Yesterday's Cape Times billboard read, I swear to FSM, COFFIN PAIR CHAIN ROW. While that's a vintage and irreproachable crash blossom of the high quality which is so broadly suggestive it appears to almost preclude actual meaning, it's also beautifully distracting, in that not even my highly-trained and fertile imagination could come up with any back story that seemed in the least likely. I drove around most of yesterday (which was a lot of driving, on account of work + mid-morning excursion to rescue the Jo from being locked out of her own house with a sprained ankle + home from work + vet trip) with my brain gently revolving scenarios in fascinated disbelief. (Googling it is unpleasant and I wish I hadn't, because it's a nasty story, although it also yields the equally vintage crash blossom VIRAL COFFIN HELL VIDEO DUO).
I also badly needed the distraction, because yesterday we lost the Hobbit struggle: the oral cortisone had stopped working, the stronger injected stuff gave him precisely two days of appetite, and then he stopped eating again. He's been increasingly slow, dazed and sad for the last couple of weeks, and it got to the horrible, inescapable point where the only thing I could still do for him was to make it stop. We put him down yesterday afternoon. My house is full of absence.
(My subject line quotes the Ink-Spots, from the Fallout 4 soundtrack, which is lovely vintage music chosen by a clearly demented genius to range very satisfyingly, given various current events, from maudlin romanticism to nuclear-apocalypse black humour.)
At this point 2016 can officially fuck right off and die. Seriously. I do not want this 2016, it is skraaatched. In my personal iconage, it has taken from us David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Sheri S. Tepper. It has given us Brexit, Donald Trump, destructive student protests and cancer in my cat. It and all its works can take a long fiery hike straight into the sun. Today it's the death of Leonard Cohen, who is not quite a personal icon but is still a Significant Good. It feels like adding insult to injury. Also, people keep posting covers of "Hallelujah", which infallibly makes me cry even in circumstances when significant portions of America haven't just lost the collective moral and political plot.
On the upside, Tumblr is circulating relevant post-election Cohen lyrics, namely from "Everybody Knows", which is a favourite of mine and also satisfyingly and appropriately despairing.
everybody knows that the dice are loaded everybody rolls with their fingers crossed everybody knows that the war is over everybody knows the good guys lost everybody knows the fight was fixed the poor stay poor, the rich get rich that’s how it goes and everybody knows
In this dark time in American politics, I re-recommend you copperbadge's unabashedly fantasy wish-fulfilment political AU with the Avengers taking the White House. Leader of the Free World. Balm to the political soul.
Further in the Department of Frivolous Escapism With Which I Propose To Distract Myself, I hear really positive buzz about Mass Effect: Andromeda, whose release date has been delayed to next year, which is a Good Thing because if they released it in 2016, 2016 would infallibly fuck it up beyond redemption. Interesting details on the game's developments here; I like what they have apparently done to tweak the combat system, and I am really excited about the increased emphasis on character interactions, because as you all know I am a mad and desperate fangirl for Bioware character interactions. The statement "The squadmate with the least amount of lines in Andromeda has more lines than the squadmate with the most amount of lines in ME3" made me go "squeee!", although not quite as ear-splittingly as if they'd replaced "ME3" with "Inquisition". I shall set aside a two-week leave period around Andromeda's release date, upgrade my computer, and permit 2017 to establish its bona fides appropriately while waving two fingers in 2016's general direction. Because really.
I did not expect to wake up this morning to a Trump victory. I also did not expect to have that victory hit me like an actual punch to the gut, since which I have been in on and off in tears. Even before reading Tumblr, with its intimate window into the pain and fear of the very liberal-skewing American bloggers I read, I was wandering around the house mumbling "But how could they do that?" in betrayed disbelief. What does it say about people that vast swathes of American voters can put any kind of stamp of approval onto that man and all he stands for? A ranting, blind, profoundly stupid, narcissistic and sociopathic man-child whose message is all about bigoted, divisive, ultimately venal hatred? Brexit was a faint shadow of this. Beyond any implications of the profoundly broken state of democracy in a media-driven world, I want and need to be able to believe better of people. But I can't.
