In 2017 I was contacted by Mark Fine, the author of The Zebra Affaire, originating from South Africa like myself, who in seeking out a narrator/producer for his highly acclaimed novel, had listened to some audiobook samples of mine and wanted to know if I would be interested in narrating and producing the audiobook version of his historical romantic novel. The Zebra Affaire is beautifully written and tells the story of a young Afrikaner girl, Elsa Marais, who meets a young black man Samuel Marunda, a migrant worker from Malawi who had come to South Africa to work in the mines in Johannesburg. The story is set in the heart of the apartheid years, 1976, around the time of the Soweto Riots, where black youth began protesting the fact that they were being taught in Afrikaans, which was seen as the “language” of apartheid. In the story, the couple meet when Samuel is involved in a car accident and badly hurt, and Elsa assists him and the story opens up from there. Mark captures the essence and feeling of the country at that time in his creative and expressive penmanship. The narration of the book was an incredible experience because it gave me the freedom to work in accents that had been such an integral part of my youth. But what the book did, was brought back many feelings of my youth in South Africa, as well as the reason for leaving the country.
During those apartheid years, due to the strict laws governing ‘separate development’ which is the actual meaning of the word “Apartheid”, it was illegal for whites and blacks to eat in the same restaurants, to live in the same suburbs, and certainly to engage in any sexual activity, let alone fall in love with one another. Yet, one cannot really enforce any laws about love and I know that although this book was fiction, it certainly is a window into many lives that struggled through that time in South Africa. The statute books called sexual intercourse between people of different skin color, The Immorality Act, which was punishable by jail and even worse, especially for black men, the possibility of death for ‘rape’. All laws pertaining to the control of the apartheid system were brutal, vicious and abhorrent.
I was lucky to grow up in a family with liberal parents who were part of the early anti-apartheid movement and this allowed me to express my own understanding and sense of what I recognized was right and wrong about the society into which I was born. From as early as 8th grade, I knew deep inside that I would not live in South Africa beyond my very early twenties. There were many factors that influenced my decision, but the following event was certainly very high on the list.
One of my very close friends at the time was a medical student at the University of Cape Town, and during his second year, the anatomy year, he asked me one day if I was interested in coming to the lab to meet ‘Max’, the cadaver he was working on. Having an adventurous spirit, I immediately said yes, and the next day I accompanied him to the medical lab where all the bodies were laid out. I did feel slightly apprehensive about entering the lab, quite a daunting sight! I was introduced to ‘Max’ who was white – his skin, however, was the color of cardboard and my friend explained to me what I was seeing. Each cadaver was in the same stage of dissection as the students learned about the human body.
Lying next to ‘Max’ was a black man who sadly must have died in an act of violence as half of his face was ‘dented’ if you will. He was obviously at the same stage of dissection as his neighbor Max. As I studied the two cadavers, side by side, something very profound overcame me as, looking into the body, everything was obviously the same, and other than typical different characteristics between races, the only difference that hit me, and hit me hard, was the skin tone, and how thin that pigmented layer of color was. It was less than one millimeter thick. LESS THAN ONE MILLIMETER THICK!!
And it hit me as if someone punched me in the face, that the ruling regime of the country that I lived in, based their entire edict of horrific dehumanizing laws that resulted in such sadness, death, and destruction on the fact that less than one millimeter of the human body’s largest organ, the skin – was black.
This experience has never left me and was brought back to me even more as I narrated Mark Fine’s powerful story, The Zebra Affaire.
Listen to a sample here.
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My meeting with David Bowie: unconventional, curious & gracious
A most INTERESTING meeting for A few MUSIC GUYS
To his credit Robert Goodale took my call. More important was his willingness to listen.
This wasn’t the typical hustle: we need your client make a charity appearance, or guest in a video, or licence a track for a K-Tel compilation. No, this was markedly different.
As David Bowie’s business partner, Robert Goodale was not surprisingly an “out-of-the-box” thinker.
For the viability of our project, and future innovation, it was crucial Bob grasped what I was trying to say.
After a couple of calls and a face-to-face meeting in New York, he certainly did.
It’s like trying to fly a plane while attempting to build it
The 80’s were reaching their nadir and we had a deadline to meet. The technology was brilliantly conceived but awfully difficult to implement.
In fact it was the first time I’d heard the expression, “It’s like trying to fly a plane while attempting to build it.”
