Saturday, 30 June 2007

My Cat, Hunting Champion of Scotland

My cat is sitting in our veranda just now with a present for me. The reason I know this is because she is using her hunting call. It might be because her mouth is full of fresh rodent, but whenever she catches something, she has a particularly deep, mournful call that resonates across the house. I haven't seen whatever it is she has caught, but I am betting it is a dead vole. If it were a mouse, she would have eaten it already, despite the fact that I fed her only twenty minutes ago.

When my cat has been successful on one of her hunting excursions and the animal is already dead, I sometimes watch her through our front window. With the exception of voles, which must either be very tough or not particularly tasty, she devours her prey 90% of the time. She does this very delicately, but very thoroughly, licking up every drop of the blood and chewing her way methodically through the fur. In the end, all that is left is the tail and what would appear to be the gizzard, if rodents have those. I will admit that I don't get close enough for a detailed examination of the corpse.

If I can get them away from her, I catch the mice by means of an inverted cup and a piece of cardboard slid under it. I then take the little animal by the tail and send it flying over the balcony and into the adjoining hedge with instructions to get the hell out -- as far away from my murderous feline as it can possibly go. I would estimate that I have liberated two dozen mice in this fashion, and my kids and husband have probably released about that number themselves. My eldest kid is the one who managed to prise the neighbors' hamster from her jaws.

When she catches birds, it is so much worse. The mice are cute, but they can be a nuisance in the house. The birds do nothing but enhance the quality of our lives, however, and we have always loved watching them and listening to them sing. Unfortunately, we can no longer do this easily; because of the cat's hunting prowess we have had to put the bird feeders so high up we can barely see them, and the only ones that are really safe are the ones we can attach directly onto the window glass or dangle from the eaves of the house. I bought a bird table a few years ago, and kept wondering why the birds didn't seem too keen on using it. Then one rainy day I happened to see our cat standing poised a few feet from it, every muscle in her body tensed. Suddenly she took a flying leap and, after a few rather ungainly adjustments, was actually IN it. She seated herself, entirely filling the space, and when I called out to her flattened her ears back and gave me a look that clearly said "Yeah? So what?"

I won't give up. I will keep adding bells to her collar, keep chasing her away from the birds, keep setting free the little animals she catches when I can. And sometimes I just have to sigh and accept her contribution to the Circle of Life. In the meantime, I have written her a poem:

My Cat

My cat’s a cruel predator
(though meek and self-effacing)
I sigh and shake my head at her
But I can’t stop her chasing --

-- poor little mice, and great big rats
And tender little frogs
And voles and snakes and baby bats
And lizards under logs

I tell my friends about my cat
They don’t believe a word
(They haven’t seen the mouse, the rat
The frog, the vole, the bird)

I tell my neighbors and they laugh
They don’t believe it’s true
(Until they see her dragging half
a rabbit -- then they do!)

I feed her well, but even so
She's bound to ply her skill
She prowls and stalks just like a pro
Then leaps to make her kill

I yell at her, I stomp and swear,
Shout ‘Leave that poor mouse be!’
She just pretends that I’m not there
And races up a tree

What can I do to make her quit?
I can't remove her claws --
That wouldn’t help a single bit;
I’d have to wire her jaws!

Oh why did Mother Nature make
My little cat so vicious?
I wish for little creatures’ sake
They weren’t all so delicious.

Thursday, 28 June 2007


Have you ever noticed that some people just seem to be born with grace and style? Some people can wear anything and look elegant and refined. Whatever they say sounds astute and perceptive; whatever they do looks competent and natural.

Then you have people like me. I inherited this unfortunate quality from my father. My uncle once commented that my father could wear the most expensive suit and you'd think it had come off the rack at K-Mart. Cruelly, I laughed at the time -- my uncle was right! -- but somewhere deep inside me a tiny voice whispered that I was just the same. And really, I am. Good clothes are wasted on me; in no time at all I've got ketchup on the collar and coffee spilled down the front. Buttons pop off my shirts and get lost, my cuffs become stained and frayed, and my shoes acquire scuff marks no matter how careful I am. But mainly, I just don't wear fine clothes with the natural confidence of the born-graceful. Which is okay, really, as I vastly prefer to buy my clothes at The Salvation Army Thrift Shop, my favorite boutique. But that doesn't mean I don't envy those graceful people just the same. I'd like to walk down the street in my secondhand clothes and enjoy the awe and admiration that the born-graceful inspire whatever they wear, wherever they go.

