Favourite things to do while running: Worry about the car that’s stalking me

On a visit to my parents, who still live in my hometown, I decided to go for a run. My mother was a bit wary when she saw me tie up my shoe laces. “You must be careful,” she said.

In another world, perhaps you would interpret that as her being concerned that I don’t trip and hurt myself. But I don’t live in another world, and what she really meant was, don’t get attacked.

Honestly, I was unsure about running, also weighing out whether it would be safe or not. So my mother’s comment didn’t do much to put me at ease. I decided to “run forth” when I remembered  that two days before, I was in the busy Jo’burg CBD waiting for an Uber. An act which is probably the most dangerous thing I’ve done this year. So nothing else could be worse.

I did a safety-check before stepping outside the perimeter of my parents’ yard. Up straight, shoulders back, look purposeful and not like I’m lost in the neighbourhood I spent 18 years of my life.

It had been 10 years since I first started running outside the sports ground. I was still in high school and I ran with my friends. A decade on and the same fears I had back then, remain. Permanently resting inside of me, like I was carrying a load in my belly which ironically was not the previous night’s dinner. I could feel the tension in my chest whenever I passed by someone.

I swung my arms widely along my sides as I walked, like I was on a mission and too busy to greet a stranger.

I set my watched, looked at the passing cars and started off. At this point if you think running comes naturally to me, it doesn’t. I’m always overwhelmed by the rush of oxygenated blood to my brain. And the Sun, it’s like I always choose to run at the worst time of the day because I’m always looking for trees to shadow me. Then there’s my speed, I’m always trying to regulate it.

So you see with all these other things I’m trying to figure out while running, a potential offender is really just the last thing I need.

I had finished my first lap, congratulated myself for firstly making it without stopping and secondly for dodging any dangerous people, like these two things are comparable. I was doing my second lap when I passed a group of women and instantly felt safer. I was approaching one guy and automatically felt threatened.

I realize how conceited I am to think that everyone on the street was obsessed with my running.

When I eventually passed him, he didn’t say anything. He looked at me in the same way the women and the drivers did. So I concluded he was not a threat. As I continued a man and his wife set up chairs outside their yard, ready to read newspapers. It made me feel safer because I thought if anything went wrong I could always scream for help and they would hear me. In retrospect I realize how conceited I am to think that everyone on the street was obsessed with my running.

I was on my third round when I saw a silver Toyota ride past me, nothing strange, just people going about their business. I passed the lonesome guy again, this time he said I should keep going. Further proof that he is not a creep that’s going to pull out a knife on me, I suppose.

I passed the women again and then the silver Toyota. In the next three seconds that passed I rationalized that I was being followed by this Toyota. I told myself it wasn’t the same one but then I also told myself there can’t be two different silver Toyotas circling the same track in such a short space of time. I comforted myself with the knowledge that there is always an option to pray.

I continued running to the couple reading their papers.

And then as I approached a junction, I saw my mother’s SUV pull up. I waved hysterically at her, thinking she was going to the shops to get something for lunch. Her windows automatically lowered down in the most suburban way which is confusing because we live in a township. As I approached the vehicle the first thing she said was: “Is it safe?”

Yes. Not, “Hey I see you too,” or “Do you need water?” Even though she could see that I was perfectly fine she asked if it was still safe to run in the neighbourhood. This is probably the worst 21st Century problem of all time.

I assured her that I was fine and that I was finishing soon. The silver Toyota freaked me out a bit and I didn’t want to pass the couple reading the newspapers again.

I walked off my final lap and finished the rest of my workout in my parents’ yard.

A few years back I tried running in the neighbourhood I now live in, but was accosted by a man who uttered some really threatening comments. I have not run alone again since. Instead I opt to run in a park with a friend. It’s usually a controlled environment, on a particular day of the week at a certain time, and we’re normally surrounded by other runners.

I had asked my friend, who is also a woman, if she considered running in the park by herself at some other time and she was highly against it. She even found an app which generates routes to run in our area, but chose not to run this particular route because it went through a “dangerous” part of the neighbourhood.

I’ve wondered if guys worry about their safety this much whenever they have to do something as simple as running. I know my brother doesn’t. He has been running the same route I took in my hometown for years and my parents are totally okay with it. I think only once I heard them tell him not to run, because it was getting dark and they were worried that the cars would not see him. Nice life problems.

In another world, I probably wouldn’t have a whole debate in my head every time I went out. I probably wouldn’t have to check my pepper spray either or remind myself which pressure points to strike if I ended up in an undesirable situation.

In another world, I probably wouldn’t stop running.

Take me back to June 2006

June 2006 – I was in grade nine, highly annoyed to be spending a Friday afternoon studying for my mid-year exams. In fact I spent most of my weekends during high school studying, but I was just frustrated on this particular weekend, June 15, the second week into the Fifa World Cup.

