Thursday, 31 May 2007

Then and Now

I've got a picture of my eldest, aged four months, sitting in her grandfather's arms. She is grinning up at him in a beguiling way, her face radiating perfect unstudied innocence. Her face is also just the tiniest bit dirty (I suspect that she is wearing part of her lunch on her cheeks and her grandfather has not realized this), and she is clapping her tiny hands, which look wet, as though she has been chewing on her fingers, and the clothes she is wearing are a mess. Her hair looks like it hasn't been brushed in the past twenty-four hours. In short, she is a rather slimy, ungroomed, mucky pup. But oh, what a beauty.

Fast forward sixteen years. My eldest is getting ready to go to work, a process that can take up to two hours, especially when there is anything like physics or chemistry homework to be done or it is her turn to do the dishes. Her thick, bushy hair has been ironed to an unnatural metallic smoothness, her beautiful eyebrows have been plucked to a ridiculously thin line. She has done things to her face that I wish she had not done (though I thank God that she has thus far restricted her piercings to her ear lobes), and her lips are glossy with fruity stuff that she seems compelled to refresh every thirty minutes. She is wearing clothes that make me want to run up to her and cover her in a burqua, and shoes that I cannot believe are comfortable. In short, she is a gussied-up, under-dressed over-groomed young thing. But oh, what a beauty.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Don't Try this One at Home, Kids

I'm not the first one who has said this, but it is still true: all marriages are mixed marriages.

While it is true that some marriages are more mixed than others, we all come from different countries and different cultures so to speak. Even if you marry the girl or boy next door and and you happen to be from the same ethnic background and class, educated at the same schools and raised in the same town, you are bound to find differences in your habits, lifestyles and expectations. All families are unique in their own special ways, and so are all individuals. When we're new in our relationships, we generally try to hide our weirdness, but once we are married it inevitably comes out.

I know that the term 'mixed marriage' is generally used to describe a marriage wherein the couple are of a different race, religion or nationality, but this is a relative term and a very flexible one, too. My mother was from the south and my father was from California: I would argue that theirs was a mixed marriage even though they were both more or less Caucasian. I am from the States and my husband is from Britain; again, despite the fact that our racial backgrounds are similar, ours is certainly a mixed marriage. When I was in graduate school, I knew a black American woman who was married to a man from Nigeria; never mind the fact that their racial background was roughly the same, they had one of the most mixed marriages I have ever seen, and I know they would agree. Ditto for my friend Caroline, a Japanese-American woman married to a Japanese man for over twenty-five years. There are no marriages that are not mixed; some are just higher up on the mixed scale than others.

In this day and age, when more than half of all marriages seem to end up in the gutter after less than ten years, I take my hat off to any couple who manage to stay together through the bloom of youth and past middle age. But when I meet a till- death-do-we-part couple from a very mixed marriage, I can only shake my head in awe. Like a dangerous magic trick performed by a skilled magician, the end result is there for all to see but the craft is hidden. How in the hell have they managed it?

A few years ago, our family got to know Edward and Marie, a couple in their mid seventies who had just celebrated their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary. Having noticed that Marie had a French accent, I asked her how long she had been speaking English.

"Fifty-three years," she told me.

"So you started learning English after you got married! Wow!"

"Yes, and don't think that wasn't tough! We used to have fights and I couldn't express myself. So I threw eggs at him! And he'd always duck, and I got stuck cleaning up the mess!"

When Marie and Edward got married, they did not share a language. Fifty-five years later, her English was still accented but virtually flawless, and Edward's French was good enough that he could translate into it from English. But however great an accomplishment their language learning arguably was, for me it was as nothing next to their fifty-four years of marriage. My husband and I have muddled through a couple of decades together, but the fact that Marie and Edward managed to stay married to each other so long in spite of their language differences ought to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.

"And I don't need to throw eggs at him anymore!" Marie told me proudly. "I can swear in English now!"

