Thursday, 27 December 2007

Powerful Words

I've been given this handsome award from two generous fellow bloggers, Angelique, aka The Quoibler, and Danette, aka Summer Friend. Since both of them passed this on to me within a few days of each other, I consider myself well and truly awarded, though I had to go back to see what I wrote that was so powerful, and damned if I could find it. Still, this makes up for the fact that I've had a streaming cold for the past week, a couple of rejections, a not particularly wonderful Christmas, and a dodgy porch roof that has developed new, worryingly extensive and productive leaks. I'm almost pathetically grateful for the honor, and happy to supply the requisite three writing tips for making writing good and powerful.

1) Have a fire of indignation kindling within. This is one of my favorite expressions and one which I borrowed from Thomas Clarkson, one of the men who was instrumental in helping to abolish the slave trade in the U.K. Largely indifferent to the issue of slavery himself, Clarkson entered a Latin essay competition on the subject of the slave trade purely for the honor he hoped to receive, but after winning first prize he found that he was his own first convert. The cruelty and injustice of slavery had come to obsess him and he realized that he had to write about it in English and that the more eloquently and compellingly he expressed himself, the more converts he might win to the cause. Having a point to make fires you up and makes the process of writing feel almost effortless. What you choose to write about doesn't have to be political or controversial; as long as it is something you truly want to say, it will carry you along with it.

2) Steel yourself to look at your work rationally and objectively and kill it dead, if necessary. I'm impatient and impulsive, and this is my own personal Waterloo. Whenever I've finished writing something, I am always so thrilled with what I've accomplished that I'm tempted to send it off right away instead of coming back to the manuscript after the recommended cooling-off period, going over it with a jeweler's eye and cutting out all the redundancies along with grammatical and lexical infelicities and misspellings. I won a literary review in a writing competition a while back, and one of the best pieces of advice my reviewer gave me was the following: Aim to comb through every line of your prose with a view to cutting anything that doesn't make the grade. She then gave me a few examples of where I had overwritten passages, and when I subsequently trimmed these down I was stunned by how much more effective they read. When I finally finished the novel I was working on, I was desperate to send it off, but remembering my past failures, put it away. Two weeks later, I looked at it again and could hardly believe all the problems I found even though I had already combed it over ad nauseam. Good, honest beta readers have since given me some shrewd advice on this manuscript, and no doubt I will make quite a few more alterations before I am finally ready to call it finished and send it off to do whatever it will do. I am convinced that if I had done this to begin with, I would be published by now.

3) See your rejections as useful scar tissue that are helping you build muscle. It really helps if you're able to do this at least some of the time. If you claim you're able to do it all the time, you're making me nervous -- and skeptical. Come talk to me and I'll give you a little of my pessimism and negativity in exchange for your boundless optimism and worryingly sunny attitude. I can afford to talk like this: right now, I'm the would-be writer equivalent of the Governator of California.

I now have to pass the award on to five more bloggers, and this is the difficult part. How do I pick only five? I took the easy way out: I chose randomly, putting all the names of deserving fellow writer-bloggers onto little pieces of paper turned upside down, then weeding out anyone who already had this award. Here are the people I came up with and my reasons for choosing them:

1) Merry Jelinek at Mom and More

Merry is another writer-mother whose blog is filled with interesting tips and resources for her fellow writers. I love the fact that her blog is also interactive; she always comes back to comment on what others have written, and her comments are always useful and pertinent, too. Merry's the sister everyone wishes they had or could have been themselves: fun, kind, with a great store of interesting anecdotes. She also once unwittingly drove a car that had a tree protruding from the roof. Top that.

2) Charlie Callahan at Hounded

You can see from Charlie's blog address that he has a sense of humor and a good ear (if the word testicles doesn't sound like it comes straight from the Old Testament, then I really don't know what does) and you can take it from me that he's a fine writer. Charlie doesn't post as much as I wish he would due to ill health, but fortunately he has written a memoir that I've been lucky enough to sample. His writing is a wonderful mixture of humor and nostalgia, and his words are truly powerful if even a cheapskate like me can't wait to buy his book.

3) Kanani Fong at Easy Writer

Kanani does more to promote the work of others writers than almost any other blogger I can think of. I first came across her on a literary agent's blog, when something she wrote made me laugh out loud. A fellow native-Californian, appreciater of cats, inspired cook, and writer- mother, Kanani also writes an interactive blog filled with writing tips, exercises and ideas. She also gave me an award: The Quality Time Wasting Prolific Blogging Award. I am very proud of this: sure I'll waste your time, but my time-wasting is quality wasting and don't you forget it.

4) Paul Curd at Paul's Writing Blog

Paul and I were two of ninety-nine runners up who won a literary critique in the
A&C Black Writers and Artists Yearbook Novel Competition this year. His blog has a lot of useful links, such as the regularly updated Deal Writers' list of writing competitions, and although Paul doesn't post as much as I wish he would, I suspect that is because, as a published author, he is far too busy with the actual business of writing. An example for us all: a writer who spends most of his time writing. Paul is also a committed runner, so my envy of him is complete.

5) Eryl Shields at The Kitchen Bitch Ponders

Despite Eryl's interesting blog title, I have met her and must report that she is not a bitch unless she's very good at keeping it under wraps. Her name is Eryl ( pronounced as 'Beryl' but without the B) and she is, in fact, a philosopher with a tidy kitchen. Imagine someone who is both articulate and sensitive, and with a fine eye for detail and character. Imagine that you are sitting in her kitchen, drinking a cup of tea and chatting. That is what reading one of Eryl's blog posts is like.

Those are my five recommendations, but I could easily come up with ten more. There really are far too many talented writers out there, don't you agree? Wouldn't this writing lark be a lot easier if 99.9% of the other writers were a lot of uninspired, shallow idiots who were only into it for the money and the glory? S i g h.

Wishing everyone out there a lot of powerful words in 2008!

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Monday, 24 December 2007

Thank You For Christmas

We have a weird custom in our family: we get our kids to write thank-you notes for their presents on Christmas Day.

It started the Christmas our eldest was four and a half and her sister was sixteen months. On Christmas morning, my husband and I watched as they savaged a pile of gifts from us and other far away family members. We looked at each other uneasily: you hear people going on about how Christmas is all for children and how much fun it is to watch the little ones opening their presents, but we actually found it pretty awful. Our children were turning into greedy little consumers right before our very eyes. Worse still, we had aided and abetted it.

"Who gave you the book about bats?" we asked our eldest a few hours later.

She shook her head. "I don't remember."

"How about the train set? Was that from Uncle Paul?"

We had to ask her twice; she was too busy playing with a puzzle. "Umm...I don't know."

We were mortified: How could we possibly write thank-you letters when we couldn't even remember who'd given our kids what? I'd been trying to keep a record of who got what and from whom, but the kids had plowed through their presents so fast I'd managed to lose track.

"Christmas," my husband muttered despairingly. "Greedfest is more like it."

I felt exactly the same: clearly for our kids, the day was nothing more than a present-opening event. There was little gratitude shown, little sign that the day meant anything other than an opportunity to receive gifts and treats. Lacking direction, our kids had behaved perfectly naturally. We had to do something to civilize them.

And that is when the inspiration came to us: We were already teaching the eldest to read and write, so why not start her on simple thank-you notes? She would be responsible for remembering who gave her what gift; we would suggest a few ideas about how and what to write, then nag her to do her duty. It took a couple of months, but by her fifth birthday, the eldest could manage a few shaky lines. That Christmas, she wrote her first thank-you notes in pencil, copying what we told her to write in a wobbly, endearingly clumsy hand:

Dear Auntie Bertie,

I just love the cute cat pajamas you sent. Thank you so much!

Have you had a good Christmas? We have had a wonderful one!

Love XXX ---

We were thrilled with this, and as soon as the youngest had learned to print, we started her too. When nagging the kids to do it turned out to be a pain, we came up with an even better plan, one which had the added benefit of slowing down the whole gift-opening process: we had the kids write a note for every present they opened, as they opened them.

Believe it or not, this method has worked brilliantly for us. Faced with a huge pile of presents and the knowledge that they won't get to open more unless they produce, the kids keep those notes coming. Before each gift, we talk about the giver and how that person is special. I know: it sounds obnoxiously smug and smarmy, but instead of a dizzy, thirty-minute orgy of gift-opening, we have managed to stretch Christmas Day out to a good eight-hour session. Stationery piles diminish; carefully printed letters pile up. Photographs of aunts, uncles and cousins are pulled out and examined; anecdotes of funny events are recalled. Remember the first time you met Auntie Leslie and you threw up all over her in the back of the car? Remember the time Uncle Gustavo let you eat eight bananas all in one go?

Shortly after moving back to the U.K., we spent Christmas with my husband's family down south and had to abandon this custom. The next year, we were invited down again, and once again, thank-you notes had to wait until we got back. On the way home, one of the kids said wistfully I wish we could do that thing with the letters again. Do you think we could do it again next year?

Sure, maybe she was just saying that because she knew we wanted to hear it. Maybe both kids are making a virtue of a necessity and only going through the motions of being grateful, but even if that's the case, it's good enough for us. The next year, we stayed home and wrote our Christmas thank-you notes again, and we've done it every year since.

We'll be doing it this year, too: thank you for Christmas.

And on the subject of gratitude, thank you all very much for reading and commenting on my blog. Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you all!

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Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Writing Up A Storm

I've been a writer ever since I can remember. I'm not saying that I've been a good writer all that time; my point is that I'm not new to this game -- no, siree. Forget all those rejection letters, forget all the hours spent agonizing over blank paper or computer screen, a writer I am and a writer I will always be. I cannot even recall when it all began -- when I first sat down with a pencil and paper and managed to turn out something intelligible. Something that made others smile and say Hey, this is pretty good! Once that happened, though, I was well and truly hooked and it would have been too late to stop even if I'd known where it was going to take me.