A lot had to do with the fact that I was just going through one of my teenage moods that day. I was upset that my peers probably weren’t studying, and normally I would dismiss that but I felt it was really unfair and that the universe sucks because you know- teenager. Plus I was disappointed that despite my best efforts, I didn’t feel better after eating an ice-cream. (That Smarties one in a cone which they don’t make anymore. Why did they discontinue it?)

It’s not that I would rather be spending my team watching soccer. I was not a big fan of soccer- still not. But I watched the major tournaments because my dad watched them. More accurately, the games were on in the background while I studied. They were not distracting- I was not interested in them, remember.

Until, one evening after youth group, I came home to find my dad watching a match between Italy and a team I forget. Italy went on to win the world cup that year. But that evening I sat and watched with my dad. He explained the game. He always explains the game.

But I paid attention this time because my dad was describing the strategy the Italians were using. And I could see it unfolding before my very eyes, and as cheesy as this sounds, it was beautiful.

We ended up having a conversation about the teams my dad was rooting for. He liked the Brazillians, because they play with rhythm. I have seen it, they do. He lauded the Germans too, who were hosting the tournament and ultimately finished third. Naturally, as the patriotic South Africans we are, we had a laugh about Bafana Bafana.

When one of my uncles or my male cousins came over, we would rag on each other about whose team just got knocked out from the tournament. It felt nice to finally be part of their conversations and “get” them.

Eventually the games became a break from the studies. I would reward myself with a game every time I met my targets for the subject I was studying.

One Saturday, my dad was working in the yard. He would come in to get updates of the score, which I had kept tabs on. I would add details about how the players scored the goals, if there was a disagreement with the referee, who was diving into the lawn too much, whatever squabbles there may have been with the players. Like a blow-by-blow on the cool parts my dad was missing.

I watched the final with my dad, a Sunday night after church – I remember because I had a debate with my friends about who would win. Phrases like “France sucks,” and “Italy iYa sucka.”

There are two distinct things I remember from that game. The French supporter in the stadium, holding a chicken. And Zidane head-butting that Italian player. My dad and I gasped in disbelief at the head-butt and we both asked each other if there was really a chicken in the stadium. (Rewind wasn’t available back then so everything we saw remained in question until there was a replay, or whenever the camera panned past the guy with the chicken again.)

That world cup laid the ground work for the 2009 confederations cup and 2010 world cup. I watched two games at the stadium near my home town during the 2009 confederations cup. I watched one with friends, between New Zealand and Spain, the Spaniards floored the All Whites. I watched the other match with my family, it was the losers final between South Africa and Spain, which coincidentally fell on my 18th birthday.

By the time 2010 came around, schools and varsities closed for that entire month. I made an effort to watch nearly every game, once we listened to the game between South Africa and Uruguay on the radio because we were traveling.

On my grandmother’s 80th birthday, we caught the highlights of the game between Spain and Switzerland and used unmentionable words after finding out Spain lost 0-1. Argentinians who were probably in the country for the games, gave my grandmother a replica of Tevez’ soccer jersey, it made us feel better but that’s probably not why they gave it to her.

It’s not that I had grown to love the game in four years, it was just that I was watching it with my dad. Like it was a chance to bond with him and do something he likes. (It’s also why I keep track of Formula 1, some rugby games and dare I say – Noot vir Noot.)

He used a phrase to describe a game which was really good. He called it “kook water”. I roughly translated it and curiously asked him what he meant by saying the game is hot water? He explained that the game was on fire. I have since adopted that phrase to describe anything that warranted enthusiastic praise. I have described movies, music, even Parliament as being “kook water”.

Fast forward to 2014, I was still a student and caught a few games at home. My dad had grown older so we would start off watching the first match in the early evening, but my dad wouldn’t finish the second match with me. He was too tired but he told me that it was too cold to continue sitting in front of the television.

I would finish the game, and before going to bed I would update him on the score, which player made it and the exact minute, how effortless it was, who cried, whether the referee was unfair, if the game was a bust (rarely) and what the commentators said.

When the 2017 confederations cup came by, I only realised within its second week that the tournament was underway. I caught up with the points and I managed to watch one semi-final between Mexico and Germany.

Again, not because I love the game, or was rooting for any of the teams. I watched it because I thought perhaps my dad, 160km away was probably watching it too. So if we were both watching it in real time, we’d somehow be connected even though we weren’t in the same room. (Yes I’m trying to work in some universal physics to justify my reasoning.)

When Germany scored two goals in the first 10 minutes I texted my dad to find out if he saw it too.

He wasn’t watching- but we fell into our old habit again, where I updated him of the goings-on, Mexican player Fabian’s fiery goal and the final score where Germany beat Mexico 4-1.

As I type this, the final between Chile and Germany is on in the background. I am simultaneously chatting with my dad. Checking if he saw how close that goal by the Chileans was and commenting on the counter-attack by Germany.

My dad informs me that he’s been watching a movie with my mother. He switches to the soccer. My brother joins the group chat and asks for the score. “The Chileans are good… but they are the weaker team,” my dad says. I tell him that I hope they don’t give the game away.

