Thursday, 27 December 2007

Powerful Words

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

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

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

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

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

1) Merry Jelinek at Mom and More

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

2) Charlie Callahan at Hounded

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

3) Kanani Fong at Easy Writer

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

4) Paul Curd at Paul's Writing Blog

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

5) Eryl Shields at The Kitchen Bitch Ponders

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

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

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

Monday, 24 December 2007

Thank You For Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Auntie Bertie,

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

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

Love XXX ---

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Writing Up A Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Yumi And The Scholars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yumi clapped her hands in delight.

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

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

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

"Why?" he asked, surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Clean-up Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 December 2007

Shocking Shoe Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 7 December 2007


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

"Why not?"

"Because people don't like it."

"But -- why?"

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

"I don't believe you!"

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

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

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

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

Hoo boy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The Alchemist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Have you got tea?" Li called out.

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

"Got it."

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

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

But that's another story.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Minding Details

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

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

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

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

"Every single one?"

"Yes!" she snorted, looking peeved.

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


"What does Mmm mean?"

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

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

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

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

"Okay!" came her reply.

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

"Got it, Mom."

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

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

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


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

I could hardly stop smiling.