When I was nine, I got a poem published in a children's magazine. I waited breathlessly after sending it off, then one day to my delight received a letter telling me that it had been selected for publication. Months passed, and finally the issue with my poem arrived. I quickly turned the pages until I got to the poetry section. My poem wasn't there! Heartbroken, I showed my mother. She turned the magazine over, and on the back cover, there it was: my poem, fully illustrated. In color. Nothing will ever top that. Doris Lessing can eat her heart out.

When we were ten, my best friend and I decided to write a book together. We called it Free As The Wind and it was every bit as awful as it sounds. The protaganists were two girls we called Mary and Roberta. Although Mary was my given name, I went by my middle name at the time, and I gave Mary all the qualities I desperately wanted: beauty, grace, coordination, and the ability to sail. Roberta was my best friend's alter ego and embodied her ideal: an adventurous and feisty girl, with an almost reckless spirit. Roberta had a bratty little sister called Sally, and Mary and Roberta were always trying to get away from her. One day, they packed up a picnic lunch and an unlikely number of other useful provisions, borrowed someone's boat, and took off for a little sailing trip. Though there wasn't a cloud in sight when they departed, minutes into their voyage a violent storm began to brew. Both girls managed to get whacked unconscious by the boom, though fortunately neither sustained permanent damage, and the boat miraculously sailed itself to a small, deserted island. This was a shameless rip-off of one of our favorite books, Carol Ryrie Brink's Baby Island, but we told ourselves that the rest of the plot was so different that the obvious similarities hardly mattered. Mary and Roberta set off to explore the island and were lucky to find an abandoned house where they took shelter. Things were looking pretty good when they heard voices: angry male voices. Peeking out the window, they spotted a couple of sinister-looking fellows with bushy black beards. That was as far as we got, but we just slapped on To be Continued and considered ourselves finished. We even illustrated it.

Somewhere in a carboard box upstairs, I still have a copy of that dreadful poem; I have often looked at it and tried to imagine just how bad my competition must have been. I'm still in touch with my friend, and she's hung on to Free As The Wind, after all these years. On my rare visits to see her, we always look at it and laugh ourselves silly. Picture an American version of the very worst Enid Blyton you've ever read, add stilted dialogue, unrealistically capable heroines, a dopey plot, and the cheesiest pictures you can imagine, and you'll have some idea of our opus. But to this day, I remember the sense of pride and accomplishment; the wonderful feeling seeing my published poem gave me; the charge we got holding the book in our hands and thinking this is ours; we did this.

After those first giddy efforts, I continued to write. For the most part, I wrote letters, stories and memoirs. Then I got caught up in the adventure of life, as one does, and satisfied myself with merely writing letters. But some day, I was convinced, I would take it up again, full-time.

Several decades later, I decided I was ready to write another book. I had children, and like a lot of writer-parents, I made up stories for them. You don't have to be all that good to get your kids' enrapt attention: you could probably rattle off laundry lists and they'd beg for more. I knew that my kids just wanted to postpone bedtime for as long as possible, but making up stories brought back a long forgotten thrill: the joy of coming up with something that made people say What happened then? Gradually, the stories I told became more refined and elaborate. Characters took on decided personalities, developed preferences, fears and aspirations. Plots became more complex.

One story in particular began to take hold of me. When I found myself devising sub plots late at night, lying awake, unable to sleep, I bullied my husband into getting a computer, though he doubted that I'd ever use it. Five minutes after he'd set it up, I sat down and started my first children's book, writing hours at a time after work every evening. What with my job and two young children, it took me ages, and I often felt as though I was sitting in the eye of a storm, working away, while chaos raged around me. Five months later, the house was a wreck and my family were less than pleased, but I had another manuscript. It was considerably better than Free As The Wind, but it did not sell.

I wish I could tell you that after many efforts, I finally made it, but the fact is, I still haven't reached my goal. Maybe I won't. Maybe I'll die before I see any of my books published. And that would be very sad, but even if I knew this was going to happen, I suspect that like Isaac Asimov, I'd just write a little faster.

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Sunday, 16 December 2007

Yumi And The Scholars

"Do you know any of the Chinese students?" my landlady, Yumi, asked me one winter afternoon. We were huddled around her kerosene fire, drinking tea. Yumi wasn't your typical Japanese landlady. She ran a quasi-Chinese restaurant, one that catered almost entirely to students and faculty, and she let out three rooms just over her establishment. When I first came to look at the room, it was obvious that she was far less interested in telling me about the rules than in finding out what sort of person I was. She wasn't nosy; she was just fascinated by people. I watched her engaging with the students who came to eat in her restaurant and she always had the same friendly manner, turning to listen to them as she chopped, fried, stirred and served. Yumi was the owner of the restaurant, but she was also the cook and sometimes the waiter, too.

As it happened, I had met all three of the Chinese students at the foreign student section of the administration building. Together we had endured a number of graduation banquets, foreign student welcome parties, and the odd mandatory tea ceremony. One of them disliked tea ceremonies almost as much as I did and we had bonded over this.

"I've met them," I told her. "They're nice guys."

Yumi sat up eagerly. "Invite them over to my restaurant some time, would you?"

Although Yumi had always been friendly to me, my stock had greatly risen when she learned that I happened to know most of the other foreign research students, all of whom spoke Japanese to some extent. Through me she had already met the man from then-Zaire and his Tanzanian friend, two Brazillians, and a British professor. Yumi, whose education hadn't gone past high school, bitterly regretted never having learned English, but what did it matter when so many people went to the trouble of learning Japanese?

"Seriously," she said, "bring them over here. Where are they from?"

"Ko-san is from Beijing. And I think Wu-san is from Shanghai. His Japanese is so good everybody thinks he is Japanese."

Yumi clapped her hands in delight.

I told her that I would do what I could, but I might not succeed. I didn't know them all that well, and besides, the mainland Chinese students took studying very seriously and only rarely socialized, even with each other.

In fact, no one could come close to the mainland Chinese students when it came to academic achievement or zeal for learning. The handful of students from Hong Kong or Taiwan were no match for them, even though, like their mainland cousins, they had the advantage of being able to read Chinese characters when they began studying Japanese (the Japanese writing system came from China, hence the term 'Chinese characters' even in Japan) . Even my friend John, a Chinese-American born and raised in China and an excellent scholar, was not in their league academically. Ko-san had confided that he started studying at dawn and kept at it all day and much of the night, adding that he did his best not to fall asleep with the light on. John studied more than I did, but even he couldn't top that.

"My landlady is dying to meet you," I told Ko-san with some embarrassment a few days later. He was a good-looking young man hardly older than I, clear-faced, wide-eyed, humble in manner -- and intimidatingly intelligent. Talking to him always made me uneasy: I got the feeling he could see right through me and spotted my unserious nature, my lack of attention to my studies.

"Why?" he asked, surprised.

"She just loves meeting foreign students," I told him truthfully. "And I told her how good your Japanese was."

Ko-san agreed to come, and he told me he'd bring Wu-san -- and photographs of China. When I told Yumi, she was thrilled. "I'll make them something good for dinner," she assured me.

Ko-san and and Wu-san enjoyed the meal, but afterwards they asked politely what it was. Yumi explained that it was a well-known Chinese dish and they exchanged astonished looks. "It's nice, but it isn't Chinese," they told her. We spent the next fifteen minutes discussing how Chinese food varied greatly from country to country and Yumi carefully wrote down how the original recipe was prepared. Then we looked at Ko-san's photographs. There were not so many shots of waterfalls and mountains as there were of ferroconcrete buildings and imposing, but ugly, new factories, but there were also quite a few shots of Ko-san's farewell party. I picked up one of him standing next to a man who was the spitting image of Deng Xiaoping and burst out laughing. "Gee, this man looks exactly like Deng Xiaoping!" I exclaimed, pointing, and Ko-san looked embarrassed. "Actually, that is Deng Xiaoping," he said softly.

I was well and truly impressed. The mayor of San Francisco wouldn't have turned up to say goodbye to me. No wonder no one else was in their league: China had sent the cream of the cream -- young men who started studying when the sun came up and finished when they could no longer keep their eyes open. Young men who seldom socialized and made it a point not to fraternize with each other too often, to spend their time speaking, reading and writing Japanese instead. "It's not that we don't like each other," Wu-san had explained, "but we won't be in Japan forever and we don't want to waste this chance."

Yumi didn't want to waste her chance either. She got to be good friends with all of the Chinese students after I left, and they showed her how to make her Chinese food more authentically Chinese. Through them, she met even more foreign students, too. The last I time I saw her, a man from Papua New Guinea had moved into my old apartment.

"He speaks Japanese like a native," she told me happily. "I'll never have to learn English."

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Thursday, 13 December 2007

Clean-up Woman


Today is a red-letter day: I've just cleaned under the bed for the first time in about eight months. I'm not techno-savvy, so I cannot take a picture of this, but I happen to have found about two hundred somewhat expertly-folded origami cranes. Want them? They are yours! Just be among the first five people to comment on my blog; tell me what cleaning chores you particularly like -- and which ones you loathe -- and I'll send you a couple dozen cranes if you send me your address. Made from the finest washi, these cranes could easily be crafted into a mobile or other decoration. Add some glitter and shellack and you've got Christmas ornaments! Go on -- do it, for pity's sake! Take them off my hands! I'll even dust them for you!

A few years ago I remember reading an article about women who were addicted to cleaning. When questioned, these women admitted that they often cleaned their houses several times a week, even when they realized it wasn't really necessary. I found myself reading with a sort of horrified fascination that cleaning, for these ladies, was almost a raison d'etre -- that there was nothing they would rather do in their spare time. To this day, I can hardly believe it. What in the world causes that sort of neurosis?

