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."


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.

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?

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.

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."

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.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Picky Eaters

The other day I read an interesting article in the New York Times entitled Picky Eaters? They Get It From You. According to the writers, a finicky appetite is something your kids have probably inherited and nothing to do with your cooking. Which means it's still your fault, of course, even if it isn't something you can help.

There has got to be something to this. I wouldn't eat peppers or avocadoes when I was a kid, which was a shame because my father grew them both in job lots, and I turned my nose up at squash and cucumbers and wouldn't have touched a raw tomato with a barge pole. No doubt about it: as I sowed, so have I reaped, even if it was completely unintentional. Here then, owing to my -- or my husband's -- crappy DNA, is just a sampling of our kids' obnoxious food habits:

If I make a pizza, they pick out every single piece of mushroom, green pepper, or tomato. The youngest will eat mushrooms if they are pulverized beyond recognition; the eldest will not knowingly remain in a room where mushrooms are in evidence. Both kids will eat tomatoes if they are made into sauce; if, however, even a particle of a cooked tomato in its original unblended state is showing, they remove it from their plates for all the world as if they've found a cockroach. Uncooked tomatoes are fine, they insist: it is the 'hot' ones they cannot cope with unless they are liquidized. Are you dizzy yet? No? Good for you.

Onions must be chopped so fine that just thinking about the process makes my eyes water and my fingers ache. (Unless they happen to be doing the chopping, in which case they throw down the knife at the first tingle.) Chopped onions must then be cooked until limp and brown; if even the tiniest fragment is left "rubbery," it will produce gags.

Believe me, I could go on, but I won't. Because the other day I happened to whine about all of this to a friend, and once I'd heard her complaints, I shut right up. Here is a list of what her two boys will eat:

Noodles, mashed potatoes, chips (French fries), catsup, butter, white bread, bacon, cucumber (bless her heart, she can't get over her good luck with this), popcorn, donuts, candy, cake, pie (if filling is not fruit), and Cheerios. And that's it!

Compared to this woman, I clearly have nothing to complain about, and for the first several days after I heard her story, I cut my kids some slack. But then I watched my sixteen-year-old prissily removing tiny bits of zucchini from her soup and plastering them to the side of her plate and, later, my youngest turning up her nose at muesli -- and I forgot all about my friend and her two truly finicky brats and my resolution not to complain.

What annoys me about my kids and their food peccadillos is that I enjoy cooking and go to some pains to make tasty meals. My mother thought cooking was the biggest waste of time in the world. Although she really could cook, she just didn't see the point of going to the trouble. Once in a while she could be prevailed upon to bake cornbread, but her idea of the perfect meal was a can of beans, perhaps a sliced turnip (always served raw), a (coarsely) chopped onion, and burnt cabbage. (I'm not kidding: my mother was the only person I've ever met who actually burnt cabbage on purpose.) She also had a penchant for concocting weird taste sensations, peanut butter and mustard sandwiches are one memorable example.

She also practiced economy to a distressing degree. We were the only family I knew that bought imitation ice-milk instead of ice cream; that purchased not only T.V. dinners, but the cheapest, tackiest, ickiest ones. And I still blush to remember her Chef Boyardee instant pizzas, the Kraft macaroni and cheese dinners, and -- worst of all -- her leftover salads, well browned and reeking of the refrigerator. I'm one of the thriftiest, save-it-all cooks I know, but in one week I probably throw out more than she did in a month.

After I left home, my food habits changed drastically. I like to think that I retained all the good habits my parents tried to instill in me: economical nutrition, plenty of whole grains, fruit and vegetables, etc., but minus the burnt cabbage and peanut butter and mustard sandwiches. No doubt my kids' eating habits will change too, as they mature, and I would love to see what kind of eaters my grandchildren will end up being, if I ever have any. How will they drive my children insane? What will they pick off their plates and exclaim Ewww over?

Sadly, I'll probably never find out. Having children late in life also runs in our family.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Throwing It All Away

Last year, our family went hiking in the hills along the Selkirk Valley. This is a beautiful, unspoilt area full of tumbling waterfalls and heather where sheep and wild goats graze. You can see herons, red squirrels, owls, buzzards and sparrow hawks, among other wild animals, and even when it is cloudy and rainy, the scenery is breathtaking.

We had a friend of our daughter with us who, halfway up the hill we were climbing, suddenly remembered that she was afraid of heights. Personally, I thought it was more a case of her not wanting to huff and puff her way to the top simply for a chance to see a good view, but I played along and accompanied her and my daughter back down. We had to walk back to the car some three kilometers away, so I figured we would do something useful: we would pick up trash along the way.

