Tuesday, 29 April 2008


My husband and I went hiking along the river the other day. I'm a terrible klutz who can trip over her own shadow, so I tend not to veer off the trail. And yet, perversely, when I see a precipitous path off a well-marked trail, part of me longs to pursue it. At one point the rather tame trail we were on branched into two. One prong was clearly marked DANGER -- TAKE CARE, as it ran along a precipitous slab of sandstone that jutted out over the river, while the other ran between the safer side of the stone and a grove of conifers.

We took the safer path, but a tiny part of me wanted to try the hard one -- for the challenge, the sheer exhileration you get from taking your life in your hands. And it made me remember Devil's Lake in Wisconsin.

Almost seven years ago, on our eldest daughter's tenth birthday, I decided to swim across Devil's Lake. We were traveling across the States at the time, stopping to visit friends and relatives, and on our daughter's birthday we happened to be in Wisconsin visiting my best friend from fourth grade.

For those of you who haven't had the privilege of experiencing long-distance car travel with children, let me assure you that while it has its moments, some of them last a little too long. By the time we hit Wisconsin, my stress levels were elevated and I desperately needed to let off steam. As we ate our picnic by the side of the lake, I sized it up. It looked to be about a mile across, and as I have swum several miles in one go, I knew I could easily swim across, then swim back.

"Anyone want to swim across?" I asked a good hour after our picnic finished.

Nobody did.

I tested the water, and it was a little chilly, but I knew that was no problem. For a long distance swim, cold water is what you're after; warm water will make you overheat in no time.

"Well, I'm going to give it a go." My friends had seen swimmers in the lake before; they knew it was safe. It was the middle of May, and no one else was swimming in it, but the sight of that expanse of glittering water was too much for me: I had to try it.

I stripped down to my swimsuit and put my goggles around my neck. "Okay -- see you all later!"

God, the water was cold. I swam for about ten minutes, watching as my friends and family on the shore grew more and more distant. Then I saw my husband wade into the lake and swim after me. "If you're determined to do this, I might as well do it with you."

We swam side by side. It was a beautifully warm day with starched popcorn clouds in a pale blue sky, but by the time we got to the middle of the lake, I had made a discovery: the water was the temperature of newly melted ice and I could not feel my feet.

"Can you feel your feet?" I called out to my husband.

"No," he shouted. "Because it's f***ing cold!"

"Just keep swimming, I guess," I managed.


And so we did. Our friends and children were specks on the distant shore; we could no longer even tell if they were waving. We swam and we swam and we swam, and when I looked ahead, I could not see that the opposite shore was growing any closer.

In retrospect, it could not have taken us over two hours to get across -- possibly it was less. But in my mind's eye, I am swimming there even now. At one point, I thought that we would never reach the other side. My arms and legs, vainly struggling against the water, seemed not to propel me forward. I kept my eyes on my husband, who like me was working hard to keep up a steady, sustainable pace, and I had the horrible thought that we would both die, on our daughter's tenth birthday, frozen in the middle of a Wisconsin lake because of my foolishness.

And then to my amazement, the opposite shore grew closer, and as it did, the water grew shallower and warmer until we could see rocks and algae underneath. Our feet found the rocky bottom and clumsily we began to wade to the shore. I felt remarkably uncoordinated and confused; later I realized that this was because of hypothermia.

A man on the shore watched us in amazement as we stumbled towards him. "Where did you come from?" he asked.

We pointed across the lake and his jaw dropped. "Not from over there?" he enquired, pointing to the adjoining beach. We shook our heads.

"There were people out there in wet suits yesterday," he told us. "The lake only just thawed last week."

Jesus, Joseph and Mary, we'd had no idea.

The man drove us back to the other side in his SUV. I feebly suggested that we could swim back after a rest, but my husband wisely nixed this.

"So where are you guys from?" the man asked us.

"Well, I'm from California."

There was a long, pregnant silence during which I distinctly heard his eyes roll. I'm willing to bet that this story has made the rounds in Wisconsin, so if you're from there and you happen to have heard about this, we're the idiots who swam across Devil's Lake the day after it thawed.

There's a lesson in this of course. Life is all about risk. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't swim across Devil's Lake in the middle of May. But not every experience in life can be vetted, approached cautiously, then rejected for its potential danger. Sometimes you're going to just jump right in and give it a go -- and find yourself wishing with all your heart that you'd let discretion be the better part of valor.

But you can't give up; you really can't. You might just make it to the other side.