And make no mistake, this is not just a crippling blow to values I hold very dear, decency and thoughtfulness and empathy. I am feeling it personally because this is also a particularly cruel and dismissive assault on women. Trump is a joke candidate: it is basically an insult to Hillary Clinton to be considering his "qualifications" in the same breath as hers. She is a mature, hyper-intelligent, accomplished and hard-working politician whose experience and skills have been honed across the entire course of her life to the fine point required by the presidency. If she were male, I think she would have won in a landslide. Her unpopularity, the media play with her "scandals", the characterisation of her as cold, or driven, or ambitious, are all the direct and instrumental result of her gender. If she were a man, her "scandals" would be negligible and her "flaws" would be strengths. It is beyond ridiculous, given her clear competence, that she should be so unpopular. It is sheer misogyny, woven into the fabric of media portrayals and voter responses. And to elect a shameless misogynist instead of her is a slap in the face to women.
Clinton in the White House would have been the rational choice, but also the hopeful one for more than feminism. It would have rejected the vile, destructive and asinine flailings of Trump, and it would have affirmed the idea that society is growing and maturing, that we are addressing racism and sexism and bigotry and unthinking greed, that we have learned. I don't even want to contemplate what it's going to do to our world to have a climate change denier as the American president at a crux point where we have an imperative and fast-closing window for instrumental change. We're fucked in that sense alone, even without the likely regression of American sexual and racial and economic politics and their knock-on effects in the global zeitgeist, and the non-zero chance that he'll nuke someone in a fit of pique because they insulted him on Twitter. Possibly it's a good thing I've been playing all this Fallout, I may yet need the skills.
But we can't have Clinton, because too many people voted in fear and hatred and ignorance. Which brings us to Terry Pratchett, the archetypal humanist, whose sense of humanity's failings is clear-eyed and acute and ultimately more forgiving than mine. He says it all in Night Watch, really. "The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people." Trump is a debased and dangerous idiot, but the wrong kind of people elected him.
One of the drawbacks of over-active empathy is that I need to feel connected to the world. I cannot imagine feeling connected to people capable of deliberately electing Trump, and it hurts. It means I am not part of the world. More than that, if this is what a significant portion of our world does, and wants, I do not wish to be.
It's remotely possible that being a total and irredeemable geek is my Seekrit Weapon, curriculum-advice-wise. If nothing else it gives me innocent joy to assist a student with a tangled curriculum and then spend 20 minutes, as I did a month or two back, dissecting Fallout 4 and our respective experiences over multiple play-throughs. (You were quite correct, Fallout-playing-student. Survival mode, while extremely tricky at lower levels and ultimately requiring minor modding to saves to make it non-frustrating enough for sustained play, is a deeply satisfying thing, I'm so happy you persuaded me to try it. I hope you have a tiny, untraumatic curriculum problem soon so I can tell you all about it).
Today's one was a rather beautiful inner arm tattoo which made me go "oooh, is that Tengwar?!" in girlish excitement. The student got this sort of soul's-awakening look - momentary shuttered expression, you could see him gathering himself to explain the context to a tragically unhip middle-aged administrator, followed by dawning realisation as my actual comment penetrated and he identified against all likelihood a fellow geek who didn't just recognise Tolkien, but the actual script. I wish I could have taken the hat-trick by translating, but alas, my Tengwar is beyond rusty. ("The crownless again shall be king", apparently. Somewhat classic.) At least I could respond, when he said in some relief, "Oh, you're a Tolkien fan!" by pointing wordlessly to Lúthien Tinúviel dancing on my wall.
It's a tiny subset of geeky students to whom I can appeal, but it does help to feel that moment of actual connection. Some things do cross the generation gap.
I fear that geeky consolations are necessary at the moment, as the university landscape is a bit doom-laden. It's all quiet; once again, too quiet. Lectures are suspended for the term, but students are able to access the library and labs, and the buses are running, so technically they are all finishing the semester's work and preparing for exams, which start next week. But it's entirely likely that the protesters are imitating the action of the rake in the grass and will erupt into life as soon as we incautiously step on their tines by trying to actually congregate students for examination purposes. At which point it'll all go to hell in a handbasket. However, I should note for posterity that "tines" is a lovely word. So specific. Precision in language is a very particular pleasure.
