“It’s complicated” – my relationship status with jacarandas

c Pikkie Wolmarans - Pixoto

Jacarandas in Pretoria, South Africa. © Pikkie Wolmarans, 2015 (Pixoto) 

That time of year has arrived, when Gauteng experiences its first rains after the Winter. The weather has been warming up beautifully and people are suddenly cheerful and wearing bright colours to the office again, like they should in Africa. One of the most striking announcements that Spring has arrived is the sudden appearance of purple blossoms in the jacaranda trees that line countless streets all over the province. Driving home from work through my neighbourhood becomes such a magical experience as you watch the pink-orange of the sunset filter through the endless purple fairyland surrounding you. What a glorious end to the day.

But there is always an element of discomfort when I allow myself to admire these trees, that prevents me from loving them as much as I would like to – their deceptive beauty trying to make you forget that they are aliens in this land. The colonialists of the plant kingdom, that thrive on our resources, enjoying a generous water supply while the indigenous flora give up hope against such a strong competitor.

But then the next day I drive back home from work through my little wonderland and the cycle of thoughts begins all over again…


Gaudeamus Igitur

Something about the song Gaudeamus Igitur just makes me want to cry. Whenever I have to play it, I try not to think too much about what I’m playing and why I’m playing it to avoid any awkward tearful pianist situations. I’m just trying to figure out why it makes me so emotional. I have had three university graduations so far and I don’t think the ceremony would have been complete without a rendition of this song. I think it makes you reflect on all of the pain and suffering that you’ve just been through, and that you’ve finally succeeded when you never thought you would even survive, and then all these years of agony are finally released in tears of such enormous relief! Although, you don’t ever let anyone see any actual tears, especially if your mascara is not waterproof, which is the difficult part. Gaudeamus tells you that you can finally go out into the world and function as a free and normal adult human being! What an amazingly fascinating concept for a student.

My last graduation (my MSc, last June) was my most emotional by far, probably because it was my most intensely soul-destroying degree and I actually managed a distinction by some miracle of God, so even the National Anthem made me fall apart (which it does sometimes, but that’s a story for another post…).

Searching for a chord

While writing or arranging music at the piano, there’s always the moment that I have an idea of a beautiful chord in my head that I know would fit just right at a specific part of a melody or phrase. As I search the keyboard for this elusive chord, I try out different combinations of notes, different inversions, and finally – I hit the perfect sound, the sound I’ve been looking for, the sound that makes everything right. And for that moment in time, all the pieces fit together and everything makes sense.

Just for that instant, life is as perfect as it gets.

My incredibly normal life

Last night I was sitting at Hurricane Kim car wash, reading The Emperor’s Tomb by Steve Berry, and drinking coffee. It was wonderful! My post-thesis life is really wonderful. The time I get to spend doing things that I would only dream about while writing my thesis – normal people things. I don’t even remember when I last washed my car before last night. And reading books for fun – wow! Even washing dishes and mopping floors are suddenly tasks that are so amazingly mindless and stress-free once you remove the student-guilt and procrastination that used to go along with them.

I’ve finally tried out that new vegan cottage pie recipe, and sewn a runner for the table in our entrance hall. I play with the dog and the cat as long as I want to. I practise music EVERYDAY – something I haven’t managed since high school. And one of the best parts is winding down in the evenings and sleeping before 11 pm every night. Am I getting old? Maybe. Am I tired of drinking Play and writing like a zombie the entire night, then going to work on two hours of sleep? Definitely!

I also waved goodbye to heartburn, anxiety attacks, and back and joint aches last year. My skin has cleared up and I’ve lost weight. So here’s to my renewed appreciation for the mundane, and the health and happiness it has brought back into my life!

Cube Psychology

A favourite pastime during tea at work is to secretly psychoanalyse everyone with my next-door office neighbour. She has a small puzzle on her desk, with wooden pieces that need to be arranged to form a cube. This little cube has made our task much more interesting.

The pieces look similar to tetris blocks, but in 3D. It’s fascinating to observe everyone’s reactions to the puzzle, and being a department full of scientists, everyone has a reaction. It is difficult to walk into her office and not pick up a piece of the puzzle and play around with it, or break up the existing cube and try to re-make it. Or to build random structures, like some sort of avant garde art. And there’s more than one way to arrange the blocks into a cube, the best way being with alternating colours.


Psychoanalysis tool of the modern geologist

There are those who cannot concentrate on their actual jobs until they’ve figured it out, (easily distracted, serial procrastinators, perseverance, curious minds?). An engineer from another department took it home one night to complete it (maybe previous category, maybe stage-fright). Another took a look at it and went to a downstairs colleague’s office to work on a Rubik’s cube instead (too clever for us, huh?).

The most interesting people are those who watch others playing around with it but hold themselves back from trying. Possible theories: 1. fear of failure, 2. not believing in themselves, 3. not wanting to seem more stupid than others if they didn’t get it right the first time, 4. wanting to act like grown ups and not like the rest of us.

