Philadelphia Fountains of Youth…

August 6, 2015

August 6, 2015.

It was a scorching hot day in Philadelphia. Handfuls of children sought refuge from the heat in the public fountains scattered throughout the historic city. As they jumped and dove and splashed and swam and danced and squealed and laughed and played in the cool water, they were the embodiment of freedom, they were free, they were free—something many, if not most, of us only know as a lofty ideal. There was a sense of beautiful irreverence, a proclamation of the now, an unintentional announcement of their presence in their carefree acts of swimming and playing in the fountains, most of which are remnants of an antiquated past. Their young, uninhibited bodies inhabiting, and juxtaposed to, the monuments of a time forgone was altogether alluring and haunting, both sacred and sacrilege, all at once and in the most wonderful way.

Those kids were free.


photo credit:

On Eakins Oval, two—more adventurous—teenage boys climbed up into the large bowl that served as the second tier of an enormous fountain. Their wet, bare, dark brown bodies glistened in the sun like jewels. There, on the upper level of the fountain, possibly perceived as “off limits,” there was an extra degree of liberty and protest in their play. They had conquered the fountain. For that moment, they ruled the world, if only the world as they knew it in that moment. They were free. Their expression of freedom was unapologetic. And their freedom was either infuriating or contagious to those who observed it.

I watched in awe.

One of the boys, possibly bored of that exploit or ready for the next, decided to return back down to the lower level of the fountain. His friend helped him down, tightly gripping his arms as his body hung and swung over the pool below. Every taut muscle in his friend’s back and arms were revealed as the other boy’s body swayed like a pendulum, his dangling toes still a good several feet from the lower pool. And suddenly, with some sort of inaudible command, his friend released his arms, and the boy’s body dropped and, with a splash, disappeared into the water below.

Still on top of the world, his friend stood up in the upper pool and slapped the water around, splashing it from right-to-left, left-to-right. He looked up at the towering statue in the distance, a statue of General George Washington—America’s first president, a slave owner, a soldier kitted-out in a Revolutionary War uniform, riding a massive, brawny horse. The boy cocked his head to the side as he walked backwards, backing up to the center of the fountain, approaching the spout that was powerfully spewing a strong, straight stream of water ten-to-twenty feet in the air. Eyes still locked on the statue, with a sense of defiance and genuine intent in his movement, the young man leaned back against the stream of water, sending it spraying in every direction except its intended course.

The powerful stream of water was no match for the boy’s strength. The spray fanned out like a giant peacock train, each bead of flying water using the light of the sun to capture a different color of the rainbow. For several seconds, or maybe even minutes that felt caught-up in some sort of timelessness, the young man used his force to manipulate the mighty jet, sending the spray all around and beneath, to the concrete that lined the circumference of the fountain, and the grass that met the concrete and extended out into the vast park. Not once did the boy take his eyes off of General George Washington, looking at him in a way that dared the colossal, bronze man to ride his horse over and attempt to stop him.

Frozen, stuck in time, General George Washington had no response for the boy. After a few seconds of what seemed like the boy making sure his adversary had no final objection, he stood up straight, releasing the water back to its regular flow. Still with an uninterrupted gaze at Washington, the boy stood tall and strong and proud, the water shot up straight behind him, seemingly stronger than before. He was power. He was free. I wondered what he was saying to Washington in his head. And then, without taking his eyes off of Washington, the young man tromped through the water over to the periphery of the upper fountain bowl, hung his upper body over the side, gripped the edge tightly, flipped his body over, swung beneath, let go, dropped and, with a splash, disappeared into the water below.


No On-the-Job Training…

April 19, 2011

Imagine with me for a moment, you got a new job…

It’s a pretty important position, and everything is riding on it. You’re not exactly sure what qualified you for this position, or what exactly you’ll even be doing, but you’re determined to give it your best shot. You show up to the first day of work and there is a note on your locker. It reads, “Hi there. You will be responsible to create different formulas, that will in turn create different outcomes, either resulting in success or failure. There will be no on-the-job training, but I am sure you have some skills that might help you with this position, you just have to figure out what they are, and how to use them. Good luck! Oh, and don’t fail! Be productive!”

You break out in a cold sweat, and look up from the note in absolute horror. A sage, older employee slams his locker shut and scoffs, “At least you got a note kid! I didn’t even get that on my first day!” His comment doesn’t really help at all, and only makes you feel more insecure. You put your lunch bag in the locker, and go to the main work room, an enormous warehouse-type, spacious workspace, with all different types of men, at all different types of work stations, doing all different types of random work.