He says that the best teams are playing the final. What he really means is: This game is kook water.

How I felt after reading the Hunger Games

During the month of March, as part of a reading challenge this year, I manage to devour the Hunger Games trilogy.

I am not familiar with Suzanne Collins’ work, but her writing was so captivating, for lack of a better adjective.

I had never watched the movies. I made a deal with myself to read the books first, and I was not disappointed! I can’t remember the last book that made me obsess so much. I was really pulled into a different world and I finally get what everyone else was raving about it, even though it’s almost 10 years later.

I loved the way Suzanne Collins used practical descriptions in her book to create the images of the districts I saw in my head. She really made it relatable.

She wrote from Katniss’ perspective, and I really felt like I was in Katniss’ head. Taking things in as she was. So I think it’s fair to say Suzanne Collins is one of my new favorite writers, up there next to John Green and J.K Rowling.

It’s so great that she had a female protagonist in this story- especially because our world is still unlearning to put women in boxes. In a way, I think Katniss was still battling to believe she was a hero. People placed high expectations on her, and I don’t think she realised what she was capable of until the very end.

In many ways, I think a lot of women are like Katniss. We don’t realise our potential and it take something great to call that out of us.

So there was a lot of moments of personal reflection I had throughout reading this series, and writing this post counts as one of them.

I realised that the Hunger Games was ironically a book about food.

After reading book one, I realised that the Hunger Games was ironically a book about food. Man, I got really hungry every time Katniss described the food she was eating, even the lamb stew with the prunes, and I’m a vegetarian!

It also made Katniss seem like a real girl who gets hungry, like me. Again, that’s another example of how Suzanne Collins just shattered the limiting perceptions we have of women. Yey for women who get hungry and then eat with their hands!

Of the characters I will say that I was #TeamPeeta after the story about the bread. (See, they mention food a lot in this book). I always liked Gale. I thought he was great a friend to Katniss, but I knew there would have to be a twist in the story so I was vying for Peeta.

I will admit the love triangle situation was probably unnecessary, and it reminded me briefly about Twilight. But this book’s saving grace is that the love triangle was only a subplot and there’s a bigger story about a revolution going on here.

Haymitch was one of my favourites, I didn’t like him in the beginning but he really did that thing where he grows on you. Also, I think Suzanne Collins just gave him great lines. His like that family screw up, who’s not afraid to drop the truth even when it hurts. We need more people like Haymitch, except the part where he’s an alcoholic; no one should suffer like that.

I never had strong feelings about Effie Trinkett. I can’t say I liked her nor that I disliked her.

I liked who Prim becomes. So in the beginning, all we know is that she’s Katniss’ younger sister and that Katniss would give her life for her. But she’s not as helpless as Katniss makes her seem. I was disappointed at the end when Suzanne Collins killed her off anyway. I was like: “Whaaaaaaat?! Isn’t the point of Katniss volunteering to go into the arena to save Prim’s life the whole point of this story?” Anyway, so that sucked. Especially when Katniss had to return home, with no one. It’s like when the thing you try your best to stop from happening, actually happens.

So I guess that was an unexpected twist. At that point I thought Prim was safe, so well done to Suzanne Collins for making that happen. Honestly I was expecting her to kill off Gale. I was preparing myself for that.

So when Prim died, I was gutted. I’m still replaying exploding parachutes in my head.

Finnick – I like Finnick, because of his story. At first he seems really hardcore and like those annoying goodlooking people who have it easy. But he’s suffered and I kind of respect him for all his endured. It gives him some sort of humanity.

He’s also an example of many of the other loveable characters that died in this book. So after food, this book has a lot of death in it.

I was particularly fond of Cinna, Katniss’ stylist. I liked that they kept his presence in the book, even after his death.

I cried reading about Rue’s death. It was a strange experience for me. I’m used to books making me laugh out loud, so this was a different.

GOODBYE RUE: I finally get what everyone else was on about, and I am disappointed that I had to figure it out 10 years later.

I liked Pollux, even though he didn’t talk. I like that he plays a really important role in the end and that he gets along with Katniss. He even gets her to sing the Hanging Tree.

The Hanging Tree

I love this song. I found an hour-long version of it on YouTube and kept listening to it. I had first heard it a few years ago when Mockingjay part one came out. I liked the tune of the song then, but remember I hadn’t watched the movies. So when I actually read the words in the book, I was like: “Woah! This is a really dark song. But I love it!”

I think the part on the book where Katniss explains how she felt about the song, was funny. Even though it was probably a serious point in the book, but she was really just unpacking her thoughts as a teenager. Still a beautiful song. I kept singing it myself.

I wrote out the lyrics on a notepad just so I could stop thinking about it! I know, it’s kind of strange to get excited about a song about death.

