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.
We are closed for another week, i.e. lectures and tutorials are suspended, but other university "operations" are supposed to continue. I am on campus today, and it's all quiet. Too quiet, she says, channelling her favourite Fallout 4 companion. Suspiciously quiet. It's very difficult not to read the quiet as a lull while increasingly conflicted and deadlocked students/protesters/university management plan their next move, which may or may not be another round of dramatic mass action. I'm still having the room-invasion nightmares, I woke myself up last night with a yell in the small hours, because two bearded men were standing outside my window, dissolving it with some sort of projector thingy so they could come in. They seemed... affable but implacable. With a decided resemblance to Terry Pratchett, actually, tending to underline the fact that Pterry was an affable gent with an ideological spine of steel. Affability notwithstanding, I got a hell of a fright; I had to switch on all the lights to persuade myself I'd dreamed these two gents, and I lay there shaking like a jelly for about half an hour. Bloody adrenaline.
I am feeling, in short, a little beleaguered, and more than somewhat exhausted at the thought of all the knock-on implications of these closures: two weeks delay to the semester, exams set back, grad ceremonies cancelled, probably another set of expanded deferred exams in January as all these poor kids try to negotiate booked plane tickets and work/holiday plans which are now affected. That's supposing the unfortunate vice-chancellor manages to wrestle some sort of compromise out of the negotiations, and we actually open again next week as planned. If we don't, things really get hairy.
Right now discussions seem to be running aground on the jagged shoals of the handful of protesters whose intimidation/vandalism antics last year got them interdicted and disciplined, who are now demanding that the charges be dropped as a condition to any other sort of agreement about fees. This is at heart a profound philosophical difference about the nature of protest: whether or not any (criminal, destructive) action performed under its auspices is somehow acceptable by virtue of its political intent. I am not even attempting to be balanced about this, as my language may suggest. I do not wish to negate or trivialise the very real grievances of black students fed up to the back teeth with the slow processes of political, institutional and cultural change; there are a lot of the tenets of the protests with which I am in wholehearted agreement. But I think we have failed in our duty as an institution of higher learning if we launch back into the world student leaders who have been encouraged to think that there are no consequences to violence and destruction. These should not, in my view, be the leaders of the future. The protests have revealed that we have some damned fine potential leaders, we don't need the ones who actually burn buses. And to hinge the continuation of the academic year and the progress of the fees talks around what is not just a political issue but one of self-preservation seems more than a little dodgy.
I don't even want to get into the "free higher education" demand which is part of the protest discourse. In the immortal words of Pratchett in my subject line, they can want what they like, but they might actually get the hard-boiled egg.
Campus has been formally closed until Sunday, while students march on campus and academics march on Parliament and students and academics disagree, generally politely, on why they should be marching and what's actually a realistic demand. It's like a slow-moving, disruptive and unusually verbose dramatisation of the generation gap, with occasional police presence. I am imitating the action of the Harry Potter, which is to stay in my room keeping very quiet and pretending I don't exist.
Recent interesting discoveries: student mass action is both a fatigue trigger and a source of more subliminal stress than I was aware of. Last night I actually had a sleep-walking dream, for the first time in years. A very tall man in flowing, fragmented, cream-coloured robes, like a cross between a Grecian statue and Rey from Star Wars, came through the wall above my bed, and I woke up with my heart pounding, trying to hold him back by main force. I don't think he was actively trying to hurt me, but he was very definitely present and invasive and insisting on being heard. I resent that in my bedroom at three in the morning. I'm picky about who occupies that space. Sometimes the cats don't even qualify.
I am, however, particularly delighted to note the pleasantly insane existence of what3words, which purports to identify a 3m square anywhere on the planet in three easy to remember words, and stuff all these postcodes or GPS, anyway. As far as I can work out, at least a portion of my house sits firmly in my subject line. I am somewhat delighted.
Lectures are suspended today, and the faculty sent all the staff home on the grounds that they'd rather not have us tangle with protests, which I welcome, even if it does mean I suffer momentary setbacks like a sudden Hobbit to the touchscreen at a psychological moment, causing me to, e.g., randomly leave a Whatsapp group I'd just carefully created. (In other news: Whatsapp! I resisted it with all four feet for years on end, but it's seriously great for keeping contact with people during, I dunno, massive campus meltdowns or whatever. I am industriously proliferating groups.)
If nothing else, being formally at home to work means I don't have to attempt the classic student protest manoeuvre, namely swearing my way through rush hour traffic for twenty minutes only to fetch up against a barricade and have to turn around and swear my way all the way back home. Not good for the fatigue. In addition to rush hour traffic as a fatigue trigger, recent discoveries of other, more exciting triggers include continuous fire alarms, crowds singing in the foyer, and faculty board meetings during which the assembled academics of the faculty bombard the VC with complaints, questions and thinly-veiled ideological harangues, mostly conflicting, for two hours. I staggered home yesterday in a state perilously close to collapse.
Of course, the inscrutable workings of Sod's Law dictate that this week is my most congested teaching-wise for the semester, with a batch of lectures as well as my usual seminar. I am scrambling to find ways to catch up, with the uneasy awareness that I have it desperately easy given how little I teach in comparison to most academics.
Among the considerable advantages of working at home: decorative kitties.
I have a dark suspicion that Pandora may actually be giving me the finger as a side effect of that adorable flumphed paw-to-nose pose. Also, winter didn't quite generate the puddle of cat I'd hoped for, but the two of them are getting on surprisingly well. Mostly. Half a second after this photo Dorable rolled over and almost touched him, and a startled Hobbit leaped about two foot backwards and into the water bowl.
(Subject line gloss: Bowie, natch. "Beauty and the Beast". Although possibly something from "Diamond Dogs" might have been more appropriate to the faint air of apocalypse.)
Apparently I haven't been blogging because my life is not very exciting, but blogging is generally good for me and stops my mother from worrying, so I should try and get back into it. (Hi, mum!) Right now I also have something of a reason to blog, as there are student protesters parading down the avenue outside my office, singing and toyi-toying. Protesters have spent the last few teaching days disrupting lectures in small groups, coming into buildings, singing, shouting and setting off fire alarms. I am locked into my office, more because I don't feel like altercations than because I feel in any way seriously threatened, there has been no violence or damage. The fire siren has been going for about ten minutes and is beginning to sound forlorn and warbling, as though it has a sore throat. Lectures were suspended yesterday, and the website reports that they have been cancelled today and tomorrow as well, so it's all beginning to feel a bit post-apocalyptic.
This is all a carry-over from last year's protests, and is a tiny fragment of last year's numbers: a few die-hard students from our campus plus workers, students from other campuses and other random bods. They seem to be generally expressing disgruntlement at various things (insufficient fee cuts, criminal proceedings against a handful of bus-burning protesters from last year, etc) in a way that's neither articulate nor particularly goal-directed. It's rather disappointing: last year's protests were massive, instrumental and beautifully focused, these ones feel far less adult. The protesters are asking for impossible things, refusing to consider realities or to negotiate; these protests feel a lot more like childlike tantrums, toddlers making a scene because they aren't being given what they want.
Students are such interesting people: on the cusp of adulthood, still with one foot in the adolescent camp and one in grown-up function. I was so proud of ours last year, their political maturity and sense of justice, and the huge instrumentality and restraint of the protests. This is a regression. While it's far less widespread than last year and has lost the broader support of the student body, it's still enormously disruptive, and I hope the protesters find that maturity again. Also, my teaching schedule is completely stuffed, and I have a tiny portion of a usual teaching load, the overall chaos must be hideous. Disappointing.