Friday, 28 September 2007

You Too Can Be A Blogging Success Story!

A gauntlet has been tossed to me by Merry Jelinek, thus this post. I feel silly doing this, but I cannot let a challenge go unanswered.

My Advice on How to Write a Marvelous Blog

1) Write, write, write! Don't even think about punctuation, spelling, grammar, repeated words and phrases, cliches, or any of that nonsense. Go for black on white, words on paper. Who cares if anyone reads your prose, after all? After all, remember the immortal words of Thomas Gray:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Go on: let your blog be that sweet flower blushing unseen -- and unpunctuated -- blooming all alone in the cyber-ether. Mix your metaphors with a will, too! Who cares if anyone reads your blog, learns from it or is vastly entertained? The point is writing it.

(Catch that repeated 'after all' in the first paragraph? Do that a whole lot and don't be the least bit ashamed!) Take my advice and throw in a lot of poetry and arcane quotes, and everyone will be so impressed by your erudition that they'll never notice your crap phrasing or poor choice of words.

2) Don't go to a lot of trouble to research anything or check your sources. If you're writing about the earthquake in Peru and you can't be bothered to find out how many people were killed, just throw in some random figure. Who's going to complain? And if anyone does, just tell them to get a life. Trust me: only nerds and geeks worry about that sort of thing.

3) Make sure to give full rein to your gutter mouth! Use plenty of four-letter words, not just the odd one to pepper your prose and add a real punch, but as many gratuitous expletive-deleteds as you can stuff into your text. Remember to use them as nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Some people will whine that this can be off-putting, but just listen to the people around you and you'll see how wrong -- and morally repressed! -- the nay-sayers are.

4) If you can't think of a single thing to blog about, go ahead and write about your blocked sink or how dopey your brother-in-law is, and don't bother to be clever or too concise. (Cleverness and looking for 'just the right word' is highly overrated and a huge waste of time besides.) There's always plenty to write about: for instance, if you're pissed off at one of your neighbors, have a go at them and don't pull your punches. After all, it's your blog, and bitching about others in a mean-spirited fashion is half the fun! Sure, some bloggers who post about trivial subjects or gossip are either very good writers or otherwise cleverly manage to work in a useful moral point, but this is totally unnecessary.

5) If you're not pissed off at anyone, pick someone public you're pretty sure everyone hates and roast them instead. If you're not sure why everyone else hates this figure so much, just copy what they say or write. You'll look cool, and if anyone complains that you're shallow, so what? At least you know you're in the majority!

6) If your kids have just brought home superb report cards, don't be shy -- now's the time to share! Post them on your blog. Everyone will think you're really smart, having kids with grades that good. Other sure-fire blog success tricks are filming your kids' piano and poetry recitals, sports meets, speech competitions, and awards ceremonies (be sure to film the WHOLE thing, from the first fifteen minutes of coughing and throat clearing to that last tiny clap).

7) Remember that it's all about you! Don't bother responding to anyone else's comments, and don't waste your precious time visiting their blogs either. You'll have oodles of people commenting on your blog once they read all your vapid, self-indulgent, poorly-written musings.

8) If you must visit other blogs, make sure they're written by people even duller than you. You'll look great in comparison, and they'll be so thankful that they'll comment on your postings every time.

9) Overdo it with the hyperbole, bold-face, italics, CAPITAL LETTERS, and -- above all!!!!!! -- exclamation points!! Some idiots will tell you that overindulging in these will make you look like a weak writer who has to rely on this sort of thing because your writing skills aren't strong enough. PAY THESE NERDS a b s o l u t e l y NO MIND!!!!! Let 'more is better' be your new mantra and go right over the top!!

Gosh, that was fun. I now tag Carolie, Eryl, and Kanani.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Blue Hair

My daughter has blue hair. I blame myself.