My friend Ivy from Hong Kong met her husband Toshio when she was twenty, and for both of them it was love at first sight. She was already divorced with a small daughter, and when she told her parents that Toshio had proposed and she had accepted, they were understandably appalled.

"Fool! You don't speak Japanese! He doesn't speak Chinese or English! This is madness!"

Back in Tokyo, Toshio's parents were even more disgusted with him. "She has a child! You cannot communicate! It will end in divorce, just wait and see!"

Thirty years later, they are still married, and you have never seen a happier couple. Toshio never managed to learn Cantonese, but Ivy's Japanese is fluent and colloquial.

Whenever I meet or hear of couples like that, I feel like warning my children: "Don't try that one at home, kids!"

Wednesday, 23 May 2007


I was the new teacher in the factory, and my students, a group of some thirty male engineers, were looking me up and down and making me feel even more nervous than I'd felt to begin with. Mr Sugimoto, a fussy, self-important little man who worked in the administration, stepped smartly up to the microphone to introduce me. I'd already decided that I didn't like him; he was an unctuous fellow with a condescending manner and poor English skills -- not that he knew it.

"Here she is, then," Mr Sugimoto began unceromoniously in Japanese, gesturing roughly in my direction. "Your new teacher. Her name's hard to pronounce, but maybe she'll help you by pronouncing it slowly. Foreigners' names! Ha, ha, ha!"

I began to feel even more nervous. His tone was worryingly disrespectful.

Mr Sugimoto wiped his eyes, still chuckling over my impossible foreign name. "Sorry she's not younger!" he announced, casting a sideways glance at me as though I were a side of pork he was casually inspecting. "I've looked at her resume and it says she's 30. Too bad! Next time we'll see if we can get one in her twenties!"

My jaw dropped. The bastard obviously didn't realize that I understood Japanese!

"She's not too bad looking I guess, but --" He suddenly stopped and frowned. "What?" he barked at a man sitting in the front row who had been watching my reaction and was nervously waving his hand in a frantic little 'Stop -- stop!' damage-control gesture.

"Um, Mr Sugimoto, I think she understands Japanese," the man half-whispered.

"Don't be silly, of course she doesn't!" He glanced over at me quickly, a furtive look in his eye. "Do-You-Understand-Japanese?" he asked in sentient-being-to- idiot tones.

I stared back at him, appalled. "I understand," I said frostily.

His reaction was so extreme it would have been funny if I hadn't been so irritated. He actually blanched right there in front of me. His face went a sickly color and his attitude did a nose dive from cocky and supercilious to slavishly apologetic. He actually bowed to me, and from that day on, Mr Sugimoto was kindly and respectful, and he watched his mouth around me. It was highly gratifying.

Two years later, I had a similar experience on yet another first-day-of-class.

"I can always tell the difference between Brits and Americans," boasted Mr Osaragi to a fellow classmate just before I took roll. "Usually it's their skin color." He gave me a long, speculative look. "Now her -- you can tell she's British by her skin color and her attitude."

The classmate made an appropriate noise, and Mr Osaragi went on.

"Very proper, see. Reserved." They both took a long look at me and I cringed. I was only reserved because it was the first day of class!

"Americans," Mr Osaragi continued, nailing himself right in, "they're all noise. Talk, talk, talk. The British? Very quiet. Like her."

I couldn't stand it any longer. Not only did I feel irked by Mr Osaragi's know-it-all attitude and his outlandish assumptions about Americans' skin color, I felt affronted for every single quiet, reserved American and noisy, boisterous Brit I happened to know.

"I'm American!" I blurted out. "I'm not British at all, I just work in a British school!"

Unlike Mr Sugimoto, Mr Osaragi never forgave me for understanding. Go figure.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Two Tiny Miracles

There aren't enough miracles around these days, so I thought I'd share these with you.