Although I hardly ever stop cleaning, for me it is merely a means to an end. When I lived on my own, I hardly ever did it because I hardly ever needed to. I am good at keeping things clean: I endlessly put stuff away, bundle up letters, discard trash, tidy up corners. I don't do this because it gives me pleasure, though; I do this because I want to avoid having to do a major job. I am a One-stitch-in-time-saves-nine type of person, whereas my husband tends to let everything go until it has to be cleaned. This has caused some lively discussions in our family particularly because our children, for the most part, follow their father's lead. At some point, I give up in despair. I leave the coats over the back of the chairs, ignore the dirty gym kit left in the stairwell, stop nagging the kids to bring down their empty sandwich containers and trash. I let the blue dye my eldest uses build up in the shower stall instead of scrubbing it out, allow the errant pillows and slipcovers to remain where they were thrown, and fail to collect the scattered newspapers. After a month or two the house is even too awful for the others to bear, and my husband clicks into action. And he is wonderful to behold.

As the one person in the household who consistently hangs up her own clothes and makes up the bed, who puts the lid back on the toothpaste, discards the empty toilet paper core and replaces the roll, picks wet towels off the floor and hangs them up to dry, removes clothing from the kitchen table and nags the slob who left it there to put it away; who wipes away the crumbs, scrubs the counter of spilt water, catsup, pickle, milk, and butter; who screws the lids back on jars, re-refrigerates the forgotten carton of milk and tidies away the cereal box that has been left out and gaping open; who engages in daily sweeping, wiping, discarding, and dusting -- in short, as one who does her level best every day to pick up after others and encourage them to develop more hygienic and socially acceptable behavior -- I feel that my role in the occasional all-hands-on-deck housecleaning performance does not have to be so central. On the rare occasions this gargantuan feat takes place, I tend to take a deep breath and go off to indulge myself in tackling a particular task that has long been left: cleaning underneath a bed, perhaps, or sorting out a box of photographs. It is not that I do nothing; I will spend the entire day quietly tidying some corner while the rest of the household slaves. After my largely unrelenting and concerted daily efforts, I feel that I have earned the right not to race about the house with dust-rags and cleaning fluids.

Not without a pang of guilt I listen to the energetic scrubbing, the vacuum cleaner being plied over carpet, the rustling of plastic bags as mounds of trash are collected from the kids' rooms. I do a bit of cleaning that I might otherwise have been too busy to do, then I walk around the house and admire how beautifully clean it is; I am proudly shown the sparkling hearths and debris-less hallway, the neatly hung-up coats in the closet, the practically-glittering kitchen floor, the gleaming shower stall free of its smears of soap and tiny wads of teenager hair (my husband maintains a shaved head; I deal with my own sullied locks).

But there is a price -- there is always a price. Whenever people come to visit, one of my kids is bound to say, quite truthfully: See how clean the house is? I helped my Dad do it.

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Monday, 10 December 2007

Shocking Shoe Story

Any man who reads this will think it's a tall tale -- but the truth is stranger than fiction! Names have been changed to protect the guilty; his occupation has been withheld to protect our marriage. Please note that I've even attempted British spelling here, for versimilitude.


A middle-aged man in Scotland has recently made the shocking discovery that he owns more pairs of shoes than his wife.

"I have to say I’m stunned," said Mr Schumann. "Up until very recently I’ve nagged her about her shoe problem. You know how it is with women. They don’t just have a pair of trainers, a pair of wellies, and a pair of dress shoes, do they? It’s sandals and boots and high heels and low heels and every bloody colour and style – and some they only wear a dozen times a year! But then last week we had the builder in to repair the cracks in the conservatory roof. And we had to bring in all the shoes – every single pair." Mr Schumann shrugged and looked at the ground, obviously mortified. "And," he continued, begrudgingly, not meeting the reporter's eye, " it appears that I’ve got more."

Mr Schumann explained that in his line of work, decent shoes are an absolute necessity. He also maintained that his three pairs of sandals are useful in the one-week Scottish summer, given his current employment, and the five pairs of walking boots will come in handy some day should he ever go back to the healthy exercise regimen his wife so eagerly promotes. "The three pairs of slippers and house shoes and six pairs of trainers were all bought on special offer, so they hardly count," he argued, adding that he knew they would most likely come in handy some day, no matter what his wife’s opinion might be.

And he had no way of knowing that the eighteen pairs of high heels spanning every colour of the rainbow, the strap-back beaded fuschia kitten heels, purple Doc Martens, knee-high lemon yellow high-heeled boots, or the violet-and-green snakeskin pumps with ankle strap belonged to his teenaged daughters and not his frumpy middle-aged wife. "Come on," he laughed, "if you've seen one pair of ladies' shoes, you've seen them all!"

"Take my word for it: she’s as shoe-happy as they come," Mr Schumann insisted. "Even if she tells you she bought her last pair of decent shoes three years ago. And she’s hell bent on shopping, too. Right now she’s out window shopping at all the charity shops in Dumfries!’

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Friday, 7 December 2007

Classy

Before we moved to the U.K., my husband and I once got to talking with another foreigner on a train, in Tokyo. She had an obviously British accent, so I asked her where she was from. I should have guessed from her mildly surprised reaction that I'd done something unusual, but I didn't. If two Americans meet in a foreign country, the first thing they do is find out what state the other is from. If one person fails to ask the question, the other one generally volunteers the information anyway. Asking is not quite de rigeur, but it's pretty close. Not knowing that Brits didn't do this, though, I repeated the gaffe the next time we met a stranger from England, and this time my husband advised me not to do it again -- that this wasn't the done thing. I was astounded.

"Why not?"

"Because people don't like it."

"But -- why?"

My husband pondered this. "Because it's a little too close to you asking them what class they're from."

"I don't believe you!"

"Okay, then -- go and ask someone else."

I did this, and she said the exact same thing. So did two more colleagues when I asked them. I was so flabbergasted that I asked every single British person I knew, and roughly 90% of them confirmed what my husband had told me: British people don't expect -- or want -- to be asked where they are from in the U.K.

I could not get over this. Americans are generally only too happy to bore you with where they are from, who their people are, where they used to live, or where they went to school; the trick is getting us to shut up about it. Yes, there are a few people who are embarrassed about their origins, but in my experience they are the exception. In fact, most Americans of low origins are dying to tell you all about it -- especially if they have risen up in the world.

That was my introduction to the British class system, and I have to admit, I was shocked. Still, when we moved to Wales, I just knew I would fit in. Why shouldn't I? For one thing, I already knew so much about the U.K., what with my British husband and ex-colleagues. For another, having a British husband I was obviously a British-vetted Yank, and therefore had passed inspection, so to speak. For yet another, I had Welsh ancestry (and just about every other kind, too, but no one in Wales needed to know about that), and finally, best of all, I didn't give a damn who belonged to what class. I figured I couldn't fail to make lots of friends: anyone snooty enough to care that I'd grown up drinking out of jam jars wasn't the sort of person I'd mind being snubbed by, and everybody else was my potential best buddy.

Hoo boy.

Six months after moving to the small valley town where we rented a miner's cottage, I was prepared to admit defeat. No one talked to me except for Ron and Irene next door, an elderly couple of mixed nationality (he was a Cockney from London; she was from the Valley) and half the time I couldn't understand what they were saying. People on the street rarely returned my cheerful greeting; ladies in the supermarket looked right past me. What was wrong with me? Why was I being snubbed? I finally found out, and for your interest, I will list my character flaws here:

1) My husband was in graduate school -- a fact I readily admitted and, as it turned out, a huge no no. If he'd been a laid-off alcoholic who beat the crap out of me every night, I might well have gotten away with it.

2) We subscribed to the Guardian. Too late, we found out that we were the only couple in town who did this.

3) We didn't go to the local pub or chippy -- obviously we were social misfits.

4) We chose to live there -- we didn't have to.

Never mind that I had genuine working class roots I was eager to share -- ex-miner cousins who got settlements for black lung disease and Appalachian relatives who misspelled the word 'such' -- never mind my family's jelly-jar glasses or the fact that going out to a fancy meal for us meant the fountain at Thrifty's Drug Store -- none of this mattered! My husband was a student; we read the Guardian; we didn't dine on fried potatoes every other night. Yes it's true: I was dissed because I was too posh -- Scout's honor.

When I went back to the States and told everybody, no one believed me. But it's the God's truth.

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Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The Alchemist

The other night, nobody in our house felt like going shopping. It was dark and rainy, we were all dog-tired, and what with the speedometer of our car taking a holiday -- quite apart from the weird clunking noise the car has started to make -- no one felt like hiking twenty minutes down the hill, then back, just to do some shopping for dinner.

In the refrigerator we had some old mashed potatoes, five slices of stale lunch meat, leftover spaghetti, a jar of pesto with about a tablespoon of contents left, and maybe one third of a pint of sour milk. In the cupboards were a few withered onions, a green pepper that could never have been eaten raw given its state, and some cooking apples. My husband took one look at this and threw up his hands. My kids took one look at this and almost threw up. And me? I can't say I felt inspired, but I remembered a night some years back when I still lived in Northern Japan.

It was February, and it had been snowing heavily. Two friends were over, Wendy from Canada and Li from China, and we were sitting at the kotatsu, a low table with a heating element underneath, covered with a blanket. There is nothing cozier than a kotatsu, and though all of us were hungry, none of us felt like going out in the snow to shop for dinner. Plus, it was late.

"I'll cook," said Li, getting up.

Wendy and I, knowing what was in -- or not in -- my cupboards, couldn't help laughing. Li, a nuclear engineering student, was a fabulous cook, but in my refrigerator were three utterly disgusting spring onions, a little milk, and nothing else. In my cupboards were cooking oil, salt, sesame oil, and flour. Even an alchemist has to start with something; you might be able to conjure gold from lead, but who could make it from dust?

