Sunday, 31 August 2008

Recipe For Chaos


Any of the following, but the more, the better:

1 frantic man with mysteriously delayed passport

1 evasive British Passport and Border Control

1 exhausted woman on writing withdrawal, with expired U.S. passport

3 giddy teenagers in fever pitch of excitement

68 (approximate number) boxes of books, CDs, etc arranged in obstacle-course fashion throughout household, up and down staircases

1 neurotic cat determined to supply household with fresh meat on 3-hourly basis

1 flat crammed to bursting point with unnecessary foodstuffs, magazines, manuscripts, books, superfluous clothing, dodgy electric goods that frantic man, exhausted woman and giddy teenagers (above) are loathe to part with

150 (approximate number) important text/reference books that frantic man and exhausted woman cannot do without despite weight restriction of 20 kg and no household goods baggage allowance

32 important documents, 5 of which are guaranteed to go missing at last minute

4 brand-new laptops which 3 giddy teenagers are determined to play with when they should be packing

10 packed, locked suitcases which contain items above-mentioned frantic man, etc need at last minute

1 still hooked-up computer that exhausted woman finds a compelling distraction

Mix together well -- shake, stir, whatever. Stand well back and observe.

Note: While this is an authentic recipe guaranteed to produce results, we recommend that you don't try this yourselves, kids -- whatever age you are.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

One Of A Kind Cat

The cat knows something's up.

There are piles of books everywhere -- in boxes, on the remaining furniture, along the sides of the staircase. The contents of every drawer have been spilled out and rummaged through; suitcases stand open, and cardboard boxes are to be found every few feet.

On her soft little feet, the cat pads through the maze of boxes and piles of books, inspecting everything, glancing up at us with a question in her eyes. We can't take her with us, and it kills me to see her looking so mystified -- or curled up peacefully in a chair for that matter. She is very much my cat, and I know I'll never have another one like her.

Our living room has been turned into an obstacle course. We seem to have as many CDs as we do books, and boxes of them make getting around the room very hard. The phone rings non-stop, and inevitably it has been left beyond a waist-high stack of boxes.

The cat watches our frantic movement with a censorious eye. She is just waiting for someone to sit down so she can leap onto their lap and be petted. This rarely happens lately; no one has the time to spare.

So she does what any good cat will do when she senses her human enablers have grown a little distant: she brings us gifts. Normally, her favorite time for gift-giving is when I am having my weekly writing group meeting. Engrossed, I sit at the computer, instant-texting, and the cat knows she is not really welcome. So she goes out and exerts herself, and if she is lucky, I hear her hunting call, a low, mournful yowl that always means she has brought me something. If I am by myself, I have two choices. I can continue with my meeting and risk the chance of her devouring her catch messily on our one decent rug, or of her possibly still-viable prey crawling off to die under the sofa, unnoticed for days until the smell reaches our noses. Or I can catch it, fling it outside if it is still alive and unwounded -- or quickly dispatch it if it is beyond salvation. At first, I always tried to liberate the captured animal, but this gets old very fast when you have a champion hunter of a cat. Now I am inclined to let her have her way with whatever poor little creature she has caught; even if I manage to catch it and throw it outside, chances are that she'll only catch it again.

Last night, I was up late packing. In the kitchen, I have boxes of Asian foodstuffs piled high. We never managed to get through all the nori, the dehydrated tofu (I don't recommend this), the wakame, or the dried squid that my kids and husband have purchased in veritable job lots.

I was sitting between two stacks of boxes when I heard the cat-flap snap open, then shut. We generally have it locked on 'no-entry', but the cat has figured out a way to open it anyway.

And then I heard that yowl.

Bear in mind that I was in the middle of a maze. A maze composed of boxes of foodstuffs. Most of the time, the rodents the cat brings in have few places to hide. Sure, they can dive under a dresser, but at some point, they have to come out for food and water. But given the state of our kitchen now, every mouse in Scotland could hole up for five months and raise many generations of healthy offspring. And obviously I don't want this to happen.

We've intiated a non-swearing policy in this household. Bad words ostensibly cost the user fifty pence a shot, so whenever someone indulges in profanity, someone else shouts out Fifty pee! Everybody else was asleep last night or I'd have racked up a fortune.

By the time I got to bed, I'd been all over the kitchen with the broom, trying to ferret out the poor little rodent, half out of its wits with terror. I'd sprained my thumb and whacked my hip on the corner of the table and messed up my knees, crouching and trying to coax the rodent out. The cat got bored halfway through this and went to lie down in the living room. She's lucky she made it through the night.

We're pals again, and she's lying in my lap even as I write. I'll never have another cat like her. Good thing that works two ways.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Oh Amsterdam

With any luck, every parent goes through this. One day, when your kid is old and savvy enough, she will tell you all about a holiday she is planning. She will describe it to you in intricate detail: who she plans to go with, how she hopes to manage her money, the itinerary she wants to follow. She will ask if you think it is a good idea, meaning Do you think I'm ready for this? And you will look at her in all her trusting innocence and picture her out in the large, indifferent world and think Nooo!. She may be ready, but you're not. And yet, that really isn't her problem, is it? What's important is that she is ready and willing -- chomping at the bit, even. So no matter how you feel, if you know that she really is old enough to manage this, you must say Yes.