She was born a brunette, in Wales. From day one, she had a full, thick head of dark hair that made the other mothers on the ward exclaim in amazement. For some reason, almost all the other babies were as bald as eagles; the only other babies born with hair were either Indian or Pakistani. "How come yours has all that hair?" one mother asked me. "That's rare, isn't it?" All I could do was shrug. "I'm American," I told her, and she gave me a look that said Well, that explains it.

When she was four months old, my daughter's hair began to change color. One day I looked at her and got the shock of my life: her hair seemed to be turning grey. Grey hair at four months! I asked her pediatrician about this and he laughed. "Can't you tell? She's a blonde. Her hair color is changing, that's all." Looking closely, I saw that he was right. I have brown hair; my husband's hair used to be black. His father was a blonde and so were most of the members of my family, but they weren't with us to explain to people who inquired "Where does that blonde hair come from?" I never got up the courage to joke about the milkman, but I was often tempted.

When our daughter was nine months old, we moved back to Japan, by which time her hair was completely blonde. One of the things I learned to say upon arriving back was recessive trait -- kakusei iden in Japanese. Whenever a conversation started about my daughter's blonde hair, I trotted out kakusei iden and hoped that would explain it. I'm not sure whether anyone believed me, but I felt I'd done my bit. I can't tell you how many times I heard strangers remarking on my daughter's hair and mine and how different we were from each other. Few people realized I would understand.

People make a big fuss over blondes. I ought to know: I'm the only brunette child in a family of blondes. Just look at your beautiful blonde daughters! people would exclaim to my mother. I knew from her frozen smile that she was aware of the subtext I was getting: Brunettes aren't exciting.

If I'd had my way, though, I'd have had black hair. Hair the color of a crow's wing, coal black, India ink. Brown is blah, and blondes may have more fun, but black hair always seemed to me to be the epitome of style and crispness, a whole rainbow of colors in one. So on that fateful day when my daughter was five and asked me what color of hair I preferred, she caught me off guard. Stupidly I did not realize that what she asked me was the child's equivalent of Does my butt look big in these trousers? I blew it.

"Mommy," she began, "which do you want, blonde hair or black hair?" I was cooking dinner and absorbed in what I was doing, and I didn't stop to think about her underlying question. Do you love me the way I am, or do you want me to look like everyone else? "Personally, I'd like black," I said, testing the soup. She ran crying from the room.

I tried to make it up to her. I told her how beautiful her hair was, how good it looked on her. How I'd grown up the odd one out in my family, how I'd always wished my hair was a different color, and wasn't that silly? No dice. Everyone else in her class had black hair, and I'd just confirmed my own preference.

For the past ten-plus years, my daughter has been longing to dye her hair. Not black, but blue. The other day she went into the bathroom and did this. When she came out, her hair was blue all right, but not a pretty blue. It was more the blue of a crayon that has spent a lot of time rattling around in the box with its fellow crayons. A rather dirty, dingy blue. I could weep.

She says she's thrilled. She swears that the only reason she has blue hair is because she wanted to see what it would look like.

I blame myself.

Monday, 24 September 2007

No Escape

The other evening, our family had dinner with the family next door. Afterwards, we trooped into their recreation room and admired their son’s hamster, a delightful little creature, fluffy and bright-eyed, with sable patches on her rich, creamy fur. We took turns petting her; we watched, entranced, as she held a single Brussels sprout in her clever paws and rotated it, working at it steadily with her sharp little teeth. The minute we were out the door, it started: Can we have a hamster too, Mom? Pleeeease?

I have told the kids repeatedly that we cannot have a hamster. I have my reasons: hamsters are accomplished escape artists for one, and our cat already keeps us well supplied with rodents. Also, I’m not looking for any more work. It’s bad enough that I have to nag the kids to get them to feed the cat. It’s hard enough getting them to keep their rooms even semi-tidy. The idea of having another creature in this house generating yet more mess and work does not appeal to me one bit, no matter how cute it is. And finally, engaging as they are, like all small animals, hamsters tend to die on you. I speak as one with experience. The backyard of my childhood home was littered with the graves of guinea pigs, dogs, cats, gerbils, and birds, much loved and mourned. I dread the day the cat goes, and I weep over every one of the mice, blackbirds and voles that she drags home. I am not eager for our garden to become a pet cemetery.