Saturday, 26 April 2008

Rising Blogger Award (And Other Gifts)

Lately I spend so much of my time reading and filing away rejection letters that when something like this happens the first thing I do is check to make sure that it isn't a scam or a cruel joke. And folks, this award is for real! It is also one of several surprises I received on Friday, an unusually auspicious day for some reason.

In the late morning, I got a dead rat, delivered fresh to my doorstep by my faithful, hard-working cat. In the post, were two nice letters, one from Action Aid and the other from Locks of Love, thanking me for my recent efforts on their behalf. Two hours later, a freshly-killed vole, again from my cat, then a very supportive and encouraging rejection e-mail, followed by a long stretch of nothing, and then this wonderful Rising Blogger award. No sooner had I received that than I heard my cat's hunting call again, and lo and behold, she'd brought me a nice juicy mouse.

I feel so loved.


Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Coming Clean In Korea

A few years before the 24th Summer Olympics were held in Seoul, I spent a couple of months traveling around Korea while waiting for the Japanese consulate in Seoul to process my visa. There was some sort of mix up, and they ended up taking their time.

"How long will it be?" I asked the secretary anxiously.

She shrugged. "Could be a week. Or it could be over a month."

My heart sank. I didn't have much money and I didn't speak Korean. While I waited for my visa, I had a lot of time to kill, and not much else. In my possession were a youth hostel card, my Japanese-English dictionary, and a backpack full of dirty laundry. It was a very hot summer and I'd had to travel from Northern Japan down to the South, where I took the ferry from Shimonoseki to Pusan. I'd been trying in vain to find a Laundromat ever since arriving in Pusan.

At the youth hostel in Seoul I was told that no washing machine was available. Fortunately, a girl from Hong Kong gave me her Korean-English phrase book and I learned how to ask for the Laundromat in Korean. But the phrase books can never tell you how to understand or respond to any of the several hundred answers you might get, so after a while I gave up and began using Japanese instead. Most Koreans over the age of fifty knew Japanese to some degree, thanks to Japan's occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, so why shouldn't I use the one language I had in common, right? Actually, I'll tell you why not. Although the history and politics between Japan and Korea are complicated, most Koreans who learned Japanese under Japanese rule do not enjoy using the language, however fluently they might speak it. In fact, they bitterly resent it.

After a while, though, I worked out a way. If I approached people in a humble way and made my language suitably contrite and respectful (something that is very easy to do given the various politeness levels in Japanese), they responded very well. In fact, not only did I find my way to the post office, pharmacy, an international book shop and a bakery, I also had some fascinating conversations with a variety of elderly Koreans. "I never imagined I would be speaking Japanese with a young lady from America," one tall, genteel man remarked, shaking his head in wonder.

But I did not find the Laundromat, and all my queries were met with polite shrugs.

"Just give up and wash your clothes by hand," said a fellow American I'd met along the way. "That's what I've been doing."

But that was what I'd been doing too, and I was tired of it. In fact, I began to see the Laundromat as a kind of Holy Grail. There just had to be one, and I was determined to find it.

During my second week in Korea, someone mentioned that one of the larger hotels in the town where I was staying took in laundry for a modest sum. I bundled up my disgusting laundry and took it to the hotel in the morning. I asked the lady at the desk if I could use the machines on my own, but she didn't seem to understand me, so I handed them my whopping bag of filthy clothes after agreeing on a very reasonable price. They told me I could collect my laundry any time after five that evening.

I had a wonderful day, traveling around the town, knowing that somewhere my laundry was happily churning about in a washing machine, finally getting clean. My friends and I treated ourselves to a lavish breakfast at another western style hotel (my company in Japan having sent me financial reinforcements) and we spent the day touring the town. Just after lunch, we happened to pass over a bridge that spanned a rushing river. Looking down, we saw a group of women, washing clothes. It was an incredibly picturesque scene: this group of middle-aged women, brown from the sun and remarkably fit and healthy, laughing as they worked. Slapping the bigger items on the large, flat rocks, one woman made a comment that sent one of her companions into hysterics. Another woman seemed to be in charge of the smaller items; squeezing streams of water out of each piece, she would then dip it back into the water several more times, then repeat the process. I watched in admiration: the family's clothes were getting very clean indeed.

Then one of my traveling companions nudged me. "Hey, isn't that the dress you were wearing yesterday?"

I laughed.

"No, seriously," she said, craning her neck for a better view. "The beige one with the black checks on it. And, whoa! -- those are your blue shorts! Take a look."

I did -- and instantly stopped laughing. The ladies were washing my stuff all right -- every single bit of it. My disgusting, filthy laundry was in the river, polluting the water. They were actually handling it. I blanched, remembering the state of it. Suddenly their earlier laughter didn't seem quite so cheery.