Actually, Li probably could. He went into my kitchen and started nosing around. "You've got flour!" he cried happily. Wendy and I looked at each other. So I had flour? So what?

"And salt!" he called over his shoulder. We shrugged and went back to our conversation.

"And onions, and a couple of cloves of garlic!"

I was amazed: I'd forgotten all about that garlic. I'm not sure if I hadn't actually thrown it away.

We heard Li lighting my two-burner stove, heard him chopping something -- oh God, no, not the onions! -- followed by the sounds of something being whisked. And then, a few minutes later, we could smell something that made our stomachs rumble.

"Have you got tea?" Li called out.

"Yes -- Jasmine and Assam. Top cupboard on the left, behind the jar of ten-yen coins."

"Got it."

Wendy and I, being of little faith, had resigned ourselves to no dinner, when Li came back bearing a steaming plate of thin, light golden pancakes and a pot of jasmine tea. Each pancake was as light and airy as puff pastry, and deliciously savory. Some were onion flavored, some were garlic, and the rest were glazed with sesame oil. I've eaten some good meals in my time, but I still remember those pancakes with awe and longing. I lost track of Li after I left Sendai, but I have never forgotten him -- or whoever he eventually married. Lucky, lucky, lucky Mrs Li: my kitchen was cleaner when he was finished with it than it had been to begin with.

So the other night, I did a Li. I sauteed the onion and pepper, mixed it into the leftover spaghetti, and tossed the whole thing together with chopped up lunch meat. The sour milk and mashed potatoes got made into savory pancakes with the pesto, so we even had an appetizer. The cooking apples got baked with cinnamon, so we would have had dessert, but my kids refused to eat them because they weren't sweet enough. Still I didn't throw them away: they went into applesauce the next day.

But that's another story.

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Saturday, 1 December 2007

Minding Details

The other day, my youngest came slouching into our living room and turned on her music full blast. System of the Down, volume 25. The clock on the mantlepiece started shaking; candlesticks and bric-a-brac started tap-dancing near the edge of the shelf.

"Did you finish the dishes?" I shouted over the cacophony. When she still couldn't hear me, I rushed over to the sound system and turned it down.

Needless to say, my kid wasn't thrilled with my reaction to her music. She and her sister think I'm too pitiful for words, wanting to hear music instead of absorbing it through every cell of my body.

"Did you finish the dishes?" I asked again, and my daughter nodded.

"Every single one?"

"Yes!" she snorted, looking peeved.

"Including the ones scattered around the room, on the table, say, or stacked up where they shouldn't be, on the Welsh dresser?"

"Mmm."

"What does Mmm mean?"

"Mom! I've done them! Okay?"

Twenty minutes later, I happened to go into the kitchen and found all the stuff she'd missed: half a dozen tea mugs, several coffee cups, plates, the cat dish, a baking tin and an array of cutlery. "I didn't see them!" she wailed, when queried. "It's not like I can see everything!"

Bear in mind that my youngest used to be one of those kids with a real eye for detail; the kind who could spot a missing whisker on the cat. Who knew right down to the last Snickers bar how many Halloween treats she had in the cupboard; a kid for whom What's wrong with this picture? was almost a joke. As long as she was paying attention, this kid had the sharpest eyes in town. Lately, though, an elephant could walk right past her and she'd never spot it.

The other day, I made her lunch and left a note for her homeroom teacher on the table. "Your lunch is on the table!" I bellowed upstairs to her.

"Okay!" came her reply.

"And don't forget your note -- that's on the table too!"

"Got it, Mom."

I went back to my chores, but when I next went into the kitchen, lunch and note were still on the table. The kid, of course, was long gone.

There are times when my youngest's lack of attention drives me insane. It makes me feel as though we are oceans apart when I ask her to bring me something which, although it is right in front of her, she cannot see. Or when she walks into a room and pronounces it tidy, failing to spot the newspaper on the floor, the laundry draped over furniture, the half dozen mugs peeking out of every other corner. There are times I really despair; times I wonder how I ended up with a kid like this.

Then the other day, I heard her snort in disgust. "This is so stupid!" she roared. "I can't believe how stupid this is!"

"What?"

"Someone's got an apostrophe in wars here," she wailed. "But it's not possessive! It's not a contraction!"

I could hardly stop smiling.

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Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Middle-Aged Woman's 'Parking First'

Laugh if you will, this actually happened a year ago, and I'm still pretty proud. I sent it to the local paper, but they must have had a lot of juicy stuff that week because it never got printed. Any Californian will tell you that the first paragraph alone contains a Guinness-Book-of-World-Records-standard shocker: a middle-aged native Californian who has just gotten her driver's license isn't something you happen to find every day. In truth, a reporter did not interview me, but everything else happened just the way I've written it. Sadly, I still haven't managed to further my goals, but I never stop trying.

Ms Mary Witzl, a middle-aged native Californian and driver’s license holder of some four months, successfully parked her car in the public car park in the middle of Loch Maben’s High Street this morning at 9:48 A.M., just before the arrival of the first bus to Glasgow. Ms Witzl, who was seeing off an old friend from university, was particularly pleased with her efforts, as she managed to park her car between two cars, both of which were correctly parked.

Bystanders were amazed to note that both Ms Witzl and her passenger were able to exit the car through their respective doors, with absolutely no risk of a dent to Ms Witzl’s car or the other two vehicles, even though both doors were opened to their fullest. Several witnesses were present, though sadly none had cameras, so no photographs were taken.

“I’m feeling very pleased and proud,” Ms Witzl said. “We’d been worried because there didn’t seem to be any places free. Someone was right on my tail and all of a sudden I spotted an empty space. Up until today, I’ve had to pass by similar empty spaces and drive around the car park a dozen times until two adjoining spaces became vacant, but we were pressed for time and I decided to go for it. I just checked my mirror one last time, flicked on my left indicator and parked – just like that! And the best part is, I did it all in one go!”

“I’ve been doing a lot of parallel parking recently,” Ms Witzl told reporters, “and my family and quite a few of our neighbours have been concerned because I haven’t made much progress. But after this, I’m not going to give up. In fact, I might even try parallel parking between two cars. Maybe even uphill.”

Neither Ms Witzl’s driving instructor nor her husband could be reached for comment.

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Saturday, 24 November 2007

The Dime in the Cement

I like to think I have a pretty impressive long-term memory.

Mercifully, my teens went by in a dizzy blur, but much of my toddlerhood and early childhood is with me still.

I can remember standing in the kitchen, watching my father fiddling around at the stove, trying to make scrambled eggs in a skillet my mother never used. He was wearing a pale blue terrycloth bathrobe and he was terribly crabby; the scrambled eggs he made were watery and raggedy, and my sister and I refused to eat them and he got cross. Not long after, my mother came into the room with a blue blanket and something white sticking out of the top: my baby sister's cotton-candy, eiderdown hair. I was just over a year old.

I can remember the rows of books in book cases, the chipped varnish on the wood, the thin film of dust on top of the shabby books with their peeling bindings; the sharpness of the grass in our front yard, the yearning I had for the New York subway that my older sister insisted ran directly under our sleepy, dusty Southern Californian street.

I remember walking home from school when I was in kindergarten: I saw a small boy try to hit a cat with a hoe; the cat gave the boy a good raking with its claws and I felt like cheering as the boy ran bawling into his house.

Half a dozen houses down from us, there was a house with a bright red mailbox out in front: the mailbox appeared to be supported by a large, thick, curving chain. I could never figure this out: it appeared so counterintuitive that I would stand and stare in awe every time I passed the mailbox. One day, my older sister showed me that the mailbox support, though cleverly constructed to look like a chain, was actually a lot of fused bits. I pretended that this wasn't the case: I would still stare at the chain every time I passed and tell myself that it was standing up all of its own accord, a regular phenomenon.

There was a dime imbedded in the concrete of our cousins' patio next door; my sisters and I were driven near to distraction trying to get it out and would lie awake at night concocting plots on how best to do this. One night I remember fearing that we might actually do it: we would manage to prise the dime out of the cement, spend it on something extravagant like a large Hershey's chocolate bar with almonds -- and then what? After we had eaten the chocolate, the dime would be gone: all that would be left would be a ragged hole in an endless expanse of ugly grey concrete. Lying there in the dark next to my still-scheming sister, I was seized with the hope that we would never, ever manage to get that dime out of its concrete bed and lose the wonderful promise of a treasure to come.

Many decades later, on a rare trip back to our old neighborhood in LaPuente, my younger sister and I saw the mailbox on its improbable chain support, our old house -- looking very much the same -- and the bunch of low shrubs under which the New York subway had once, I had been assured, rumbled and rushed to exotic, sophisticated destinations I could barely imagine.

We got out of the car and walked around the neighborhood, but we didn't want to bother the new owners; we never checked to see if the dime was still in the cement.

I'm so glad I don't know whether it's still there or not. In my mind, it is.

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Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Scotch Moss

I've been out raking our lawn, and I see that the moss is back.

Two years ago, I made a point of getting rid of it. I won't use moss killer; my strategy is to use brute force, repeating this as often as possible until the weeds or moss or whatever green thing I'm pitting myself against is finally forced to give up. Of course, most green things never do give up; usually I am what gives up -- and out. Still, two years ago, I went out there armed with rake and intent, and I expended great energy. I went over every square centimeter of our little patch of grass out in front (our garden is, weirdly enough, divided into several different segments), and I raked out every single smidgen of moss until hardly any was left. In fact, after I did this, hardly anything was left: our lawn, I quickly learned, was over 75% moss. For the next several weeks, I stared out at the great brown patches and it just looked awful. Finally, I went out and dug up as much of the bare naked ground as I could, then I reseeded it. The robins were thrilled: I'd made their worm-finding a lot easier. The cat was thrilled too: more robins to try and catch, plus a whole new toilet space had been created for her.