If I have a choice, I don’t usually do war stories. It takes a lot of convincing for me to watch a movie about a war, usually because they’re so long. The Hunger Games, although it culminates in a war at the end, didn’t feel laborious to read, I didn’t zone out in the action scenes, either. Again, that’s a testament to Suzanne Collins’ great writing.

It felt like a journey. This was a journey of Katniss’ transformation from the girl who hunted in the meadow at District 12 to a soldier.

Who is Katniss?

I like that Katniss changes. Who she changes into isn’t really great. She loses a lot of herself because of the terror she’s faced. Then again, she was always a bit depressed. I imagined the beating her body took and I don’t think mentally you’re alright after that. I liked the reality of that. Suzanne Collins didn’t try to brush over that with a happy ending.

At the same time, Katniss discovers she’s a survivalist. She’s a strong woman, looked death in the face a number of times. Killed a few people too. So yes, I’m okay with her brokenness. She has good reason to be.

She never really listens to orders but in the end there’s more conviction to her actions. So she’s always been a rebel. She’s definitely not presidential material.

Surprisingly she is someone who loves. Although she has a very strange way of showing that love. Near the end I thought she would end up alone and I was willing to accept that given everything else that happened. I was sketching out a future for her where she ends up like Haymitch, I know not the best but definitely plausible.

But I guess Suzanne Collins probably rescued that train of thought and brings us back to the beginning.

Katniss always loved the boy who threw her that bread, even if she didn’t recognise it in the beginning. I guess she’s the kind of person who had to go through this very treacherous journey which practically tore her soul apart to realise that she needs someone like Peeta to make her feel whole again.

Barf! I know that’s so cheesy, but that’s what happens, he’s the hope she needs to carry on living. If he had died, she surely would have died. Think about it, he was in the arena with her, he understood everything she had been through and somehow he still came out of it with a shred of hope. He’s Katniss’ sliver of light.

Besides, if she ended up with Gale, I think they would have killed each other, or they would have lived miserably, never getting past the war.

Where is Gale?

I know Gale gets a fancy job in District two. But seriously were is Gale? What is this fancy job? Is he still constructing bombs or was he so eaten with the guilt of building the bomb that killed Prim that he stopped doing it altogether?

Also he really loved Katniss. So does he fall in love again? Does he meet someone who loves him back. I thought his other option would be Madge, the mayor’s daughter, but that whole family died.

Then I remember, Suzanne Collins doesn’t have to tell us what happens to Gale. The story is not about Gale. The story is about Katniss. She is the hero. Again, as a reader I am being challenged to accept the completion of a story about a woman.

Also – I’m totally having a Hunger Games movie marathon before the year is over. #Mockingjay

And just because these words are equivalent to a Shakespearean soliloquy:

 

What I learnt from writing a novel

I recently finished writing a 50 000 word novel, in less than 28 days. Why would I do such a crazy thing? That’s simple, as a member of the human race I have come to believe that we are all inherently crazy. Politics is enough proof of that.

Me, after writing a 50k word novel in less than a month.

Me, after writing a 50k word novel in less than a month.

But seriously, working as a journalist I felt that I had hit a wall in terms of my creative writing. I have been trained to write as a reporter. That means I need to restrain my flair, keep my writing concise and lose the parts that don’t add value to a hard hitting news story.

Also, it’s been a few years since I have written simply for the pleasure of writing. There was a time, when I used to write poetry, plays, songs and short stories that were never published. As a teenager writing helped me express what I was feeling. I kept some of these written pieces in a note book, no one else has read them.

As a journalist I got used to my work being published, all the time. Essentially, I haven’t written work that is not meant to be read by anyone else in four years!

In a way the act of writing became a machine that fed my ego. As the late writer Sylvia Plath once said: “I think writers are the most narcissistic people. Well, I mustn’t say this, I like many of them, a great many of my friends are writers.” Those words could not be more true (I’m referring to the part where she calls writers narcissists). One of the guest lecturers in journalism school said something similar, alluding to the idea that the only reason we write is so others can read our work.

Before this exercise turns into another measure of my self-importance let me explain why I took on this personal challenge. I borrowed the idea from National Novel Writing Month which takes place in November. I started writing my novel in December in a bid to do something “proactive” before the end of the year.

The plan was to write up 1667 words per chapter. I had written out a blueprint for the story, complete with characters. It was meant to be complete in 30 chapters, one for each day.

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Blueprint, well half of it.

Over time my story evolved. I didn’t stick to the plan. I changed the word count to 2000 words, I introduced a completely new character and changed other details. The story was completed in 27 chapters.

There were no restrictions on the way the novel would be written. I write mostly in the first person. There are some aspects of time travel and differing perspectives for the same event.

This experience has been like opening the sluices of a dam and then watching endless water run through. I say that because I have an idea for another novel that I want to write. The challenge this time was the volume of words and the time limit. I hope the next novel will create room to explore each character in more detail and more plot development.

I recommend the challenge to anyone, even if you don’t write. It’s an awesome opportunity for introspection.