Natural grace has everything to do with personality and manner, and next to nothing to do with looks. It is inspired by a certain confidence which might be possible to acquire, but I suspect is largely innate. I like to imagine that it is possible to gain this over the years, because I've been trying to achieve it for a couple of decades and I want to think that I am getting somewhere.

The only reason I even decided to try is largely to do with my first yoga teacher, Kakizawa-san, who once commented that she had felt ungainly as a child. Kakizawa-san was in her early fifties, slender and tall. She wore her hair long and it never got messy, and throughout every yoga class, she maintained a calm, gracious manner that was seemingly effortless.

This can't be easy to do in a yoga class, where you are constantly changing position and adopting awkward or embarrassing postures. But Kakizawa-san managed it, all the same. She just had a knack. She herself was convinced that yoga had given her more grace and confidence. This gave me hope.

One day, in class, she was showing us a shoulder stand. "Now please don't be embarrassed if you pass wind when you try this," she said gravely. The entire class -- mainly women in the forties and fifties -- tittered. Kakizawa-san smiled, but assured us that it was perfectly natural to fart, absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. As it turned out, all of us managed our shoulder stands without even a hint of a fart. But it would have been okay if any of us hadn't: Kakizawa-san had said so.

During cold season, one of my fellow students brought up the subject of jalneti, or saline nasal irrigation. This is the yoga practice of passing warm salt water through the nostrils, which is said to have enormous benefits in cleaning the throat and sinuses. Kakizawa-san assured us that she did this and found it immensely helpful. Everyone expressed interest in precisely how it was done, and she offered to give us a demonstration.

Leading us all into the ladies' room, Kakizawa-san produced a small clay pot filled with warm salt water. She tied her long hair back and gracefully leaned over the sink, collapsing one nostril with a finger and holding the pot up to her nose. "Now you gently breathe in the water" she intoned, doing this, "and release it through your mouth." Again, she demonstrated, allowing the water to flow out of her mouth. It looked so easy the way she did it and -- I swear to God! -- so stylish. I couldn't wait to try it myself.

Now, I won't give you the gory details. Just go try it yourself. You don't need a clay pot, just some boiled water cooled to body temperature with a pinch of salt added. Stand in front of a mirror and see how cool you look doing this. See if you can make it look graceful and stylish. If you can, good for you: you are one of the born-gracefuls of this world and you ought to be proud.

Me, I do it without the mirror.

Monday, 25 June 2007


One rainy evening in November, I was carrying my eighteen-month- old daughter home from nursery school when I had a momentous experience. I'd had a long, hard, frustrating day at work and I was struggling to cope with her bag of laundry, several sacks of groceries, and my own satchel of work-related materials. I was tired and cross and not looking forward to making dinner or getting my feisty toddler ready for bed.

Just as we were descending the cement stairs that led to the main street, it happened. I slipped. I'm still not sure just how I did it, but I managed to do it very well indeed. Down I went like a ton of bricks, landing squarely on both knees. Groceries, books and papers went flying, cabbages and broken eggs tumbling down the stairs. Dirty diapers, dungarees and bibs bestrewed the ground. But I managed to hold onto my baby.

My right knee was bleeding so badly that the blood pooled in my shoe and stuck to my tights, which were in shreds at both knees. My left knee had hit a stone and had an even deeper gash than the right. My carton of eggs was a mess of broken shells and slime and all the fruit I'd bought was bruised. But I walked the rest of the way home in a state of awe, tears of gratitude running down my face: it could have been so much worse. There was not a scratch on my baby. She hadn't been hurt or upset in the slightest and, if anything, seemed to think I'd been playing with her when we hit the road, so to speak.