I stuck bamboo poles here and there to keep the cat out; she sashayed right past them. My only consolation was that she did manage to scare away some of the £$&%*@ing birds that ate up half of my seed. The grass, when it grew in, was a pitiful thing. The moss, when it grew back in, was strong and vigorous.

I'm not sure when it clicked, but at some point it did: Moss is my friend. Not only is it wonderful, springy stuff that is pleasant to walk on, but it is pretty: you can only tell that it isn't grass when you accidentally rake some of it up with your autumn leaves, especially if your vision doesn't happen to be 100% anymore, which mine certainly isn't. It offers a comfortable padding for those with arthritic joints, myself included, and is a natural thing that costs you nothing. Perfect, really.

It is also something that I longed for as a child. When did I forget that?

When I was nine years old, I went with my father and sisters to the local county fair. Usually, I found county fairs tiresome events with boring displays, too many people, and far too much heat. Invariably my father would get caught up in some riveting conversation about avocadoes, citrus grafting and irrigation techniques, and I would stand there in the sun bored out of my mind, but on this occasion I was fascinated by a display of lawn turfs and groundcovers. There were little patches of individual turfs with labels explaining what they were and how they should be cared for. My absolute favorite was something called Scotch moss. It was a rich, verdant lime green, soft and springy to the touch (speaking of touch, you weren't supposed to, but as soon as the lady's back was turned I stuck out a greedy finger and fairly gasped at the luxuriant texture of it, the delicious coolness).

Please can we get some for our lawn, daddy? Pleeaasse! I whined, as soon as I was able to drag my father away from his fascinating discussion of the merits of different fertilizers and show him the turf and groundcover displays. He and the turf lady smiled indulgently. This one isn't practical for Southern California, the lady told me. You'd have to plant it in a shady area and water it non-stop and it would still probably die. My father echoed her sentiments, but it took him at least twenty minutes to drag me away from the display.

Once home, I stood in front of our house and balefully regarded our front yard, hating the parched, bedraggled look of it. I pictured Scotch moss growing abundantly, a delicious carpet of moist, plush green under my bare feet. What we had instead was grass that had to be watered all the time and still looked pretty pathetic.

Amazing, isn't it? For a while there, with a whole garden of the stuff I was raking it up like nobody's business.

Catch me ever doing that again.

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Saturday, 17 November 2007

Facing The Music

On Wednesday, my husband and I, being of sound mind and body, took our kids to see their favorite Visual K thrash rock / heavy metal band, Dir En Grey, in Sheffield. Dir En Grey performed in the U.K. last year and our eldest was in a sweat to travel down to London to see them, but we ruined her life by nixing this plan. This time, though, one of the clubs they were to appear at was within spitting distance, in Sheffield, and the idea that they might go back to Japan and not tour again for perhaps a year was too much for our besotted girls to bear. To make a long story short, we permitted them to go. The catch was that we would come with them -- we would even drive them there.

The things you do for your kids.

What is Visual K? You may well ask. I wish I could tell you. Suffice it to say that Visual K is a Japanese fashion trend largely represented by men who dress like women and women who dress like men who dress like women. No, I'm not making this up. Think essentially humorless Japanese Eddie Izzards who do music. Very loud music. Think Linkin Park but far noisier and showier, with clothes that are more stylistic and girlie. But don't take my word for it, get a load of this neat little graphic I got from www.id-japan.co.jp/mask/ images/dir-myaku.jpg:


Am I lying? Exaggerating? No. I am honor bound to inform you that when we saw them, they had toned this down considerably and appeared in jeans and tee shirts. But you get the idea.

It was a four-hour trip and we hit Sheffield during rush hour. Once we arrived at the venue, we stood in line over 45 minutes, shivering as we breathed in cigarette smoke and listened to the most appalling geek-speak from a young man with a far-too-attentive girlfriend who really should have known better. (And on the off chance she ever happens to read this, my dear, we thought that what you had to say was infinitely more interesting, and why in the world did you let him rattle on so?) We were repeatedly enjoined to Move back, move back! by a bossy young woman with multiple piercings and a voice that could have cut metal, then after our bags were searched, we were allowed into a large, drafty building stuffed full of colorfully dressed kids. We felt old, awkward, and as out of place as a gigolo at a child's birthday party. For our two girls, in a fever pitch of excitement, heavily groomed, hair-straightened, combat-booted and mini-skirted, it was Shangri-La.

I've forgotten the name of the opening band, and I wouldn't mention it here even if I hadn't. They were just awful. No matter how hard I tried, I could see no redeeming features: a handful of ill-favored young men who will surely develop serious problems with their vocal cords if only they live long enough -- which seemed doubtful. The sound was so loud you couldn't tell how well they could play or sing, every single one of them brought to mind the Aryan Nation, and all of them were given to posturing and stomping about on stage in an uncoordinated and ungainly manner that would have been funny if it hadn't been so acutely embarrassing. The one touching thing about their performance was the way the lead singer thanked Dir En Grey for inviting them just as they were leaving the stage. "We fookin' love you guys!" he cried passionately, and as I am a sucker for grateful youths who have the good manners to say 'thank you,' something inside me went Awww!

Then Dir En Grey came on.

Bear in mind that on their genre is mainly known for displaying the ponciest looking Nancy-boys you have ever seen: a highly made-up, hyper-groomed, exfoliated bunch of cross-dressing posers that I wouldn't have looked at twice in my salad days. Also bear in mind the fact that I am not all that keen on heavy metal, and the whole Visual K appeal sails right over my head. But the minute they started up, one thing was certain: Dir En Grey are damn good.

Their screaming, screeching blast-of-noise like a thousand donkeys dying in a lumber mill actually had a melody much of the time. Their drummer could drum, their lead singer could sing, their guitarists played the hell out of their guitars. And while none of them might have attracted my fancy way back when, once they got going, their tall, willowy bass guitarist -- well, he took my heart entirely. I just wish that he had taken his shirt off in the height of the performance rather than the pint-sized bandy-legged lead singer -- who incidentally slashed himself across the ribcage and drew (my daughters insisted) real blood. Personally, I thought his blood looked a lot like food coloring and it didn't seem to coagulate either, but maybe that was because he was sweating so freely.

Yes, they were good, but after fifteen minutes my husband and I had had enough. I was using first-class ear plugs but still longed to cover my ears, and I couldn't help reflecting on my own magnaminity: hell, I couldn't even get my parents to listen to the Beatles! Selfishly, part of me was hoping Dir En Grey wouldn't give more than one encore, but they were generous, to the obvious joy of the crowds -- and our rapturous daughters.

Finally, it was over, though, and the stars bent down to wave to their fans, smiling in a slightly bemused way as though they were delighted, but surprised, by the adoring hordes. They began to throw their drumsticks and guitar picks to the crowd, also spraying everyone with the remaining water in their bottles. I have been assured that this is a tamer version of what has happened in the past and I was heartily grateful that they toned this act down: I have quite enough laundry as it is. My eldest had managed to retrieve a guitar pick -- obviously used, to her endless delight -- and my youngest insisted that the tall willowy bass guitarist had looked in her direction a time or two. Clearly, we both have the same tastes in men.

My daughters happily told us about the obnoxious blonde who had pushed and clawed them away from the stage, and the beautiful Chinese fan who had screamed her head off with them. "How did you know she was Chinese?" I couldn't help but ask.

The eldest gave me a scornful look. "Duh. She was speaking Chinese."

All in all, it was a night to remember. A happy, cosmopolitan bunch of young people wildly entertained by a hard-working band that did nothing worse than moisten clothes and ruin everyone's hearing. My daughters are now eagerly discussing the chances of Rammstein, a German heavy metal group, in case you didn't know, coming to the U.K. to perform.

Is it too much to hope for, I wonder, that in another 65 years my great-grandchildren may be passionate fans of Iraqi musicians?

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Monday, 12 November 2007

Miss Personality

Our eldest is what they call an Alpha type. This is a nice way of saying she's a bossy little so-and-so with a penchant for ordering others around.

When I was her age, I was unassertive and all too easily cowed. I would like to think that I was not the type who is easy to influence, but the awful truth is that I was so meek and shy, I probably would have been a follower if anyone had given me half the chance. No one did. I was so timid, insecure and slavishly humble that most of the time no one even knew I was there. I was easily offended and hyper-sensitive, and I might as well have worn a big placard on my back inviting bullies to come and give me grief.

I look at my eldest and am awed by her confidence. I was fully conscious when she was born; I saw them clamp the same bracelet I wore on her wrist and ankle. She looks just like my mother and she has my legs and thick, bushy hair. In short, I know she's mine: no one mixed her up with anyone else's baby. But in personality we are so different that I can only gaze at her in wonder -- and hopeless longing. I wish I'd had half her self-assurance.

When she was a toddler, she led her class at the nursery school, quickly monopolizing attention and making sure that she ran the show. At first, we thought she was merely capitalizing on being the odd man out -- the only Caucasian child in the entire school. But the teachers assured us it wasn't this. "Your child is a natural leader," one of them remarked. "When there's a fire drill, she helps us organize the others." Two years later, another teacher said bemusedly, "Your daughter even bosses us teachers around." I saw her in action once when I had come to collect her. There was a new teacher who was still unfamiliar with the protocol for putting away the bedding after naptime. I caught my daughter imperiously telling this woman exactly how it should be done and I didn't know whether to be proud or ashamed. Frankly, I was a little of both.

When she was four, we worried that she might be bullied, but her teachers laughed this notion to scorn. "She doesn't have much humility, but she's got a tough core," one pointed out. "And she knows how to stand up for herself, so you don't have to worry about that." Although our child's obvious lack of humility was mortifying, my husband and I were greatly reassured.