You stand at the entrance, waiting for instruction; someone to guide you, tell you what to do, heck, even someone to reprimand you. Nothing. Eventually the sage old employee looks up from his work and says, “Kid, you’re work’s not going to do itself. Get at it!” Before you can ask what you’re even supposed to be doing, he looks back down, and carries on with his work. Suddenly a loud siren goes off and red lights begin to flash. All the employees look around in fear.

Leroy, a rough-looking guy wearing baggy clothes and thick gold chains, throws his hands in the air and shouts out, “Yeah, I did it again! What?! It’s not like I ever had anybody to show me what’s up!” Leroy stands on the table of his work station, takes off his shirt, and bangs his chest. Some of the employees cheer in Leroy’s support and praise, while others just continue working, trying to ignore him. All of the sudden, men dressed in all white uniforms come busting in the back entrance, armed with batons and tasers.

Leroy tries to make a break for it but one of the uniformed men shoots a taser that flies through the air and connects with Leroy’s back. He falls to the ground and convulses. The uniformed men stand over Leroy and hit him a few times with their batons. They handcuff him and drag him out of the work space. The flashing lights stop, and the siren turns off. Everyone continues to work. Now you are really scared.

You go up to a work station with a nice looking man, who seems to be hard at work. He sits in front of a computer, typing frantically. Every few seconds the computer makes a ding noise. Curious, you ask him, “What’s that noise?” Without looking at you, and continuing to type like a mad man, the man answers, “Success.” You stare at him in awe. Ding, ding, ding, DING! You ask him how he became so good and he smugly replies, “Oh I had an excellent mentor who was there from day one. He was the best in this field and taught me everything he knows. Now I’m the best.”

Surprised, you ask, “Wait! On-the-job training?”

He looks at you, completely annoyed, “Yep.”

“But I had a note that said there’s no on the job training.”

He rolls his eyes, “Not for you, I guess. It’s different for everyone.”

“But how am I supposed to know what to do?”

The man stops typing and sighs, “Don’t ask me! That’s your problem. But I suggest you start trying to figure it out, before they come for you!”

You look over at the red lights that had flashed not so long ago, and then down at the work space. Gulp. The table is filled with different tools. You pick one up, and the man shouts, “No! Not that one! You can’t use that!” You put it down quickly. You are completely overwhelmed, and it doesn’t get any better. And without any guidance, or help from your fellow employees, you begin to fumble your way around, trying to accomplish tasks that you are not fully sure how to do, or if you are even supposed to be doing them in the first place. It takes years and years for you to fall into a comfortable work flow, still never fully knowing if you are doing what you are supposed to, but always aware of your successes, and even more aware of your failures. That underlying insecurity never leaves.

That job would suck, right? It would be terrifying. I could not imagine it even being real.

Now imagine with me for a moment, a young boy coming into his teenage years, with no dad around, and no positive male role models in sight. This young boy basically has the same task as the person in my previous scenario, but this scenario is unfortunately way more real, for way too many young kids. What are we doing to ease their suffering?

I got your back kid.

February 3, 2011

I was driving away from Logan’s Steakhouse with a backseat full of kids and Terrance in the front, after a “go well to Africa” lunch with his family, when the little dude proudly said it, “Ryan said he’d take anybody out who ever tries to mess with us or hurt us.” Well, wasn’t that a gangsta’ thing for me to have said! At first I had no frame of reference and wondered when this kid might have dreamed up me saying those menacing words. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about at first, but none the less, at the very least, the latter part of the statement is true, so I just nodded my head and said, “That’s right!” I looked at Terrance to see if he thought I was gangsta’, well, and also to see if he wondered what the hell I had been telling his nephews.

And then I remembered, and knew exactly what the kid was talking about.

The little dude is Mike Mike, Terrance’s 8-year-old nephew. I’ve enjoyed hanging out with him, and the rest of Terrance’s family, on my recent visits to Nashville. They’ve kind of taken me in as “that dude who sleeps on our couch”. I’ve grown to love them dearly. So dearly, I suppose, I am making hypothetical threats, to hypothetical bad guys. Like, anybody who wants to get to them’s gotta get through me first! But I guess it didn’t really happen that “on the nose”, so let me explain.