When I went to the hotel to collect my clothes that evening, everything was neatly folded and ironed to within an inch of its life. There was no doubt about it: my clothes had never been so clean.

But after that I washed everything by hand.


Friday, 18 April 2008

A Nice Cup Of Tea

I make a nice cup of tea.

I know exactly how to do it, too; I've been given precise, if not superfluous, instructions any number of times. I've also been told with wearying frequency that Americans don't know how to make tea properly, and desperate to show people that this isn't always the case, I have become an expert. For what it's worth, here is how it's done. (This is for Americans, of course, who don't know how to do it. If you are British, go ahead and skip this whole spiel unless you're game for a little tongue-in-the-cheek British bashing and a serious rant. My apologies to all of you who have lived, or live, in America. You'll know what I mean.)

1) Pour a little hot water into your teapot and swill it around. Leave it to sit and warm the pot thoroughly, then dry the pot and pop in some loose tea. One teaspoon for every tea-drinker, folks, and don't forget the extra spoonful for the teapot! (Tea bags? What are those? Promise me you weren't even thinking about using them!)

2) Boil a kettle of water. And don't dare turn off that kettle until it has reached a rolling boil.

3) Pour the rapidly boiling water over the tea leaves as fast as ever you can. Go on -- risk burning your wrist; it's that important.

4) Immediately put a tea cosy on that teapot! Don't let it sit uncovered for a single second!

5) Steep for at least five minutes. Pour tea into a mug that already has milk in it. That last part is important; it drives people in my husband's family wild if there isn't milk in that teacup first! (Putting milk in the cup first, I am told, is to protect one's fine bone china from cracking. Our fine bone china happens to be crappy old mugs from Tesco, but never mind; it's the idea.)

6) Smile graciously at the kindly British family member or friend who has been watching your every move with an eagle eye and offering helpful tips, such as "Wait until it's at a rolling boil, now!" just as the water is furiously boiling and you have timidly raised a hand, or "Remember the extra spoonful for the teapot," drowning out your murmured "And now a spoonful for the teapot."

I'll never forget the first time I offered to make the tea at my father-in-law's house. Other relatives were present, and no sooner had I innocently suggested taking over this ritual than there was an obvious hush in the conversation. Covert glances were quickly traded, and if there had been thought bubbles over everyone's heads, all of them would have read Uh oh.

I won't bore you with the details of how often I've had someone follow me into the kitchen issuing precise instructions. It is hard to be gracious and receptive about this; I always reassure people that I will not bring them a cup with a teabag in it and -- horror of horrors! -- an indifferently heated cup of water for them to steep it in. Because no matter how many times I tell them I know how to do it, I still get the exact same reaction as I did that very first time I offered to make the tea. Someone will look meaningfully at someone else and murmur, "Go with Mary, dear. Make sure she knows where everything is." Because they don't trust me with the tea. Without their supervision, God only knows what I might get up to in the kitchen.

Being the family's sole American can be a tiresome business. My husband's nephew is bound to tell me about the obnoxious, loudmouthed Yank who kept everybody at the airport waiting or an inebriated guest is sure to diss the American education system as being vastly inferior to the British. American racism, American obesity, and the unfortunate American fondness for SUVs and the effect this has on world oil prices are also favorite themes and ones that get trotted out at every other dinner party.

And when all else fails, someone will invariably remember that time they visited Houston or Atlanta or Orlando or San Francisco and -- would you credit it? -- they were given a cup of hot, not boiling, water and a tea bag -- and expected to drink it! And boy oh boy oh boy oh boy am I tired of hearing it.

Because I make a nice cup of tea, damn it, and don't you forget it.


Monday, 14 April 2008

Vying For Tadashi

One very hot summer day, our family took a trip down to Kyushu, Southern Japan, to visit a former professor of mine. Our children were nine and six at the time, and prone to quarrel about everything. We thought that once we were away from their toys, books, and friends, they might feel a little sisterly solidarity and bond a bit better, but this proved not to be the case.

They quarrelled about who sat on which side of the car we had borrowed. Over who sat next to their father or me, (preferences changing from day to day). Over where we would go or not go, what we would eat or not eat, who was given the larger ice cream or biggest piece of cake, and who got to stand closer to the octopus in the aquarium. Going on a vacation with kids is the biggest oxymoron I can imagine. Truly, once you've had kids, your days of carefree holidays are pretty much over.