Then we also get the tower building types (there’s no point trying so I’d rather just stack them up and admire my art), the cube breakers (is it home time yet?) and those who can only build it when they’re stressed out about other stuff (work well under pressure).

What If

Disappointments in love always send me back into reminiscence about missed connections – about those once-off encounters, fascinating conversations and deep instant connections with a stranger I will never see again. I’m not one for regrets but I can’t help wondering what could have been had I not just said goodbye, assuming we would somehow meet again.

I have experienced this a few times in my life, and as a rather shy, introverted geek I don’t instantly feel a deep connection with many people, which is why these experiences stand out in my memory. The one I remember the clearest and with the most longing, happened nine years ago. I was 20 years old and in the third year of my geology degree, and I happened to be taking jazz piano as an extra subject.  I was working late on campus and before leaving, I went to the music library to borrow some sheet music. I wanted the original for the two piano duet Scaramouche by Darius Milhaud, which my sister and I were going to perform at a classical concert soon after and were practising from photocopies.

The only other person in the library was a guy who was working the night shift and came over to assist me. I told him what I was looking for, he pronounced ‘Milhaud’ incorrectly and thought that I did, I assumed he wasn’t a classical musician, and we made our way to the counter to check out the music.  He asked me what year I was in and what my major was. I explained that I was actually a geology student and a classical musician, and only managed to gain access to the music library because I registered for jazz piano that year. He told me he was a fourth year student majoring in ethnomusicology. He explained to me what ethnomusicology was and how it fitted in with African culture and the social sciences. We discussed our differences in our academic pursuits and what we found interesting about our studies, how I was a scientific, logical person who liked working with facts and searching for the truth, and how he loved understanding people and culture, and the role and development of music in Africa. We spoke about our plans for when we finish our degrees. He also told me a fascinating story about how social scientists managed to save a rural community from disease where doctors failed, by ‘translating’ medical instructions into their cultural belief system. For the first time in my life I saw a point to social science. I told my friend studying social science that story on the bus to campus the next morning and never forgot it.

We spoke about our differences in the music we played, about how my scientific background and strict classical piano training fitted well together, and how he was more of a spontaneous improvisatory musician. I was fascinated, and so was he. Time flew by and a few hours later, while still standing at the library counter, my parents start messaging me because they have been waiting in the car for a short while thinking I am still busy working. I tried to prolong the conversation – a few minutes more, I told myself. After more than a few minutes of guilty, hurried talking while thinking of my poor parents in the car, I finally said that I really had to go. We could have talked all night, and I’d felt like I’d known him forever by then. We quickly wished each other good luck for the upcoming exams, said that we’d see each other soon and really enjoyed chatting, and I sped out the door never to see him again.

I never really thought much of our meeting after that. Just that that was one of the best conversations I’d ever had with a stranger. It is only many years later that I realise that first meetings like these are hard to come by for me. He probably doesn’t remember me at all and I wonder what he is doing with his life now. I just wonder sometimes what could have been if there was a second meeting…

Time travel

I wish I could go back in time, to different eras and places, for experiences that I wish I could have now. I’m one of those dreaded ‘Golden Age Syndrome’ sufferers that you should be familiar with if you have watched Midnight in Paris. Although since officially diagnosing myself when the film came out, I try my best to seek out the same feelings in my contemporary environment, without too much luck. However, if I could really get into a mysterious car on a lonely street in Jozi at midnight (handbag tightly tucked under arm), I would wish for the following, although not confined to Johannesburg:

  • Being one of the front row ladies lucky enough to get a kiss from Elvis while he sang Love Me Tender.
  • Having Charles Darwin discuss his thoughts and ideas with me while on Galapagos Islands.
  • Dancing with Gene Kelly to Love is Here to Stay by Gershwin at the riverside as in An American in Paris. Also joining him in that glorious Singing in the Rain scene.
  • Taking my sister along to the premiere of Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony so we could both laugh together hysterically after that frightening fortissimo chord.
  • Checking out some dinosaurs, of course. And giant ammonites (did they actually move?).
  • Jazz nights in Sophiatown! Especially the illegal ones.
  • Having tea with Dorothy Parker and her giving me some outrageous writing (and life) tips.
  • Interviewing Marie Curie on what it feels like to kick male scientist butt and be the first person to be awarded Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry.
  • Painting rocks with the Khoisan.
  • Hearing Krishna play the flute and dancing to his blissful music with the gopis.
  • Watching Beethoven conduct his shocking and horrific 5th symphony.
  • Seeing how the Pyramids really were built.
  • Going to a party in Europe when Viennese waltzes were the pop music of the time. I totally understand why Andre Rieu does what he does.
  • Meeting Arthur Conan Doyle and telling him he is the most awesome person I ever met and I want to be him when I grow up.
  • Screaming and fainting at a Beatles concert (then waking up in time to run after and touch their car while pulling other girls off by their hair).

Sigh. If only.