When she was around six, she suddenly realized that she was a big fish in a small pond. Her class was now old enough to go on field trips and my child quickly learned that although in her own school she reigned as queen, outside of our own neighborhood she was simply a foreigner. This took her down a peg or two and it was heartbreaking to see: when the others came back from field trips they were still happy and excited, whereas my daughter was obviously shell-shocked and reflective. "People cat-called her and pulled her hair," one teacher sadly reported. "And the children from the other schools talked about her in Japanese. They ran away when she tried to talk to them."

The transition from nursery school to elementary school was relatively painless, and during her first year our daughter did well. The fact that she was a head taller than even some of the children a year older didn't faze her in the slightest. On her first day of school, she proudly announced that she was the tallest and strongest girl: she could pick up every boy in her class. Better yet, she crowed, only one of them could pick her up. All I could do was stare at her in wonder. I had been the tallest girl in my class too, and this had mortified me no end. What I had seen as a humiliating affliction, she saw as a natural advantage.

During her second year, things started getting harder. Academically, there was little to worry about. Like most children in Japan, my daughter had learned to read the basic Japanese syllabary in nursery school, and she did well at picking up the more complicated Chinese characters. Socially, though, she was beginning to lose ground. There were other Alpha types, especially among the girls, and they vigorously competed with her for the position of class leader. Moreover, only a few of the children from her nursery school were her classmates, and those who had not known her from babyhood saw her as a foreigner rather than one of the gang. She had her work cut out for her learning to cope with those who bullied her and treated her as different. She became a little withdrawn and less gregarious.

Most of the time she kept all of this to herself. Like a lot of children who grow up in a foreign culture, she identified strongly with her peers and saw her parents as the true foreigners. "Don't say anything," my blonde-haired blue-eyed child used to hiss at me, "Or they'll know you're a foreigner." Gradually, the awful truth dawned: not only were we her parents foreigners, but she was one as well. My husband and I began to worry that she lacked the skills to cope with bullies and the children who shut her out, that her natural confidence and resourcefulness might never recover.

Then one day when I was walking her home from school, she started talking about all of these issues. Clearly she was being tormented by one boy in particular, a bully by the name of Hiroshi, and I was horrified. "He calls me gaijin!" she exclaimed indignantly. "And he claims I look funny!"

Wanting to offer her support and inspiration, I began a long-winded and impassioned story about Dr Martin Luther King, about the children in Arkansas who had been racially taunted and bullied by both children and adults and who'd had to run a gauntlet just to get to school every day. My daughter listened politely, then interrupted. "It's okay, Mom. I know how to take care of Hiroshi!"

Amazed, I stared back at her. "You do?"

She nodded eagerly. "See, no one is supposed to call me gaijin. But I don't want to be a tattle-tale, so I just pretend I can't hear him. That irritates him and he gets louder and louder until he's actually shouting. And then the teachers hear him yelling gaijin and he really gets it." She smiled happily. "He's not all that smart, so he hasn't figured it out yet."

I decided to save my lecture for later. I knew her teacher was right: what my child lacked in humility she more than made up for in confidence. She really didn't need my help at all.

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Thursday, 8 November 2007

Girls And Boys and Boys and Girls

The other day my youngest reported that she had talked to a boy in her class on the way home from school. "He's really nice," she burbled. "Not like a boy at all."

This sort of comment from her always amazes me. I'm not given to kneejerk anti-male statements. I've almost never indulged in the Women are smart, men are stupid cracks that some women are prone to make, and I have always tried to treat the whole gender issue as fairly and reasonably as possible. I make a big fuss about how happy I am to have daughters, but I know that if I'd had sons I'd have loved them as tenderly and deeply as I love my girls. A lot of the boys in our neighborhood strike me as being pleasant, and I've always encouraged my daughters to make friends with boys and girls. And yet they both have this Ewww, boys! attitude. Why?

I am convinced there is a natural antipathy to boys, particularly among girls who have grown up without brothers, and always when girls sense they are being treated as second class citizens. I was one of three girls myself, and my sisters and I feared and loathed boys beyond reason -- even, at times, our two cousins who lived next door. We had learned several things by the time we entered elementary school:

1) Boys were mean. They tended to tease animals and others mercilessly.

2) Boys generally got away with it. I used to grind my teeth in anger and frustration when I heard my aunt's indulgent "Boys will be boys" response to some broken toy or other gross insult. My cousins' grinning Nyah, nyah, nyah hardly helped.

3) Boys were greedy and never shared. They were also, on occasion, served more food. Because they were boys.

4) Boys made fun of things we held dear. Our dolls and stuffed animals were scorned and savaged. Cute clothes we prized were scoffed and ruined when they kicked mud at us.

5) Boys tried to hold us back. We couldn't climb into their tree houses because we were girls. They wouldn't let us play in their games, and they mocked ours when we started them. Infuriatingly, though, they often tried to poach on what they viewed as our territory. I'll never forget a smug neighbor telling me that he had made brownies. That he might grow up to be a cook some day, better than any woman. Because as everyone knew, men were the most famous chefs. Ooh, that one rankled.

Once, on my way back from school, a boy stopped me. "Hold out your hand," he demanded imperiously.

I was too smart for that, of course, and refused to do this. "You'll hurt me."

"I will not!" the boy protested.

"Promise!" I said, and the boy promised.

Once he'd made that promise, I was fine. I knew that if you broke a promise, God saw. Looking down from heaven, God would frown and smite anyone who broke his word. In perfect trust, I extended my hand. The boy seized it in his own grubby paw.

Starting with my thumb, the boy began to count, working his way down my fingers: "Davey -- Crockett -- never -- said -- "

"Ouch!" I screamed, as the boy bent my pinky all the way back.

Well pleased, the little shit ran off laughing. Trivial though this incident might seem, it made a huge impression on me: Don't trust boys.

I could end here, in which case you would think that our hatred of boys wasn't really beyond reason; plenty of them obviously earned it. But to this day, I remember another incident with equal clarity.

I was perhaps seven years old, my older sister ten and my younger sister just six. We were walking along a dusty road, on our way back from the store with a jar of pickles we had been sent to buy. A boy about my older sister's age stopped us.

"Hello," he said. We nodded and eyed him warily.

"Want some candy?" the boy asked.

My sisters and I traded glances. We knew all about the candy ruse, but this boy was a boy, after all -- not an adult with a car.

"What kind?" my older sister bravely asked.

The boy was carrying a paper sack we viewed with deep suspicion. What might it have inside? A fake cockroach like our cousins had? Rubber chocolates? A plastic snake?

Reaching into the bag, the boy extracted three mint patties. Not the small kind you sometimes get after a meal at restaurants, but great, huge patties as big around as a teacup. Our jaws dropped.

"Thank you," my older sister breathed. My younger sister and I chorused our own thanks, still wary, and the boy went on his way.

"Do you think they're poison?" my little sister whispered.

My older sister shook her head. "They're wrapped too well," she pointed out.

We saw that this was true: the patties were obviously still perfectly sealed. We unwrapped them and began to eat. They were delicious, and we didn't drop dead.

Five minutes later, as we licked the candy off our lips and carefully folded up the wrappers and tucked them into our pockets, my older sister shook her head in amazement. "I guess some boys are good," she said.

Honestly, it was a revelation. And she was absolutely right.

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Thursday, 1 November 2007

The Pain Of Production

First of all, I have to make a confession: given half the chance, I tend to eavesdrop.

I put this down to my fascination with conversations and my hobby of people-watching. I don't eavesdrop in a mean-spirited or gossipy way; I don't take any information I may have gleaned and spread it around the town. I listen for accents and dialect, clever uses of language, and the politics of interaction. I try to guess at hidden subtexts and past histories, the interrelationships, the degree of affection or respect among interlocutors. And once in a while, when I am out with friends myself, I spot others that I'm certain are eavesdroppers at work. Needless to say, I do not begrudge them; I only hope they're as entertained and enlightened by the conversations I'm involved in as I've been by the ones I've stealthily monitored. As long as they obey the Eavesdroppers' Code of Honor like I do (in essence, 'Do it discretely and courteously and never even dream of joining in unless invited'), as far as I'm concerned they are more than welcome to indulge in their hobby.

Not long ago, I overheard a woman in a coffee shop compare getting a book published to the agony of labor. I too have written a book I am hoping to publish and like other would-be published writers I have learned that waiting is very much part of the deal. Up until I heard the labor comparison I'd been mentally smiling and nodding to almost everything I heard this woman say. But comparing the pains of labor to the pains of getting published? Oh no. Nooooo.

"You forget the pain," a friend of mine once commented, by way of explaining why she'd had four babies. Do you? I sure as hell never did, and I can't even remember where I put my coat. Yes, I know the woman was just speaking figuratively, but I still won't allow it: the pain of childbirth is on a rarefied plane of its own and it cannot be referred to so lightly. The walls have ears, after all, and who knows what impressionable young women may be out there listening?

For any women out there who have published, but have yet to reproduce, please believe me: going through labor hurts more than the process of getting something published. I would not want you to go into childbirth imagining a lot of frenzied, late night head-scratching, long, tedious conversations, and ages and ages of waiting. There will be waiting, there may well be lots of frenzied late night stuff, but that's pretty much where the similarity between producing a baby and producing a book stops, though I can easily imagine that the sense of pride and achievement is a pretty close match.

But the comparison that really works is going through pregnancy and writing a book. There are real similarities here -- or at least I have found that to be the case. Consider the following:

1) You start off starry-eyed, not really knowing what you're getting into. It can't be all that hard since so many other people have done it you tell yourself smugly.

2) You can easily become cloistered, and hence slovenly in your personal grooming.

3) You are in danger of becoming a bore; of answering every kindly meant And how are you doing today? with a tiresomely detailed response, forgetting that the world around you is not desirous of a blow-by-blow description of every tiny new development.