The scars are still there: two shockingly white, thickened callouses across both knees that remind me of that wonderful day when I went down, but my baby stayed safe. I wear them with pride.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Takes all Kinds

With his dumpy figure, low forehead, and grunted monosyllabic replies to all my questions, the used furniture store's delivery man did not inspire confidence. His swarthy, unhandsome face wore a perpetual scowl, and moreover I had frequently seen him around town looking as though he didn't have a clue about what to do next. The day he showed up at our door with the baby bed we had ordered, I knew he would be no help at all in getting it set up, but I decided to ask him anyway. Maybe he'd have an idea where to start, and I could take it from there.

"Um, I don't know how to set it up," I hazarded. He screwed up his face and glanced despairingly at his watch.

"Are there any instructions?" I asked him next. He grunted what I took to be a yes affirmative reply and pulled several mimeographed sheets written in Japanese out of his back pocket. My heart sank: I can follow most Japanese manuals pretty well, but these were not in normal Japanese; they were in engineer's gobbledegook. There were diagrams with cogs and arrows and parts labeled with numbers and letters of the alphabet; there were twirly lines, broken lines and solid lines, and I could have no more have used this to assemble the bed than I could have flown to the moon. I had a sudden nasty recollection of the bizarre 35% I'd once scored in a mechanical reasoning test, even though I'd answered each and every question to the best of my ability.

"I really hate to have to ask you this, but do you think you could give me a hand putting it together?" I asked him in my politest Japanese, my fingers crossed.

Taking the papers back, he managed to stifle a sigh, furrowing his brow as he read. Then he reached into a pocket and pulled out a screw driver. In less than ten minutes, he had assembled the entire bed. He never once made a wrong move.

I have a master's degree from a reasonable university. I can speak, read and write Japanese, and I have read -- and even understood -- most of Dostoyevsky. And I give you my solemn word that if I'd had to assemble that baby bed, I'd still be at it now.

Watching that man do his job was sheer pleasure. He would glance at the instruction sheet, then extract the right screw, bolt or whatever, and attach one bit to the next with amazing dexterity. He didn't swear, sweat, or scratch his head once, and he kept on working until he had turned a pile of junk into a sturdy, useful piece of furniture. I felt like applauding and putting a wreath around his neck, but I didn't. I offered him a tip instead, but he shook his head and grunted. Then he got into his truck and went off on another delivery. And I stood there, disgusted with myself for having prejudged this man and marveling at the wonderful diversity of human talent.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Our Music, Their Music

Our kids are weird: they like our music.

Now we think this is great. Our generation produced some fantastic music, after all, even if you consider anomalies like The Partridge Family and the Monkees. But whenever I come into my kids' rooms and hear the Beatles or the Stones blasting away or find the youngest humming a Simon and Garfunkel melody, I can't help but feel that things are very different from the way they were when I was a teenager. At their age, I would have sooner gone to school in a tutu and hiking boots than voluntarily listen to the music of my parents' youth. And yet, both of my kids are crazy about the Stones and the Beatles. The youngest admires Paul Simon's lyrics and Art Garfunkel's fine, clear tenor. Both of them love reggae, acid rock, folk rock and Motown. In fact, I would say that they like over 85% of the music we liked in our teens and twenties. And I'll tell you something even something weirder: WE like THEIRS.

When I was growing up, my parents liked country music and songs from musicals such as 'Oklahoma!' and 'The Music Man.' They watched Lawrence Welk religiously and when they wanted to get really racy, played old-fashioned jazz like Bix Beiderbecke. My mother knew countless hymns and old ballads, which I loved, and everyone in my family was crazy about Gilbert & Sullivan and classical music. But as we kids grew into our teens, our musical tastes began to part company with those of our parents and suddenly there was 'our' music and 'their' music. They increasingly began to refer to our music as noise, and finally the gap between our musical tastes was ocean-wide. If I put on something for my mother to listen to, she invariably said that it was nothing but a racket, and when she put on what she wanted to listen to I was inclined to run out of the room gagging. Almost everyone my age says the same thing: that their parents never understood their music, that it sounded like nothing more to them than a lot of jarring noise. And that they, in turn, found their parents' music as exciting as bologna on white bread.

