Thursday, 29 May 2008

A Refrigerator For Jacob

I first heard about Jacob from Michael, one of my American colleagues in Tokyo. Jacob was a Nigerian, a fellow worshipper at Michael's largely Japanese church.

"He works in a factory doing crap work no one else will do," Michael told me. Jacob wanted to save enough money so he could go back to Nigeria and buy a house for his wife. They had only been married a few months.

When it turned out that Jacob's wife would be able to join him in Tokyo, Jacob was beside himself with joy: the lease for the tiny apartment he rented would allow two people, and he had already found his bride a job as a cleaning lady at a chemical company. With both of them working, they would be able to earn so much money!

Michael felt sorry for Jacob, a trained teacher with a sound education and hopes for the future. Unlike us, Jacob had little chance of finding a teaching job in Japan. Instead, he had to work with chemicals that burnt his hands and made him cough. His eyes watered constantly, and he had tiny scars on his face and arms from the spattering acid he used. His work conditions were poor, and of course the job was illegal, so he had no benefits, no holidays, no health insurance, and no pension.

But Jacob was very optimistic about his life and prospects. When his wife finally arrived, he might have been the happiest man on earth according to Michael. They were both earning fabulous salaries -- and they were finally together! If they were careful with their money, they would be able to take plenty back to Nigeria. Truly, God had been good to them.

"If you've got any stuff you don't need, I know they'd be grateful for it," Michael said.

I brought in superfluous cutlery and bedding and and Michael always reported how thrilled Jacob and his wife were with everything. When my husband and I bought a larger refrigerator from a sayonara sale, I mentioned to Michael that our old, smaller one was available if Jacob was interested. He was, so I cleaned out the refrigerator and Michael paid to have it shipped to the outskirts of Tokyo, where Jacob and his wife lived. The next day he reported how delighted they were with it.

For the next several months, I heard about Jacob from time to time. That his wife's job was long and difficult; she too had to work with strong chemicals with poor ventilation, and was on her feet all day long. When she or Jacob got ill, they still had to work. Their bosses did not treat them with respect. Jacob spoke good, though heavily accented English, but almost no Japanese, so Michael ended up serving as his interpreter. "I couldn't work for a guy like that even one hour," he confided. "He treats Jacob like he ought to be grateful to have the job, when it's really Jacob who's doing him the favor."

One day I asked how Jacob and his wife were doing and Michael told me that our donated refrigerator had broken down. It was summer, and a very hot one, too. I was appalled: true, the refrigerator had been old, but we'd had every confidence it would last another few years.

My heart went out to Jacob and his wife. They had recently been ill and his wife had just lost her job. It must have been hellish, the both of them stuck in their cramped little apartment without even a refrigerator to keep their drinks cool. But Michael insisted that Jacob was still in the best of spirits. "He thinks he can find another job for his wife. And the day the refrigerator broke down, they went out and found that someone had dumped the exact same model -- they couldn't get over the coincidence. It was filthy inside, but when they got it home it worked just fine. Since yours was nice and clean, they just replaced the stuff inside, and now they have a brand new refrigerator." He smiled sadly. "Jacob still thinks he's well and truly blessed."

In many respects, he really was.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Not Another Charity Appeal

After the recent natural disasters in China and Myanmar, Kanani reminds us to donate to the Red Cross.

If you're anything like me, you will groan inwardly at the thought of giving again. Not another charity appeal!

Last week, I stood out on the street with a plastic container and a sheaf of red stickers, collecting for Christian Aid. I started doing this a few years ago when a friend asked if I would join her, and although I feel spectacularly foolish as I stand out there holding my red and white container and adjusting my expression -- which is no mean feat -- I always enjoy doing this. This is not because I am a kind and charitable person. (I strive to be, but generally fall short of my own expectations.) No, I enjoy doing this because it gives me a chance to shamelessly people watch.

Saturday the 17th was damn cold here in our small Scottish town. It was rainy, too, and although I had an umbrella, I could not manage to hold it over my head and hold the container and sheaf of stickers, which were wet to begin with when I took over from the previous volunteer. I must have looked pretty pitiful standing there, trying rather unsuccessfully to keep the rain off me, working hard on my expression.