Last night our eldest came crashing into the living-room. "Moooom! Look what the cat’s just killed!" She was holding something soggy that resembled a truncated, tailless rat. With sable patches. Yep: the neighbors’ hamster.

I wrapped Mrs Nutkin’s limp body in a tea-towel and patted her dry. No blood – surely that was a good sign? My youngest produced a few peanuts and we put one in front of the hamster. Her nose immediately twitched into high gear and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Mrs Nutkin was one wet, miserable hamster, but she was still alive. My eldest took Mrs Nutkin back to her family.

For a while, we all thought that the little creature had survived her escape attempt unscathed, but this morning we learned that she died during the night.

Today our neighbors asked if their kids could bury her in our garden so that they will be able to come back and visit the grave. Of course, I said yes. But hanging up, I pictured it in my mind’s eye: the clumsy little cardboard box spattered with childish tears. The cookies crumbled into the grave. The pathetic little stones, the crudely labelled marker.

Oh, Jesus. I might as well get the kids a hamster.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Getting Religion

My mother was crazy about religions. By this I don't mean that she pursued a multitude of faiths; I mean that she was fascinated by the world's religions -- by why and what people believed. Although she was an essentially practical woman, she collected interesting religions the way some people collect antique vases or political buttons.

A lot of people who ask others about their religion are merely using this as a means of promoting their own religious views. My mother was different: she really wanted to know. Whenever she got lucky and found someone who was prepared to talk, she would listen, enrapt, interrupting only infrequently to ask more questions.

"Tell me about your religion," she would say to the turbanned man in the adjoining garden allotment while I cringed in mortification. "What sort of things do you believe in? I've heard you are vegetarians; is that true?" The Sikh regarded her warily: Is this woman for real? you could almost hear him thinking.

If you've read the Harry Potter series or seen the movies, imagine a slightly more respectful Mr Weasley encountering muggles. That was what my mother was like when she met someone who practiced a religion she had only heard of or read about in books. It was too much to ask her to keep her curiosity to herself, and bless her, she meant absolutely no harm.

"Now if you were an Orthodox Jew," my mother would say eagerly to a friend of mine she had cornered, ignoring my exasperated embarrassment, "then you would have two separate sets of cooking utensils, wouldn't you? For milk and meat dishes." My friend would squirm. "Umm, I'm not sure, actually..." My mother was, though. She'd read about it: she knew about keeping kosher, and she knew about the parts of the Old Testament that covered this. But she wanted to know more.

Agnostics and atheists were not exempt from my mother's interest either: she wanted to know all about why they had come to their own personal decision not to believe. She felt a little sorry for atheists, but she did expect them to be able to back up their convictions with a convincing explanation.

"According to Annie McIntyre, Catholics don't consider our marriage binding," my mother told my father one evening. "Not even after twenty years!" She wasn't upset by this; she was fascinated, and amused. She had been raised to hate and fear Catholics, but it hadn't taken. She had a number of Catholic friends and, though very much a middle-of-the-road Republican, subscribed to the Catholic Worker for over a decade. When concerned friends and family members told my mother this was a Socialist paper, she just shrugged. "Dorothy Day takes care of poor people. She puts her money where her mouth is, like Mother Teresa. I don't care what her politics are."

But what my mother liked better than anything was discussing the Bible. Raised in a fundamentalist religion, my mother had rebelled and joined a gentler, more tolerant denomination when I was seven years old. For the next twenty years, her sisters cried, scolded and begged to get her to come back to their straight and narrow road. They would not listen to her explanations and refused to accept her interpretations of the Bible. My mother longed to have an open, informed discussion of the Scriptures. As a result, she was the only person I have ever known who actively welcomed all religious callers. Jehovah's witnesses, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons -- my mother was their willing and eager audience.