We are not alone, either. We have found that we are by no means the only people who share musical tastes with our children. My husband and I and the other parents we know who admit to this are no cooler or trendier than your average parents, but we are definitely closer to our children music-wise than our parents were to us.

Even when I don't want to like their stuff, I like it. They play it and I say, "Hey, what is that?" "Why? Do you like it?" they ask eagerly, and I am forced to hem and haw. In order to be a proper parent, I feel that I ought to say "No, it's a lot of awful noise, turn it off right this minute!" like my parents said to me, but damn it, I like it and there is nothing for it. When the kids played Rammstein for me for the first time, I got nervous. Here I was, listening to the music of scary-looking German skinheads. And God help me, I thought it was great. Weezer, Muse, Decibully, Say Hi to Your Mom, Modest Mouse -- I think they're all great. I even like the Japanese hip hop my kids are so crazy about (Orange Range) and Visual K stuff like Malice Mizer. And as my eldest keeps reminding me, I would never have listened to the Dixie Chicks if it hadn't been for her.

So what is going on? Has rock narrowed the generation gap just a tiny bit? I'd like to think that is what has happened. That our generation was at the vanguard of a music revolution. That music has changed dramatically, and that while rock is evolving and will continue to evolve, it will be played and appreciated for many generations to come. Or maybe that isn't it at all. Maybe it's just that we baby boomers are simply determined to hang onto our youth -- and 'our' music -- like grim death.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Diana in White Fur

We acquired our cat in the serendipitious way we seem to acquire everything worth having. I had told a friend of ours that we wanted a kitten. That we didn't care about the color or gender or personality as long as it was a kitten. She said that she would look out for one, but that in the meantime we ought to try the Cat Protection League.

Now, I don't know if this is the same everywhere or only in this part of the world, but nowadays, kittens seem to be pretty thin on the ground. When I was a kid, my mother loved cats, and in no time her reputation as a soft touch became all too well known in our neighborhood. Our home soon became a cat magnet and we always had plenty of cats. People brought problem cats to us, and cats that were pregnant, ill or dying were dumped on us as well. Too often we were so swamped with kittens that we were all but begging people to take them off our hands. When we had surplus kittens, we told all the neighbors -- who didn't really need to be told -- and placed advertisements in several supermarkets and the student union of the local university. I promise you that if a kindly, cat-loving family had shown up asking for a kitten we would have tripped all over ourselves to give them one.

What a different reaction we had when we visited our local Cat Protection League! We were told that just because we wanted a kitten that did not necessarily mean that we would get one; that a Cat Protection League volunteer would have to visit our home and vet us as possible cat carers first. "And how old are your children?" one woman asked suspiciously, eyeing them as though they were Alsatians. The proximity of our house to a road, we were warned, would not count in our favor, and did we have a cat flap? Our clothing and appearance must not have inspired confidence: before we left, we were reminded that cat immunizations had to be taken into account, and we would also be asked to make a donation. We decided to wait for our friend to find us a kitten instead.

Weeks passed, then months, but no kittens were forthcoming. Our friend's sister called and offered us two elderly cats. Indeed, she pressed them on us so eagerly that I began to feel very guilty, but I had to stand my ground. We wanted a kitten, and we were prepared to wait for one.

Finally, one day my friend called with good news. Friends of theirs who ran a hardware store had acquired a stray cat who was obviously pregnant. She was a wonderful cat, they claimed, as friendly, docile, and accommodating as anyone could ask for. Would we like one of her kittens when they were old enough to be given away? We could hardly wait!

From time to time during the next four weeks, we eagerly asked about the kittens. Had they been born yet? No? Was the mother getting bigger? Yes, we were told, and eating for eight.

Two months later, though, they still had not been born and the concensus was that the cat's pregnancy had been false. Our hopes were dashed.

"I don't suppose you'd like the cat, though?" asked our friend.

"No," I told her firmly. "We've got our hearts set on a kitten."

"Pity," she told me. "She's not particularly good with other cats and they have to find a home for her."

