The next step into the beyond

As my first half century on this planet is drawing to a close I am increasingly thinking about a different way of being in the world. So far the modes I have received as common sense or practical wisdom has not brought me to satisfying outcomes.

My basic orientation to the world is in an artistic sense, being that I tend to see options and avenues where none may exist, or even be needed. Yet the expectation is that the correct approach is one of single focus, staying the course actions and results driven decisions.

I want there to be another way. A way that does not lead me to create art that may be though provoking and aesthetically satisfying but mostly irrelevant for any practical purposes. Nor to a way of work and business and teaching and work that is devoid of play and beauty and inventions and complicated solutions that tease out difficulties rather than offer of shrink-wrapped solutions.

What I want to have in art and living, and by extension then, work and business and teaching is a creative approach. In a creative process, a way in which art is developed, there is an open conversation which moves from being just that open conversation—wandering about nearly aimless—to the discovery of options and avenues that may solve problems you may not even have been aware of at the beginning of the process.

Business, as I perceive it, attempts to go through a very logical and linear process to solve problems with minimal waste and highest efficiency. Business is aimed at getting the job done, and in that can becomes boring and soulless.
The wasteful excess of creative exploration might just be more effective—though never more efficient—in keeping business alive, playful and vibrant.

In the same way all other processes and products and offers and strategies of the business need to be approached in an artistic manner. Because I think that it is a better way to engage with the world than merely on the basis of economic expediency.

I would like to do life in the same way that I do art. Because I have been preventing myself from the full development of any part of my teaching and learning and being in the world in that I have shied away from the creative excesses of an open conversation with the world. Because these creative excesses are frowned upon. Because they are unpredictable and difficult to make to work. Because they are not the way things are done.

If I get involved in any endeavour I want to be involved as an artist. Meaning that I will act with the manners and modes and maddening ways of an artist, looking for the best solutions for whatever needs doing next. Which will mean that I will go down paths that are not fruitful. Which means that I will make mistakes and create grotesque and deformed things that have no practical use. But it also will mean that I will remain open to the possibilities that anything might come to me differently than what I or anybody else might expect. And that either way I will go beyond the basic needs and take the next step into the unknown beyond.

Something not so old, something not so new

In the past I would have considered myself a failure. Last week I started a sequence of posts which I called Slow Writing posts, ostensibly to record a process of daily writing practice which I would continue with indefinitely.

This comes from a process I went through re-evaluating my current values after coming across Emilie Wapnick’s idea of multipotentialites and further reading on the idea of non-specialisation. Though I am normally happy with competence when I tackle a field the value of mastery has become increasingly important to me. Mastery of exactly what remains elusive however, though my first stab at it for this year was at fiction writing.

School started this week and the summer holiday ended leading to both a break in the writing process and the blog series. This is now resulting in a shift in both perspective and focus. Yesterday the question was just, how do I continue the process when I have missed a day or two? Today my attention has shifted to a complete new interest on the intersection between real life and art. This makes a fictional story about exploding chickens seem quite irrelevant.

But how do I deal with my lack of commitment. Which is how I would have typified my behaviour as just a couple of months ago.

Think of it like riding waves with a boogie board. Sometimes you take wave from deep and ride it all the way out onto the beach. Sometimes you miss the wave and it leaves you behind and sometimes you get thrown head over heels.

What you don’t do then is to go look for that wave that left you behind or pummelled you around. Because that wave has come and gone. No, you just go back out and find the new wave.

For me that is what I am doing now, going out and finding a new wave. Asking what tickles my interest at this moment. And for that I have to go to an article I read today called Artists and Supermarket Tycoons.

“We want to simultaneously raise the ambition of artists: to make their ideals powerful in our lives – and of business: to serve us better. The two ambitions are ultimately very closely related.”

What caught me about the article was highlighted by the call for papers for the SAVAH 2016 conference with the theme Rethinking Art History and Visual Culture in a Contemporary Context (I received a reminder for the call for papers yesterday).