The note arrived three days ago in a white envelope. It was addressed to my husband and myself and in an unfamiliar hand. Nowadays, receiving anything by surface mail that isn't a bill, a political pitch, or a charity appeal is pretty amazing, and this one had me stumped. My husband opened it and began to read -- and his jaw dropped. I could barely contain my curiosity.

"What is it? Who's it from?"

"It's a thank you note," he said, a tone of hushed wonder in his voice. "From Sam."

Sam, I will have you know, is a twenty-one year old man we have both known since before he could use the toilet properly. He can now do that, plus he's graduated from high school, acne, and adolescent angst. Sam is in university and has a part-time job. He is tall and robust enough to pick up either my husband or myself. But what is more, we now know that HE CAN WRITE THANK YOU NOTES.

"Thank you for the fun present for my birthday," Sam wrote. "It was great seeing you at my party, and I hope you had as much fun as I did."

And get this:

1) The hand-writing was legible
2) There was humor in it
3) Sam's grammar and spelling were irreproachable

We're thinking of approaching the Smithsonian with Sam's note, because let's face it, this is no ordinary document. A thank-you note sent in the year 2007, by snail mail, written in pen, posted barely a month after our visit to this boy's family, the author of which has just turned twenty-one and, as I have mentioned, is a male. And I ought to point out that our gift to him while certainly 'fun,' was so cheap I blush to think of it.

With notes like that written by twenty-one year olds, there is hope for the world.


Our eldest has recently turned sixteen and is prone to all of the nonsense many teenagers succomb to: the unnecessary fiddling with near-perfect hair, acquisition of superfluous cosmetics, and a worrying clothes addiction. I am still wearing a jacket I bought for myself in Tokyo back in 1985, whereas she, whose last jacket was purchased barely a year ago, has been nagging us for a new one for the past two months.

I know that there aren't many people who can boast that they are still wearing a jacket 22 years after buying it, and I admit that I am an extreme case, but one year, in my humble opinion, is not long enough for a decent jacket to get old. So when I took the kid into town for a new birthday jacket, I felt like an idiot.

"Let's just try the charity shops first!" I wheedled.

She sulked, but finally gave in, and I laid down some basic rules. We would visit all five of my favorite charity shops and spend no longer than five minutes in each shop, adding up to a mere 25 minutes of her precious time wasted. Once I was satisfied that none of them had anything that would suit her, I was prepared to compromise and cover 50% of the cost of a new jacket, provided it was under a certain price. She didn't like this, of course, but acquiesced after realizing that it was the best deal she was going to get. I figured our chances of finding a jacket she liked at a thrift shop were about 10%; finding one such jacket that actually fit her was going to be like stepping on a snowball in hell, but I was damned if I was going to fork out good money for a jacket she didn't need without making a point.

Now comes the miracle.

We walked into the very first charity shop. The kid sniffed in disgust at the elderly clientele (she was the only one in the shop under 50) and looked about her furtively, obviously terrified that she would be spotted by someone she knew. I walked over to a rack of jackets and took one down. "How's this?"

The kid looked up reluctantly, and her jaw dropped. Suddenly a look of wonder filled her eyes. I haven't seen that look since she was about five, so I knew we were on to something. The jacket looked too small and I said as much, but she tried it on anyway. It fit perfectly.

"It fits perfectly," she said, obviously shocked to the core. "And I don't think it's ever been worn."

"Do you like it?" I asked, hoping against hope.

"I love it." Her voice sounded awed and -- I swear it! -- humbled. Now both of us were shocked to the core.

We bought the jacket for £5. Three minutes later the kid found a bag for £3; like the jacket it had never been used. Next, she saw a pair of earrings she liked for £2, and I spent £10 for the lot. Needless to say, this is a lot less than half the price of any department store jacket my kid might have deemed acceptable.