To make a long story short -- or shorter, anyway -- we took in this cat. And they really were right about her: you have never seen a cat who is more friendly, docile or accommodating. She is an absolute dream of a cat, "white with pink accessories," as my friend described her to us, and as polite as any I've ever encountered. If you don't feed her, she doesn't yowl, she puts on a show: rubbing up against your legs, flipping over in a beguiling way and showing you her belly. We've had cat-haters come over and fall in love with our cat -- that's how wonderful she is.

There is just one problem. This cat is a hunter. Honestly, you've never seen anything like it, and if I weren't so horrified and dismayed, I swear I'd be proud. If we were living out on the prairie where mice and rats were a problem, this cat would be worth her weight in gold. She catches two to three mice a day now. She has had rabbits, frogs, rats, voles, and (sadly) birds. And one awful day, she found our little neighbor's missing hamster...

We'd still like a kitten. For a while, we had hopes that our cat might favor us with one or two, and cat-loving friends have promised to find homes for any leftover kittens we might end up with. Sadly, our cat has sent every promising looking male packing within seconds. Either she has been spayed or she has no wish to become a mother.

We figure it is probably just as well for the rodent population.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Personal Goals

I've just been tagged by Katie Alender to come up with 15 personal goals. Being tagged is a huge thrill. When I was a kid, I was seldom ever tagged on the playground, due to an almost complete lack of coordination and an inability to dart about quickly. When I got tagged, I stayed tagged. This blog tagging sounds like a lot more fun -- a sport that even a P.E.-compromised person such as myself can have fun with.

Here, then, are my 15 personal goals:

1) Lose weight -- I don't need to lose a lot, but I still see this as my own personal Mt Everest. Mainly, I want to stop using food as a means of fighting ennui. I have found that when I am bored, I go to the kitchen and forage, even when I'm not really hungry. This is a slippery slope if there ever was one, and I have to dig my heels in somewhere and claw my way back to the top.

2) Get more fit -- This goes hand in hand with losing weight. I work out a lot in the course of tending my garden, but this isn't enough. I used to hike, walk, cycle and swim. I'm going to start with walking and see if I can't work in the other things gradually.

3) Meditate more -- Not too long ago, I'd have rolled my eyes at anyone suggesting that this would become an important part of my life. But meditating is a great way to deal with stress and worry, and the more I do this, the more peaceful I feel. With a couple of teenagers around, I need all the peace I can get. Especially since we bought the drum kit.

4) Keep up my Japanese -- I used to know the Joyo Kanji -- roughly 1,900 Chinese characters (written Japanese is derived from Chinese and called 'Chinese characters' --kanji-- even in Japanese). Gradually I am losing this and learning them was such a pain in the neck that I really ought to be studying Japanese every day to prevent further leakage. Given my inherent laziness, you can bet that isn't happening, and I've got to do something about it before I lose even more of it.

5) Be nicer to my kids -- self explanatory

6) Be nicer to my husband -- as above

7) Be nicer to my friends --hey, this is easy!

8) Not obsess so much about getting a book published. I ought to acknowledge to myself that this may never happen for me, and that if it doesn't, it still is not the end of the world.

9) Learn how to finish things -- I'm great for starting, but awful for winding up and finishing off. It is as though there is some part of me that does not like to see the end of things. Currently, I have started three books and gotten 7/8 way through all three of them; in the garden, I've got four unfinished hanging baskets; in my sewing bag there is a half-embroidered head scarf and a rag rug that I started for the cat in January. And worse still, I have a manuscript that is one-half finished. I think I'll start with the manuscript, then hit the hanging baskets.

10) Try to keep better informed about American/modern popular culture. (I only learned what a blog was last year, who Paris Hilton was one month ago, and that you could use 'friend' as a verb sometime during the past few weeks...Scary.)

11) Remember to shut the £)*$"-ing cat in the kitchen at night so that my sleep isn't disturbed every time she drags in a dead animal.

13) Remember to return the library books (our monthly library fines could feed a family of eight in Bangladesh for at least a month).

14) Learn how to do things on the Internet and in my blog that everybody else seems to be able to do.