4) Housework becomes all too easy to neglect.

5) You are dependent on the expertise of others to help you achieve your goal. Only those with uncommon fortitude can go through this entirely on their own.

6) You start losing sleep at night wondering if everything will turn out okay.

7) You know that there are no guarantees that everything will turn out okay, but what can you do?

8) The further along you go, the more impossible it is to contemplate termination.

9) You wonder why you went down this road in the first place. To leave something of yourself behind? To show the world what you can do? Because in a weak moment you gave in? Because your friends and family kept telling you it was a great thing to do?

Sitting there in the coffee shop, I thought all these things and more, but of course I kept it all to myself. It's not always easy, but the Eavesdroppers' Code of Honor must always be rigorously observed.

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Sunday, 28 October 2007

Loving The Way You Hate It

I once met a man who hated music. Seriously, in both senses of the word: he really and truly hated it, and he hated it with a real passion.

His name was Masaaki and he was an intermediate student of mine, an engineer. I found out this interesting fact about him when I gave the class a questionnaire on Likes and Dislikes. We were covering food, hobbies, school subjects and general interests, and at first I thought he was just being lazy when I overheard him stating categorically that he did not like music -- any music. I sidled up to his table, certain that he had simply not known how to express himself adequately. Everybody likes some kind of music, after all, whether it's opera or the blues or swing or folk or soul.

"Come on, Masaaki," I said, "you don't mean that you dislike all music.

He gave me a look. "I do mean that."

"But not all music, right?"

"All music," he said emphatically.

"Even classical?" I asked, amazed.

"Hate it."

"Jazz?" Jazz is hugely popular in Japan.

Masaaki curled his lip and rolled his eyes.

"What about Japanese stuff? Enka, for instance, or minyo?

"I can't stand them."

I sat down in the chair opposite him and the partner he was paired with. I should have been walking around the class, prompting a shy student here, coaxing a nervous student there, but to hell with the rest of the class: this was too damned interesting. "Really?" I queried, incredulous.

He crossed his arms over his chest and gave me a very hard look. "Really. Every kind of music. Every single kind."

He was wearing a wedding ring, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for his wife. What a dismal existence, living with a man who hated all music!

"How about your wife?" I blurted out, unable to control my curiosity.

He shot me a look of pure triumph. "She hates it too! That was the first question I asked her when we first met on our omiai. I said, What kind of music do you like? and her answer was I do not really care so much for music. And so I knew she was the girl for me!"

Well, that clinched it: He must really hate music if he'd chosen a mate on that basis. I had my doubts about his wife, though; two people who really hated music was really stretching it. I couldn't help thinking that he'd merely influenced a person who did not have strong musical tastes rather than managing to find someone identical to himself. Or, on a longshot, she was just faking it to please him. I left the class marveling that anyone could really and truly hate all music. I can safely say that the only kind of music I loathe is muzak. Not liking music just seemed wrong.

And then at a party some months back, a man asked me a question that made me cringe: "What's your favorite baseball team?" He'd lived in America for over six years and had become very fond of baseball.

I cleared my throat. "Actually, I'm not really into baseball."

"Oh, come on! All Americans are!"

"Yes, but I'm not."

"Oh come on -- of course you are!"

"No, really. I was never any good at it in school." Talk about an understatement.

"Yes, but I mean teams. Which team would you root for?"

I gave him a hard look. "I wouldn't root for any teams. Ever. I really don't like baseball."

"Never!"

His insistence was opening a floodgate of emotion in me that I was powerless to control. "I loathe it. I can't stand it. I wouldn't go to a baseball game if you gave me a free ticket, complimentary hotdogs, and all the beer I could drink. It is the most boring, stupid waste of time I can think of."

"Wow," said the man. "What kind of sports do you like?"

I sighed. "None," I had to admit.

Mercifully, the man wasn't as persistent as he could have been: he stopped after basketball, soccer, and tennis. "Imagine someone hating sports," he said in bemusement, shaking his head. I felt positively like a pariah.

Me and poor old Masaaki.

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Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Non-Sleeping Beauties

Both of my kids are medical anomalies: they don't sleep.

When the eldest was a newborn, I remember looking at the baby book I had and thinking I must have made a mistake. "Most newborns sleep as many as sixteen hours per day," the book said, "but they don't sleep all of those hours at the same time." I read and reread this. Sixteen hours? No matter how addle-brained I was from my own lack of sleep, no matter how crappy my math skills, the hours weren't adding up. Our baby never managed more than twelve. In fact, ten was about her average.

The book was right about one thing, though: she didn't sleep all of those hours at the same time. I spent the first six months of her life looking like I'd come right off the cast of Night of the Living Dead.

"In fact," the book went on to say, "most newborns sleep for relatively short periods at a time." This was certainly true: ours took 30- to 40-minute cat-naps, precisely the period of time it takes me to fall asleep. And finally: "Some babies will start sleeping through the night at six weeks. Others will wake up two to three times per night until they are at least twelve months of age or more." Oh, how I clung to that phrase sleeping through the night at six weeks. As for the other possibility, I couldn't even bear to think about it.

In fact, our eldest was six months old before she ever once slept through the night -- not bad as an average, we were told -- but unfortunately 'sleeping through the night' for her amounted to about five hours of sleep, tops.

"It'll get better," her pediatrician assured us. "Wait and see: she'll settle down." And amazingly enough, she did. She still didn't sleep anywhere close to the normal amount of time for an infant, but we worked out a nap routine and bedtime schedule that were pretty much carved in stone. For two wonderful years, everything was fantastic and my husband and I often got as much as five hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.

Then we went and had another kid and it all went down the drain.

Bedtimes were no longer rigidly established. If the eldest wasn't waking up the newborn, the newborn was waking her up. Naps went right out the window. Our nights became downright surreal.

Overnight guests with their own infants were amazed when they saw how little ours slept. "Does that always happen?" they asked incredulously, as one of our wide-awake kids made her fifth curtain call, coming into the room where we were sitting and chatting. No one ever came out and said There but for the grace of God, but you could see it in their eyes. You could see a lot in my eyes too, but even more underneath.

One day, I brought up the subject of sleep with half a dozen of the other mothers I was friendly with at our daughters' nursery school in Japan. All of them swore that their kids were out like lights by eight o'clock. Until my kids' interesting condition was confirmed by long-suffering nursery school teachers, the other mothers all thought we were exaggerating. Once they knew we weren't, they were convinced we must be doing something wrong. Either the kids' bedroom was too hot, or it was too cold. Did we use a night light? Yes, sometimes. Well, we should stop doing that. I explained that when we had stopped, it didn't make a blind bit of difference. What time were we putting the kids to bed? Too early or too late? Were we helping the kids to wind down by offering them warm milk, baths, a bedtime ritual? Did we make sure to read to them every night? If you ever want a lot of gratuitous advice, acknowledging that you've got kids with sleep problems is a great way to get it. But we didn't mind: we took it all and gave every suggestion a shot. Frankly, we would have tried just about anything.

When my eldest was eight, she got stung by a jellyfish at the beach in Kamakura where we were on holiday. At the emergency clinic, the doctor advised me that he would give her a powerful sedative. "Will you be able to carry her home?" he wanted to know first. "Because this injection will really knock her out." I looked at him with interest. "Really?" "Oh, yes," he assured me. I told him that if it worked, I'd definitely come back for job lots of the stuff, and he laughed politely. "Seriously," he said, "she'll konk out on you, so be prepared."

It was six thirty in the evening as I walked my brave, well-bandaged child back to our guest house. She yakked excitedly all the way home. I got her dressed for bed, and she was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we told the others all about our adventure. We agreed that she could sleep with me just in case she keeled over from the injection. At three in the morning she was still going strong. Sighing, I put my pillow over my head and she continued to chatter for another hour. Finally, around four o'clock, she gave in to sleep.

I almost felt like going back to the doctor to get my money back, but really, it wasn't his fault. How was he to know he was coping with a bonafide medical anomaly?

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Monday, 22 October 2007

The Importance Of Being Cool

Anyone who has teenagers will tell you how important coolness is for them. Being cool is almost a raison d'etre for your average pre-teen or teen, and kids who are not cool might as well be in teenaged hell. I watch my two teenagers and ache for them as they grapple with the issue of coolness, because here is the sad truth:

I am not, and I have never been, cool.

This is the sort of thing I can write about quite casually now, but when I was their age, my terminal lack of coolness was no laughing matter. I spent hours of every day pondering coolness and how I might manage to get some for myself. I watched others who were undisputably cool and studied their moves, their fashion sense, their way of talking and their musical preferences. And I ached and yearned, but even as I made my feeble efforts towards coolness, I knew that it was not to be.

Often, I would try to analyze coolness, to figure out what it was made up of. Here are some of the elements that I isolated, and yet none of them in itself made a person cool:

1) Owning a motorcycle

2) Wearing a beard (for men)

3) Having long, straight, thin (as in not bushy) hair, or an Afro (for women)

4) Listening to the right music

5) Wearing cool clothes

6) Having cool parents

7) Studying or being involved in something cool

8) Being a Democrat rather than a Republican

9) Being a minority, preferably dark-skinned

10) Being from a foreign country, or speaking a foreign language

A co-worker once told me that he could spot people who had been cool as teenagers right away -- and those who had not. He claimed that the lack of confidence one acquired as an uncool teenager stuck like barnacles on a ship; that you could try to lose this, but you never really did. My first reaction to this was to run and hide, but when he commented that I must have been one of the cool kids, I knew his powers of perception were limited.

Once I left high school, my life picked up wonderfully. I was still not cool, but I had other things to think about, like making a living and graduating from college. Liberated from the awfulness of having to conform, I suddenly found a freedom I had never enjoyed as a teenager. I made friends with cool and uncool people alike, and quite often mixed them up. Somewhere along the way, the importance of being cool became one of those stupid things you remember about your adolescence, like bellbottom trousers or sideburns.