As Vice President of Entertainment for American Interactive Media (a joint technology venture by PolyGram Records and consumer electronics giant, Philips N.V.) I was strapped into a metaphorical business class seat on this bucking, unstable aircraft.
We were all up to our elbows in the mechanics of this new technological frontier, the interactive optical disc—specifically CD-i. The Compact Disc Interactive format uniquely interleaved audio, video and computer code on what appeared to be a conventional audio CD.
More profound. The CD-i player was a Trojan horse, designed to place a computer in the living room disguised as a sexy consumer electronics appliance attached to a TV.
PHILIPS COMPACT DISC INTERACTIVE PLAYER
Not remarkable now, but back in 1986 it was mind-bending.
Truthfully, CD-i desperately needed a public face that represented all of humanity, a face that was creative, innovative and courageous. Not some soulless geek squad avatar conversant only in the techno-babble of bits and bites.
We needed our Leonardo (as in “Da Vinci”), we needed our very own myriad-minded man…
Maestro David Bowie was the ideal candidate.
A very surreptitious, yet quietly auspicious meeting
Robert agreed to set up a meeting with Bowie.
I flew in from Los Angeles.
A colleague, Daniel “the marketing guru” Savage discretely set up a private room in PolyGram’s Manhattan HQ.
As Bowie was affiliated with another record label, it would not do having him seen “visiting” our building. So we sneaked him into the building with all the intrigue of “Game of Thrones.”
Fortunately, Daniel documented his thoughts about that meeting:
"I only had one interaction with Bowie, when he came in for a meeting with me, Mark Fine and a couple of other people at PolyGram in 1990 or so. We were talking about developing a CD-Interactive title based on Ziggy Stardust. I was really struck by a number of things, especially comparing them to all the other artists I had dealt with before.
For one, he was EARLY. During the meeting, he showed a keen interest and intellect having to do with the subject matter. He was with a woman (it might well have been Iman) who we presumed to be a girlfriend and he spoke to her with genuine kindness and gallantry, explaining it all to her so she felt included in the conversation, not just arm candy to be patronized."
Presenting to Mr. Sound+Vision
It was my responsibility to do the pitch.
Peering into those inquisitive, curious eyes (heterochromia—one eye blue, the other brown) I was intimidated enough. Attempting to communicate the merits of CD-i to this legend added further complexity to the challenge.
Those days the notion of manipulating and controlling a “multimedia” consumer-friendly disc was difficult to comprehend. The lexicon was unfamiliar to most; interactivity, man-machine interface, disc image and such only elicited blank stares.
Where words failed me, I resorted to illustrations.
Those days I carried with me a battered schoolroom composition book for note taking. As his excitement grew at the potential of CD-i, Bowie began to add doodles and diagrams of his own in my workbook—then, in apparent appreciation, he autographed it for me.
A treasured possession!
Of course the musical architect of SOUND+VISION had immediately grasped the implications of multimedia: he found it creatively liberating. He understood that the linear paradigm of music playback was destined to be shattered.
As such David Bowie had granted me his full attention.
A privilege I shall never forget.
Regretfully, no project was forthcoming from that meeting. More a CONSEQUENCE of the lengthy technical gestation period of CD-i, and the confused agendas of the stakeholders, than lack of enthusiasm from David Bowie.
However, subsequent to our meeting Robert Goodale became the interactive entertainment pioneer for all David Bowie copyrights.
In 1994, Bowie released “Jump” as an interactive CD-ROM that enabled his fans to create their own custom video from his music track.
Does this mean my meeting with David Bowie was well worth his while?
I hope so.
Prejudice has preoccupied me greatly.
The dehumanizing grunt of South Africa’s apartheid regime continues to haunt me in my novel-writing.
Thankfully, that unkind chapter of government enforced segregation in Sub-Sahara Africa now been consigned to history.
But alas, it remains a cautionary tale.
All about us the fractured schism of tribalism, ideology, and prejudice abound.
Religious nihilism, demagoguery, nationalism and feigned hurts (amplified by political correctness and the internet) are the present day instruments of divisiveness.
All toxic and corrosive.
This made me wonder, Is anyone free of the pain of prejudice?
The Stranger Seated Across From Me
Her beauty was clear to everyone. But, and not holding up the haughty shield of genetically blessed superiority, she radiated instead both charm and warm humility.