If you ever have to do anything like this yourself, I will tell you right now that getting the expression right is always harder than keeping your hands warm or keeping your feet from going numb -- both real considerations when you're standing still for two or three hours straight. You have to aim for humble, but confident, and it is essential to get the balance just right. Look too humble and people will despise you; look too confident and people will shun you. You are not allowed to shake or rattle your container, and verbal appeals for money are strictly forbidden; beseeching eye contact, too, is discouraged. As I stood there, I couldn't help but think of Empress Michiko of Japan, who has this look down to an art. Casting my eyes down, I kept a small, hopefully self-respecting smile on my face as though to say I am not a threat to you, but I do hope that you will give. From time to time, I fine-tuned this according to the passers-by, putting in just a suggestion of self-deprecation or plain, dumb stupidity. Both of these come naturally to me, so were not much of a strain.

And I shamelessly used my accent. Whenever anyone put money into my container I always thanked them and offered a sticker. In most cases, the donor would take a step back and look me up and down.

"What's an American doing in Scotland?" they would ask.

"Collecting for Christian Aid," I quipped. "And aren't you lucky I'm not a Canadian?" This made the nice ones smile and ask me where I was from.

"California. And no, I don't feel sorry for myself; I love this weather."

On three separate occasions, that comment got Christian Aid extra coins.

What I enjoy the most about collecting for charity is that I can never tell who will give and who will not. The people who look like generous, salt of the earth types often pass me by without so much as a glance. Proud, snooty-looking people often put money into my container without making a big deal of it; a few who can definitely afford to give generously (well known in this town for their ostentatious wealth) make a big deal of giving me the tiniest of donations.

One woman took real exception to me and my collecting can. "Your envelope was very big this year," she said angrily as she put ten pence into the can. (I tried not to look, but I couldn't help myself.)

I wanted to sympathize. I really do know how she feels; you get compassion fatigue when you've received your fifth charity appeal of the week. You think of your pitiful pension, the leaks in your roof, the two new tires you need and the scholarship your kid is not going to get for university. How will you ever find the money, and is it your fault that the world is so screwed up? That impoverished countries cannot or will not feed their own people; that selfish despots bleed their countries dry to purchase fancy cars and bathtubs made of gold?

"It's hard to give," I admitted. "You feel like there'll never be an end to it. But we've got roofs over our head and enough to eat and--"

The woman rolled her eyes at me and interrupted with a disgusted "Hmph!" Later, I saw her getting into a nice, new-looking Volvo across the street and I seethed inwardly: we bought our car secondhand off E-bay; the brakes don't work right; the windows don't always roll up; the throttle body is carbonized so the car tends to stall in lower gears. I wish we had a Volvo. Then I wondered if the angry woman in the Volvo wished she had a Jaguar.

Do any of us really realize how lucky we are?

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Mud, Glorious Mud

We've had one of the driest months I can remember here in Scotland. It's so dry that whenever I go walking in the surrounding countryside, all the fields that are usually great slippery wastelands of mud are now perfectly navigable stretches of land that can be easily crossed. Walking has become virtually hazard free, and I am grateful. I am not a sure-footed creature and all too many times I've ended up on my butt, providing unintentional amusement to friends and family.

After leaving Southern California ages back, I moved to a succession of rainy places where mud was common. Believe it or not, I had to learn an entirely different way to walk. In my hometown, there was a lot of sand everywhere, mainly decomposed granite. This blew over the pavement and settled there, insidious to the unsure-footed. Countless times as a child -- ever ungainly -- I went sliding on that loose sand and ended up on my knees. It took me a long time to learn that I didn't have to negotiate sidewalks carefully after I moved away from my hometown, and it took me even longer to learn how to walk on mud without sinking knee deep in it. Now I can tell just from a glance whether I can put my foot down on a spot without slipping or getting sucked into it, but when we first got here it was a different story.

"You hate mud, don't you, mom?" my youngest said to me one day when I'd gotten ankle deep in the stuff for the fifth time.

"Yes--" I started to say -- then stopped. Because I didn't always hate mud. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It was hot where I grew up; just going outside in the summer could be exhausting. You couldn't really exert yourself in such heat, and air-conditioning wasn't an option when your parents were as frugal as mine. My sisters and I spent whole days sitting in the shade outside, longing for cool. It always amazed us to think there were people living in places like Oregon or Washington who actually complained about all the rain they got.