There are four main lessons I take away from this experience:

1. Writing is pain

Throughout this process I have come face to face with my poor vocabulary, countless grammar mistakes and the general butchering of the English language. One of the things that helped me continue writing was the idea that no one would read this material. As writers we already put pressure on ourselves through the way we scrutinize our own work. Not having to worry about the judgement by readers helped keep the writing going.

It also came with a lot of sacrifice, which mainly cut into my hours of sleep. I would only really get a chance to write in the evenings. I would start after 8 pm and finish around 12 pm every night. I think it took me that long because the process involved a lot of pacing, drinking of Rooibos tea and the rehashing of conversations, out loud.

But after every chapter there was just so much relief! It really is like eating an entire elephant, one bite at a time.

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#Mood, after finishing each chapter.

2. Life happens when you’re writing

During this process, I still had other commitments which I had to fulfill, such as work for example. People don’t care that you’re writing a novel. When your friends come over, they come over. When you tell them you’re writing a novel they say: “Great, I want to read it.” And then they proceed to talk about their lives.

Once I even chose between washing my hair and writing another chapter. I did both and just slept five hours that night (I don’t recommend that). When Rogue One was showing in theatres, I had to complete two chapters in one day because I knew I would be too tired to type out another chapter after going to see the movie. I had to compensate like that a few more times for the “writing days” I missed.

It’s not just the “tiny” day to day events to consider either, there was a death in the family, something serious. I had to write through all of that too.

3. Writer’s read

The thing is, 50 000 words is a lot and I really did not think I would be able to colour those blank pages. I think that I drew influences from novels I had read throughout the year, especially in terms of writing styles.

In one example, I used the method to move between scenes from the current novel I am reading. I also used similar methods when dealing with dialogue between characters, which becomes really tricky in the first person. I took a conversational approach because I found that was easier to read.

In a way reading gave me confidence to sit down and write my own story. It’s kind of a – if they can do it, so can I – conclusion.

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Author Zadie Smith, reading.

4. Writing is intimate

Readers don’t realise that writing is an intimate experience. Apart from the personal reflection, it’s an invitation to the reader to step into the world the writer has created. The writer puts herself or himself in a vulnerable position by exposing their inner most thoughts, on record. No one writes without leaving a piece of themselves in their writing.

I found that even though this was a work of fiction, I wove in truths from my reality into the story. It also exposed some of my own thoughts and feelings on certain topics.

I have also created an ideal world where every character in my novel is completely honest. That’s probably unrealistic, but I have seen that it’s a reflection of the world I want to live in. So I’ve learnt a lot about myself in that regard.

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Final word count

Some of my friends have asked to read the novel, but I believe it defeats the purpose of this project. This was a chance for me to get back onto the horse, as a creative writer.

At the same time, having others read it will open my work to criticism, and I need to hear that if I’m going to improve my writing.

I found that, when you make promises to people, you have to keep them. However, it’s much easier to default on promises you make to yourself.  I once started writing a novel in high school and I never completed that novel. It’s haunted me ever since, especially whenever I think about writing long pieces. It’s probably why I have stuck to shorter pieces. Writing this novel has been daunting, finishing it meant that I kept a promise to myself.

What I do envision for this novel is to turn it into an audio project. I don’t know where I will find the time, but I have some idea of how. I think it will provide the perfect platform for my next creative endeavour.

 

Feeling Jack Keruoac

It was my first day on the new job. I was stuck in a minibus in Sunnyside, Pretoria. The bus was leading a crowd of people in a march, so naturally it was moving at a snail’s pace. However, my fingers were typing away at lightning speed.

I was racing against a mobile device that was losing power by the minute, and an internet connection that kept breaking at random. All the while I was thinking: “What did I get myself into?”

I was not supposed to be on that bus. The other journalists had left an hour earlier. They got all their pictures and quotes and promptly headed back to their respective newsrooms to file their stories.  But I chose to hang around to get the video footage I needed.

Waiting a few minutes longer meant that I would have to find my way back to the starting line, by foot. Being in unfamiliar territory, I was not confident that I would navigate back safely. I decided to complete the march, all 15km of it.

But it was after the second uphill when I told myself: “You’re a journalist. You’re not supposed to be marching. Your editor is waiting for the story. You can’t tell her you didn’t file it because you were marching.” Survival mode kicked in, I hitched a ride on the minibus and I filed the crap out of that story, frankly speaking.

In the past few weeks, I feel like I’ve been turning water into wine. Seriously, I have been doing impossible things or rather what I figured was impossible until I tried it. Working in a digital newsroom requires you to work at a faster pace than in print. I’ve gone from writing two stories a week, to four in one day. It reminds me a lot about my time at Wits Vuvuzela.

The Wits Vuvuzela newsroom taught me everything I know about journalism. It was characterized by its controlled chaos. I was constantly exhausted but I kept living off boosts from the adrenaline rush that came whenever I was on a story. I am in that space again.