15) Not feel too pissed off with myself for not managing to attain all of these fifteen goals...

Now I tag Kim Ayres (Ramblings of the Bearded One), Eryl Shields (The Kitchen Bitch Ponders), and Kanani Fong (Easy Writer)...

Sorry that I couldn't manage to make your blog names light up the way Katie got mine to do, so that you can click on them and flick into your blogs; hopefully I will learn how to do this after reaching goal 14...

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Born Feminists

My daughters are born feminists.

I tell people that and they always smile and say that I obviously had something to do with it. I'd like to think that I did. That I've served as a good example to them: a strong woman with her own mind who can support herself. Who believes passionately in equal opportunities for women and men. Who can open her own bottles of olives and pound a nail into the wall without ruining the plaster -- or the nail. But the fact is, although I am independent, and mildly fiery under duress, although I can kill my own cockroaches and catch my own mice,I also tend to be mealy-mouthed and self- deprecating. I am physically a wimp, too, incompetent at all sports and, truth to be told, still nervous in the dark. I am neither ashamed nor proud of these personal characteristics and failings, but I've learned to live with them over the years.

They say that you pass on this sort of thing to your children -- that willy-nilly, they take on your values, habits and mannerisms whether you want them to or not. You'd have to meet my kids to see just how untrue this is. If I've unwittingly managed to inculcate my obsequious, self-effacing ways into them, they're doing a great job of suppressing it.

In line with their innate feminism, my kids are outspoken. I listen to them debating with their friends and my head swims. My eldest could debate the back legs off a donkey. You cannot win an argument with her; she is eloquent, confident, and determined -- and very shrewd at finding her adversary's weaknesses. The youngest is not as well-spoken, but she is every bit as clever. She is a watcher and -- when she is not day-dreaming -- a listener. She will sit there apparently not taking anything in, then in the midst of a dispute, when you are least expecting it, interject some astute little observation, completely refuting your argument.

Even if I don't take personal responsibility for their feminism, I am proud of it. The eldest has learned how to use a rifle. She can climb mountains, swim a mile, and work out physics problems. She knows what she wants to be, too: British ambassador to Japan. I find this mind-boggling: when I was her age I could barely make up my mind about what I wanted for dinner. The youngest was telling me the other day about a girl she cannot get along with. "She makes fun of overweight people behind their backs," she said contemptuously, "and girls who get good grades." I don't think she was trying to impress me, but even if she manages to fail all her exams, I'll still be enormously proud of her for that one observation.

Once, when the eldest was four, she scornfully told me that several of the boys in her nursery class seemed to think that girls were inferior to boys.

I asked her if she thought that girls were superior and she looked at me as though I were insane. "Of course!" When I asked her why, she had a long list of reasons, but my favorite was: "We get to sit down when we pee!"

On her first day at school, when I went to collect her she was bursting with pride. "Guess what I can do?" she demanded.

I wondered if she had finally discovered that 99% of the other kids weren't bilingual, or that she was the only one who knew all the lyrics to Puff the Magic Dragon, but no, it was nothing like that. "I can pick up all of the boys in my class!" she proudly proclaimed. "And only one of them can pick me up, but he can't lift me off the ground!"

Later I met the only boy who could pick her up. Naoki, his name was, and he was already well on his way to becoming a sumo wrestler. "I'll be able to lift you off the ground too someday!" he told her happily, without a shred of meanness.

When my youngest was three, she and the eldest were engaged in a very nasty dispute over the use of a particular toy one day, and I happened to be in the next room, all ears.

"You stupid pee-pee!" the youngest screamed in Japanese.

"Dumbo pee-pee poo-face!" the eldest shot back.

I could hear the three-year-old spluttering. "You -- you..." she began. I tensed, wondering if I should intervene. I knew something big was coming -- some huge, awful insult, perhaps even one of the Forbidden Words. I peeked into the room.

A triumphant top-this look came over my youngest's face. "You -- you BOY!" she screamed.

The eldest recoiled, overcome by shock and indignation.


Monday, 4 June 2007

Seeing Beyond

I visited my friend Dina the other day and got depressed.