Quick Hobbit update: he's still OKish. He didn't respond at all well to the scheduled reduction of his cortizone dose after a week, his condition took a sharp dive, so we had to up it again. This means that the time left on his personal feline clock is probably measured in weeks rather than months; the cancer must be far enough advanced to resist the low doses already. Increasing the dose is giving him a bit of an appetite, at least, although in true feline and hobbitish fashion he is milking this for all it's worth by turning his nose up at expensive kidney-improving kibble. He only becomes truly enthusiastic about food if I hand-feed him bits of cooked chicken from my plate, at which point he snatches them somewhat impolitely and bolts them. I don't feed my cats people-food under any circumstances, usually, but right now I will feed him the blood of the living if that's what it takes. Let's hope it doesn't get that far. (Also, he infallibly bites me when I pill him, so he's getting a reasonable daily dose of blood anyway).
(My subject line quotes "Beren and Luthien", because that level of poignant loss seems vaguely appropriate on a number of levels).
I do not at all wish to think about the campus situation, given that library and lab access was, in fact, disrupted by protests all week, and that clashes with police and security have become violent. My inbox is filled with panicked and plaintive queries, I am exhausted and despairing, and I am forced to contemplate the need to produce four weeks of teaching in virtual form by the end of this weekend. I am therefore going to distract myself with cooking, mostly because I have recently discovered American-style cornbread, and both Jo and Claire are badgering me for the recipe.
I have wanted to make American-style cornbread for years, because it sounds cool, but we don't actually produce cornmeal of the requisite grade in this country, so I've never pulled it together before. However, a couple of months back one of the Tumblr bloggers I read posted a recipe for skillet cornbread with caramelised onions, which looked so good I was moved to do five minutes of internet research, which revealed that you can substitute the cornmeal in cornbread with polenta, which is, in fact, apparently identical to coarse-ground cornmeal. As I retain my pathological inability to follow a recipe with any degree of fidelity, I am posting below my version, rather than simply linking to his, although you can have the original link as well, here. My version doesn't caramelise the onions with actual caramel, but compensates by upping the butterfat quotient of the cornbread itself to more civilised levels, i.e. decadent ones. I will have no truck with skimmed milk. It also reduces the amount of maple syrup, because I think this is better if it's not too sweet. It doesn't seem to make much difference if you use real maple syrup or maple-flavoured golden syrup, you just need that touch of sweetness and flavour.
SKILLET CORNBREAD WITH CARAMELISED ONIONS
Onion Topping: 1 tsp brown sugar 3 tbsp butter 1 medium-sized red onion, diced (or sweet white onion if you can find them)
Cornbread: 1 egg 250ml full cream Greek yoghurt (you could use low fat if you prefer, but why?) 125ml buttermilk (or normal milk if you must be health-conscious) 3 Tbsp melted butter 3 tblsp maple syrup 250ml polenta 60ml flour 2 tsp baking powder 1/2 tsp baking soda 1 tsp salt 1/2 a tin of whole kernel sweetcorn (this is optional, but works very well).
I make this in a weird but magical handle-less stainless steel pan thingy I inherited from Jo(ty) when she and Phleep fled the country - it has a nice heavy base, which I think is the important bit, and you can bung it in the oven owing to the lack of handle. I've also made this in a Dutch oven, i.e. my heavy cast-iron Le Creuset knockoff. You don't need anything with a lid.
Preheat oven to 425oF
Caramelise the onions: on medium to low heat, melt the 3 tblsp butter and add the chopped onions. Allow to sweat gently and soften for about 20 mins, stirring occasionally, until they start caramelising properly. Cheat and add 1 tsp brown sugar and a little water. Cook another 5 mins or so.
Mix dry ingredients (polenta, flour, backing powder, baking soda, salt) in a mixing bowl. Mix yoghurt, milk, melted butter and syrup with the egg in a measuring jug. Fling wet and sinfully fatty ingredients into dry ingredients and mix.
Mix in the sweetcorn. You can also fling in things like bits of chilli, chopped peppadews, crispy bacon bits, grated cheese or chopped spring onion, although I wouldn't put them all in at once. I like the spring onion/peppadew version, although the whole corn one is my favourite.
