 14 food items including a variety of vegetable, suet, milk or lard and plenty of salt, pepper and butter.” Unfortunately, that rules out a toasted cheese snackwich, our favourite dinner repast. And the gentleman at Woolworths was no help either when I went shopping earlier. “I don’t know, lady,” he said, when I asked him where they stocked the suet.

In the end I decide on pasta puttanesca (directly translated as ‘whore’s pasta’), and while it bubbles with wild abandon on the stove, I prepare myself for Father’s return. “Touch up your make-up and put a ribbon in your hair,” advises the GWG, always helpful in a crisis.  I haul out an old mascara wand, unused since my dating days, and clump a few black splodges on my eyelashes.  I can’t find a ribbon so make a bow out a length of raffia, taken from a staked plant, which I pin on the top of my head. It doesn’t seem to do much for my looks.

“Why do your eyelashes have ants on them?” asks Jacob, as I stuff his chubby legs into clean shorts. I’m also trying to comb his hair (a GWG requirement), while listening to the tinkle of G and T glasses from the next door’s garden party. My image of the 1950s child is pink cheeked and curly haired, calling its father ‘Sir’ (blame it on too much American television in my childhood). The comb sticks slightly and pulls. Jacob screams like I’m killing him, eliciting an extended, and rather worrying, silence in the glass clinking. I mutter some more dog language directed at the neighbours under my breath.

I hear the putter of Greg’s old car turning in our driveway. The Lord of the Manor, He Who Goes To Work, is returning.  I whizz through the house picking up “clutter” (stuffing a big teetering pile of Jacob’s toys under the dining room table where they’ll make a very good foot rest). The GWG rings in my ears: “Be a little gay and more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it.”  A lift? That sounds promising, but I’m not sure I’m in the mood for thinking about England tonight. My chores have been endless today.

Jacob, due to his victory over the comb, has decided to push for more power. In a startlingly short period of time he has removed all his clothes, bar my shower cap, which he has perched at a rakish angle on his head. He looks like a demented colonel. However, this is no time for a battle, which I’m sure to lose. I can hear the heavy tread of the Head of the Household as he makes his way to the front door. Jacob and I stand to attention like a column of servants in an episode of Upstairs Downstairs.
“Why are we waiting at the door?” asks Jacob. “Does Daddy have a present for me?”

My husband is about to enter his home, “a place of peace, order and tranquility where he can renew himself in body and spirit.” Sounds like a spa in Stellenbosch. Is there place for me too? I whip the shower cap off my son’s head as the key turns in the lock – Greg does not need to be confronted with such silly female paraphenalia at his homecoming.  Jacob squeaks in outrage at the profound loss of his head gear.  I sense the tsunami approach of a tantrum and act accordingly. “I’ll give you a box of Smarties if you shut up,” I whisper in his ear. A tidal wave of screaming is stopped in its tracks.

The GWG leads me by the hand to the next stage of the evening. “You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first – his topics of conversation are more important than yours.” I look up at Greg expectantly, bat my clumpy, uncomfortable eyelashes a few times. He says nothing – a strange and rather tense silence wraps itself between us. I wait.

“I really need to go to the toilet,” he says. I’m not sure this constitutes an important topic of conversation but I stand aside to let him through the entrance hall.

“Make the evening his,” says the GWG but he seems less than appreciative – in fact, truth be told, he jumps – when he finds me waiting outside the bathroom door. I’m only hanging out there so that I can lead him to the lounge where I lie him down and plump some cushions behind his head.  At last he seems to be perking up, particularly when I ask, as the GWG recommends, if I can remove his shoes.

“Yes,” he says eagerly – there’s a husky quality to his voice. “Why don’t you come and sit next to me?”

The GWG chooses this moment to go silent on me. I know that I should “never complain if he comes home late or goes out to places of entertainment without you”, but what is to be done if the entertainment involves my wifely presence?

“What about a drink, dear?” I speak in a “low, soothing voice”, which propels Luna to sidle up and stare adoringly into my eyes. I edge into the kitchen, where the puttanesca has worked itself up into a cloud of steam.

