Morning Rituals

He stood on the crate to reach the basin. I stood behind him and we observed each other in the mirror. This younger me, stamped with my jaw line and the subtly bent nose of my mother’s folk. He’d grow into his shoulders sooner than I had, I hoped so at least. His red-blonde hair was his mother’s though, so were his slate grey eyes. I leaned over him and showed him the strange morning ritual of the fellowship he wanted to join.

I had him cup his small hands and dispensed a blob of expanding white foam onto his palms. Then the same into my left. I spread it across my face with small circles and he imitated me on his. My fingers could feel the short rough regrowth since my shave yesterday morning. His face was soft and fresh and would be for a very long time. But it wasn’t about the practicality, the need was for a ritual. My father had taught me to shave in the same way. Inducting me into the society of men. The first step down a strange path that had led me to boarding school, to drinking, to rugby, to the army, to the border and to this moment… being a father. It’s not a path I wanted my child to walk and I thought I’d been lucky, life has other plans though. I took up my own razor and gave him a toothless mimic – he didn’t need a blade to learn. Not yet. There’d come a time for blood, but it wasn’t now.

We worked the razors across our faces, stripping off the foam and rinsing the implements in the basin of hot water. It was like peeling off a mask as we looked at ourselves with intent. At our exteriors. And it was done. Faces clean. I gave him a rough towel and his cheeks shone red.

“Go on, get dressed,” I said and the pride fled his face.

“It’s only til the end of term,” I said. “Then you’re at Andervale and you can wear what you like.”

He nodded and went to his room. I looked at myself in the mirror. I should have fought for him. But I couldn’t afford to, I told myself. Just get him into a new school where he could be happy and that would be it. My child would be fine, no matter where his path took him.

“OK, dad. I’m ready to go.”

He looked brave in the dress they made him wear to school. The dress I had made him wear for too long. He looked braver than me.

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Flashback

“Tell it from the beginning. Where ever that is. Where ever the story starts, that where you start telling it.” He was pacing in front of the whiteboard, holding forth on the failings of screenwriters. “Withholding information for effect is a cheap technique. But revealing it in flashback doubles down on the offence.”

“What about ‘Rashomon’? That’s a classic.” It was a small class and informal, Sara hadn’t raised a hand to speak out.

“If you think ‘Rashomon’ is an example of flashback then you have fundamentally misunderstood the film and the concept. ‘Rashomon’ is a tale retold from different perspectives. There’s no truth revealed by the stories. A flashback changes our perception of the present, immediate action by revealing new information, the viewer has no choice but to believe it.”

Sara blushes. He doesn’t notice.

“Here is your assignment for the weekend: Take a film with a lot of flashbacks and put them into chronological order. What does that do to the story? What’s missing? Where is the tension now? Where is the climax? Where is the inciting incident?”

The class gathers up notes and laptops snap shut as they exit with mutters and murmur.

“Sara.” He says. “Hang back a moment.”

She stays seated in the front row as the lecture room empties and she’s alone with him. The wooden desk is a barrier between them. He sits on it. Perches. So she has to look up at him.

“Sara, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t interrupt me during the lecture.”

She doesn’t know what to say, so she nods.

He puts a hand on her shoulder.

“You’re a very bright girl, I’m interested in your opinions – so if you want feel free to visit me in my office. Anytime.”

“Sure. Thanks.” She says.

He smiles and lifts his hand from her shoulder to give her a little pat on the cheek. Then he gets up, grabs his satchel and heads out the double doors of the lecture room.

Sara can feel his touch lingering on her cheek, and the weight of his hand still on her shoulder. It stays there for the rest of the day.

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Like Me

It’s always easier than you think it’ll be. Than I think it’ll be. Sorry, that’s a thing I do. Universalise. See, I want to say, ‘it’s a thing we do.’ Meaning humans. People. But it’s not universal. I mean, I know I’m not alone in doing it. There’s eight billion other minds on this planet. There’s probably about a million people exactly like me just in China. Mentally like me I mean – obviously they’d be Chinese and speaking Chinese. So I could say, ‘it’s a thing we do.’ Me and my million Chinese twins. But I think that’d be a lie, because it’s really not what I mean. I mean all of us. And that’s not true. Because I’m not like you. I could be – no, uh. I mean you could be. Like me. But it’s very unlikely. So when I say that it’s always easier than I think it’ll be, it’s probably better for us all to remember that it’s not universally true. It’s always easier for me than I expect it to be. But you might discover that it’s far, far harder than you would have guessed. If you’d even want to try of course. Murder isn’t for everyone.