A few weekends ago on a Nashville visit, Terrance and I got in late one night. Earlier in that day I had shown the slightest bit of interest in a video game the boys had been playing, and so when we came in that night the nephews and a friend were playing and offered to let me play with them. I decided to take them up on their offer, and Terrance went to bed. Game on! It was one of those shoot ’em up games, and they were playing multiple players, where you try to find each other and, well, shoot! I was terrible. And they loved it!

I went on like a geezer about how “back in my day the controllers only had two buttons”, and these modern-day controllers have a few hundred, at least! I couldn’t work the stupid thing. I would finally get the guy to run and, gradually as he ran, he would begin looking up at the sky, pointing the gun straight up in the air. This happened often. I never got the knack of aiming, or pretty much anything for that matter, and so when I would sense someone was near I would spin in circles and hold the trigger down. My little man would spin, and bullets would fly. That rarely worked, if ever. I died, often. And lost, every time. But they seemed to thoroughly enjoy taking turns beating me. So, I enjoyed that.

As we played we talked about all sorts of things: South Africa, life there, the kids I worked with, crime, and what not. I told them some stories about different exciting times. All in all, it was a fun night. It became a joke that I would challenge them to a rematch, revenge if you will, the next weekend. And, what do you know, one late night last weekend that moment came. Rematch! And I was worse than ever before. It was to the point of embarrassment, really. But I finally hung up my controller and just chatted to them as they played.

They started talking about how scary it would be to actually be one of those little men running around with a gun, with people after you, trying to kill you. They asked if I would want to do that, or if I would be scared. I told I ideally would not ever want to be in that position, and that I’d definitely never fight for the army, and I don’t believe in guns or killing, so it would have to be a very worthy cause for me to pick up a gun and run around trying to kill people. “Like what?” they asked. I thought for a moment. “Well, like if someone tried to hurt or come after someone I loved or cared about. Like if someone was after you guys or something, I’d try and take them out. But I think violence is rarely the answer.”

I guess, looking back, I could see it in Mike Mike’s eyes when I said that. He looked at me for a moment with sparkly eyes, which, at the time, I am sure I thought had more to do with my noble pacifist stance and final closing statement, than me saying I’d take someone out. But driving in the car I realized that Mike Mike had heard me, and he heard me right, if anyone tried to hurt them, I’d probably be quick to jump into action. And when he proudly, and randomly, stated in the car, after a peaceful Sunday lunch, I realized something that I’ve realized before: every kid likes to know there are people out there who’ve “got their backs”. Nice reminder.

Substitute Tooth Fairy…

January 12, 2011

My ten-year-old brother Eli lost a tooth tonight. The crazy thing is after he had been to bed for a good thirty minutes he came back out with another loose tooth, complaining it was hurting and keeping him from sleep. I said I’d have a look at it. He opened up wide and a bloody mote formed around his teeth. I grabbed a tissue, with promises of only “checking it”, wiggled the tooth a bit, and realized it wasn’t quite ready to be pulled. I prescribed one tissue to bite on until just before he fell asleep (and to be removed before doing so), and immediate rest. He went back to bed.

About thirty minutes later I heard my mom go in Eli’s room. They talked, and then she came out and into my room. She had “foiled again” look on her face and a wad of money. She held up the handful of cash.

She whispered, “He’s still awake and I’m about to go to bed. Could you be the Tooth Fairy?”

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! I was not sure if I was ready for that kind of responsibility. I felt slightly insecure, but I realized there was really no other option. I think my mom picked up on my posing-as-an-imaginary-person-anxiety by the hesitation in my voice, “Um, yeah?”

She reassured me, “He doesn’t really believe in the Tooth Fairy anymore, but we still do this just for fun,” she said, probably also doubting my Tooth Fairy skills at that point. I agreed to do it. She thanked me and handed me the wad of cash, and the responsibility laid heavy on my shoulders. It felt like a truck-full of iron at first, but then I tried to hype myself up. It can’t be all that difficult, I thought to myself. I shrugged off the nerves, and continued doing stupid tweets.

About thirty minutes later I figured I had allowed enough time to pass for Eli to be deep into REM sleep. I grabbed the money and headed out of my bedroom to make the exchange. I snuck up to his door in a way that would have made the most stealth-like ninja proud. I understood why the Tooth Fairy has wings in all the pictures because I was walking so quietly I was practically floating. I started to get cocky. Who does this Tooth Fairy think she is and what does she have to complain about?! This job is easy! I thought. I opened the door without making a sound. I was not even aware doors could be opened so quietly before that moment.