There was only one problem: my mother knew the Bible too well. Not only had she grown up in a poor home where the Bible, a ragged dictionary and a set of Shakespeare's plays were the only books available, she had a prodigious memory and could quote whole sections of the Bible verbatim. Most of the people who came to our house bearing religious tracts found that their own Biblical knowledge wasn't up to scratch when pitted against my mother's.

"I think I might have upset Gloria," my mother sighed once, when the young Jehovah's Witness left after a lengthy -- and no doubt exhausting -- discussion. "But she really should brush up a little on her New Testament."

My mother got to know most of the door-to-door missionaries by name. Whenever she saw one in the neighborhood, she would run to find her Bible and keep an eye out for him or her, frequently peeking out the window to make sure our house hadn't been passed by. In time, they stopped coming to our door: my mother was too much for them.

"They were at the MacDougalls twenty minutes ago," my mother noted sadly one day. "And now they're down the road and across the street. I think they're skipping this house intentionally!" Clutching her Bible, she looked like a child who hadn't been invited to her best friend's birthday party.

At the time, I could not understand her fascination in the beliefs and philosophies of others, her determination to explain her life's views, her zeal to share her opinions, though not proselytize. But every few days when I write a blog entry, I delight to present my view of the world, my opinions, my insights, however simplistic. And as I read the comments others write -- which I find infinitely fascinating and amusing -- I see that I am engaged in a very similar activity to my mother's.

I'll bet she would have loved having a blog.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Looking for Edgar, Finding Frank and Jesse

My mother always insisted that we were related to Edgar Allan Poe. Her mother had told her so, and my maternal grandmother, an exceedingly pious, serious-faced woman who tended to keep very good track of her ancestors, was not the kind to lie about a thing like that. We also had a movie star in the family: a man who worked as an extra in every shoestring western and obscure science fiction flick you could think of, whose success we all monitored closely. There were other poets in the family too: an aunt who wrote sonnets, and my father's mother, a published poet of modest acclaim, but the actor and the movie star were as nothing next to our Poe connection. Everyone in our family loved poetry, and it made perfect sense to us that we should be related to the author of Annabel Lee and The Raven. Oh, the pride.

Some years ago, I got ill and had a long, boring convalescence. To help while away the hours, I decided to check out my genealogy, especially that Poe connection. I was certain that I would find it if I looked hard enough.

At the start, things looked pretty promising. Like Poe's family, my maternal grandmother's ancestors were largely of Irish extraction and many of them had come from Ayrshire in Scotland. The problem was finding out when. I'd always assumed that my ancestors arrived in America in the mid 1800s, but in fact, I was hard pressed to find anyone who showed up after 1720. This surprised me: for some reason, I always pictured my ancestors arriving in the New World rather late in the game, after all the hard work of tree-cutting, planting, and log cabin building was done. In fact, plenty of them were in America before the Mayflower, and not just those who were Native American, either.

I'll spare you all the tiresome stuff about my genealogy -- all of the dozens of surnames and dates, the wars and pensions and wills and censuses. Suffice it to say that if any of the people I managed to trace were related to Edgar Allan Poe, I could not find them. And believe me, if you ever do your own genealogy you will see that one of your big problems is how many people you can find. You start out with four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, then sixteen great-great grandparents -- and pretty soon you are into very serious numbers. Just keeping track of everybody is a huge headache. Genealogy isn't for the organizationally challenged, either: you begin to see that behind every human being is not just a handful of progenitors, but a cast of thousands.

I did find two people I wasn't looking for, though: Frank and Jesse James. Their grandmother Mary Poor was a sister of my great, great, great (you get the idea) grandmother Nancy Poor. I didn't believe it at first, but there is no doubt about the fact that we are cousins. My poor grandmother must have known about this, but never dared to mention it. The shame of being related to homicidal killers must have been mortifying. We're also related to Jesse James' wife, Zerelda. Cousins marrying cousins also ran in their -- well, our -- family.