A quick peek out the kitchen door shows Jacob tenderly wrapping Greg’s foot in my bright yellow pashmina.  “You don’t need to lie down anymore, daddy. I’ve made you all better,” he says, giving Greg a brisk pat on the shoulder.

I return to the puttanesca which is in a worse condition than I thought. All this waiting outside bathroom doors and plumping up cushions and cleaning clutter and ministering to Greg has left no time for checking the supper.  I grab the pot off the stove. A burnt smell wafts though the house.

“Mama’s speaking dog language.” I hear Jacob telling his father.

Enough is enough. I’m coming out of the kitchen now. “Come,” I say to Jacob and Greg, who is slowly unwrappng the pashmina from his foot, “We’re going out for dinner – and I’m paying.”

 

 

 

 

 

I Love Mash

Greg (thrilled): Joshie said he loves Maths!!!
Me: Joshie.
(Three year old toddles in.)
Me: What do you love?
Joshie: I love mash.

Minime

Parents want two things for their kids – and, as frequently happens, these things contradict each other. They know their kids are separate from them and must move towards eventual autonomy, but they also can’t help seeing their children as extensions of themselves. It’s tricky – you’ve got this small person who looks like you, a mini-me, who has also picked up many of your mannerisms. How tempting it is to fall into the trap of seeing this person as you, and projecting your ambitions onto your child.

Perhaps one counter-intuitive way of separating yourself from your kid is to stop praising your child so much. Stephen Grosz is a psychoanalyst who describes some encounters he has with patients in his book, The Examined Life. He says:

“Now, wherever there are small children – at the local playground, at Starbucks and at nursery school – you will hear the background music of praise: ‘Good boy,’ ‘Good girl,’ ‘You’re the best’. Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signalling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have – but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self.”

Without so much meaningless praise, a child’s real ambition and self may emerge more smoothly. But don’t take the ‘no praise thing’ as far as the father of Henry Rider Haggard, the author of King Solomon’s Mines: KSM

“As a child Henry Rider Haggard was believed to be stupid: his father told him he was destined to become a greengrocer. The books aren’t proof that he wasn’t stupid; but they are proof that he was dogged and canny, with a strange and lurid imagination. Haggard’s father lived long enough to see his son become wealthier than he was and the author of a 15-volume series which ran for forty years…” (London Review of Books, April 2014)

One can’t help seeing the flinching man as Haggard’s father and the rampaging elephant as Haggard himself, although those might just be my projections.

On Sticky Boyfriends

I once had a boyfriend who wanted to marry me.  Only problem: he made this momentous decision when we were separated by thousands of kilometres, continents and oceans between us.

I also engaged with someone for a while who kept a picture of the Iron Lady above his bed. Him, me and Maggie Thatcher. A piquant threesome.

I would classify these men as ‘sticky boyfriends’. Strange men, strange desires. Big question: if most women have a sticky boyfriend in their past, then where are all these sticky boyfriends now?

A friend of mine remembers going to visit her sticky overseas. The relationship was rocky and when he left to go to work one morning, he locked her ‘by mistake’ into the house. Nothing symbolises a problematic relationship more than one person incarcerating another.

Does a sticky unstick itself with another person? Or is there a vast colony out there, in some undisclosed location, of thousands, millions even, of sticky boyfriends? An international no-go zone?

The Price of Fame

I’ve just finished Edmund White’s latest memoir, Inside a Pearl, about his fifteen or so years in Paris. Although I don’t think it’s his best work, it is still titillating, absorbing, gossipy, even scandalous. My favourite of his books is probably The Farewell Symphony, because it’s so frank and funny, sexy and shocking.

Inside a Pearl claims that paintings can afford to be much more experimental than books. I’d never thought about it like that before, but he has a point – if you want wide appeal as an author, then, to some extent, you need to track the cultural norm.

In Eddie’s own words: “It took ten critics, two dealers, and twenty collectors to get an artist on the cover of Time, whereas a novelist had to convince eighty thousand readers to buy his book to win a comparable fame. For this reason, the painters could be more daringly experimental than the writers, who had to please so many more culture consumers, many of them with brows firmly in the middle.”