18th Century Ethnography, currently being revisited and reversed
18th Century Ethnography, currently being revisited and reversed

With that I am keen to submit a proposal for a paper that takes the thesis of Artists and Supermarket Tycoons and apply it to a current South African context. But before I can work on that proposal I feel that I have an obligation to finish and submit my paper for last years conference proceedings. And I fear that that wave may have come and gone.

With school that again fills the bigger part of my day I have a load of commitments ahead of me. I have a guardian class, which brings with it a whole load of responsibility as well as new ways to engage with being a teacher. I am involved in a class 11 play, which will require me utilising and honing my theatrical skills.

Alongside this I have my subject teaching which requires continued engagement, development and refining, especially since every new group of students bring their own challenges to deal with.

Just these challenges should be enough to keep me very occupied. Except that I have also committed to help my wife Petro with Playing Mantis, which is going into a new phase of development (but more about that later).

And then my kids are also growing up, becoming both more independent and more demanding at the same time. After school activities are becoming a standard feature of our school week.

It is a good thing then that I know my own efficacy and productivity is directly and inversely related to the amount of work I have on my plate. Though I seemingly fear and detest being overworked, I tend to do more and better work when I have more to do. While when I have nothing much to do and all the free time in the world, I tend to get nothing much done at all.

Which brings me almost to the end of a post which seems to be very much self centred. Except that what entices me about almost everything that I have on my to do list, and my current selection of interests, is that almost none of them relate to my own ideas, needs or opinions. All of them work through me (what else do I have to work through?) but only makes sense in the relationships with other people.

And I must admit that that, more than anything else, is a new thing for me.

Slow Writing: Day 6

I would have been happy with fifty words tonight. Just over seventy would have taken me past a thousand word total. Effectively it has taken me a week to do one decent writing session, if you consider a thousand words decent. At only ten minutes at a time that means I have written more than a thousand words in just one hour. And it only took me six days to complete.

Just imagine what I could do if I did this full time?

Wait I know the answer to that question. Less. Because doing this full time I get bored out of my mind, and then stressed about not making progress. Or something like that.

Fiction Writing Stats:

  • Words today: 123
  • Total for the month: 1049

Slow Writing: Day 4

The other day my wife and sons discussed an unlikely situation while we were in the car. It was about a boy whose super power was that he would blow up when he got excited. Except that after he blew up he would still be fine. Illogical and super cool and it led to much speculation.

I must admit that I am stealing a bit from that discussion for the piece I am writing at the moment. It is great to have a wildly creative family.

It came to 180 words tonight. In ten minutes. It depends on how much I have to correct in cycling back. There is a piece that I am not getting clear yet. I know what I want to get across but it still feels muddled. A couple or more passes over it and it should straighten itself out.

Well, four days of writing a bit every day. From here on it will become much harder to sustain.

Fiction Writing Stats:

  • Words today: 180
  • Total for the month: 823

Slow Writing: Day 3

I think it is much better to start slowly. I have tried before to set the bar high. Thirty short stories in a month. Two thousand words in a day. Famous by the time I am twenty-five.

Those kind of high goals don’t work. I am trying a Confucian thing. At least I think it is Confucius. I have to read him one day to make sure everything attributed to the poor guy was possibly said by him. But not now. The Confucian thing is, that it is not how fast you go but rather that you never stop. Or that you have to make progress and slow is better than nothing. Or something of the sort.

Anyway. Still only ten minutes today. But a better word count.

Fiction Writing Stats:

  • Words today: 205
  • Total for the month: 643

Slow Writing: Day 2

I am keeping my expectations very low. Only ten minutes of writing tonight. Less new words than yesterday because I cycled back and made small corrections and alterations to what I already wrote. I have to get up very early tomorrow morning so this is it for today.

Fiction Writing Stats:

  • Words today: 149
  • Total for the month: 438

Monkey Heights (Short Story)

Jurgen Frax takes people on daring adventures. Simulated adventures which are made safe for the novice adventurer.