Someone once told me that Frank and Jesse James weren't the world's greatest shots, that they had to fire a lot of bullets just to hit a target. I have to say that this fits right in with my family: we like poetry just fine, but in a snowball fight or shoot-out, you'd be perfectly safe around us.

Anyway, I'm all finished with my genealogy now. And although I recommend it as an interesting pastime, I have to warn you: if you go looking for poets, you may well end up finding outlaws.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Berry Picking

Our family went blackberry picking the other day. This is something we generally try to do at least once every autumn. Wild blackberries ('brambles' here in Scotland), raspberries, blueberries, and crab apples grow in the nearby countryside, and being the sort of people who delight in getting something for nothing, we love going out with empty plastic containers and coming home laden with several pounds of fruit.

The blueberries are the first to come out in early summer. You have to stoop to pick them and you need a subtle touch or the berries easily crush in your hand. It takes forever to collect a few pounds, but the forest where we go to pick is cool and shady and for all that your back gets a little sore, it is always worth it as the berries are tiny and intensely flavorful -- far better than anything you can find in a store. I make blueberry muffins with them, or blueberry sauce to pour over ice cream.

Raspberries are next out, in mid July. There aren't as many of these as there are blackberries, and they are so good that it is hard to resist eating them as you pick. What few we manage to bring home, we tend to put in our cereal or eat immediately.

Blackberries come out just after the raspberries, and they are everywhere. If you put your mind to it, you could easily pick a kilogram a day and leave enough for the neighbors. We've earmarked the best bramble-picking spots over the past years we've lived here: the bridle path near our old neighborhood, a certain trail in the woods, just up the road from us, along both sides of a narrow country lane. We know where there is a hidden gulley between the bushes and the side of the road (infuriatingly, the out-of-reach berries there are inevitably the biggest and most tantalizing), we are aware of the places where the nettles grow almost as high as the berries, and we know to visit the deserted farmhouse where there used to be golden raspberries that ripened just before the brambles.

So yesterday, tired but satisfied, we returned to our house with several pounds of berries. And as we were coming down the side road, there, just outside our very own garden fence, we spotted several canes absolutely groaning with the biggest, fattest brambles you have ever seen. They were so ripe and ready-to-pick that they almost jumped into our eager hands. I filled the last container with these and baked them into a huge bramble-and-apple crumble.

We couldn't get over it: we'd been all over the place, along hedgerows, through fields, down paths, up and over creeks, in pursuit of the likeliest berries and there, right next to our house, were the very biggest and best we had seen. We've walked past those brambles dozens of times and never registered that they were there.

There has to be a lesson in that. If there are any hidden crab apple trees nearby that have heretofore escaped my attention, believe me -- I'll find them.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

The Matushka

“You’re not the only American member here,” said the receptionist at the YWCA. “Mrs Hashimoto uses our swimming pool regularly. Perhaps you’ll get to know her; she’s about your age.”

I smiled. You hear dopey comments like this all the time in Japan. Such as “You’ll just love our neighbor – she’s an American too!” As if a shared nationality is a sure-fire basis for friendship.

“I suppose she’s another English teacher,” I commented, handing back my completed registration form. In Japan, it is rare to find a resident American who doesn’t teach English.

“I’m not sure,” said the receptionist, “but I know she is a clergyman’s wife.”

A clergyman’s wife? Immediately I pictured a smug, sensible woman spouting Christian platitudes and oozing respectability. I made a mental note to avoid her at all costs.