So there you have two miracles. Nothing spectacular, some might say. No waters were parted; no grape juice was turned to wine. But a 21-year-old young man who can write prompt, legible and grammatical thank-you notes and a 16-year-old who likes the first coat she finds in a charity shop will do for me any day.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Out of the Air

March, 1999.

My eldest, who has a flair for the dramatic, is itching to tell me all about the film she's just seen in her social studies class.

"And the enemy planes kept coming!" she says breathlessly, as I walk her home from school. "The sky was filled with them, like so many dragonflies! Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, they went, and they dropped their bombs. In no time the ground beneath them was consumed in flames!" She pauses briefly for dramatic emphasis. "Tokyo was burning!"

Uh oh.

Off work with a cold for three days, I've lost track of the date. But sure enough, it's that time of year again: the anniversary of the Great Kanto Air Raid of March 10, 1945. No wonder they've been watching a film about it in school, and how weird it must have been for them showing it, too, with my half-American, half-British kid integrating the class. I look around quickly to see if anyone has heard; the kid is speaking in Japanese and her voice carries. I try to think of a way to phrase what I have to say.

"Honey, you know those enemy planes," I say a little anxiously, "you do know what country they were from, don't you?"

She looks up at me, a little confused. "Um, no, I don't. Germany?"

I sigh. We've talked about the war before, she and I, but she's never been in the habit of paying mind to what I say and she obviously hasn't taken it in.

"No, not Germany," I say quietly. "America."

Her jaw drops. "Uso!" she cries out, "You're kidding!"

"No, I'm not. They were from America, honey. Japan and America were at war."

"But why would they do a thing like that? When they dropped those bombs, they had fire in them! They burned up a lot of people, and their dogs and cats and houses, too!"

"Well, you see, before they dropped those bombs on Tokyo, Japan had dropped bombs too. On other countries. And they'd done lots of bad things. Terrible things, really."

"But two wrongs don't make a right!"

"I know they don't, but it was awfully complicated, the war."

"But they shouldn't have burned up innocent people!"

What can I say to this? I think about the hundreds of thousands of innocents killed by the Japanese in China, the Philippines, and Indochina. But how can I begin to tell all this to a child? Suddenly living in Japan seems a lot more complicated -- for us, in particular. I start to wonder what the Japanese mothers of my kid's classmates will tell their children about the war. Or the Chinese mothers (there are two of them at our school) for that matter.

"A lot of people were upset about the fire-bombing of Tokyo," I say carefully. "And it wasn't just Tokyo either, honey, a lot of other cities were fire-bombed."

"By the Americans?"

"Well, yes. Other countries were at war with Japan too, but it was American planes that dropped the bombs." I can't help but think that the next thing she'll learn about will be Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Great.

"I've got to tell Kunie and Harumi!" she cries. "I'll bet they don't know!"

Part of me hopes that they don't, but I'm willing to bet that they do. Only my kid seems to have remained in blissful ignorance. All I can hope is that Kunie's and Harumi's parents try to be as honest and open as I am when they talk to their kids about the war.

"Look, when you talk to your friends about the war, just remember that the whole world was at war back then. And America didn't just decide to drop the bombs on Japan for no reason. It was horrible for the people on the ground, but it was horrible for a lot of other people too, before that." My heart is filled with dread. How long will it be before she comes home having been told that her mother's country nuked Japan and killed hundreds of thousands?

"I'd be really mad if someone dropped a bomb on Kunie and Harumi," she says with conviction, kicking a stone on the road for emphasis.

"I'll bet you would." Kunie and my eldest have been buddies since they were eleven months old. Harumi and she have been inseparable since they were a year and a half. I've babysat for Kunie a few times and when Harumi spent the night at our place once, I had to cuddle her for two hours before she finally dropped off to sleep. My kid's not the only one who'd hate to see anything happen to them.