The heat didn't help, but we finally got a brief respite in an airconditioned hotel room, when we managed to organize coloring books and crayons and get a delicious thirty minutes of uninterrupted, rivalry-free quiet.

Then my former professor showed up with Tadashi.

Tadashi was a perfectly nice young man, a graduate student who hoped to become an art teacher. He was delighted to meet us and charming with our kids, who took to him almost worryingly, bringing him drawing after drawing and generally bending his ear as they eagerly told him about their friends, their art classes, and their preferred media. (Crayons for the youngest, magic markers for the eldest.) Tadashi could hardly get a word in edgewise and frequently looked a little overwhelmed by our offspring and their rather suffocating attention, but he took it well.

The trouble started after he left.

"I'm going to marry him," our eldest proudly informed us.

"He's mine!" insisted her sister.

"I'm older than you!"

"Big deal! I was born in Japan!"

"So what? I've lived here longer!"

"That's just because you're older!"

"Who cares, you stupid kuso baba?" (Don't ask; they didn't learn it from us)


I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I've heard stories about sisters quarrelling over suitors, but not when they are nine and six respectively.

"He's too old for both of you," I told them.

"Uncle Paul's girlfriend is 20 years younger than him!"

I sighed. "That's different."

And for the next two days, we had to listen to their squabbling about Tadashi and who 'got him.'

Before we left the area, Tadashi paid us another visit and invited us to his house. His mother, he told us, enjoyed showing off her hand-painted doll collection. Our girls were ecstatic, but it wasn't the dolls they were looking forward to seeing.

Takahara-san, my former professor, met us before we left for Tadashi's, and I happened to mention that our girls were taken with Tadashi, though I refrained from telling him just how much so.

"Tadashi's a really nice kid," he informed us. "And I've taught him and his brother."

"He has a brother?" I asked, winking at my eldest.

"Not just a brother -- a twin brother. They look exactly alike."

As soon as he left the room, our eldest turned to her sister.

"You can have the brother. I get Tadashi."


Thursday, 10 April 2008

The Perfect Mate

Kimiko wanted to marry a handsome man, and she staunchly defended this ambition. "If I have to look at him every day, I want my eyes to rest easy," she insisted. Most of her classmates, all of whom were much older than Kimiko, tittered. Foolishly I joined in.

We were doing the Ideal Mate adjective worksheet. All of the students had been given a sheet with a list of adjectives from which they had to rate the various personal attributes listed from 0 to 20 in terms of desirability in a mate. Kimiko had chosen 'handsome' over 'honest,' 'gentle,' and even 'intelligent.'

"Handsome is not so good," argued Junko, a petite sixty-year-old. "Handsome man means other women interested too much. If other women interested, handsome man is usually weak, even if also intelligent and gentle!"

Mariko agreed. "If husband is handsome, he will --" she paused, wrinkling up her forehead -- "How do you say uwaki in English?" I heard her whisper to Junko, the brightest in the class. "Affair," Junko hissed back, sotto voce. Mariko nodded. "Yes. He will affair!" she concluded triumphantly.

"All husband affair," said Mami, a jaded divorcee in her late forties. "Whether handsome or not so handsome."

A few of the quieter women nodded their agreement.

"But handsome husband affair more," appealed Junko. "Because more chance."

Kimiko sat in sullen silence. Out of the group of nine, she was the only one for whom 'handsome' had made the top three in the list. I had expected her to take our gentle ribbing good-naturedly, but she obviously did not.

'Kind' was Mariko's number one -- (and mine). 'Honest' was Mami's. Sumie, a jolly little woman whose husband had been abroad for over a decade, picked 'hard-working.'

Tomiko, another divorcee, surprised me. She had picked 'passionate' as her number one.

"Why is that so important to you?" I asked, imagining that her former husband must have been quite a cold fish.

"Because he will be gentle to helpless things," she said softly in Japanese.

Mami, her partner, and an avid dictionary reader, was faster than I was. Leaning down, she whispered something in Tomiko's ear.

Tomiko blanched. "Passionate not same as compassionate?


"Passionate no good for husband," Mami giggled. "Passionate too much sexy, all the time."

Tomiko grunted in disgust, crossing out passionate quite passionately.

Several weeks later, I used the same vocabulary game with a class of girls I taught at a local junior college for women. As I walked around the classroom, I noticed that one girl, Nobue, had folded her answer sheet neatly in half and drawn a line down the middle. In her careful, round copperplate, she was writing two separate lists of words. I stood behind her and watched, confused. On one list, 'handsome' was up at the top, followed by 'passionate,' 'amusing,' and 'carefree.' On the other, 'hard-working' was followed by 'domestic,' which in turn was followed by other worthy attributes.