One day a neighbor happened to mention that there had once been an underground spring in the hills near our house. For three whole months, we nurtured the fantasy that there might be evidence of this spring somewhere. I spent a few days searching for it, clambering over boulders and behind clumps of sagebrush as I braved the rattlesnakes, bullthorns and horny toads in my flip flops. But I never found it.

Then on our way home from school one September day, my sisters and I made a wonderful discovery. Just at the edge of the field behind our house, we found a bubbling, gushing pool that seemed to come from nowhere. Was this the underground spring come to life again? We didn't care. The water turned parched, blistering sand into a delightfully muddy swamp. For a blissful week we played in this, bringing cups and twigs and other bits to make a Kingdom of Mud. Life had suddenly gotten a lot more interesting, and it was all because of this underground spring that had so fortuitously appeared.

It didn't last long.

"Why are your clothes always so dirty when you come home?" our mother asked us one day. "And -- you smell!" Innocently, we told her about the wonderful new spring. She frowned. "Show me where it is." And like idiots, we did.

The next day, engineers came to fix the leaky sewer pipe. We had been playing for a whole week in raw sewage.

"You could have gotten cholera!" our mother said, appalled. "You should have told me right away!"

We made no response. We were wishing with all our hearts that we hadn't told her. So what if it was raw sewage? It was cool, beautiful mud, and now it was gone forever.

There was a lesson in this -- one I've always remembered: It's not crap if you like it

Sunday, 18 May 2008

The Henpecked Husbands Meeting

"What the hell is this?" my husband demanded one day, slapping a piece of paper in front of me. He'd brought it back from our kids' nursery school. It was all in Japanese except for the title, in English: WELCOME ALL YURI GUMI FATHERS TO A HENPECKED HUSBANDS' MEETING!

I should point out here that Japanese nursery schools name the various year groups after flowers, and our five-year-old was in yuri gumi, the 'lily group.'

"It's from Ayaka's dad," I said, reading it. "He wants to start a fathers' group. He's proposing a get-together of all the yuri gumi dads."

"But why henpecked husbands?"

"Beats me. I guess you'll have to go to find out."

My husband groaned, not being a terribly social animal. The school organized enough events as it was; the last thing we needed was an extra group activity.

The nursery school our kids attended was for the children of working parents. Given how busy we all were, we found ourselves amazed and overwhelmed by the number of extracurricular activities parents were expected to attend. Over the course of a year, you were expected to attend New Year's parties, classroom observations, parent-teacher meetings (yes, even for babies and tiny tots in nursery school), summer festivals, sports days (obligatory all-day events of vast importance), school concerts and recitals, Christmas parties, and more. And I really do mean more, too: there were school weed-picking details, rice-pounding ceremonies, potato pot cook-outs, girls' and boys' day events, fund-raising and recycling get-togethers, and a host of other 'volunteer' activities.

In the U.K., we were one day to find out, parents get off easy.

For instance, a Japanese friend of ours went to live in Cambridge for a year with her husband, a visiting scholar, and their fifteen-year-old son, who has Downs syndrome. Not knowing any better, she dutifully attended every event her son's school put on. In fact, she was amazed at how few there were and how poorly they were attended by the other parents. Just before she went back to Japan, the entire teaching staff came out to see her off. "We wish all the parents were like you!" they said, hugging her and shaking her hand. "They actually had tears in their eyes," she told me. "Just because I turned up to a handful of events and made a few dozen cupcakes!"

Although we exerted ourselves far more than we wanted to at our kids' schools, I know we left the opposite impression in Japan. We got into big trouble when our eldest was a year old and we failed to show up at her nursery school's sports day and the summer festival. We had no idea attendance was mandatory.

My husband was desperate to get out of the henpecked husbands' meeting.

"I go to all the mothers' meetings," I told him.

"But this is just a bunch of fathers--"

"I did the weed pulling and the curtain laundering," I pointed out. "You ought to meet the other fathers. You guys hardly ever see each other." This was true: most of us mothers saw each other when we picked up our kids or at the supermarket. We talked a lot.

"I've got nothing in common with these guys!"

"You all work full-time, your wives all work, you have kids who attend the same school, you're tired all the time--"

"But I can't speak Japanese!"

"You can speak enough for something like this!"

"This is just so stupid," he fumed. "What are we going to talk about?"

"Do what we Moms do. We talk about our kids."

He looked incredulous. "For three straight hours?" From nine to midnight was written on the flier.