"I don't think Kunie and Harumi would like it if their country decided to drop a bomb on us either," I point out. She gives me a funny look. My kid never sees the Japanese as any different from her at all; there is no 'us' and 'them' for her yet. Once, some Japanese-British friends of ours visited relatives in the U.K. At a playground in Birmingham, their young children were taunted by others and called 'Jap.' We were shocked by this. "What would you do if you heard someone yelling that word?" we asked our kid at the time, and she bristled. "I'd say 'Don't call me Jap, you stupid foreigner!'" We were amazed that our blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter saw herself as Japanese. But she's lived in Japan virtually all her life, so I suppose it is perfectly natural that she does.

A plane drones in the sky above us and we both look up. "I'm glad America isn't dropping bombs on us anymore," she says matter-of-factly, squeezing my hand.

I nod and squeeze her hand back. I try to imagine the pilots flying the B-29s that dropped their deadly loads on Tokyo and the surrounding areas fifty-five years earlier in all the madness and confusion of war. I wonder what in the world they would think of my daughter and me, walking hand in hand along this peaceful road in the suburbs of Tokyo, having this particular conversation.

I picture them thinking it's as weird and wonderful as I do.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Any Old Port vs A Place for Everything

"Mom!" my youngest squeals, all frantic. "My gym kit! Have you seen it?"

I get questions like that all the time and they fill me with a mixture of despair and fury.

"(Mary / Mom)," says husband or kid, "have you seen my (gym shoes / headphones / glasses / socks / keys / bag / book / CD / library card / shoes / coat / MP-3 player)?"

The answer is usually "yes," but I've learned that lying is the only way out. Because if I say "yes," chances are very good that "Where did you see it?" will be the next question, and I'm damned if I'm going to get involved. So I generally try something sneaky first. "Where did you put it?" I'll ask. Sometimes when I'm really fed up I can't resist adding "Did you put it away where I told you to?"

"Oh, if you're just going to lecture me," the offender will huff, "I'll just keep looking for (it / them) on my own!" And continue looking they will, but it's not the last I hear of it. Oh, no.

I have a simple philosophy which, although it sounds obnoxiously smug and pat, works fine for me: "A place for everything and everything in its place." So obvious it's embarrassing, right? Yes, but only to me, apparently.

My library card goes back into my wallet after I've checked out my books. My keys go into my bag when I'm done with them. My coat goes on the coat hook (until my kids tear it off in search of their own), and my glasses go on the computer table or next to my bed. The other members of this household have their own way of doing things. Never mind that their way doesn't work a damn bit; I have nevertheless been powerless to change it.

Whereas I am a 'place-for-everything' person, their philosophy might best be summed up as 'Any old port in a storm.' My husband is inclined to put his keys down on the kitchen counter, mantelpiece, Welsh dresser, windowsill, or bedside table. Sometimes he'll just leave them in his coat or trouser pocket, and once in a while he'll get creative and hide them under wet towels on top of the washing machine. My kids leave their shoes wherever they happen to take them off, drape their coats over furniture -- the kitchen table being a favored spot -- and leave their backpacks where they are bound to be tripped over. Mobile phones and MP-3 players may be found behind the computer table, on the sink, in my bedroom, or in the bathroom. And don't get me started on socks.

So why won't I just tell them where the blessed thing is? Why won't I point them in the right direction when they're charging all over the house in a dither over missing documents, homework assignments, keys, mobile phone or shoes?

Say I'm cooking or doing the laundry. There, where it ought not to be, I see my husband's wallet or my kid's library card. I'm generally too busy doing what I'm doing to pick it up, which is a good thing, because on the rare occasion that I have done this, I'm also too busy to remember where I put it. I came across my youngest kid's library card in the kitchen once and left it in the garden shed on my way to do some pruning. I found it there weeks after a household search that lasted the better part of an afternoon, and I never heard the end of it. Never mind that I was just trying to help; never mind that I wouldn't have touched her library card if it had been put back in its Special Place. The same thing has happened with other Very Important Belongings, and now when I see them, I do my damndest to make a mental note where I saw them, but like as not I forget. Then comes the dreaded "Have you seen my ...?" question and I cringe.