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Ticking Red

The clock chopped seconds off her life with an implacable rhythm. In the darkness, her mind made the sounds into bursts of colour – like bubbles popping. Like fireworks. It wasn’t something she did, it was just the way her brain worked. It was something she had assumed everyone experienced, and when she discovered that she was unusual she struggled to explain it. Fortunately, there was a word for it. Unfortunately, the word was synesthesia, which felt like moving marbles from the front to the back of your mouth without choking and didn’t really explain what it was.
She didn’t really have to though. Just as she had been unaware that other people didn’t see sound as colour or any of the other things she perceived, so they could be unaware that their words bubbled out in rainbow ripples and their footsteps echoed greenly to her. It was a pity for them. Mostly. She liked the colours, liked them more when she learned they were hers. But there were things she didn’t like. The bruise purple of machines humming. The slick of yellow left by squeaky white board markers that took so long to fade. And the blood red bursts of a clock ticking, like an alarm going off. An alarm for time crumbling away.
She got out of bed as quietly as possible, a faint green rustle of sheets. He snored vermillion once, but settled again unaware. With a soft crimson pop she removed the batteries from the clock. She sat for a moment in the almost perfect black silence. She would apologise in the morning, if she was still there. Perhaps even explain.

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Good Wine

Every time I handed a wine bottle down to him there would be a soft clink of metal on glass. His wedding ring. I was elbow deep in the hall cupboard, helping my father to unpack a lifetime of dinner parties from the shelves. My lifetime specifically, as we had lived in this house since before I could walk.

I pulled bottle off the rack, wiped off the crusted years of dust with a damp cloth, and passed them down to my father to sort into boxes. ‘Spoiled’ – the corks flecked with mold. ‘Good’ – wine that would presumably find a new cupboard in my parents’ new house in Cape Town. ‘Jonathan’ – wine of dubious merit but probably fit for consumption. Wine meant for me to take. On many of the bottles there’s a label written in my father’s well practiced hand, a name and a date – the wine’s provenance as it pertained to my family: who gave it to them, and when. He has always been a note taker, a recorder of data. He has charted decades of rainfall and temperature on our little farm. He records daily life not in journals but in letters, most sent to my sister who lives abroad. An orderly mind that projects order on his world. “James, 1998” – my father reads aloud. Does this summon the memory of that night? He nods to himself and files the bottle. ‘Good’.

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Easy to love

She said, “You’re easy to love.”

Her tone was a simple statement but boredom and condescension creased the corners of her mouth in ways he could only register unconsciously, so her words left him with a sense of unease at odds with their content. Rather than look at her he looked out over the trees of the complex’s garden, his fingers gathering round the warmth of his mug like vagrants around a fire. She wasn’t looking at him either, her eyes were directed at the city lights but her mind was farther away than that. The wind caught at the smoke of her cigarette and the cherry glowed bright for a moment. It was going to be one of those nights when the wind tore through the streets of Vredehoek. One of those nights when the wind screamed at every crack and shook every window and door. One of those nights when the city lay restless, harried by furies.

“Would you like another cup of tea?” he asked. She hardly touched hers while she smoked so it was still high in the mug. He was nursing his. It was a useless offer. It was a craving for comfort. She didn’t answer.

They watched the wind shake the branches, turning the leaves into susurrating ocean waves, neither wanting to be alone.

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2016: My Year in Culture

A rambling bunch of thoughts on culture that made an impression, I’ll try to stick to categories. But I won’t be successful.