I like to think that I make safe decisions when it comes to my personal life.

Someone asked me once if I have an addictive personality. I was not sure at the time. But after I covered a wage protest it became clear to me why I loved the job. It’s the adrenaline. I like to think that I make safe decisions when it comes to my personal life. But when it comes to my job, I am fearless. I take risks, all the time, without hesitation.

Once I was heading to a story, in the Johannesburg CBD, at night. I took an Uber, but on the way I wondered what my parents would say if they heard what I was doing. “Be safe,” I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. And then I heard: “You have to do the story. What are you going to tell the editor if you don’t do it?”

And that’s what happens in my head most days. One voice signals caution and the other eggs me on to push the boundaries. The only reason I do take the leap is because I know there’s a figurative safety net to fall back on. “It’s my job. I have to do it,” I coax myself.

And the adrenaline, it’s almost incapacitating. “Almost” because if it was entirely debilitating, I wouldn’t be able to report the stories.

Find the words

Reflecting on my job, I feel like Jack Kerouac. Except for the drugs and promiscuity. But equally burnt out. Like him, I am doing what I love. But I wonder, whenever he created a piece, was it painful, or did it give him joy? Did it come from a place of hidden melancholy? Or was he perfectly fine, and he just happened to write these great pieces in passing?

I write constantly. There is not a day that I don’t. If I don’t write then it means I didn’t work. I’ve been writing so much for work purposes that I have not had the time to do so creatively. I used to write from a place of pain. Now it just comes from a place of skill. I don’t know if it’s natural. And I cannot measure whether it was better as a hobby, than as a job.

I used to write to unwind and reflect on life. After a day’s work the last thing I want to do is write. So I have been challenging myself to find a new hobby. But writing always wins.

I come back to it, even when I don’t want to. There is a release of some chemical in my brain, perhaps dopamine, whenever I write. Whether I’m reporting at a protest, or sitting in my lounge at home, typing at leisure, I feel that rush. I feel that pleasure. I am addicted.

Source: Writersatwork.pfauth.com

Source: Writersatwork.pfauth.com

I still feel there’s so much to learn about writing. So much I have to master. I still haven’t found my voice as a writer. That thing that marks that a piece was written by me. I think part of finding your voice, is understanding the space in which you are most creative. For me that space has evolved from sadness to thrill. And I am concerned about whether my pieces are still good, if the place from where they are coming is happy?

One of my writing mentors at varsity once explained spontaneous writing. He went on to add: “But you have to use punctuation. You’re not Jack Kerouac.”

So I think it is just fitting to end with words by Jack Kerouac in his book, The Dharma Bums: “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”

A most unfortunate name

“Hi Lameez

Ramadan Mubarak!

Hope you well.”

This is a greeting I received via email recently, during the month of Ramadan.

From an outsider’s perspective, there is nothing wrong with that greeting. It’s polite and considerate, if the recipient is Muslim.

This always comes as a shock to most people who meet me for the first time, but I am not Muslim. My given name is obviously very Arabic. And I can forgive someone mistaking me for a Muslim just by looking at my name.

It also doesn’t help that I “look” Indian. Between me and my brother, I think I inherited the lion’s share of my grandfather’s Indian genes. So as a result, I’ve been going through life correcting people for thinking that I’m an Indian Muslim.

It’s not a big deal. It’s just annoying. I’ve been retelling my family tree to complete strangers since I was eight years old. You can imagine disclosing one’s genealogy can be quite invasive and cumbersome after the 35th time.

I was talking to my father about it one day, he’s had similar experiences and has managed to take it in his stride (I don’t have that stride). In fact, it’s an inside joke between us. I have considered making it the topic of my monologue for when I try stand-up comedy.

Sometimes I think I would have to answer fewer questions if my name wasn’t Arabic. I kind of blame my dad for that – he was the one who decided that I shouldn’t be given a Western name. Conversely, sometimes when I consider how Westernised the world is becoming and how much people are fighting to preserve their cultures – then I’m grateful that my dad sort of “stuck it to the man” and gave me and my brother Arabic names.

My name is sort of the thing that confirms the assumption that I am Indian. For example: Someone sees me for the first time, assumes that I am Indian by the pigmentation of my skin and the texture of my hair (very stereotypical by the way). I mention my “Indian-sounding” name, and there’s the confirmation – what they see matches what they assume.

In fact I don’t do anything that’s haram (forbidden) by Muslim standards

One of my colleagues also highlighted that I have very Muslim-habits, that don’t bode well to diffuse the situation either. For example, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, I don’t eat pork (that’s just a preference) and I don’t date (I haven’t had the opportunity)… In fact I don’t do anything that’s haram (forbidden) by Muslim standards. It’s ironic because when you’re trying to be like Jesus, you don’t expect your actions to come across as those of Prophet Muhammad.