But even a simulation climb prove to be too challenging for Sassoon and Raya Ridge when their nerve fail them halfway up a granite rock face.

Normally getting down is as easy as pressing cancel, except when the system fails. Now Jurgen is stuck on a make-belief mountain with a couple of panicking climbers.

Monkey Heights

By Gerhi Janse van Vuuren

A gust of wind raced across the face of the granite cliff and the three climbers shuddered on their ropes like taut sails on a championship yacht.

The top climber, Jurgen Frax, grabbed hold of his last piton with his left hand and swung away from the cliff to look down. The two ashen faces of Sassoon and Raya Ridge looked up at him with eyes wide open. Jurgen gave a hearty laugh.

“That was only a twitch folks. You have to experience twice the force of that wind, driving some sleet, before you can really say you have braved this line.”
Sassoon Ridge looked over at his wife and she shook her head, stiff lipped and very determined.

Ah hell, though Jurgen, here we go. But he kept smiling. “Ready to climb again?”
Like his wife Sassoon shook his head. “No,” he said, “I mean, birdcage.”

“Blast,” said Jurgen as he slapped the rock. “That is your safe word, right? Please tell me that is not your safe word?”

Raya and Sassoon exchanged looks again. Jurgen knew that look. The look Sassoon gave Raya was the look a man gave when he asked his wife’s forgiveness for not being the bravest man in the universe. And the look Raya gave back was a permission for the man not to be, tinged with a dash of disappointment that he wasn’t. He had seen it play out many times before and here it did again, a small drama of marital disappointment.

Ah hell, thought Jurgen, what did he care. He wasn’t married, not anymore, so all that was left for him to do was hit cancel on the simulation and take an early lunch. He just hoped they did not want to talk through the experience.

Contractually they had access to a debriefing, so that they can share their feelings. It was the worst part of the job for Jurgen, talking about touchy feely stuff. Usually this was a gush of words about how great it was but on a cancellation it ended up being a counselling session in which the session leader, Jurgen himself in this case, would have to prop up twisted egos. That would just utterly spoil a day that was already heading downhill fast. But first the official part.

“Right folks,” said Jurgen, “by your request, through using your own predetermined safe word, I am to cancel this simulation at this point. You will receive a pro-rata refund, minus service and maintenance charges. Please confirm your cancellation by repeating the safe word clearly. Mister Ridge?”

“Can’t we just stop this?” Sassoon looked tense, his jaw tensed enough so that his face started turning white.

“Have to do this the right way,” said Jurgen, “otherwise there are legal ramifications and such. Confirm your cancellation by repeating the safe word please?”

“Oh bloody hell,” said Sassoon, “birdcage. Bloody birdcage.”

“Very well,” said Jurgen, “Mrs Ridge, the safe word please?”

Raya answered too softly for Jurgen to hear. He knew that the scenario recorder would have amplified her answer and that they had already met the requirements of a cancellation, but he was not going to let them off lightly.

“Speak clearly please. The safe word?”

Raya Ridge worked her mouth but her vocal cords did not seem to be functioning properly. Tears started streaming from her eyes and she looked from Jurgen to Sassoon, her eyes now pleading. Jurgen knew he should have cared some but he was now irritated, so he just waited.

“She said it dammit,” said Sassoon.

“I need to hear it,” said Jurgen.

“Dear?” said Sassoon.

Once she found her voice again Raya screamed her answer hysterically over and over again.

“Once is enough,” said Jurgen and Raya’s wail petered out into a whimper. He gave the shivering couple one last look before he swung his arm up and pushed his left sleeve back to reveal the control unit strapped to his forearm.

Cancelling a simulation seemed like a straightforward procedure but it required a huge adjustment from the participants. The perceptual clues which maintained the simulation had to be gradually replaced with the reality of the simulation chamber to prevent a whiplash effect. Do it too fast and the body goes into shock.