"Three hours wouldn't be enough time for us."

I knew Ayaka's mother pretty well, so the next time I saw her, I mentioned the henpecked husbands' meeting. She snorted. "Henpecked husbands! Where does he get off calling himself henpecked? I told him not to call it that!"

A few of the other mothers objected to henpecked too, when they found out what it meant.

"I work full time," one of them sighed. "I get up at six in the morning and leave the house at seven thirty and I don't get back until twelve hours later. I do all the laundry, most of the shopping -- and I clean the toilets. If my husband thinks he's henpecked, what does that make me?"

All week long, my husband moaned and fretted about the Henpecked Husbands Meeting. So did Ayaka's mother, who resented her husband for considering himself henpecked.

My husband eagerly embraced this as an argument against attending the meeting. "It's sexist! I don't want to get together with a lot of guys who want to whine about their wives."

Ayaka's father smiled and shrugged when I mentioned his use of henpecked. "It's just a joke," he said. "Mainly, I'd just like to meet the other fathers."

On the night of the Henpecked Husbands Meeting, my husband dragged his feet every inch of the way, leaving the house as late as he possibly could, looking sulky and miserable. The entire time he was gone, I pictured him glowering over his beer, taking furtive peeks at his watch, itching to go home.

He got back very late that night. "Was it awful?" I asked.

He shook his head. "I had a great time. They're really nice guys."

I was relieved -- and amazed. "What did you talk about?"

My husband smiled. "We talked about our kids."

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Joining The Club

The couple downstairs from us have just had a baby.

"It's great," the proud father said. "He doesn't cry at all."

The baby was all of one day old and it was all I could do not to smile. "That'll come," I couldn't help saying.

"No, I don't think it will," our neighbor contradicted. "I think it's just his nature. He's very placid."

Bless him. I said the exact same thing myself once and I vaguely remember being infuriated by the amused and knowing looks people gave me. People who had real, seasoned children instead of newborn babies.

When you decide to have a baby, you join one of the biggest clubs in the world. For most of us new members, learning how to be parents is a fiddly, exhausting business with a steep learning curve. Half the world seems to know how to do it better, seems more efficient, secure and successful. And they're just itching to tell you all about it, too.

When I look back on our first day with a new baby, I marvel at the extent of our ignorance. I recall how we longed to recognized as full-fledged members of the club. To be appreciated for our efforts and applauded for choosing the path we had taken. So I congratulated our neighbor and I hope I didn't look too cynical at what he said about his baby having a placid nature.

We've come almost full circle now, my husband and I: we have just celebrated our eldest's 17th birthday. Cliche that it is, the past seventeen years have gone by so fast, we can hardly get over it. We both clearly remember when we were expecting her -- the sense of joy and anticipation.

Our washing machine broke down only a week before our daughter was due, and we were anxious to get it fixed in time. The repairman was a dour fellow who did his job well. "That's done then," he told us, washing his hands. "Ought to work fine now."

We were relieved to hear this and we told him so. "I guess it's obvious we're having a baby," my husband said proudly as I stood there next to him, positively sumoesque.

The man glanced at me briefly and nodded. "You're in for it," he muttered darkly.

"You have children, then?" my husband asked, despite himself.

"Oh aye," said the man. "Teenagers. And I wish they'd never been born."

He said this with such conviction that we were stunned. We didn't get it: we couldn't wait to be parents, couldn't wait to hold our new baby in our arms and get on with the business of raising her. Why were so many parents so negative about their children? Every day we heard parents snapping at their children in supermarkets, yelling at them on the streets. The people who lived just behind us, an otherwise pleasant couple, were forever screaming at their toddlers: two-year-old twins. Why?

In another couple of years, we were beginning to understand why. Kids don't necessarily do what you tell them to do no matter how well you phrase it. We found ourselves sounding a lot like our neighbors and had even come to respect them for their admirable patience. One feisty toddler can be a headache a minute when you're trying to mow the lawn: two in one go doesn't bear thinking about. And seventeen years after our repairman's passionate and negative declaration, we have come to understand what he must have been wrestling with too. We've been there, and it isn't pretty. No doubt we have more to come, too, as our youngest wades her way through adolescent angst, and all we can do is support each other through it and hope for the best. What else can we do?