Tilt the onion pan to run the butter up the sides, for greasing purposes, and spread the onions vaguely evenly over the bottom.
Pour the batter over the onions and bung into the pre-heated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until firm to the touch and starting to brown. Let it cool for five minutes or so before loosening the sides and inverting onto a plate. You'll end up with a flat round loaf with caramelised onion topping, like a savoury upside down cake.
This is damned good with chili, or soup, or in chunks all on its own, and would make a superb and wildly cross-cultural accompaniment to braai. It's also, I warn you, absurdly moreish, I can flatten a whole loaf unaided in 24 hours. If eating it over a couple of days, it works to microwave slices for 20 seconds or so on Day 2, it freshens them and it's better warm.
My car's music system is wandering through the alphabetical mid-section of my Bowie albums at present, currently in the middle of Let's Dance, which gave me, in rapid succession this morning, "Criminal Minds" followed by "Cat People", which has the line about putting out fires with gasoline. This was somewhat apposite as campus re-opened this morning, with the expected protest action following as the night does the day. This gave me a morning shaped thusly:
General headless chickening about whether or not we should try to be on campus, with contingency meetings in coffee shops first. Rumours of protesters massing on lower campus, but we resolved to give it a try anyway.
Arriving at a quiet middle campus venue for an online reg training session to find that technological mishap is no respecter of protests, and no-one could log into any of the computers. The organisers took an hour to ascertain that, yes, no-one could log onto any of the computers, during which time no training transpired. Then the protesters arrived.
Protesters set off fire alarms, bounced around the building singing, shouting and beating drums. About a million policemen arrived. We were told to leave our training venue by a protester, who was fairly polite but who also took away with him, presumably for communist redistribution, the bowl of peppermints set out on the coffee table for the trainees.
The building locked down. Fire alarms blaring, all doors locked. One entrance only opened, up three flights of stairs from our basement venue, and at the other side of a mass of police and protesters and news cameras. The protesters flung a bucket of human excrement across the threshold of the only open door and then departed for points upper, hell-bent, presumably, on further disruption.
We huddled in the basement until the crowds had dispersed, and then left, gingerly. The direction of the protests meant that my boss texted me almost immediately to say not to bother coming up to the office, since the protests were clearly headed that way, Today We Will Work From Home.
I could have done with that decision at 8am rather than 10am, as I find the panic attack/hyperventilation at being trapped behind locked doors to be inconvenient and annoying and would prefer to have avoided it entirely. Also the poo flinging. It came nowhere near me, but I still feel unclean. Presumably that was the point.
The Powers That Be have decreed that we will finish the semester remotely, i.e. no face-to-face lectures or tutorials. Exams will take place in November. We will finish the semester by hook or by crook, mostly crook in the sense that we will examine on eight weeks of work rather than twelve. Apparently academic standards and the integrity of our qualifications are only immutable until they aren't. It's also debatable whether or not the protests will allow us to keep the necessary library and computer labs and buses running for students without home internet access.
I am sick at heart. On the upside, Hobbit is responding well to the cortizone and, while still slightly subdued, is contriving to fight being pilled, leaving me with scratches all over my hands and, after one more than usually athletic wriggle, my left nipple. He is eating like a small ginger horse and has resumed his playful finger-nipping and butt-clawing habits. Pandora is in a massive hissy fit, I think she imagined she was an Only Cat Now after five days without him, and is resenting his return. They sit on either side of me on my bed at night with Pandy's tail lashing like a particularly miffed leopard's. On the whole, I'll take it.
Campus continues closed, which does mean the personal introvert box labelled "is stressed by traffic and crowds" is not, in fact, being ticked on a daily basis. Being quietly at home is a good thing, and conducive to being able to craft gently reassuring emails to stressed students. If only everything else in the world weren't exploding. I woke up yesterday at 8.15 with the sudden, horrible realisation that I'd booked my car in for a service that morning and promptly forgotten about it in all the cat and campus crises, and had to rocket out of bed and through the tail end of rush hour traffic to squeak it in a whisker before the 9am cut-off. On the upside, I am rather enjoying the chats with the Uber drivers. Is it just me, or are two-thirds of Uber drivers actually Zimbabwean? We play odious comparisons between Trump and Mugabe and shake our heads sagely about the SA parallels to the Zimbabwe university melt-downs, it's very satisfying.