Essentially, I’m being stereotyped based on what people see on the surface. I can live with that, if I never have to see these people again. But it’s the “subsequent-stereotyping” I’m worried about. That’s the kind of stuff that gets me into awkward, if not embarrassing situations. Here’s a rundown:

  1. When my Muslim classmate asked me to ask our lecturer to reschedule a test because it was the night of Eid.
  2. When my colleagues assumed that I was Muslim because of my name… and then found out that I wasn’t Muslim, six months later.
  3. Apart from the countless emails I received wishing me well for Ramadan, there have also been messages to wish me well as I celebrate Eid.
  4. When the guy at the cafeteria didn’t want to make me a sandwich because he didn’t have halaal ingredients.
  5. When the guy at the cafeteria asked the lady in the kitchen to look at me to confirm that I wasn’t Indian.
  6. That guy from the hardware store who called me, but greeted me with “Salaam Alaikum,” and I just said… “Hello” back.
  7. My driving instructor who kept showing me lovely Mosques as we drove past them.
  8. My driving instructor who asked me how I handle fasting.
  9. My driving instructor who couldn’t understand why all my names were Muslim, even the middle one.
  10. That person who wanted to reschedule a meeting for when my prayers were done.
  11. That guy who asked me how the fast was going.
  12. My friend’s sister who wanted to find a halaal restaurant for me. (Okay that wasn’t embarrassing. That was sweet.)

I don’t hate my name, but it does create a lot of inconvenient situations for me. Once I was hanging out with Christians, and cringed at having to explain what my name means. Sometimes I wish I had a Christian name. One guy who was surprised (they’re always surprised) to learn the truth about me asked what I would name my children. I responded with an aggressive and probably not like Jesus: “Very Christian names!”

I have learnt a lesson from this – and that’s not to judge people, especially when it comes to matters of identity/ ethnicity/ religion. And I have also seen the kindness of people, stereotyping aside, people are really considerate and respecting of others and their beliefs. It’s nice to see that there is still good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for (Yep, I totally stole that from Samwise Gamgee #TeamLOTR).

But I guess the silver lining in all of this is that your name doesn’t define who you are. You are not your name, but you are the sum of your choices. Who we become is up to us. There is always redemption.

A year without Facebook – A social experiment

Aim: Spend a year without using Facebook (in my personal capacity).

Hypothesis: I will successfully complete the year and reach personal enlightenment and recover from the need to broadcast my life on social media.

OR

Find a loophole to keep using Facebook, thus remaining a narcissist by the end of the trial.

Apparatus: The internet.

Method: Use the internet, but not Facebook. This means no posting updates, pictures or videos. No viewing or sharing posts and liking or commenting on posts from my personal account. In fact, deactivate my account and delete the app on my smartphone.

Results: I found a loophole.

Discussion of findings: My reason for abstaining from Facebook for a year was primarily to save data costs. I was also social media fatigued (I think). I was a slave to my smartphone. I would constantly glance down to see new updates on my timeline, only to find that the last person to send out an update was me.

That’s right, I was the most exciting person on my timeline. I knew that couldn’t be true, because my life isn’t that eventful. And that’s when I realized I was a cooler person online than in real life.

I embarked on a personal intervention and deactivated my account, without any warning. There was no: “This is my last status update for a long time,” to inform friends. There was no clean-up operation to “unlike” pages, exit groups or “un-share” posts. I imagine this must be what it feels like to join a witness protection programme.

This was not my first attempt at quitting Facebook. I’ve done it twice before. The last time I deactivated my account, I spent a solid six months Facebook-free. The purge was good… Until I caved.

I felt like my behavior was worse when I came back. It happened incrementally. At first I would share posts instead of constructing my own updates. That would happen once every few days. Eventually I was posting once a day.

The egotistical monster got a hold on me again, there I was, constantly viewing screens for updates. These updates weren’t necessarily posts by others, but rather, how many new notifications I received. How many people liked my post? Who commented? Who isn’t, and why not? Not looking at my timeline for an hour was an achievement.

My updates weren’t about me… but they were. Sure, it wasn’t always about the food I was eating, the places I was going to or who I was with. These were carefully constructed thoughts to reflect my wit. These “clever” observations of the world were just disguised self-glorification.

You might think that I’m being dramatic. But I would save unpublished statuses on my notepad which I had scheduled to post at a later stage. (This is the part in group therapy where I admit that I have a problem).

I was so far gone, I wasn’t only seeking validation and self- worth in Facebook, but my very existence hinged on it.

Not getting Facebook likes made me feel unloved. My train of thought would diverge into two extremes. If my post didn’t get likes, then the post wasn’t as funny as I thought it was, which means my sense of humour must be broken. Or, there was nothing wrong with me, but there was something wrong with everyone else. They’re all stupid and I need new friends.

So not having Facebook, was refreshing. During the first week I found myself glancing at my smartphone, without having anything to look at besides my wallpaper. That’s when I realized I was too dependent on it. I wasn’t living in reality, I was living online. I was so far gone, I wasn’t only seeking validation and self- worth in Facebook, but my very existence hinged on it.