I wasn't always what my family calls 'anal' and I call 'responsible' about my possesions. Up until I had a baby I was famous for misplacing my coat, my train pass, my house keys. Then one day when I was leaving for work, I had an epiphany. I had already rolled the boulder uphill by getting my eleven-month-old ready for nursery and myself ready for work. I had fed, dressed, and changed my infant. I had my own lunch and work materials ready, my hair was neatly fixed in a bun, the kid was strapped to me and her day bag was prepared. But I couldn't find my keys. It took me the better part of 45 minutes to locate them, and when I finally did, my mind was made up. On my way back from work that day, I bought a large glass bowl. I put it in the entrance to our house and from then on my keys went into that bowl as soon as I'd stepped through the door. In time, other family members began poaching from that bowl when they could not find their own.

And now, here I am a full-fledged member of the Place for Everything Society. Someday I hope to recruit other family members to my group; hope springs eternal.

If any of them bothered to read this, they'd probably tell you that I don't always put my glasses where I can find them. That sometimes I too walk around the house asking if anyone has seen my glasses, and stating repeatedly that I just put them down a moment ago and now they're gone. But the way I see it, I'm the one who's writing this blog...

Monday, 7 May 2007

The Snobbish Mommy

When my husband and I moved to Japan with our baby, we ended up in a dilapidated house in the suburbs of Tokyo. We told ourselves it was for the best: you don't want to raise a toddler in a place where the floors are all unscarred blonde wood and none of the paper-paneled shoji doors have holes in them yet. A house with cigarette burns on the tatami mats, kerosene smoke-stained crumbling plaster walls and a tin-roofed gravel shed for the washing machine, we told each other, was actually ideal for raising a kid.

Every day we could hear the people from the nearby apartment house passing on their way to and from the station. Almost all of them were like us, parents with young children, and in a few months we had gotten to know a number of them from our trips to the park, grocery store, and local pediatrician.

Most of us mothers, whether we worked or stayed at home, tended to dress alike. Although some of the working and stay-at-home moms did go to the trouble of putting on panty hose and skirts, they were exceptions in our part of the neighborhood. For most of us, our days of suits, heels, and sleek leather briefcases were over and we favored interlock, polyester and comfortable shoes. That was okay, though: we had no pretensions. After all, it was silly to go to all the trouble of dressing up every day when you were just going to get spat-up milk on your shoulders and oatmeal on the hems of your skirts. The Snobbish Mommy, however, was different.

At first I assumed she was unfriendly to me because our house was so shabby and she and her family lived in a fancier apartment building. Then I wondered if it might not be because I was foreign. Most of the other mothers had gotten over their initial reserve and gotten to know me, but some people tended to be a little cool to foreigners.

Although I called her the Snobbish Mommy, she wasn't so much snobbish as she was indifferent, rarely returning greetings or smiles. And she wasn't indifferent to everybody, to be perfectly honest -- she always returned my husband's greetings, for instance -- she was just mildly cool to all of us other mothers. The Snobbish Mommy was always impeccably turned out in tailored suits, heels, and perfectly straightened hair. She was pretty, and she used make-up to good effect. I am sorry to say that a few of us took a dislike to her.

Katayama-san frowned as the Snobbish Mommy waltzed past us one morning, dressed to the nines as usual. Katayama-san lived in a track suit and her hair was never out of a ponytail. "Jeesh! Did you see her latest suit? Bottle green, not a speck on it. And she's never worn those shoes before, either!"

Morie-san nodded. "She never says hello to me. I live just opposite her, and the only time she's ever greeted me was once when I made a big point of saying good morning to her. Now I just can't be bothered."

I had to put my own two cents' worth in, of course. "She always says hello to my husband, but never to me!"