Normally, at the end of a session, this is not a problem because a completed simulation dissolved around the participants, leaving them with a warm afterglow. But a cancellation was a cold interruption and any sane person had a built in resistance to the perceptual rules of the world. Because they had to be eased back into reality the system slowed the transition down. It was going to take at least another fifteen minutes before they would be off the cliff face.

“Hang on folks,” said Jurgen, “just another minute or two.” Then he tapped the cancelation sequence on the pad. He finished, his fingers hovering for the confirmation he had to enter twice. But the pad did not refresh.

“What’s taking so long?” said Sassoon. “We can’t hold on much longer.”

Now, even more irritated, Jurgen looked down. “Move over to that piton on your left and hook yourself in,” he said, “this won’t take long.” Then he took hold of his own piton with his right hand and shook his left arm. He knew there was no reason for this to make any difference. The control unit was shock resistant. You could not do an adventure simulation with equipment that wasn’t. But he had a basic mistrust in too delicate technology and preferred things he could do with basic physics and muscle. Adjusting his hands he tapped the cancelation code in again. The pad remained unresponsive.

“Just a moment folks,” he called down, “we seem to be having a slight technical problem.”

“What problem?” said Raya, her voice now piercingly clear.

Jurgen took a deep breath. He had to stay calm so that they would stay calm. But he heard the first tinges of panic in Raya’s voice.

“What’s the problem?”

“Just a delay in cancellation,” said Jurgen. “Happens sometimes when there is a lot of data to process.” It was a complete lie of course. Switching off the system was just that, tripping a switch. Without the built in delay it could be instantaneous. There was no new data to process. Jurgen slapped the control unit and tried again. He got the same results, nothing.

That meant there was two options left. And he did not know if the Ridges was up to either of the two. He sneaked a look down.

Sassoon had moved to the side, his hands clutched together and his head resting against his forearm. He was in the classic position of a frozen stiff who had given up. To get him to climb again would be difficult. No, almost impossible.

Raya was fidgeting with her equipment. It was a good thing she was clipped in because if she wasn’t, with the rapidity she was changing her hands and feet around, she could lose her grip easily. She was close to panic and would be a bigger danger than her husband, because she would climb like a maniac when given the chance.

“Right folks,” said Jurgen, “we have a glitch in the system and I cannot cancel. We have two options, climbing up to the top or climbing down.”

Sassoon gave no answer, he just moaned softly. Raya snapped her head to look up and down and then back to Jurgen.

“This is silly,” she said. “This is just a simulation. We can close our eyes and unhook ourselves. How far can we fall? Two or three metres. And there is a net, right?”

Jurgen took a deep breath to keep himself calm. “Physically yes. But your mind is convinced you are hundreds of metres up on a cliff no matter what the reality is. Mentally you will fall and the shock might kill you.”

“What do you mean might?” Raya shook the rope above her as she talked, spitting the words out in a rapid fire. “I thought, we thought this was safe. There is a guarantee.”

Jurgen steadied the rope between himself and Raya. She was shaking it about hard enough that he could feel his own weight straining on the piton above him.

“The guarantee applies if the whole system works. The cancelation protocol is not working so there is no guarantee that anything else is working.”

“This is rubbish,” shouted Raya, spit now frothing around her mouth.

“Down,” said Sassoon.

“What?” snapped Raya.

Jurgen thought that it sounded as if Sassoon was crying. When he spoke again he removed all doubt. Tears and snot was streaming down his face when he tried again, shouting at his wife in anger.

“Down, I said I can go down!”

“Just a moment folks,” said Jurgen, “down is a little bit harder than up.”

Sassoon’s hands had clutched fast on the rope and he pressed his face against the rock, his body shivering and shaking slightly. Shock, thought Jurgen. He’s done for.

“Why is down harder?” said Raya. “We covered that ground already.”