My fears of replacing Facebook with another form of social media came true. I replaced it with Twitter. But fortunately, with Twitter no one can feed into your vanity, unless you have plenty followers who engage with you. Also, you’re competing with bigger names on Twitter. So I gave up on Twitter and latched onto Instagram. (I know, so much for curbing my data spending).

Once again, I was feeding off likes which served as an assessment of my photography skills. It wasn’t long before I discovered the power of captions. They were another way to share my thoughts. The caption became my status update, and the picture was a bonus. Now people could see what I was seeing. And I had a cool filter to make my feat look even cooler than it really was. (I need to find another adjective for “cooler”).

There was also WhatsApp. I found myself texting friends during the day. I would share BuzzFeed posts, screenshots of tweets and Instagram posts via WhatsApp and email. But people didn’t respond too well to that, I texted them more often than they texted me. Again, I went down that spiral of feeling unloved.

Then there’s work, the very undoing of my social experiment. I manage the social media accounts for work. So I hadn’t distanced myself from Facebook as far as I would’ve liked. In defence of maintaining whatever shred of integrity is left in this flawed experiment, posting for a company is different to posting from your personal account.

Companies use their social media strategically, to build networks and reach specific audiences. It’s more purposeful than running your own account where you just keep up with news about your buddies. And there was a lot of things I missed out on; engagement announcements, job promotions, graduations and birthdays. (A heck of a lot of birthdays). That’s when I noticed my friends were also dependent on Facebook to stay social.

There were a few useful things I learnt. When used correctly, social media can help build your brand, especially if you’re a young professional who’s trying to network and promote a purposeful message. However, my message was a loud clanging noise that screamed out “ME!”

I hate that I used Facebook as an outlet to promote a false reality of life. Real life is nothing like Facebook. We are not meant to exist on digital platforms.

To cure myself of boredom, I found a few “old school” activities to keep busy. I started reading more, paperback too. I also started listening to podcasts. (I’d recommend that – you can learn so much about the world and people). I also developed new hobbies like running. Not documenting the parts of the world I was discovering was refreshing. It granted me some degree of anonymity.

Life was simpler, like when I was younger. Where memories were made and saved in my head, not the internet.

I made more effort with my friendships. Instead of keeping in touch online, I would visit my friends more. Physically hanging out with people is more constructive than just following posts. That’s where the real relationship building happens. I even started phoning my friends again. Hearing their voices and not just reading their texts was pretty awesome. (That fellow Alexander Graham Bell was really onto something).

Life was simpler, like when I was younger. Where memories were made and saved in my head, not the internet. They became awesome stories to share with people, using words from my mouth! Just sitting and waiting, with nothing to occupy my hands or my mind was so freeing.

On the flipside of this free time I had to myself, I noticed how others were so glued to their phones. People don’t just sit around and enjoy each other’s company anymore. Their heads are bowed, eyes staring squarely at screens. They’re social with people online, when there are people right in front of them. It made me think of all the awesome people I never met because I was so closed off to the real world.

Conclusion: The real challenge begins. Do I return to Facebook? Frankly speaking, if I had to reactivate my Facebook account, then I suspect it would be similar to an ex-junkie relapsing into addiction.

I know I shouldn’t go back, for the sake of my mental health. Seriously, being on a site that’s all about me will end up killing my brain cells prematurely. Self-worship will be my undoing.

It would be ideal if I could quit all social media permanently.

But I can’t. Firstly, for professional reasons, as journalists we use Twitter as a tool to source and broadcast stories. Instagram is also hopping onto that wagon.

Secondly, I will never be truly free of social media. Instant messaging is social media, and to an extant email is too. I use these mediums to communicate and keep in touch with people. So I’ll be lying if I said I quit social media, because I’d still be using it in some way, maybe not as explicitly as using Facebook.

There are two things of which I am certain:

  1. I should not return to Facebook.
  2. I am still the self- loving person I was before I quit Facebook.

There is one thing of which I am uncertain. And that is whether I will be successful in avoiding Facebook for the rest of my life.

Every now and then I read a post online about the dangers of social media, with fraud and identity theft rising. Also, watching people destroy their careers on social media through their thoughtless posts is also keeping me off Facebook. But I don’t know if these reasons are sustainable.

There is a strong possibility that I will cave, again. I almost gave in for the last two weeks of this challenge.

Was my social experiment a success? In many ways it was conflicted. I found loopholes but there were some wins.

For one, it feels great to have some part of my life remain a mystery. Whenever I meet new people, they can’t find my Facebook profile online, so they can’t suss me out from my updates or pictures. I have enjoyed this short-term anonymity, but it isn’t a long term option for me.

I could join Facebook again and be consumed by my self-love. Or I can continue using other forms of social media, taking a more disciplined approach for professional purposes.

Leaving one question … Is it too late to get a pseudonym?