No matter how frustrated we get, though, we won't let on to our neighbors. They've just joined the club and they need all the encouragement they can get.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Passing It On

One night my husband came home fuming. He had been changing trains in Nishifunabashi Station as usual, and had met another foreigner.

"Where are you from?" the fellow foreigner had asked, and my poor unsuspecting husband went and told him.

"British?" the foreigner spat out, in an indisputably American accent. "You mean English?"

My husband nodded.

"Well, I'm Irish. We hate you guys."

Having already had a rough day, my good husband couldn't let this go. "Why?"

"Oh, you know," the American said, gesturing vaguely. "For all that stuff you did."

For what it is worth, my husband was born in 1960 and this man admitted that he was a third generation American.

Now I suspect that this man was exceptional in his narrow-mindedness; that he too may have had a bad day and just wanted to take it out on somebody. But his attitude, though perhaps extreme, is not uncommon in America.

I will never forget the first time I heard an uncle of mine tell another uncle about my husband, whom he had just met. "He's English," I clearly heard him say, "but he's real nice."

Catch that use of 'but'?

One of the legacies passed on from generation to generation in my mother's family was a mistrust of the English. Not the British, the English. This feeling was vague and complex and had many roots, but it was very much a presence. We all knew that the English were elitest. That they had a class system and snubbed people they deemed inferior. They were opportunistic and greedy too, having violated the Union's blockade of Southern ports during the Civil War, thus actively aiding and abetting the South to export their sinful, slavery-tainted cotton. (We were largely Unionists in my family and tried to forget the few rebels in our background.) The English, so the story went, had hired Germans to fight us during the American Revolution, not wanting to sully their own hands. They had done everything in their power to stir up hostile Indians against us; they owned the Kentucky mines that we Welsh, Irish, and Scots had toiled, bled, and even died in. They made their children take difficult tests at an excessively early age and moreover, they didn't even raise them, entirely trusting to nannies and other menials to do their dirty work. Besides, they ate with fish forks and knives; they had a queen, and they put on airs.

It was only after I started working at a British company in Tokyo that I saw how wrong some of these assumptions had been. Plenty of my co-workers -- people we would have identified as English -- were in fact of Irish or other extraction. No one I ever met admitted to being raised by a nanny, and those with poncey, elitist ways were openly mocked. When Prince Charles came to open our school with the soon-to-be Japanese crown prince, those in management were hard put to find any junior staff members to join the welcoming crowd. Big deal seemed to be the prevailing attitude.

Having lived in the U.K. for almost eight years, I have seen for myself that the image many Americans have formed about the British, and the English in particular, is little more than a silly stereotype no more to be trusted than the image many people have of us Americans as ignorant, xenophobic loudmouths. And yet this attitude against the English persists, and people are only too eager to have their prejudices reinforced.

"Where's the place Braveheart happened?" an American tourist in Scotland once asked me. "We want to go visit it."

"You'll have to go back to California," I told him. "Braveheart was pretty much a Hollywood fiction. It's a hodge-podge of things that sort-of happened and a lot of things that didn't."

He didn't believe me. His ancestors were Scotch-Irish too, and like me, he'd been raised to think that the English were a bunch of poncey elitists just itching to subjugate, loot, and rule the world. He cited the British ship owners who benefited from the slave trade, the ships that broke through the blockade to purchase Southern cotton, the English who sent thousands of Irish men and women to work as slaves in the Caribbean.

Hollywood has been quick to capitalize on anti-English sentiment, and people accept what they see in the movies as the gospel truth. Even my kids' classmates point to Braveheart as an example of English cruelty when what it really shows is the power of Hollywood and the tenacity of our own prejudice.

This is not to say that the English haven't done plenty of bad things historically. Of course they have, as have so many countries. But just as I resent the stereotypes held against Americans, I find these prejudices against the English exasperating and baffling. It is as though England's past empire has made the English a safe target for those of us who are looking for others to bash.

We can pass on so much to our children. Knowledge, a love of reading or sports or collecting, family stories, any number of useful tips and ideas. We can and should tell them about history, too; the great wrongs that have been perpetrated in this world should never be forgotten. But why do we choose to pass on our hatred and prejudices? Why is it not possible to discuss the events of history without encouraging our children and grandchildren to nurture the same grievances our ancestors had?