My year in culture was not really 2016. You see, I never really stopped being the child who refused to eat his vegetables and so, for this probably problematic and deep-rooted psychological issue, I tend to get around to ‘essential works’ rather late if at all. The more important and essential the work, the greater my antipathy toward it. This is why I haven’t watched ‘Breaking Bad’ yet. I recently dug out an old essay from varsity on ‘Thelma and Louise’ – I never watched the film. That’s me, contrary.

2016 was the year I got over myself (but not the year I watched ‘Thelma and Louise’ – 2017, fingers crossed). In part this was due to becoming a film lecturer at CityVarsity. As a student, I was comfortable being a fake – but the responsibility of teaching was a different matter. Ironically, I was a better student when I was a teacher and I began to plug the gaps in my curriculum.

The film that most stood out during this re-education was Spike Lee’s 1989 joint ‘Do the Right Thing’. It’s a stylish but visceral piece of work that remains chillingly relevant. Decolonisation, gentrification, racial justice, and police brutality. It could have been made in South Africa this year. It left me shaken and shattered. When you come across a piece of art from another time and place, you hope the recognition of the unchanging essence of human nature will stir an optimistic sense of connection. After ‘Do the Right Thing’ I was left wondering if we can ever break that thread.

A more recent film that I caught up with this year was ‘Whiplash’ (2014). I had heard a lot of praise for J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller’s performances, and they really were superb. The script was sparse and driven by image as much as by dialogue – a mark that Damien Chazelle is a master of the interplay between both arts. The movie became a favourite conversation for me – viewers had a wide range of interpretations of the ending, and the subject of the morality of art and the pursuit of excellence is a rich one.

Most regrettable confession is that I only saw ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015) this year – that would have been amazing on a cinema screen. I had low expectations for a fourth entry into the franchise, and when people were raving about it I became more wary. Trust issues. But ‘Mad Max’ taught me to have faith. The painstakingly composed cinematography, the deep worldbuilding we’re thrust into, story and character revealed through action and reaction. ‘Mad Max’ is an action movie but distilled down to its essence. It’s a relentless race.

The whole year wasn’t catch-up for me. ‘Arrival’ came with a lot of praise and this time I listened. It’s the kind of scifi that’s too rare in film: a thought provoking ‘what if’ with real characters at its core. Amy Adams gives great centre to the film. My feelings about the movie fluctuate though – is it a great story, or just an unusual one that makes clever use of the language of cinema to pull off a neat trick? Watching it a second time the manipulations are more obvious. I may be reacting as a contrarian but ‘Arrival’ is a fascinating and flawed film.

It’s truly a golden age of television, maybe even platinum. Or palladium. I don’t know, I’m no metallurgist. Tara finally convinced me to watch ‘Bojack Horseman’ – a mix of deadpan absurdity and brutal psychological realism. How can I say that about a show centred on a 90s sitcom star who is an anthropomorphised horse? How can I relate to him? The eponymous Bojack is a bad person, more so than most but it’s a difference of degree and not of kind. He’s perpetually just breaking the surface of self-awareness, taking a despairing gulp of air and then being swept under by his id. In this Bojack has a doppelganger in another favourite show of the year, ‘Fleabag’. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show is almost too self-aware but that’s a misdirect, the character is as trapped in her own patterns as Bojack. The knowing glances at the camera – at us – should give her an ironic distance from the disaster of her life, instead they become a cry for help. Waller-Bridge’s writing is funny, obscene, and deeply empathetic. One monologue from a side character captures a masculinity in crisis more beautifully than anything else I’ve seen this year.

Something that I didn’t expect to like so much was ‘Stranger Things’. It was a joy. Balancing charm and chills. I loved that it didn’t lean so heavily on JJ Abrams ‘mystery box’ formula that is so exhausting without being satisfying.
‘Game of Thrones’ had a return to form with season 6 and HBO decided to double down on the sex and violence with ‘Westworld’ – but it was HBO’s other pick of 2016 that grabbed me. ‘High Maintenance’ had a life as cult web series before HBO brought it into the fold. I wished I’d seen it sooner. A slice-of-life series about New York City, the chapters play more like vignettes than full stories, eschewing strict narrative structure to play out with the same relaxed serenity as ‘the Guy’ – the weed dealer who loosely links the tales together.