She introduced herself as Petra; in time I got to know her as Petra Nemcová, the former Czech supermodel.
However, it was my internalized response that appalled me.
In an instant I had instinctively veered down the rabbit-hole of hackneyed stereotypes: blonde, beautiful–no, not dumb (I’m far more evolved than that!) but an equally unkind assumption; that she probably lacked substance.
Fortunately I checked myself, realizing my baseless and generalized prejudice against beauty.
And I’m so glad I did. Instead, I listened…
I enjoy learning about a person’s “legend”–it must be the natural curiosity of a writer to discover and understand an individual’s background in order to better appreciate their motivations.
Petra Němcová Shared Her Story
She was born in Czechoslovakia, relatively close to Poland’s border. Petra was ten when communism was swept away by the Velvet Revolution. By 15 she was parading the catwalk of Milan. After herSports Illustrated swimsuit cover she was soon blessed as a Victoria Secrets angel. That was when she met fashion photographer, Simon Atlee, and they fell in love.
Was she herself prejudiced against beauty was the question I should have asked, instead we spoke about Prague and Africa.
Petra’s story was romantic, worldly (she spoke several languages fluently), and glamorous.
A Bright Future Devastated by Thai Tsunami
It was the day after Christmas 2004, when a gigantic wall of water swamped their beautiful holiday resort in Thailand. Her last sighting ever of her love, Simon, was glimpsing him clinging to a bungalow roof. Pounded by waves as she was swept out to sea, her pelvis pulverized, Petra clung to a tree for eight hours in absolute agony, before finally being rescued.
Along with more than 250,000 other people in Southeast Asia, Simon Atlee lost his life.
Scarred and broken, physically and figuratively, Petra began to rehabilitate herself.
[Note: Every Boxing Day (December 26th) is the anniversary of this tragic natural cataclysm.]
Purpose Provides a Happy Heart
It’s the screams of children, as she clung to that tree, that continued to haunt Petra. She needed to do something substantive, so as to honor Simon’s life and fulfill some useful purpose after the wreckage.
Four months later Petra returned to Thailand.
For those gone there was nothing else that could be done, but for the countless lives displaced by the ghastly tragedy there was much-needed by those who’d so terribly suffered–especially all the children. With support and succor from others, Petra launched the Happy Hearts Fund (HHF). A wonderful program to keep up and build support for communities after the First Responders and aid organizations had moved on to the next crisis.
“Unlike malaria or polio, we can’t work towards a cure for natural disasters or prevent them from ever happening — but we can restore hope by helping communities get back on their own feet through rebuilding in safe and sustainable ways and creating opportunities for a better future. And that’s exactly what the Happy Hearts Fund strives to do.” Petra Nemcova, Founder, Happy Hearts Fund
My rush-to-judgement had long faded. Clearly, this woman was anything but shallow. In fact, she was positively inspiring.
But I needed to understand the underlying cause for knee-jerk prejudice against beauty.
Why are we prejudiced against beauty? Here are 6 clues:
#1 Resentment. The presumption that everything is far too easy for those blessed with beauty. That access and opportunity present themselves with no more effort than a bat of an eyelid. This has been deemed an unfair advantage by the rest of us mere mortals saddled with an average appearance.
#2 Kardashian Effect. In our 21st century, the trivial is substantially rewarded. Vacant, vulgar, but beautiful celebrity has become the holy grail of success. We enjoy reflecting in the afterglow of these plastic “stars”–but we certainly don’t respect them.
#3 Hollywood Mythology. The beauty versus intellect narrative was perpetuated by the motion picture studios. Marilyn Monroe and her sister’s of the silver screen embraced Betty Booppersonas, and in the process perpetuated the myth of the “Dumb Blonde”.
#4 Photoshop Fakes. Between Photoshop and plastic surgery there’s a visceral sense that modern beauty is no longer genuine. Hence, if a woman’s appearance is judged to be contrived, faked, then the assumption is that her persona suffers a similar fate.
#5 Overcompensation. Not wishing to overwhelm based on her physical beauty alone, some woman may “sabotage” their intellectual brawn (or, dumb themselves down) in an instinctive effort to be better accepted by peers. This leaves a false impression.