"Why two lists?" I asked.

Nobue looked up at me with a perfectly straight face. She jabbed a finger at the first list. "Lover," she said simply, then pointed to the second. "This one for husband."

Kimiko could have learned one or two things from her.


Friday, 4 April 2008

Frost Free

I wrote this for the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition held every year at this time. This is the third time I've entered, and the third time I've failed to place, but I will continue to enter anyway. I do it for my mother, who loved Erma Bombeck's weekly column, and for Erma herself, because she gave my mother so much happiness. And of course, for a shot at that $100 prize.

Just before Christmas last year, the refrigerator decided to take a vacation. Can’t say I blame it.

Things got out of hand when I went back to work in November. Instead of discarding the last inch of juice or milk, my husband and kids just put it back in the fridge. New items were bought and only partially consumed. Things soured, curdled and festered. Soon we were all holding our noses every time the fridge door was opened, and its shelves were full to bursting: I counted three bottles of catsup, four jars each of preserved peppers and olives, five tubs of margarine – and I’ve lost track of the mayonnaise, but let’s just say that if a football team wanted a week’s worth of sandwiches, we’d have been good to go.

My old-fashioned ideas about using up what we’ve got don’t work in this household. New stuff is routinely purchased before the old is finished. Understandably more popular than the old, it is quickly opened and dipped into. New stuff quickly becomes sort-of-new stuff, and soon we have old, sort-of-old, and sort-of-new-but-dipped-into stuff – and you stand a better chance of finding Penicillin than you do of finding jam without bread crumbs in it.

Before I went back to work, I always used up leftovers. I grated the last desiccated hunk of cheese into a casserole. Put the three-day-old leftover mashed potatoes into the bread dough. Recycled the dubious ratatouille into a pasta sauce. They say the only things you don’t want to see being made are laws and sausages, but you should have watched me fix dinner when the refrigerator needed cleaning.

Just before Christmas, I realized that the stuff inside the fridge was warmer than the stuff outside. All the milk had turned to yoghurt. Juice cartons were obviously swollen, and everything stank to high heaven. In the freezer, melted chocolate ice cream (one of seven tubs, all approximately 1/8th full) mixed with defrosted mackerel juices. Pumpkin puree bled into thawed peas.

I felt like weeping, throwing out all my carefully labelled soups, casseroles, and home-grown fruit and vegetables. Months earlier I’d filled all those containers in a fit of energetic optimism, picturing myself home from work in my smart, new business clothes, ready to cook the items I’d thoughtfully managed to defrost that morning. It’s the story of my life: I try to make things easier on myself and all I end up doing is stockpiling one hell of a mess.

Somewhere the refrigerator’s frost-free soul is basking in tropical warmth, sipping pina coladas, laughing at the thought of all those festering jam jars and 1/16th full milk cartons it no longer has to worry about.

I’m tempted to go and join it.


Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Falling For It

My kids never learn.

This morning, I did it again: I raced upstairs to their rooms, yelling at them to get up and come downstairs to clean up the cat's regurgitated rodent breakfast. I stood there, ignoring their pitiful pleas to just go away and let them sleep; mercilessly I whipped open the doors to their bedrooms and roared at each one individually.

And I managed to sound very convincing.

"I've done it the last three times!" whimpered my youngest quite truthfully. "Make her do it this time!"

The eldest groaned and pulled her pillow over her head. "We're on Easter break! Can't you do it this time?"

I folded my arms over my chest and glared at her. "I do it plenty as it is and so does your sister. Now get out of bed and do it."

"Ohwrrrr!" she bellowed. "I hate that cat! Why can't she just leave them alone?"

"It's a cat's nature to catch mice," I said primly. "And before we got the cat, you promised you would do your fair share of the clean up. Remember? I believe I have it in writing."

This is true, by the way. I wasn't like this to begin with, but my kids are pretty good at weaseling out of their promises; over the years I've learned it pays to get things like this in writing, and it's saved me a lot of hassles.

She let out a long, exasperated sigh and threw her pillow across the room.

"Okay. I'll do it this time, but next time, she has to do it."

I held up a hand. "Excuse me, your sister has done it the last three times, so you're actually on for two more times."

Another roar. "I hate that cat!" She doesn't even sleep on my bed! She sleeps on your bed!"

"That doesn't make a bit of difference. It's still your turn and you know it."

Flinging the quilt aside, she did it: she got up.

And that was all I'd been waiting for: "APRIL FOOLS!!"

This is the fourth time they've fallen for it, and it just gets better and better.