‘High Maintenance’ seems like a good place to bridge from TV to new media platforms. There’s some kind of miraculous blooming that happens in your head when you read insightful essays and articles; this year Youtube became more than a time-sink for me, it became a place of fascinating insight. The video essay has matured thanks to time and support – revenue from Youtube and Patreon allowing people to make a career out of it. Embracing many subjects and styles, my favourite channels are Cracked, Nerdwriter, Every Frame a Painting, Extra Credits, Cinefix, Now You See It, Mark Brown, and Channel Criswell. Nerdwriter particularly has infected me with a distinctive voice after the manner of Attenborough or Louis Theroux, so that at times when I’m trying to sound insightful I’ll take a millisecond pause midsentence to gather the breath to emphasise the point. To be honest I’m not sure if this is imitation or mockery, and if so whether the Nerdwriter is the target, or I am.

Sticking to ‘media consumed via my laptop’, this year games became more than a pastime. I began writing material for Free Lives’ new game ‘Genital Jousting’ and being immersed in discussions about games and their design led to a deeper appreciation of them. I was introduced to new games, and new ideas of what games could be. One that stood out was a five minute experience: ‘the end of us’. Try this playful and heart breaking game for yourself right now. No really. 5 minutes.
‘Oxenfree’ is a ghost story about teens trapped on an island. The art style is beautiful, simple but haunting. It’s the storytelling that’s really interesting – with a dynamic conversation system that makes the dialogue flow really wonderfully allowing you to be immersed in the moment.

‘Dishonored’ was more my usual kind of game. A first person stealth challenge set in a richly textured and surprisingly responsive world. Like many other stealth games you can take a non-lethal approach, unlike many other stealth games this radically affects the outcome. I’ve noticed pacifism disappear from popular culture over the last half decade – no, actually it’s deeper than that… I’ve seen the moral dilemma of killing erased. Nolan’s Batman replaced by Snyder’s. Killing is assumed to be the only path forward. This not just bad for society’s soul, it’s also bad for our stories. Multiple, contrasting viewpoints fuel conflict and are essential if art is to have something to say. Blockbusters have consistently failed on this front, with possibly the exception of Marvel’s ‘Civil War’.

While in Washington DC I saw ‘The Nether’ by Jennifer Haley at Woolly Mammoth. Few plays handle the moral questions of modern technology so well. The concept is simple – a virtual world where players can enact paedophilia and murder. It’s not real of course, but does that matter when it feels real? Something between a techno thriller and the classic story of the detective deep undercover, ‘The Nether’ was deeply unsettling.

On the same trip I made it to New York and saw ‘Sleep No More’ – the famous, immersive theatre production riffing off ‘MacBeth’. Its grand design and intense choreography were overwhelming. I enjoyed looking for secret moments away from the rest of the silent, masked audience, and found a tiny room of towels down a tunnel we had to crawl through to access. The whole experience cross-pollinated with my evolving thinking about games and their volitional exploration.

In December I saw the Fugard’s production of ‘The Father’ by Florian Zeller directed by Greg Karvellas. I was impressed during the play, I enjoyed the clever writing and staging and the great performances. I walked out feeling satisfied. In the foyer someone asked me what I thought and as I opened my mouth to reply I started to cry, to sob. The titular father is struggling with dementia, the story bypassed my brain and clenched a fist around my subconscious. I walked straight out of the Fugard and into the night to wander aimlessly, ending up in some bar to have a whiskey to settle myself before returning to the opening night festivities. Such a visceral reaction.

And finally: Books. I used to think of myself as a reader. It was central to how I saw myself in the world. That’s not true anymore though, and the moments that I recognise it are moments of mourning. The books of last year were too few. They were continuations of series from Peter F. Hamilton, Brandon Sanderson, and Joe Abercrombie, or the page turning pulp ‘Breakers’ series by Edward W. Robertson. Largely I blame my own stalled novel, as though every completed book were a rebuke of my failure to write for over 200 days. Of course that’s not entirely fair. I did write. I wrote plays and I wrote a computer game. I had a full, productive, and creatively challenging year. I just didn’t write it.

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