The great pretenders

I’ve been working for a financial magazine for the past five months, and so far I have had lunch with CEOs, attended seminars with political figures and mingled with investors. (Yes, I used finance speak the whole time… and when doubtful, nodded my head and dropped an “Oh really?” at appropriate pauses).

In two days I will be attending an event and the key note speaker, President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will talk about business opportunities in her country. Two years ago I didn’t know who she was and on Thursday I will be “hanging out” with the first elected female head of state in Africa. This is my life.

Conversations at the Saxon

The other day I was at the Saxon Hotel, learning about what SA needs to rescue its manufacturing sector and the implications of not exporting enough finished goods. The Saxon is apparently where Oprah stays over, I didn’t know that but my colleague kindly informed me. I (clumsy rookie) dropped my spoon and before I could even bend over to reach it, a waiter rushed to pick it up from the floor. “You don’t pick up your own spoon at the Saxon,” quipped my colleague.

Meanwhile, still at the Saxon, I spoke to another journalist, a veteran of sorts. I remember being 10 years old, eating breakfast before heading to school and watching her on the news channel. Sharing a sofa with her at the Saxon was probably one of the versions of the childhood dreams I had about meeting my immortal heroes, I mean news anchors. I played it cool (well, in my head I did- keeping calm on the outside and remaining desperate on the inside).

You can’t put a price on “chances in a lifetime”.

This journalist who I looked up to, was telling me how she can’t afford to spend one night at the Saxon, but wouldn’t trade her job as a journalist for anything else in the world. “At the time I was starting out it was rare to find black, female journalists. It was hard to convince my parents of my career choice,” she told me. Could this be? The woman I watched read the news on TV, while I was growing up, shares my story? She pioneered the way forward for female journalists in my generation. And I was sitting there, thinking to myself: “When you open your mouth again, don’t say anything embarrassing”… and: “Well, I’m never going to make money out of this profession, am I?”

Looking at the experiences I’ve had on the job in the past five months, and then comparing it to my salary… gee, you can’t put a price on “chances in a lifetime”. These memories, these experiences, they are invaluable. But it’s hard to try and reconcile this with the ideas of wealth and success we were raised to achieve.

Just pretending

We had a farewell get together for one of my colleagues and my editor started a speech with: “Congratulations on finally getting a real job.” In that statement my editor summed up the consequences of a career in journalism.

This isn’t the kind of job you take if you have plans to settle down. You know, get a bond, medical aid or life insurance. (Yes it does sound a bit like we’re bordering on Irvine Welsh’s anti-hero, Mark Renton, in his novel Trainspotting).

This is the kind of job you take to live in the present without the consequences of a future. This is “schmooze” till they find you out. You are a pretender.

I attended a presentation by a financial services company, and an analyst asked me if I was a broker. I don’t know if it was the blazer I was wearing or if my confused expression was mistaken for a serious one. The point is, I could have just played along with the broker explanation. Instead, I went with: “I’m a journalist” which roughly translates to: “I’m pretending”.

You’re playing adult “catch-me-if-you can” and you’re winning.

Journalists are the greatest pretenders. We “roll” with our subjects. Make love with their realities. And when time comes, we pen it down for kicks. It’s not like we’re working for a quick buck (I think I’ve established that there are no “bucks” in journalism). It’s not like we’re working for fame either (journalists are more likely to be infamous).

We are narcissists, there is no doubt- the only reason we write is because we know someone is going to read. But bylines are overrated, after five weeks you’ll get over the print glory. It’s not even the rush of spewing your creativity all over the pages (web and print). It’s the thrill. You’re playing adult “catch-me-if-you can” and you’re winning.

You get to tell the world how you pretended your way into a situation you had no business getting involved in. You’re telling the stories, and you make the rules as you go along. You’re the author. And you can end the game whenever you want to, because “It’s just pretend”.

Meanwhile, in reality, my parents have suggested I keep an eye out for a “real” job. If I recall correctly: “I think this is just a season in your life,” were the words my mother said to me. As tempting as the perks of health insurance, a car allowance, mortgage repayments and general “making money” sound… I’m not done pretending.


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