“Down is harder because you can’t see where to place your feet. And even if you could you won’t look there. Your eyes will be pulled away, staring at the drop. It is harder. Better to go up.”

Raya twitched on the rope again. “And have further to fall. We were already on our limit when—“

“Stop,” snapped Jurgen. “Stop pulling the ropes about and stop wailing. Up is better.”

A mean twist crawled across Raya’s face and for a moment Jurgen pitied Sassoon. She grabbed a rope at random and yanked it to the side. “I’ll pull whatever I want to.”

The rope she held did not go up to Jurgen but sideways to Sassoon and when she yanked it she peeled him of the cliff face so that he swung around and hung with his back against the wall.

A high pitched squeal spilled from his lips and his hands clutched for the rope above him.

Jurgen held his hand out, as if he was trying to stop a bullet train but it had about as much effect. It was as if Raya was unaware of her husband twitching beside her, her attention only focussed above on Jurgen, a crazy gleam in her eye as she grabbed hold of every available rope and shook it as if she was a monkey trapped in a birdcage.

Again the three bodies on the cliff face shuddered but this time not because of an external force but because of an internal cause, as if they were a brittle hulled dingy running aground on a rock. A shockwave snapped through the rigging and as Jurgen watched the piton on which Sassoon hung slid out of the crevice.

Time froze because he could do nothing before Sassoon dropped down and swung in a wide arc underneath them, hitting an outcrop on their right with a wet smack, and then swinging back again.

At least Raya broke off her tirade and looked down, her head slowly pivoting back and forth as she followed Sassoon’s swing. Then, calmly, she removed a cutter from her belt and hung down and cut through Sassoon’s rope just below her.

The rope snapped apart and snaked out from the cliff and Sassoon fell, too fast even for him to realise he was falling, or why. It was strange, though Jurgen, but he did not even scream, as if he was at last accepting the inevitable.

Jurgen froze in place, his hand still outstretched down, staring at Sassoon’s body disappearing out of sight. His mind knew the man only fell a few metres, but his senses told him different. Desperately he wanted to hear the body hit ground but the sound did not come. The illusion was too strong, the bottom too far down.

With a slow deliberate action Raya tucked the cutter back into her pocket and then turned her head to look up at Jurgen. Her eyes sought his out and locked in, a cold stare that spanned the space between them and filled him with a cold shudder.

Jurgen had nothing to say, his mouth frozen like the rest of his body. Until Raya started climbing, now suddenly much more sure footed than before. Not like a novice climber her husband had made both of them out to be.

Another shudder went through Jurgen when a gust of wind chased a handful of snowflakes past his face. Then he fumbled for the rung on his belt, struggling to release the catch and feeling that it took forever before he was able to release the rope between him and Raya.

She swiped the falling rope out of her face as if it was a pesky spider’s web and kept climbing at a pace that Jurgen did not know if he could beat, or even match.

But he knew that he had to stay ahead of her no matter what, because she was coming up to get him. He turned up, searched quickly for the next handhold and started climbing.

“You can climb if you want to,” Raya said, sounding much closer than what Jurgen expected. “Just remember that the higher you climb the further you fall.”

Jurgen stretched himself upwards for a difficult hold. Then on an easier stretch he took a moment to reply. “It is all in the mind,” he said, “I’m trained to ignore it.”

“Sure you are,” said Raya.

They climber further in silence for a bit and then, reaching an outcrop of rock Jurgen went the left way around. He knew this route and was almost three quarters of the way up. If he could stay ahead he could make it. But when he next looked down she was not below him and before he could stop himself he had called out.

“Mrs Ridge?”

Her voice came back, accompanied with a slight echo.

“I’m still here.”

She had to have taken the right side of the outcrop. It seemed easier for a bit but then it went sideways before going up again. Jurgen felt he had more of a chance. Even if he wasn’t climbing faster than her he was on the faster route and he could beat her. Even more so if he could distract her.

“Why are you doing this Mrs Ridge?”

His voice came back to him in a light echo and it was a while before she answered him.