I tiptoed over to Eli’s bed and began my reach for the pillow, quietly thrusting the cash towards it. Eli sat straight up and looked at me! I put the money behind my back and bent over nonchalantly. He looked at me as though I was crazy, or a stalker, or just a weirdo who liked to stare at him while he sleeps. I awkwardly asked, “So, not asleep yet huh?”

Eli gave me the weirdo look again, “Well, I kind of was a little…”, he stopped speaking suddenly. Insert “until I heard heavy breathing and felt eyeballs staring down my neck and woke up really freaked out,” into that pause.

I fake laughed, and then faked concern, “Your tooth still hurting?” as if I had just come in to check on that.

He wiggled his tooth as though he had forgotten about it, “Um…I guess, a little,” which actually means, “Um…well, I didn’t even feel it until you woke me up!”

I got frank with him, “Look, you know about the Tooth Fairy and all right?”

He answered confidently, “Yeah, it’s mom and dad.”

I leaned down onto the bed casually, pushed my shoulder into Eli (blocking his view of his pillow), and made the exchange, cash for plastic ziplock bag with the tooth in it. I spoke as I worked, “Well, good then. Nothing to see here. You just get some rest now.” I pretended to fluff the pillow, then stood up quickly and ran for the door. I waved my fingers in the air just before I closed the door, “You didn’t see anything!” Eli was still sitting up,  just smiling at me as though I am a fool. He was onto my little game. I shut the door, and ran down the hall with the tooth. I don’t know why I ran but I think it was Substitute Tooth Fairy adrenaline. So yeah, my first time standing in as the Tooth Fairy was an absolute failure. I’m going to write her an email to tell her I’ve always underestimated her work, and I am deeply sorry for that.

Substitute Tooth Fairy mission…FAIL!

Conversations With a Four-Year-Old…

September 9, 2010

I realise I should not expect stimulating and profound conversation from a four-year-old. I mean, four is not many years to have lived on this earth and therefore acquired knowledge, and vocabulary to express what little knowledge they have attained, is minimal. I get it. But today, when I took out my friend’s four-year-old girl Caitlin for the day, I realised just how random conversations with a four-year-old can be.

They don’t really follow any specific train of thought, or even the conversation itself for that matter; they just kind of say the first thing that pops in their heads, usually thoughts inspired by some random key word in a sentence, but not necessarily a word that relates in any way what-so-ever to the topic of the conversation. Take this conversation between Caitlin and I as we drove to town:

Caitlin, “Whose birthday is it?”

Me, “Sherilyn’s is tomorrow.”

Caitlin, “I know but whose birthday is it today?”

Me, “Um, no one I know.”

Caitlin, “But it’s someone’s birthday today.”

Me, “Yes indeed. Just no one I know.”

Caitlin, “Then we need to look for the good little boys and girls and tell them it’s their birthday.”

Me, “That’s not really how a birthday works. It’s the day you are born on.”

Not totally convinced Caitlin, “We need to check it out.”

Me, “Check what out?”

Caitlin, “Whose birthday it is. We need to check it out.”

Me, “How?”

Caitlin, “We need to check it out.”

Me, “But how do you plan on checking it out?”

Caitlin, kind of singing as she speaks, “By making a list.”

Me, “Um?”

Caitlin, “And checking it twice. And then we find out who’s naughty or nice. And then we will know whose birthday it is.”

Me, “That’s Christmas.”

A song I like comes on the radio and I turn it up, only to find out it is an advert.

Me, “I hate it when they use a song like that.”

Caitlin, “What did they do?”

Me, “They played a song I like and I thought it was playing but it was only an advert.”

Caitlin, “What’s and adfart?”

Me, “Like, when you are watching tv…the things that come on to tell you to buy stuff.”

Caitlin, “Baby, Baby comes on the tv.”

Me, “Um, yep. Sometimes it does.”

Caitlin singing, “Baby, baby, baby oooooooh! I thought you’d be mine!”

I just nod my head to her song.

Caitlin, “Justin Bieber makes great music and he comes on the tv and the radio and he’s hot!” 

Me, “If you say so.”

“An Apple a Day” Ain’t Got Nothing On Me!