Bear in mind that although the road we were on is fairly busy, this was in the autumn, and there was little traffic. In five minutes' time, perhaps one or two cars would pass us. I imagined that we might each collect up to one grocery bag full of rubbish along the way. We always take a lot of plastic bags along when we hike (they come in handy going down the really steep slopes if you happen to have weak ankles), and on this occasion we started off with six and found even more bags along the way.

By the time we got to the car, three kilometers away, we had filled every single bag and could not physically carry any more. When we finally reached our destination, we had over fifteen bulging bags of trash. And we weren't just burdened down with trash; we were filled with disgust for all the littering slobs who'd jettisoned it. By the time we relieved ourselves of those bags, we could have happily let the air out of the offenders' tires.

Here is a sampling of what we found tossed out along this beautiful, grassy, heather-studded road: disposable diapers, plastic bottles, newspapers, magazines (plenty of them pornographic), Styrofoam take-away containers, tires, shoes, clothing (you really do wonder), cigarettes butts (we left them), toys, half-eaten sandwiches, CDs and tapes, cigarette lighters, aluminum cans, glass bottles, dogs' collars and leashes, rope, sanitary napkins (used), candy wrappers, pantyhose, condoms, sunglasses and empty sunscreen bottles, empty pharmaceutical bottles, beer bottles, lightbulbs, empty lighter fluid cans, and umbrellas. Clearly, people were lightening their loads as they travelled.

Along the way, we amused ourselves by imagining what the oafish litterbugs we were picking up after looked like and what kind of cars they drove.

"They're lorry drivers," my daughter's friend said. "They throw their rubbish anywhere."

"They're probably other kids," my daughter sighed. "They can't be bothered to carry any of it home."

"They're everybody," I claimed. "Look at the stuff we've found! Diapers? That's families. Dog collars and dogfood cans? Dog owners, obviously. Cigarette lighters and cigarette butts? Smokers. Pantyhose? Someone on a hot date."

At precisely that moment -- this is the God's truth! -- a well-dressed man in a shiny-clean, brand-new Mercedes drove past us. Slowing down, he opened his window and leered out at us as he tossed out an empty can -- just like that. We all stopped in our tracks and stared after him, openmouthed. To this day I curse myself for not having had the presence of mind to get his license plate number.

"They're posh bastards!" exclaimed my daughter's friend, without missing a beat.

Friday, 5 October 2007


I’m a Highlander. True, I grew up in a polluted city in the dry and dusty Inland Empire of Southern California, but I’m a Highlander all the same. I went to Highland School, passing Highland Terrace to get there. We had a Dunbarton Place just around the corner, and at the local university all the dormitories had names like ‘Aberdeen,’ ‘Bannockburn,’ and ‘Inverness. Our neighborhood, further up in the hills than much of the surrounding area, was known informally as ‘the Highlands.’

Highlanders we may have been, but our town was hot. In the dead of winter, it sometimes got almost as cold as summers in the U.K., but in the summertime, temperatures could easily go as high as 105 degrees and stay there. The heat made most sensible people go indoors and turn on their air-conditioners. Quite apart from the discomfort of the heat itself, there were rattlesnakes about, and the hotter it was, the more they liked to come out and socialize.

Our local pipe band, however, didn’t show the slightest sign of minding the heat or worrying about snakes. Mainly elderly and middle-aged men, they proudly marched up and down the dusty sidewalks under the blistering afternoon sun, looks of great concentration on their faces. The sight of our elderly next-door neighbor, Mr MacDougall, with his hairy old-man legs and, to our silly minds, mini-skirt kilt, was too much for us kids to bear. We would run giggling and shrieking back into the house where our mother, fully aware of what we were laughing at, fiercely admonished us. Hush up! Stop that right now! Shame on you! Those men and their pipes were culture. Didn’t we know that our very own ancestors had dressed just the same? We snickered and bit our lips at the thought and tried to avoid each other’s eyes.

The MacDougalls were as sad a blight on our lives as we must have been on theirs. They were grumpy and no-nonsense; Mrs MacDougall frequently let my mother know that her own approach to child-rearing had been largely drawn from the Old Testament -- Proverbs, in particular. I was a reasonably well- behaved kid, but certainly less so than Mrs MacDougall’s rigidly brought up offspring. During my more spirited moments, I used to catch her giving me looks that clearly said Oh my girl, if you were mine . . . Decades before Hilary Clinton and her It takes a village to raise a child statement, Mrs MacDougall was determined to be part of the village that raised us. She kept an eagle eye out for our misdemeanors and watched our comings and goings with keen interest. For the most part we managed to steer clear of her, but when she came over to visit our mother, the strain of having to behave ourselves exhausted us.