Now I watch my kids grapple with this issue and I feel helpless. I cannot help them with fashion sense, as I lack this. I cannot help them with music, as I merely play what I like and not what I think I should like. I am hopelessly nerdy, untrendy, and honestly, 95% of the time I don't give a sh*t.

So imagine my utter amazement when the other day, my youngest kid told me that her friends had voted me 'coolest parent.' I'm not kidding: almost a dozen of the kids in her class unanimously agreed that I was cool. I've made it, folks. I want to run right back to my high school and find all those people who used to diss me so I can rub this in their faces. Kids think I'm cool. Never mind that I'm not cool; people think I am, and that's all that matters.

So help me God, if I could put it on my C.V., I would. Actually, I'm thinking of doing it anyway.

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Friday, 19 October 2007

Folk and Bluegrass In Newcastle

I felt depressingly old on my very first trip to Newcastle this past Tuesday: the streets were filled with more teens and 20-somethings than I've seen in any one spot for quite some time. And I didn't just feel old, either; I felt like a real hick. We've been living in this little town in Southwest Scotland for six years now, and with a population of only 2,500 and a high street you can navigate in ten minutes flat even if you're arthritic, this town can't compete with the bright lights and glitz of Newcastle. We had to work hard to keep our mouths shut and our expressions neutral as we picked up our tickets at the Sage Gateshead, then walked across the Millenium Bridge towards the town.

My husband and I were in Newcastle to hear Richard Thompson and Diana Jones. He was pretty much there for Richard Thompson—my husband has been a fan for ages— and I was there for Diana Jones. I heard her for the first time on a cold, rainy night last year while I sat huddled in our car waiting for my daughter to finish a class. I have just about the most eclectic music tastes of anyone I know, and I've always liked country music, but Diana Jones is in a class all by herself. Someone wrote that she was the new Emmy Lou Harris, but that is no more true than saying Emmy Lou Harris is the old Diana Jones. Their music may be largely bluegrass, but their voices and styles are entirely different.

I sat in that car with tears running down my face. My mother was from the backwoods of Kentucky so I grew up hearing gospel songs and plaintive old ballads, and I had the eeriest feeling of being in the here-and-now but back in my own childhood, listening to my mother, magically transformed into someone with a low sweet voice like melted glass. I forgot all about being in a cold, damp car as I listened to that wonderful voice blending with fiddle, guitar and mandolin. When I got home, I told my husband. He's not a fan of country music, but he looked up Diana Jones and listened to a sample of her music. And he went right out and ordered her CD, 'My Remembrance of You.' That's how good she is: even my thrifty husband who loves heavy metal, who retches and groans when he hears Hank Williams and has to be forced to listen to selected songs from even the less hardcore country artists like Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash, actually went out and ordered the CD.We figured we'd never forgive ourselves if we didn't manage to go to the one concert that featured two singers we love.

The Sage Gateshead is a fantastic building that resembles a large tubular silver Christmas ornament artfully crumpled by a well-mannered giant. Once we got there, I didn’t feel so old all of a sudden: 80% of Richard Thompson’s fans were even older than us. Sitting there in the concert hall surrounded by the big kids -- I pictured them as seniors in high school back before I needed my first bra -- I had flashback after flashback, looking at all that hair, those beards, the tie-dye skirts and Birkenstocks. Then Diana Jones came out and started performing and I might as well have been a kid again. Sadly, she was only the opening act and her performance was over all too quickly.

Richard Thompson and his band were great too. He's a fantastic composer and musician, and his 'Vincent Black Lightning 1952' just has to be heard to be believed -- especially his guitar. He did two great curtain calls and his performance was absolutely first rate. But after the concert, my husband turned to me and said what I'd been thinking: “He was great. But I wish there'd been more of Diana Jones."

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Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Saving The World, One Piece Of Aluminum Foil At A Time

My blogging pal Kathie at the Housewife Cafe has challenged me to a dualing post. We both had parents with pat-rack sensibilities, and as I am certain that my parents were worse than hers, having lived through both the Depression and World War Two, I have accepted.

When I was younger, I would have blushed to tell anyone this, much less have published it in the public domain. But I am so far removed from it now that I see how genuinely comic it was. And more than that, I am proud of my parents. Sure, they embarrassed me to death at the time, but they never tried to keep up with the Jones; they never bought into consumerism or felt the need to shop until they dropped. George W's post-9-11 advice to the general public to go out and shop wouldn't have touched them. And thank God America didn't have to depend on my parents' purchasing power.

1) String. Whenever we received a package, the string was carefully removed, unknotted, and wound up into a ball. We were never without; we never had to buy any. Sure, you never found a bit that was the length you needed; inevitably, the piece you unraveled from the string-ball would be too long or short for your needs. When that happened, you cut or knotted until you had the right length.

2) Aluminum foil. We almost never bought this -- it was for rich people! But when we did have it, by God, did it get recycled. By the time we were finally finished with a piece, it was no longer shiny. Or rather, the shininess was not of a metallic nature.

3) Waxed paper. To my endless shame, my mother was the only mother who wrapped sandwiches in this. A little detail like that can cause a kid quite a few headaches. Everybody else's mother used baggies -- and each baggy was used only once. Waxed paper, though, is different! One piece can go on for weeks.

4) Clothes. When we were babies, my mother would, as a special treat, cover us with her Chicago-Manhattan-D.C. coat. This was purchased just after Pearl Harbor, when my mother lived in Chicago, and she wore the coat in Washington D.C. and Manhattan, where she also worked. The coat had a real aura of mystery and glamour to it: we pictured our middle-aged mother as a young, stylish woman, swanning around in this padded black woolen garment with its wonderful old buttons and silky, smooth lining. Decades later, I took this coat when I went to live in Manhattan, then Yokohama, Kyushu, Sendai, and Tokyo. Before I got married, my husband sent it to Thailand along with a length of woolen material and had the coat copied there for me. I still wear this, and I still have the original in a suitcase somewhere.

Shortly after my father died, I found the following items, perfectly preserved, in a suitcase in our garage: 1) his Navy uniform from World War II: hat, trousers -- the whole bit; 2) his letter sweater from when he played football for Burlingame High School, San Mateo -- in 1936. 3) old dresses of his mother, some of which dated back to 1904; 4) his father's old hats and belts.

My mother's worn-out housedresses and other old (as in virtually falling apart) clothes were torn into long strips, braided together, and fashioned into rugs. We also had a huge bag of rags called, imaginatively, The Rag Bag, from which dusters and useful scraps were often taken. Generally, though, this just grew to monstrous proportions and took up a lot of space.

5) Books. My father couldn't get rid of a textbook to save his soul. We had every plant pathology, organic chemistry, and propagation textbook my father ever owned, along with dusty stacks and teetering piles of manuals and periodicals on grafting, pollination, and avocado varieties. My father seldom consulted them.

We never bought books. We never had to. My parents had inherited books from my father's family: a complete set of Dickens, Kipling, and Shakespeare, along with a seriously well-read set of the Classics. I used to go to friends' houses and marvel at all the brand-new books without library markings, the paperback bestsellers, the handsome leather-bound books that were obviously never read. All of ours were old and miserable and falling apart.

6) Food. I don't remember my mother ever throwing leftovers out. I'm sure she did, but this happened so rarely that I really can't recall even one instance. We had a compost heap of worrying proportions; when my father had finished deseeding rotten avocados (which happened from time to time in his line of work), the stinking, heaving, worm-riddled remains were flung on the compost heap and one very unlucky kid had the job of turning the pile. This was not a popular chore.

I once knew a woman who was forced to live rough in New York; she claimed that the food that was thrown into dumpsters was often far better than what you could get in a soup kitchen. I give you my word that this poor woman would have starved if people like my parents were the only ones doing the discarding.

7) Appliances and Furniture: We had the same hideous kitchen table for seventeen years; our washing machine, my mother was proud of observing, lasted from 1951 to 1979, and our battered old Frigidaire finally succumbed after 18 years of solid duty. Our 1950-vintage Electrolux vacuum cleaner could have been featured in a museum. Oh, and we never got new furniture. Ever. Ditto for carpets and draperies.

8) Correspondence. I've got boxes of letters my mother exchanged with her sisters, my father, her friends from all over the world (including a Philippino man from Pampanga, two German medical students, a young Polish woman, fellow Christian Aiders from New York City, and half a dozen aunties from Kentucky). Some of these date back to the thirties and I know I ought to burn the lot, but could you do this? Well, maybe you could, but then you don't have my genetic background.

9) Jelly jars. These weren't really jelly jars -- not after we'd finished the jelly (which, of course, was always the cheapest type of the cheapest brand). They were glasses. Once our minister visited and my mother served him water in a proper glass I didn't know we had. I was amazed: I hadn't realized she could tell the difference.

10) Towels. This is really embarrassing, but here goes. In 1979, my parents were still using towels from his family. And my father's mother died in 1949. Can anyone top that? If so, will you please make this public?

"Use it up, wear it out; make it do, or do without" and "Is this trip necessary?" were slogans that we lived by. To some it might seem that my parents merely made a virtue of a necessity. We didn't have a lot of money, after all, and economizing was important. But it was more than that: even if they'd inherited a mint, I suspect they'd have lived like this. Happily. Recycling and making do were a game, a way to beat the odds, supplying them with a raison d'etre that was infinitely entertaining and worthwhile.

I'm completely different, thank God. I'm a Baby Boomer and although I don't live to shop, I do change my curtains from time to time and I've even been known to shell out for new furniture every blue moon.

Besides, my rag bag is only half as big as my mother's. And so's my compost heap. Oops -- heaps, that is: lucky us, we've got two.

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