Although I kept my eye out for the clergyman’s wife, I never spotted her. In fact, there were practically no non-Asian foreigners there at all. Then one day in the changing room I noticed a woman about my age with wispy light blonde hair, her jaws working furiously on a piece of chewing gum. When I heard her curse as she dropped something on the floor, I felt pretty sure she was an American. On one foot she sported a cast that was obviously weeks old. I watched her out of the corner of my eye as she struggled to thread her casted foot through her trouser leg. She had a certain off-putting, un-American look about her that seemed to suggest she wasn’t given to quick conversations and easy camaraderie. When she shrugged on her black leather jacket with its Harley-Davidson patch on the sleeve and slid on her shades, if I’d had to guess her occupation, ‘Hell’s Angel’ would have been at the top of the list. When I saw her in the parking lot a week later, climbing off her Hog, I was further convinced.

Two days later an elderly lady in the changing room did a double take upon seeing me and threw up her hands. “My! Your leg is healed!” she cried out in Japanese. I was taken aback by this: I had pulled a muscle two weeks previously, but I didn’t remember telling anyone about it.

“It wasn’t all that bad,” I assured her, but she continued to shake her head in astonishment. “But that cast you were wearing!” she countered, staring at my leg in wonder, and I suddenly realized the source of her confusion. I was a good five inches taller than the Hell’s Angel, with darker, shorter hair, but this lady obviously had little experience with Caucasians and she’d gotten us mixed up. The next time I ran into the blonde with the cast, I worked up the courage to tell her that someone had mistaken me for her.

She let out a hoot of laughter. “Well I’m flattered,” she said dryly, “but I hope it didn’t ruin your day.” Which was how Jenny and I met. Jenny’s husband was Japanese, and she taught English at a local university. Although we were roughly the same age, Jenny had married at eighteen and had a grown-up son and grandchildren back in the States. She hardly seemed like the grandmother type to me, and I couldn’t picture her in front of a classroom either. When I asked her about the motorcycle she shrugged. “We can’t afford a car.”

It turned out that the dark glasses, which I seldom saw Jenny without, were on account of her diabetes. “I’ve had it all my life,” she confided. “I wear the shades to protect my eyes. Diabetic retinopathy, you know.”

“We live in a fish-bowl,” Jenny complained one day. “Right smack in the middle of the Cathedral complex. Everybody knows everybody else, and you can’t do anything without everybody else finding out about it.” We’d been talking about housing and how hard it was to find a decent apartment in Tokyo. Somehow I pictured Jenny and her Japanese husband in a small, stylish flat with trendy furniture and parking space for both their Harleys. During the course of an earlier conversation she’d mentioned a class on the Byzantine Empire he was teaching, and I pictured a bookish, intellectual fellow – albeit in motorcyclist’s black leather.

When I asked Jenny how she’d managed to find housing in the middle of the cathedral complex, she laughed. “Oh gosh. Didn’t I tell you? My husband’s an orthodox priest.”

All I could do was stare at her – Jenny Hashimoto, the clergyman’s wife. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a comfortable-looking woman with a crucifix around her neck was laughing her head off.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

News Flash: Old Dog Learns New Trick

Today, an old dog has learned a new trick. Bear with me: I am going to show you something that will knock your socks off. Or rather, it will knock your socks off if you know me.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I can do this!!

I am new to blogging. I have many blogging friends: Kim, Eryl, Carole, Kanani, Katie, Merry, Paul, Carolie, Kathie, and many other kind people who don't mind my see-it-to- believe-it ignorance of all things computer-related. Please meet my new friends!

See Mary link. See Mary link fast! Link, Mary, link!

Go on and laugh, but this post took me all of an hour and a half to write and I'm shattered -- and pathetically proud. I would have figured it out a lot faster if my husband hadn't tried to teach me HTML coding instead of the hyperlink shortcut. How dare he overestimate my intelligence? You'd think he'd know better by now.

Please be kind and visit my first real book review, of James Patterson's Maximum Ride: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports, on my book reviews blog, right here.