#6 Rejection. This is probably nearest to the truth. Who among us hasn’t had the yearning for a beautiful companion? Especially during one’s formative years; such as, that unattainable soul-throbbing crush seen across the schoolyard. Invariably it remains unrequited. Either due to lack of courage (never asking her out!), or worse, cold rejection. Rejection results in resentment, which in turn morphs into a growing pejorative opinion of the once revered “object of one’s desire.”
I’m sure you have other suggestions…
Happily, however, I’m completely cured.
PETRA NEMCOVA & MARK FINE SELFIE
Ms. Petra Nemcová has taught me never to make hasty assumptions aboutanyone. As such she graciously volunteered to take this “Beauty & the Beast” selfie with me:
And, as an author I have now garnered deeper insights into the complex facets of an individual’s life, and the true nature of a substantive life (whether pretty or otherwise). All lives deserve to be explored properly. A “rush to judgement” based solely on a pretty facade makes us superficial; the very attribute we glibly label those lovelier than us. In truth, in the process of living a full life–warts and all, we have all developed into compelling characters.
Whether it’s a personal predilection, always seeking that silver lining amongst the darkest of clouds, or the happy coincidence that this is the 95th anniversary guaranteeing American women the right to vote—but I already see some interesting positives in Donald Trump’s acerbic quest for the White House. For sake of clarity, I’m by no means endorsing his opportunistic ideological mindset or his pugnacious platform. However, I applaud the fact he actually ran, and in doing so has taught us much about existing blemishes in our modern Constitutional Republic.
We’re Living In the Age of Kardashian.
As a nation we’ve plummeted toward a miasma of the trivial, contented in the superficial and the outrageous. Alongside our unbridled delight in the shameful we have paradoxically bridled ourselves with the censorious restraints of political correctness. We now live in a society where celebrity trumps common sense and true human decency is nothing more than an ersatz hashtag.
Our political leaders (a pox on both parties) are incapable of leading as they’ve become obsessed with power and celebrity as the final end product, rather than a means to do Good. In this dumbed down culture, even a onetime dignified presidential fireside chat to the entire nation is now a flippant appearance on Comedy Central. As for the once respected media, it’s become depressingly “tribal”—no longer the peoples’ ombudsman; instead devolving into paid propaganda shills for their respective sides or fawning over the latest luminary pregnancy.
Are We Angry Enough at Political Leadership to Deserve Change?
The unintended outcome is a confused citizenry that’s quick to whine, yet slow to act in any meaningful manner. Yes, we all hoped for change but found nothing but a remorseless decline. We turned to our political leaders for guidance; they in turn promised the world in exchange for their reelection—all the while whining the loudest about those from the other tribe, as they systematically accomplished little in a self-serving scheme suited to preserving the status quo.
As the babble of conflicting voices mounted, with those occupying the ideological extremes being the shrillest, it had become apparent that an agent of change was now essential. Yes, the once supine electorate had begun to take notice—and had finally gotten angry. And the two most unlikely candidates have stepped in to fill the void…
Political Polar Opposites Donald Trump & Bernie Sanders.
Acknowledging this political leadership vacuum, both sides across the political divide have, simultaneously, identified for themselves unconventional champions. And the sustained embrace of these two unlikely frontrunners can only be interpreted as an unabashed mutiny against the ineffectual status quo; with Trump being the more dramatic manifestation of this public resentment toward the political class (as an Independent Democrat, Bernie remains a politician—though admittedly an iconoclastic one).
This rise of the unconventional candidate alone makes a Trump campaign, despite the sound and the fury, worthy of being. A message is being transmitted to the political hacks; lobbyists and current tenants of the Potemkin village in Washington D.C. that enough is enough. This is an emancipation of sorts from a most unlikely source, and I wonder if we will seize the moment.
Celebrity Equals More Eyeballs and Participation. It’s a Fact.
The fact that more than twenty four million Americans tuned in to watch the first Republican debate on Fox News is an absolute stunner. In this age of apathy and fluff it’s a surprising and welcome windfall of Trump’s celebrity presence. Did those twenty four million tune in to see Rand Paul? I think not. It appears celebrity is now a necessary inducement to activate higher participation in our democratic process. So be it. It’s certainly preferable to the alternative; a lack of interest and chronic voter apathy. That’s how it should be; the American people should have a loud voice in their democracy—and take a keen interest in those that claim to advocate on their behalf. And so another lesson is gleaned from Trump’s venture into the political arena.