September 5, 2010

In the ten years I have lived here in Cape Town I have often been asked to do things that other people spend ten years in medical school learning how to do. Ok, ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration; I mean, I have never performed brain surgery or anything major like that. But I have removed thousands of stitches, dressed tons of wounds, “diagnosed” everything from STD’s to the common cold, and pulled out hundreds of teeth.

In the early years I was most famed for my stitch removal and teeth pulling; removing stitches from the kids on the streets and pulling the teeth of the kids who lived in the children’s home I worked for at that time. I had pretty much mastered both, but I had a very special trick with the teeth pulling. The kids were often scared to have their teeth pulled, and I am talking about baby teeth here, not rotten permanent ones. I had to develop a special tooth pulling strategy. And once I became renowned as the local tooth puller, all the kids were sent to me.

I always used the same tactics. The kid would nervously open his mouth and I would say, “I just want to feel if it is ready to pull. I don’t think it’s even ready yet.” Then I would take a piece of tissue, dry off the tooth, and yank it out before the kid even knew what hit him. That maneuver was always followed with a bloody smile of relief and usually a comment like, “Is that my tooth?!” Easy as stealing candy from a baby, which, on a side note, would probably lead to less rotten teeth if I did in fact steal more candy from more babies. But let me not get too side-tracked here.

I had some kids over this weekend and the one kid Kevin kept getting food stuck in a hole in his one tooth. It was really bothering him. He asked me to get the food out so I folded up a piece of paper, making an impromptu toothpick, and tried to dig the shrapnel of food out of the tooth. The paper just got soggy, becoming totally useless. That plan failed. I them remembered a military doctor’s kit a friend gave me (as a joke when he heard about my street doctor exploits). I went and dug it out of my junk drawer and amazingly it had one of those cool hook-dentist-tool-thingy’s.

Kevin laid back on the couch and I successfully dug out all the food stuck in the tooth; let me just add there was much more in there than I ever could have imagined. After witnessing my seemingly incredible dental skills, with the proper tools and all, Broetjie (who just turned ten last Friday) asked me to pull out two of his teeth that were loose. Like any good dentist would, I took my hook instrument over and poked around in Broetjie’s mouth, making dentist-like comments. “Mmmmm, yes. I see.”

The one tooth was a rotted lower first premolar, and though it was indeed very loose, it was a permanent tooth and not a baby tooth; I wasn’t going to go near it. The other one was a small tooth in the front; the lower canine to be exact. It was not as loose as the molar and I realized my “I just want to feel if it is ready” trick was not going to work. I diagnosed Broetjie with a premature-pull-attempt and perscribed an immediate “wiggle-the-rest-of-the-night-whilst-watching-the-Jackie-Chan-movie” treatment. Broetjie took his treatment seriously and vigorously wiggled his tooth as Jackie Chan beat everybody up.

After a while he called me back over, as he thought it was ready to come out. I went over to inspect and though the tooth was a bit looser, it looked a bit bigger this time around. I looked at the rest of his teeth, all looking pretty permanent to me. I saw a gap on the other side of his mouth, where the matching lower canine had once dwelled. I inquired about it and he said it also became loose and he “pulled it and it was very sore, and it never grew back”. It was at that moment I realized this very loose tooth was most likely not a baby tooth at all, and maybe, if not most definitely a permanent one. I rediagnosed the tooth as a loose permanent tooth, prescribed an immediate “no touching or wiggling of the tooth”, and suggested he go for a second opinion, of the educated type. And THAT is why people study for ten years to become medical practitioners!

An “I Like You” from a kid is priceless.

July 26, 2010

Today at school, right before I had to teach, I was out on the playground talking to the preprimary teacher. She always has her kids out there in the period before my first class. We were chatting, and totally out of the blue, this adorable little preprimary kid (probably between four and five, which I guess would make him “four and a half” in their language”) ran up to me and gave me the biggest hug around the waist. He after quite a long squeeze he looked up with the biggest smile you could imagine and said, “I like you!”

I couldn’t help but chuckle at the warm gesture and cuteness, “Thanks! I like you too.”

“Your tattoos are beautiful!” he said with all the sincerity in the world.

“Well, thank you again.”

He then went in for another squeeze, looked back up and smiled, and then ran off to the slide. Little kids are great. They haven’t built up all those walls we put up, and they speak honestly and genuinely in most every situation; sometimes things we don’t want to hear, sometimes things that make our day. They are great. If you get a chance, hug a kid today. And tell him you think he’s cool.