Mr MacDougall was fiercely proud of his Scots ancestry and his own name in particular. He had a huge, dusty book that he frequently pored over: the Book of Clans, and could trace his own ancestors back to Robert the Bruce’s time. My mother once timidly mentioned my father’s and her own Scottish ancestry. What were their names? Mr MacDougall wanted to know. My mother didn’t know much about her own genealogy, so she started with my father’s side, the McKaigs. Mr MacDougall disappeared into his house and came out with his Book of Clans. McKaigs! he said scornfully. Didn’t even have their own clan! A bunch of worthless poets and philosophers! My mother could hardly have been more thrilled.

Years after I left my hometown, I went to Scotland and saw the real Highlands. All my life, I had felt cheated. Growing up in the heat and dust and pollution, I had longed for cool, green, rainy countryside, a land of waterfalls and rushing rivers. Someone had shown me a photograph of Inverness once, and I had been stunned and filled with envy. So the first time I entered the Highlands, I was prepared to find a difference so staggering that my sorry little hometown would shrink into a pitiful nothingness of overheated exhaust and decomposed granite.

Instead, I was gob-smacked: I was home! Okay, there was no smog, no sagebrush and no tumbleweed. There were no stucco ranch-style houses, no taco stands, no palm trees, no tangle of billboards, no signs in Spanish. And admittedly, there were waterfalls and twisting rivers and sheep grazing in fields, all things you would never find anywhere near my hometown. But geographically, the Highlands of Scotland were the Highlands I grew up in. The shape of the mountains, the rocks, the austere beauty. I was astounded at the similarities and felt like weeping with nostalgia and homesickness.

When our car had stopped in the midst of spectacular scenery to let a flock of sheep pass from one pasture to another, I suddenly heard the familiar whine of bagpipes. And from nowhere, a pipe band suddenly emerged. Mainly elderly and middle-aged men, they marched proudly down the street, looks of fierce concentration on their faces. Other tourists might have found it exotic. But to a Highlander like me, it felt just like home.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Road Kill

My friend Dina picks up road kill.

We were out on a drive the other evening when we saw the car in front of us hit a rabbit. We both flinched -- poor little thing! -- and looked quickly to see what had happened. The rabbit had been killed instantly, flung to the side of the road just outside someone's house, its spine broken.

Dina checked her rear view mirror and put on the brakes.

"You can't save it, Dina," I told her. "It's dead."

She gave me an exasperated I know look and got out of the car. I turned and watched as she walked over to where the rabbit lay sprawled over the pavement and picked it up. What the hell?

A man came out of the house. "If you're looking for the car rally, you missed the turn-off," he said helpfully. "It's just before the roundabout, past the petrol station."

"I'm not going to the car rally," she told him. "I'm picking up this rabbit."

The man looked at the rabbit. "It's dead."

"Yes, I know."

"If it's rabbits you're after," the man said, "I've got a lot of 'em. They're a bloody nuisance, they are; they eat everything in my garden. You come back here and help yourself to more rabbits any time." Dina nodded. She has plenty of rabbits in her garden too, but not so conveniently killed as this one.

Holding the rabbit by the hind legs, she turned to go back to the car, but the man called after her: "That for your dog?"

She smiled and I felt my cheeks begin to burn: by this time I had a pretty good idea it wasn't for her spaniel who was sitting there behind me in the car. And I also knew that Dina wouldn't lie -- not even with the dog sitting there in full view, the perfect excuse for someone caught helping herself to road kill. Dina is pathologically truthful: one of those people who tells the truth just for the fun of it, even when she could easily get away with a lie.

The fact is, Dina's road kill salvaging embarrassed me -- just a little. I grew up with a mother who bragged about the horrid house dresses she bought for 35 cents at Value Village Thrift Shop. Who happily recycled jelly jars as glasses and shamelessly solicited the aluminum pie plates of neighbors to use as dishes for our cats. If anything around was going for free, we knew about it and were generally first in line to get our share. And truth to be told, I'm just the same. I love bargains, freely patronize thrift shops, recycle everything I possibly can, and have a compost heap so monstrous and extensive that it gives me nightmares.

But I've never picked up road kill and neither did my family; we were vegetarians.

"No," Dina told the man, "this will be my dinner tonight."

Dina chucked the rabbit into the back of her car and we drove off, the man staring after us.

I don't do road kill, but I found myself wondering -- why not? The animal was freshly and quickly killed, right in front of us. It had been living a free and happy life in the countryside. Who's to say that eating that rabbit is any worse than buying your meat from a supermarket, wrapped up in plastic, all traces of its identity removed? Really, when you think about it, why don't more people pick up road kill?

Later, when Dina kindly described for me the rabbit's internal injuries and the skinning and gutting process, my question was answered.