2015 Primary Season has Become Deliciously Egalitarian.
As unlikely candidate that he is, Trump has already provided another valuable service to this nation. With his bombast he has effectively shattered the death-grip choke hold of the political elites. We’ve been indoctrinated with the conventional narrative that politics is only for politicians. And that it’s best political leadership remain in the grasp of professional politicians (and their cadres of lobbyists). With his billion dollars and chuztpah Trump has convincingly proven that’s all bunkum!
Candidate Bench is Now Potentially Deeper.
A virtue of the Trump phenomenon is that by his flawed yet forceful presence, he has dramatically increased the potential talent roster for the highest office in the land. The depth of the bench is now that much greater. However, do prospective candidates now realize it? No doubt gifted men and women, with considerable talents and abilities on offer, have been relegated to the cold comfort of the political sidelines. They had bought into the claim that only a professional politician had the nous and sanitized biography to qualify for the job; and that the campaign trail would tear a political neophyte apart. The Teflon Don has proved otherwise, warts and all.
Enter the Perfect Celebrity Substitute.
This has to be an encouraging development for those patriots with an itch to get involved—but had adjudged themselves unqualified due to lack of political experience.
And so we enter the realm of the theoretical; a notion once improbable pre-Trump, but now attractively feasible. We need a celebrity, not a politician, with a stratospheric recognition Q Score, devoid of “warts and all,” who has the intellect and refinement to lead—appreciated by men and adored by women (no matter their political persuasion), and who happens to be well married. Someone whose smile can replace Trump’s scowl; and ensure our emancipation from the political technocrats is complete.
Wait a moment, there is such a candidate, potentially…
Graphic rendered by MARK FINE
The man brings the luster of refined celebrity to any task and has lived a life replete with decency and unheralded activism. As for being an actor, Ronald Reagan has already resolved that question. In a word, Mr. Clooney is the manifestation of “Cool.” A refreshing contrast to the petulant, hot under the collar Lilliputian leaders—or aspiring leaders that are currently clogging the airwaves with their spiteful propaganda. And George Clooney is successful, suggesting he is capable of being his own man—not depending on the graft of lobbyists and special interests. In the celebrity hands of folks like Clooney our emancipation from the elite political class would be complete.
Curious to know what you might think about a possible celebrity presidency? Good or bad thing…what’s your opinion?
Note: To my knowledge Clooney has shown no interest in seeking the Presidency. I’ve merely used him for illustrative purposes, as an example of how politics in the United States could well change in light of Donald Trump’s illuminating campaign. And to show that it is feasible, in this environment of insurgent politics, for an outsider to seek higher office.
Much has happened since Nelson Mandela’s passing, and none of it is good. In Mandiba’s absence the “Rainbow Nation” he so valiantly struggled to build has turned decidedly gray.
The magnificent vision of Africa’s great statesman has been selfishly squandered and corrupted by the lesser men that unfortunately succeeded him.
The current incumbent of South Africa’s presidency, Jacob Zuma, being the most egregious. Zuma has eroded the institutions of government (both the constitution and the checks-and-balances of democracy) by his flaunting display of self-interest, corruption and tribal cronyism; all in his effort to protect his illicit financial gains by using that nation’s treasury as his personal piggy bank.
Alas, I anticipated this. In the closing chapter of my South African themed novel The Zebra Affaire I wrote the following as a final coda:
But former prisoner Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had no desire to become a sovereign: he relinquished the power voluntarily—so refreshing on a continent where provincial tyrants strive to rule forever.
But here I remain fearful (though I dearly hope to be proven wrong). Mandela was the nation’s talisman—his very presence held the various peoples of South Africa on a rainbow path of dignity and equality, and by his noble example all tribal rivalries were set aside and all were welcomed at the table.
But now he’s gone, I fear the quiet vow of loyalty to his vision of a united South Africa will be abrogated. With Mandela no longer living, lesser mortals will not feel bound by any allegiance to the “Father of the Nation”; instead, in a lust for power, they will once again unleash the tribal tensions that have forever plagued the continent.
But rather than dwell on the bleak let us be hopeful that in remembering Mandela’s legacy, the South African people will duly honor his life by electing future leaders, based on merit, not cronyism.
(How about a woman? Now that would be something!)
In doing so they would honor the hope and desire for all-equality, with no single individual above the law.
Indeed, that was Nelson Mandela’s life’s work.