I told the American tourist something I had just learned: that it was a handful of Englishmen and women who started the movement against the slave trade. That a town of newly-freed slaves was named after one of them in Jamaica, that these people dedicated most of their lives to the abolition of slavery.

But he was too busy writing down Bannockburn to listen.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Wasp Nest

One summer when we were living in Japan, we realized we had a wasp nest in our attic, just over the front door.

At first, there had just been the odd scout. Live and let live, we said to each other. The odd wasp won't hurt us. Our house was pretty much Grand Central Station for insects and other invertebrates, after all: we had sowbugs, cockroaches, earwigs, mosquitoes, centipedes, spiders, daddy long legs, and a variety of pet -- and free range -- crickets. But over the course of weeks, that scout found a few buddies and pretty soon we were seeing a dozen wasps a minute. I got out my dictionary, then the yellow pages, and found a couple of numbers for exterminators. But no one answered at the first place I called, and the people at the second company were rude and unhelpful. We put off doing anything about the wasps until my husband, taking in the laundry one evening, got stung on the hand. His fingers and knuckles swelled up so badly it looked like he was wearing a boxing glove. "Don't get stung again," the doctor advised him.

I called the first exterminator again and got a recorded message. I hate recorded messages even in English-speaking countries, but in Japan they gave me cold sweats. Nevertheless, I did the necessary and left my message. I'll bet they had a field day with it when they played back the tape: Hello. I live in Abiko. There is a wasp nest over our front door, inside the, um, attic. We hope you will be able to get rid of it. As soon as possible. Please. Like an idiot, I hung up before giving them our number and had to call back.

A week passed and the exterminators did not call us back. As I was getting more and more nervous about one of the kids getting stung, I decided to take matters into my own hands. My husband could not do it given his allergy; clearly, I was going to have to figure something out and do it myself.

"You've got to get rid of the queen," a friend at work told me. "If the queen is there, no matter what you do, you'll still have wasps."

"Wait for the exterminator to call you back," another friend advised. "You'll get stung if you do it yourself, and it's messy, nasty work."

But I am nothing if not pig-headed, and besides, I liked the idea of saving us the hefty extermination fee. I knew where the hole was; I figured if I blocked it up, no wasps could get in and I would starve the queen.

But first, I had a cunning plan: I would take out as many soldiers as I could. This way I could gain access to the entry hole without fear of being swarmed while I plugged it up.

I had noticed that the wasps became active at an early hour. Opening the sliding glass door at five o'clock in the morning, I stood on a table, switched on the vacuum cleaner, and waited. Soon, an eager wasp soldier came flying towards the nest. Holding the vacuum cleaner nozzle aloft, I put it up against the entry point. The wasp was sucked right into the vacuum cleaner. Banzai!

"Is it working?" my husband asked dubiously from the safety of our bedroom.

"Yes!" I shouted back. "They're going for it!"

That first wasp was followed by another, then another, then another. All of them dived obligingly into my nozzle without the slightest hesitation.

Five minutes passed and still the wasps came in a long, steady procession. One of our neighbors, walking past in a business suit, glanced at me in amazement as I stood there shouldering my nozzle, waiting for the soldiers to start thinning out.

But they didn't.

I think I spent an hour, all told, sucking up wasps. My back ached; my arms and shoulders were on fire, and still the wasps came, one after another, to tumble into the Great Unknown of my nozzle. If I hadn't finally given up, I do believe I would be there still. One thing I can promise you is that there are an awful lot of wasps in the world.

As I left for work a few hours later, they were still lining up to get into our attic. And we needed a new vacuum cleaner.

Friday, 2 May 2008

A Bunch Of Reasons I Have Trouble Getting Published

My fellow bloggers Merry and Angelique (who also posts on Breaking the Mirror) have tagged me for one of those Six Weird Things memes.

Now, I have been hesitating about posting another one of these weirdness memes. Not because I'm ashamed of being weird. No, I'm a woman who embraces her inner weirdness and greatly admires others who do, like my blogging pal Ello, who can make me laugh so hard I spill beverages on my keyboard. And it isn't because I don't have enough weird stuff to post, either; if anything, I'm spoiled for choices. No, my reasons for taking my time over this post are quite the contrary: This blog is already so much about me that even a self-absorbed person like myself has to take a step back and worry about overload.