“Because our marriage was merely a simulation. And I had broken through the illusion.”

There was even more of an echo when she spoke. Great, thought Jurgen, she was now climbing away from him. He will make it to the top before her and then… He did not know exactly then what. Only that he needed to get to the top before she did.

He didn’t bother talking to her anymore, he just climbed, finding his rhythm, keeping his breathing steady until he placed his hand on the last ledge, right next to a Raya Ridge’s climbing shoe.

He stopped climbing and followed the line from her shoe up her leg until he met her face, smiling down at him. It wasn’t a smile that included here eyes. No thought, Jurgen, not a smile at all, a grimace.

“Did you know that I designed this rock face?” said Raya. “Under my maiden name of course.”

Jurgen’s mind went blank for a moment and then he shook himself back to the present. “This is called Monkey Heights. Your maiden name is Monkey?”

A little bit of softness crept into Raya’s expression. “It seems unfortunate, doesn’t it. But then again, I prefer my own name for this design.”

Jurgen eased his hand over the ledge and dragged himself slowly higher. He could play for time and get up beside her. Then he had a chance. “Interesting,” he said, “and what was your name for it?”

Jurgen felt that he made it for a moment but he knew he was deluding himself when he felt the sole of her shoe on his chest. “Everything on the simulation is recorded,” he said, making a last attempt to stop her.

“Not if you designed a backdoor into the system,” said Raya before leaning forward and speaking softly.

“And I prefer to call it Monkey Falls.”


Monkey Heights was written at the end of 2015. It is published here free to read until it is removed for commercial publication. This story is the property of Gerhi Janse van Vuuren and copyright is reserved.

Slow Writing: Day 1

I have been dithering on the edge of a commitment for years. Today I decided to jump. Tonight I am jumping.

Some people that might know me might also know that in 2008 I made a commitment to write full-time for a living. That did not work out as planned because currently I am teaching full-time. But that leaves me with enough time to still pursue writing.

What I have learned in the last seven or eight years about writing is that what really makes the difference is starting on it, and never stopping. Unfortunately I am good at stopping, and then trying something different.

Part of that commitment thing I mentioned at the top. But tonight I am making that commitment. Publicly, given that my blog readership is limited and my public are only a couple of people that read my stuff on social media. But that is enough for now.

So this is the commitment, in two parts:

  1. To write a piece of fiction every day, writing for at least ten minutes, and
  2. to blog and record my writing progress at the end of every day.

My intention in doing this is to take at least one of my creative interests and turn it into something sustainable. Writing is the most portable, needs the least preparation and requires the least amount of time and material to produce result. All it needs is consistent progress. Tonight I commit to that.

I don’t know what I will write. I will let every piece evolve into what it needs to be though I suspect most of the early attempts will be short stories. I also don’t expect every one to be successful. I expect a number of duds and false starts. Those will be chalked up to experience and I will move on.

The same way I am moving on from the stories I wrote in the beginning of the holiday. The first got finished (I will post it right after this post). The second one got bogged down. I now realise it was a non-starter.

My intention would be to publish these scribblings. But during term time I’m only commiting to writing every day. I will leave the publication effort for the next holiday.

What gets finished then will get posted here on this blog as free to read, if short enough and finished. Once I publish it and put it up for sale I’ll pull the free version.

I am supposed to filter short stories into the short story publishing market but I won’t be doing that yet. I don’t have much confidence in the quality of my writing at the moment. But my experience with any creative effort is that huge progress is made when the focus is first placed on quantity.

Which leaves me with just one last point. What is it going to help writing for only ten minutes? First, that is just a minimum. I reserve the right to keep at it for twelve hours if I am so inclined. But I am setting the bar low so that I have a better chance of ensuring success.

And second, I have already written my minimum of ten minutes tonight. My win is 289 words. Which is not bad for just ten minutes.

Fiction Writing Stats:

  • Words today: 289
  • Total for the month: 289