"Some women are just like that. They have no time for other women. I feel sorry for her kids."

In fact, the Snobbish Mommy seemed to take very good care of her two children. Whenever they walked past our house I could hear them; her voice was always low and gentle and she obviously listened to what they had to say. But I felt so irritated with her that I didn't bother to mention this. "I feel sorry for them too," I said. In a way I did. All of us other mothers networked with each other. Even I, a foreigner, networked. The Snobbish Mommy was a loner. Her children were bound to lose out, given that.

Not long before we left Japan, I saw the Snobbish Mommy in the local pay phone half a dozen times and I wondered if she might be having an affair. Her husband was an exhausted-looking man some years older than her. He always looked very serious and unhappy; given her beauty and style and her husband's generally dour expression, it was easy to imagine that she might be having a fling.

One morning, as the Snobbish Mommy passed a little group of us, one of the other mothers nudged me. "Have you heard?" she asked as soon as the Snobbish Mommy was out of earshot.

"Have I heard what?"

"Her husband died. Cancer, they say it was. He's had it for years, apparently. Went into remission for a while, then it came back. Poor woman."

I will never know whether the Snobbish Mommy was so aloof because she knew that her husband was dying and didn't want others to know, or whether she was just the sort of woman who didn't make friends easily. But I do know that I never once saw her chatting with another woman. At school functions, she always sat by herself and walked home on her own. You never saw her in any of the coffee shops on the last day of school when most of the other mothers got together, and she tended to sit by herself at the park when she went to watch her children play.

And to this day, I wish I'd seen past her aloofness and made at least one effort to get to know her.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Suffering with Montbretia

I am a Montbretia sufferer. If you've got this problem too, you'll know what I mean -- and that it's no fun at all.

Monbretia can either be self-inflicted or inherited; in my case, it's the latter. When we bought our flat, I knew little about gardening, so I didn't realize what I'd be getting into. The following spring, a more knowledgable friend looked at one of the clumps of foliage that seemed to be all around our yard, in every conceivable place. "That's Montbretia," she remarked, a funny look on her face. From her tone, I realized that it wasn't a good thing.

Montbretia produce long strings of flattened corms. Try and dig these up and some of them inevitably break off and begin to send out shoots. There may be up to 14 or more of these corms on each plant, and as they break off they form new plants with corms of their own and the clump quickly thickens and spreads. Leave the clumps alone and the corms still multiply, albeit more slowly, until they are virtually growing on top of each other. Each corm is so closely connected to the ones around it that after a while the entire bunch might as well be cement. You can barely get your spade or fork into the clump, and when you do you almost wish you hadn't. Montbretia are the bulbous answer to dandelions; you can never entirely get rid of them.

Like dandelions, they are beautiful. The leaves are spear-shaped and a beautifully fresh, lime green. The flowers are a little disappointing in size, but they too are beautiful, a fiery orange that lights up an autumn day. If only they were biddable and a little less enthusiastic, they'd be perfect plants: hardy, beautiful, and adaptable, as they will live in just about any soil, in shade or light, and in dry areas or boggy ones. Like dandelion roots, the corms have a half life to rival plutonium's.

The people who lived in our flat before us, or perhaps the people who were here before them, were definitely people who sought a labor-unintensive garden. I'll bet they were looking for something cheap and cheerful when they bought those first Montbretia clumps and planted them. I can imagine their delight at discovering that the gorgeous flowers they planted actually had doubled, then tripled. "Cool, we've got more of these -- let's plant them somewhere else!" And boy, did they ever.