So, because I'm really not quite as self-absorbed as I come off in this blog (almost, but still not quite), I want to do something a little different here. I have picked, at random, a number of blogs whose writers fill me with awe, and I've found some way to link them all to my own weird attributes. Some of these blogs you will be familiar with, some you may not. But I firmly believe that it is talent like this that has kept me from getting published. (See how deftly I manage to whip it around to me, me, me? That's a special skill for sure, but is it recognized? Is it rewarded?)

If you don't see your name here, by the way, that does NOT mean that I don't envy you and wish you'd stop writing so well. It means that I've got repetitive stress issues, and I don't want to bring down Blogger. I'm betting I'll be doing more of these weirdness posts -- if you've got it, flaunt it, right? -- and I'll get to you eventually,whether you like it or not.

1) I come from a fanatically cat-loving family. If anyone can top our highest number (21, one incredible summer), feel free and call me on this. Both of my parents brought home stray cats, as does the gifted and generous Kanani, even my father, who was allergic to cats, as is my dog-owning, cat-loving blogging pal Katie Alender, who has also written a YA novel that sounds terrific, as has Danette, who might or might not like cats, but is another fine writer. (Confusing paragraph, yes, but I had to pack a lot in there.)

Eventually we became known as the weird people who would take anybody's cats and people started dumping their spare cats at our house. We invariably took them in and fed them. We were rather poor, and my parents refused to take them to the veterinarian, so my sisters and I pooled our babysitting money and started getting them fixed. When we grew up and got boyfriends, the one question always asked was Does he like cats? Race, religion, occupation and intelligence were pretty much secondary issues, but a no answer to the cat question was unsupportable. Cat lovers with allergies were sorely pitied; Katie, I feel your pain.

2) I can eat just about anything as long as it isn't of animal origin, unlike my wonderful friend and fellow blogger Carolie, who is also a talented and creative cook who once ran her own restaurant, worked as a wardrobe master for the circus, and writes incredibly interesting posts and letters.

3) I am a Californian living in Scotland, raising kids who are a weird hybrid of cultures. Sam is my counterpart: a Scot living in California, raising kids who I'm guessing call her Mom. Sam has a huge following, which is well deserved. If she wrote a book, I would wait in line to buy it; the library is great, but you have to return the books you borrow and I wouldn't want to return hers. Her writing is so good and so utterly zany, it defies description. If you're a struggling writer hoping to publish, you'll be as sick with envy as I am every time I read her posts.

4) Since I'm a Californian living in Scotland, I'm obviously an expatriate, as are the marvelously talented Christine Eldin, Kim and Mr Gorilla Bananas (the only gorilla on my blogroll, to my knowledge), and the aforementioned Carolie and Sam. Actually, I suspect that Mr Bananas lives in the U.K., but I'm betting from his writing that he has been an expatriate. And besides, a gorilla living in the human world is arguably an expatriate wherever he goes. If you think you can write, please go and look at his blog -- not that he needs any more readers. Kim, who is the reason I started a blog in the first place, has a unique ability to suffer fools: he talked me through all the technical stuff, and we're talking serious foolishness here. He doesn't need any more readers either, but I am still honor-bound to direct you to his blog. Before I started reading blogs like these, I used to think I could write too. A former short-term expatriate and a depressingly confidence-tapping fine writer is Susan Sandmore, who can also find sharks' teeth and decide when she is going to give birth. Whoever says we only get one great gift in life ought to go read her blog; I reckon she's been given someone else's share. If she weren't so nice and amazingly generous with her spot-on critiques, I'd mind a lot more.

5) I grew up with rather old-fashioned, religious parents, as did Carole, a fellow hick who happens to write deeply moving, honest, and reflective posts. In fact, I come from a long line of religious fanatics, including lay preachers, missionaries, and random religious nutters, and I long to talk with Carole about this some day, if she manages to visit Scotland while we're still here. A background like ours pretty much shapes your life, like it or not, and I find that I readily bond with others who've had similar upbringings. My parents were also serious hoarders, like Kathie's parents. Until I found Kathie's blog, I assumed I was the only one who had parents like this. It is one thing to have hoarding parents, of course; it is quite another to be able to write about them with humor and compassion. Kathie's post about hoarding is so good that I go back to read it whenever I need a lift, and it never disappoints.

6) John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces is one of my favorite books, something I share with Kara, another fine writer. Not that I begrudge her. Not that I begrudge any of you; my only question is Why do there have to be so many of you?