Not everything is, in fact, exploding. A quick Hobbit update, with grateful thanks to everyone for the good wishes and moral support. I have been talked down by various vets from my somewhat knee-jerk reaction against chemotherapy. The vets, and a fair amount of googling, reveal that cancer treatments in cats and dogs are very much less aggressive than they are in humans, with quality of life being carefully balanced against an actual cure. I've been offered two levels of treatment for Hobbit, either a cortisone pill one, or a more complex/powerful one. The cortisone one is palliative and would give him at least another six months before the cancer developed a resistance to it, the second one has a chance at an actual cure, but has an increased risk of side effects and renal failure. Given that it's kidney cancer, I'm worried about the renal failure risk. He has, however, been in at the vet's on a drip since the weekend, and is apparently responding well and eating OK, so it seems fair to give him a chance with the treatment. I'll bring him home this morning, with one or other of the treatments started, I still haven't decided which. Any input valued! I am still going to lose him, probably by euthanasing him as soon as he starts being uncomfortable and unhappy, but we have more time. I'll take it.
(Subject line is David Bowie, "Days", off Reality, which seems to be a theme at the moment. Other lyrics from that particular song: "going mad, don't know what to do"; "my crazy brain in tangles". Word.)
Back in the days of the Osborne Rd digs with Dylan, Mich and Mykal, we had an ongoing joke about "the c-word". I actually can't remember what the C in c-word referred to, I suspect it may have been a post-break-up cynical rant about commitment-phobia from Mich, but I don't think its genesis was obscene. The point was that you could use it to refer to anything you didn't want to contemplate, regardless of whether or not it began with C. Love. The Masters thesis. The cat throwing up on the carpet. The washing up.
I've needed that word this week. Particularly since everything that has rendered this last week a c-word does, in fact, begin with C.
Campus. Is still closed, and will be tomorrow, and we are seeing the possibility of actually finishing the semester slipping inexorably from our grasp. The protesters won't budge, and our attempts to lecture last week were futile. I don't know where this is all going to go, but nowhere good. The destruction to the fabric of the university is already incalculable.
Car. Dead battery for two days running, necessitating waiting around for jump starts and things. It's on a maintenance plan, so I can't get it sorted at the battery place around the corner, I have to trek out to Paarden Eiland. Where it transpired that the battery is, in fact, dead, and out of warranty, so that was an expensive replacement noise.
Cat, and, in fact, cancer. Hobbit is currently in at the vet's, on a drip. He's been increasingly subdued and thin, and this week spent several days not moving from one spot on the living room carpet, eating little or nothing. On Wednesday the doctor found a lump in his kidney, which tests and things have revealed is almost certainly cancer of the kidney, which has spread into the liver and lymph nodes. We are waiting for one last round of test results tomorrow to narrow the kind of cancer it is, but basically the options are chemotherapy or euthanase, and I'm fucked if I'm putting him through chemo to scratch out a last few months of unpleasant life. He's been miserable enough this last week as it is. I am almost certainly going to have to put down my cat on Monday. The effect of this has been to muffle all the campus disasters, which I really should be worrying about, but am not, because I am devastated about Hobbit. I am not coping.
Fuck this week. I'd like to return it to sender with extreme prejudice. You can keep it.
We have Schrödinger's Protests, apparently. They only exist if they're observed, or possibly if they observe you, i.e. if you happen to be in the building at the time that the protesters happen to be congregating. Up until then, we are not in a state of protest: campus is quiet, and somewhat short of students as many of them are confused, terrified or grabbing the opportunity to bunk and haven't come to campus at all. If protest happens, dozens of students singing harmonious protest songs erupt into the building and set off the fire alarm, at which point either lock your door and pretend you don't exist, or if you choose to submit to observation, are gently but firmly escorted out of the building, briefly, to stand around for a few minutes until the focus point shifts again and you can drift back indoors and resume the placid course of non-protesting life. It's a bizarrely intermittent existence, and is playing merry hell with teaching, which is exhibiting equal parts distraction, confusion and uglification. (Tracy: hugs).