We've got Montbretia in the borders, Montbretia under rose bushes, Montbretia at the bottom of the stairs and Montbretia coming up through the honeysuckle. The other day I noticed those telltale green spears peeking up through the turf and I felt like dropping to my knees and shaking my fist at the sky. Our soil tends to be heavy and full of clay, and what with all the Montbretia busily reproducing itself just as fast as I can dig it out, I'll probably still be thinning it out if I make it to my eighties. I have spent long, weary, back-breaking hours digging Montbretia out of all of its various haunts, and it still comes right back in. You can't put the corms in the compost as they don't rot away but live to grow again, so each time I dig them away, I end up throwing away a fair amount of the earth around them. I have visions of digging so many of the damn things up that eventually I have dug up every inch of the garden, leaving great, gaping holes. And from those gaping holes, Montbretia will emerge, triumphant.

The other day, while at a local nursery, I happened to notice that Montbretia was on sale. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched in horror as a middle-aged couple selected several plants and discussed where they should plant them. "Don't do it!" I was tempted to cry out -- then I remembered that I wasn't living in America any longer and held my tongue. Anyway, I tried to tell myself, maybe this couple wouldn't have my problems with Montbretia. Maybe their soil would take it. Maybe they even deserved Montbretia.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Logic vs the Creative Spirit

"Mom, lace your fingers together!" my eldest tells me early one morning, apropros of nothing. She's just appeared at my bedroom door and her voice is filled with excitement.

"Wh--?" I manage groggily.

"Come on, put your fingers together, like this." She holds her hands up and shows me, wiggling her fingers. For just a moment, I have a flashback: this is the church and this is the steeple, open the doors and see -- no people! I turn over onto my side and flail about for the clock. I can't find it.

"But -- what time is it?" I groan.

"It's not that early. Go on -- just do it!"

I do it. It's the only way I'm going to get any peace.

"Okay, now put one of your thumbs over the other one."

I take a deep breath and do this too. "Now can I go back to sleep? Please?"

"Ha! I knew it! You put your left thumb over your right thumb!"

"So what?"

"So that means that you're the emotional type. Artistic, creative, intuitive. That you use the side of your brain that deals with all those things." The way she says it, it doesn't really sound like a good thing to be.

"I put my right thumb over my left thumb," she announces with pride. "That means I'm the practical, logical type."

"No kidding? You, logical?" I say, but the irony is lost on her. Logical and practical she may be, but subtle she is not.

In fact, I actually think there is something to this right-thumb left-thumb test. When my husband was asked to do it, he immediately put his right thumb over his left. And he and the eldest are so much alike it just isn't true: both of them are masters at logic who could argue the hind legs off a donkey. My younger child, on the other hand, is an airy-fairy day dreamer who, like me, is easily bamboozled in debates. Even when we know in our hearts that we are right, we allow ourselves to be confounded by the more logical, eloquent types. Which is to say, the other two members of this family.

When she took the test, the younger kid strongly argued that she was logical too, that she had put her right thumb over her left. But I was watching carefully and I saw which thumb went over which first. I'm afraid she's on my team, poor kid.

"Mom," can I have thirty more minutes on the computer?" the eldest will ask me.

"No. You've been staying up far too late as it is."

"Please! I was really good about getting up this morning -- you said so yourself!"

I sigh. I want to encourage her to be better about getting up in the morning, so like an idiot, I go ahead and say yes. Two hours later, on my way to the toilet I happen to notice that the light is still on in the computer room. Sure enough, it's her, still sitting there at the computer, tapping away. "You're still up!" I cry. "You said all you needed was thirty more minutes!"

"But I had to have a shower and then I had to put the dishes away!"

"Well, that's not MY problem! You said only thirty more minutes!"

"I didn't say I'd be in bed in thirty minutes," she points out, "I just said I needed thirty more minutes on the computer and --" she sticks out her arm and shows me her watch --"I've only been here for twenty-eight minutes!"

"For God's sake, get to bed! Your thirty minutes are up!"

"No they're not. I've got two more minutes. In fact, THREE more minutes because this conversation has taken a whole minute!"

And so help me God, she stays on for another three minutes. I can't win and she knows it. I just don't have her logical skills: my left thumb went over my right.