By the way, I owe it to James Patterson. If it hadn't been for writing this book review, I might never have learned how to link.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Getting Through

Last night I had a Eureka moment with my 13-year-old and it couldn't have come at a better time.

I have just finished writing a novel about longterm American expatriates in Japan and I am now in the process of going over the text for perhaps the 200th time, checking historical references and tying up loose threads. A friend having sent me another memoir about the Bataan Death March, which one of my protaganists endured as a young man, I was reading this to make sure I had some of the details right, and I found myself rewriting one paragraph over a dozen times.

Just as I was getting to a crucial point and felt that I was beginning to make progress, along came my daughter. She had a look in her eye that said I want to talk. Normally I ignore my kids when they approach me during my off-kid writing hours. I love them, but my writing is very important to me and I don't welome interruptions. But having turned thirteen, my youngest has adopted some of those truly unpleasant teenage characteristics: a tendency to spend too much time in her room doing God-knows-what; sullen, blank stares when questions about homework are posed; a habit of Oh mom! eye rolling and exaggerated shrugs when I bring up the subject of laundry. So if she wants to talk, we will talk. Who knows when I will get another chance?

It turns out that my youngest has been making an informal study of the bullies in her class. She gave me an astute description of some of the more troubled kids who pick on others, a boy with many complex issues who has since left her school; a girl who was badly bullied herself a few years ago and is now eager to get revenge on the children who picked on her -- and some who didn't. My child has carefully analyzed the sources of bullying and broken down some of the most prevalent causes as follows:

(1) Kids who have never lived anywhere but in this town, who tend to feel as though their native status gives them certain privileges. Johnnie-come-lately types like my daughter -- she started school here at age seven as opposed to the natives' average age of five -- are often dismissed as interlopers and shunned.

(2) Kids who have been bullied themselves, either by parents or other children.

(3) Kids with obvious differences, either physical or emotional.

(4) Kids with any of the above issues, who possess natural charisma or leadership skills.

What amazed me most was that my daughter realized that (4) was the most dangerous kind of bully. It was when she was describing one such boy -- a natural leader born and raised in this town who has almost certainly been beaten by his father and suffers, not surprisingly, from a behavioral disorder -- that I suddenly saw it: a Teaching Opportunity.

Having grown up in Japan, my children see themselves as Japanese. They don't want to hear any comments about Japan that they perceive as critical or negative. During our first week here we happened to meet an elderly man whose brother was a former POW of the Japanese, and my children's first question after this encounter was "Why didn't that man like us?" All I could do was point out that the man had liked us just fine; what he hadn't like was the fact that we had lived in Japan for so many years. He would forever associate the country with the unfortunate experiences his brother had suffered during the war. We tried in vain to explain to our children that they weren't Japanese. Next, I tried to educate them about the war and its causes. I got too ambitious: their eyes glazed over before I even got to Russo-Japanese War. By the time I was ready to start on the Versailles treaty, it was a lost cause.

But last night I had the perfect opportunity: a discussion of what makes bullies. We went from imbalances of power and inferiority complexes to the origins of war, touching on many issues I have long wanted to discuss with her: colonialism, racism, cultural misunderstandings, man's inhumanity to man. Right in front of me I had the materials my friend had sent. They made for painful viewing, but I let my daughter see them. Once again, we talked about bullying. We found parallels between the classroom bullies who, having been brutalized and bullied themselves, seek to do the same to others, and the worst of the officers and guards in the Imperial Japanese Army who made the Bataan Death March the horrific atrocity it was.

I don't flatter myself that I did much more than pique her interest in the Bataan Death March and other atrocities of the war that have largely -- and tragically -- been forgotten by the general public, but ladies and gentlemen, I got through. I talked, she listened; she talked, I listened. Teaching and communication took place between a grown woman and a 13-year-old girl, and if that isn't a miracle, I don't know what is.

Later, I went back and rewrote the chapter I'd been laboring over. I put in a little about bullies and what makes them the way they are. It reads a lot better.