The whole has not been materially assisted by my techno-jinx, which is attacking my car. Two weeks of intermittently closed campus has led to a number of days at home, going nowhere and feverishly refreshing email, the website and my fast-compounding WhatsApp network. As a result I haven't driven the Beastie much, and her battery isn't charging. I was very tense about Monday, and braced for protest horror horrors (which fortunately didn't actually materialise), and climbing into the car to have it make a series of unpleasant coughing noises in lieu of starting, really didn't help. Except when it did, as waiting for the jump-start people ended up delaying my arrival on campus by a couple of hours, thus neatly avoiding the road closures, which all packed up and went their merry way at about 10am. I have had a rinse and repeat this morning, and have just returned from an expensive little trip to the Hyundai service people, who replaced the battery and, it being six months out of warranty, charged me merrily for it. Now at least I can reliably arrive at campus on time tomorrow to be turned back by the barricades. Yay.
By way of distracting myself from the political insanity of my current context, a word on the political insanity of America. Not even Trump, although I have to record for posterity my glee at Trump being pwned by Clinton in the debate. (See also: Shimmy Song). Do you know that the US gun laws, in their NRA-funded money-grubbing madness, prohibit the use of any computer database to track gun ownership? So everything is on hard copy or microfilm, and has to be searched manually. There's an amazing GQ article which chronicles the bloody-minded determination of the gun ownership records office to be halfway functional in the teeth of one of the world's most warpedly biased constraints. It warms the more administrative cockles of my heart. The rest of it (the non-administrative cockles) are being chilled by the sheer number of unrestrained firearms in America.
(My subject line is Bowie's "She'll Drive the Big Car", which is one of his more melancholy and contemplative numbers off Reality, and something of a favourite of mine.)
I was right about the "too quiet" thing, an attempt to be on campus on Wednesday inevitably ended up with protesters setting off fire alarms, and we all scurried home quickly before they could attempt to pointedly escort us out of the buildings, which has been the technique thus far. The Dean finally decreed that everyone should remain off campus for the rest of the week. We are at a deeply unpleasant pivot point where the university leadership is insisting that lectures must start on Monday come what may, which means increased security, which means confrontation and escalation and violence, and more damage and trauma all round.
The whole thing still hinges on the demand for amnesty by protesters who were interdicted or expelled or prosecuted for criminal damage. The students remain immovable about this as a condition of allowing the university to continue; the VC insists that there can be no compromise. (Apparently he's under pressure from a particularly punitive faction in Council). I have changed my mind about this, in contemplation of the inevitabilities playing out, and in wincing, braced anticipation of things going horribly downhill on Monday. At this stage, amnesty is going to be the least damaging of a range of dreadful options. The best suggestion I've heard thus far, after a surprisingly civilised and productive faculty meeting this morning, is that the university issues amnesties while requiring an address to criminal activities, and some resolution in terms of justice/reparation, as part of an independently-run TRC.
And if nothing else, it might work to repair trust to some small extent: we cannot function with a student body with a large number of perfectly legitimate grievances feeling utterly unheard by an implacable admin. It's horrible to realise how much damage has already been done - not just to our credibility and donor funding and academic project, but to the institutional psyche. Students are angry and afraid and anxious about all the confrontation on top of the already high levels of inherent angst in being a black student on a campus whose culture is opaque and elitist and alienating. Staff are devastated and betrayed by the assaults on their competence which student dissatisfactions inevitably represent, and are increasingly angry about all these demands that we "consult" with our students while management goes ahead and makes unilateral decisions regardless of the outcome of consultations.
I am not designed for this. I have a pathological need to see all sides of an argument, and far too much empathy with all of them. I am tending to keep fairly quiet in the faculty context in a desperate attempt at self-defense, while I silently build walls to stop myself from disintegrating. Because that's what it feels like. A lot of my Useful Stuff Learned In Therapy suggests that giving people what they want is one of the ways I validate my own existence. No-one can get what they want in all this. I can't help, despite the fact that my job requires I integrally help both students and the faculty. I therefore may not actually exist.