Dina is the sort of person I would hate if I could. She has been blessed with more talents and skills than any one person I know: she can sew and cook to a professional level, she can draw, paint, sculpt, and embroider. She can wire a house, plaster walls and put in her own tiles. Dina can build and fix things, she can butcher road kill, she can skin animals and raise her own vegetables. And she knows the name for every goddamn plant under the sun.

Four years ago, she and her husband bought a house. I went to see it with her before they moved in and was not impressed. It was an ugly, graceless box of a place with no distinguishing features. The kitchen stank, the floors were manky, the bathrooms were small and pokey, and the extensive back and front yards were filled with rubble and weeds. There was a view of a telephone pole in the backyard, and a row of ugly, stunted little bushes, plus a big black hole where someone had burnt a lot of junk. But the very worst thing was an ancient Victorian greenhouse which was falling down in a rather spectacular way: every single pane of glass was shattered or broken, the outer wall looked to be crumbling, and the inside was filled with rubble and weeds. The area around the greenhouse had more dock weeds and dandelions than I've ever seen in my life.

Dina stood, surveying all of this, and smiled. 'This place is great,' she said. 'Look at that little bubbling brook!' I was surprised: she was right! There was a lovely little brook a stone's throw from the house, but you could barely see it for the trees. Beyond the brook was a beautiful field dotted with gorse and heather, but you could hardly see that either. What you COULD see was a whole lot of junk and rubble. It was depressingly, overwhelmingly obvious that the place was a dump. To everyone, it seemed, but Dina.

During the past four years we have made many trips to Dina's house, and the transformation has been amazing. First she knocked out the two back windows and made them into sliding glass doors. All of the bedrooms were painted and decorated, walls were knocked down here and there, and the change was phenomenol. A huge deck was built outside, trees were chopped down, opening up a fantastic view of the neighboring fields, a hedge was established to hide the telephone pole, and the large burned area was dug out to form a fish pond. The greenhouse was demolished over a few scary weeks, and in its place is now a stunning artist's studio of glass and wood surrounded by a tiered herb garden with driftwood sculptures artfully placed.

But it is her gardens that fill me with envy. Everywhere you look there is something beautiful or interesting. Near the brook is a fairy garden with a wood-chip path surrounded by woodland flowers and whimsical touches: crystals hanging from trees, tiny hand-crafted sculptures strategically and unobtrusively placed. On the far side of the house is a wildlife garden shaded by tall trees and bursting with a splendid selection of wildflowers. The house is surrounded by every climbing vine you can imagine: wisteria, honeysuckle, climbing roses, golden hops, clematis, ivy, Virginia creeper. Her herb garden is a riot of different colors and textures: soft, wooly lambs' ears, fluffy bunches of bright green parsley, silvery green and blue catmint, variegated lemon balm in butter-yellow and green, dainty plumes of fennel, and golden clumps of marjoram. Her vegetable beds are filled with neat rows of strawberries, runner beans and Chinese broccoli. There are roses and peonies and hydrangea and azaleas -- flowers and shrubs too numerous to mention. Everything is thriving and a lot healthier than the plants I've been agonizing over in my humble garden for the past two years. For God's sake, I've paid to go into less attractive gardens than hers.

What amazes me most is Dina's vision. I saw what was in front of me: a nasty, drab, dull-as-dirt box of a place surrounded by a world of junk; she saw endless potential.

Last year, I happened to go to the beach with Dina and we found an old rope which she insisted on dragging back to the car.

"What in the world do you need an old rope for?" I asked. It smelled, after all, and it was falling apart.

"I can use this in my garden."

I should have known, but all I could think about was how much trouble she'd have getting rid of the thing once she'd realized how gross it was.

Yesterday I noticed it hanging down the side of the house from the balcony on the second floor. It is smothered in wisteria and looks like a million bucks. Driving around the area, I've noticed a fair amount of wisteria about, creeping up frames and trellises and spreading up garden walls, but you've never seen anything like Dina's wisteria-up-a-ship's-rope garden feature.

Like I said, I'd hate her if I could.