This happened to us a few months ago. Our eldest and her best friend, who now lives with us, came bursting into our living room, barely able to contain their glee: "We're going to go to Amsterdam!"

We grilled them about their travel plans, and they were amazingly sound. They had contingency plans. They had expectations that were relatively realistic, and they had responsible ways to manage their money. We knew that we could not say No this time; that you protect your kids as long as you can, but in the end, this is really what you're getting them ready for: the big flight. My father-in-law always claimed you knew you'd made it as a parent when your kids were itching to leave home. That when they called you up and told you they were having a blast, you knew your job was complete.

So I guess we've made it.

In another life, I too went to Amsterdam as a young, giddy twenty- something. I found a youth hostel there right in the middle of the red light district in Dam Square. My first week there, I saw an ad written in Japanese tacked to the hostel's bulletin board; a Japanese restaurant was looking for kitchen staff. I called them up, and the next day I had a job washing dishes in this restaurant. After working there a week, I had friends, one square meal a day at lunchtime (leftovers, true, but tasty and nutritious nevertheless), and a place to sleep for free: in the room just over the restaurant where the waitresses changed into their kimonos every evening. There was even a shower there, and a small library of Japanese graphic novels. I learned to read Japanese in America and Japan, but Amsterdam was where I developed my reading fluency. Those were heady days, and if my parents had said No to me way back when, where would I be?

We saw the eldest and her best friend off in Lockerbie at midnight. They were half out of their wits with excitement: two weeks in Amsterdam all by themselves! They had their debit cards tucked into their money belts, carefully-packed duffel bags, travel shampoo and conditioner, and a full complement of traveler's checks, much admired and examined. I resolved that I would not, under any circumstances, embarrass them by admonishing the bus driver to look after them. I would give them a quick, comradely hug; I would remind them to have fun.

It started raining and the bus was late. We didn't have umbrellas, and when a pack of loudmouth drunks hogged the bus shelter, leaving us to get soaked, I felt like shoving them out of the way. I felt like blazing a path before these two kids -- clearing the entire world of all the evil, selfish, hateful, unhelpful people so they could move freely and happily through it. And of course you cannot do that, so instead I gave them bear hugs and sloppy kisses and told them to have a good time for me.

My husband's resolve broke; he told the bus driver to look after them. The bus driver smiled and said he would do his best, and the bus pulled away.

"Well, that's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," my husband said as we watched the bus tail lights disappear. We drove home through the rain and mist and tried not to be too mournful. Kids are lucky. They live pretty much in the here and now. We parents ought to try doing that more.

We've had lots of phone calls and e-mails. They have found every decent Chinese restaurant in town, but they still haven't been to Anne Frank's house or any of the museums. We have been informed that Amsterdam is awash with hot-looking men. The Heineken Beer Factory (highly recommended by me) is sadly closed for repairs, and yesterday, my daughter gave directions to a young Asian man who bravely asked in English, but could not understand her answer -- until she switched to Japanese.

"I knew he was Japanese as soon as he started talking!" she burbled.

"Was he cute?"


"Are you having fun?"

"Yes, yes, yes!"

Looks like we've made it.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Imaginary Writing Process

The talented Jackson Pearce is responsible for this one. I saw it on YouTube (which I am informed by my horrified 14-year-old can never, under any circumstances, be abbreviated as U-Tube, never mind how fast and free modern youth play with other spellings) and felt that it was too good not to be shared with many, many people. So here it is, and if you have not tried to publish a book, stand back in awe at how easy -- and fun -- it is. Go on and give it a try!

Now I'm going back to sorting out dictionaries. Sigh.

And if on the off chance you get a book published right away, please don't ask me to buy it. (Hey, you never know -- it might just happen. After all, I've just learned to embed a U-Tube -- sorry, YouTube -- video.)

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Slinging Hash

I am up to my neck in books. I've got books on psycholinguistics, statistics (non-parametric and differential), grammar (standard and transformational), style, semantics, language learning, and God-knows-what-else. Including dictionaries and textbooks and cook books and comic books and silly joke books and crossword puzzle books and coffee table books and those dumb parody books you give people for Christmas when you can't think of anything else to give them. I almost wonder why I'm trying to write books, I've got so many.

I got so tired of packing books that I went outside into my garden and saw that in the past busy, rainy week, a whole slew of weeds has sprung up. Grass has taken root in places it has no business being, creeping buttercup has colonized half of my garden beds, and montbretia is making a triumphant comeback everywhere. This depressed me so much I took a stroll down the block. And met Stanley, our neighbor, a bed-and-breakfast proprietor who runs the equivalent of a small restaurant in his house.

Stanley is one of those neighbors you only get once in a lifetime. He will loan you anything and never need to borrow a thing in return. He is a marvelous cook who has run his own restaurant in the past; at least three times a month, my daughter, who works for Stanley and his equally lovely wife, brings home leftover vol au vents, sweet and sour fish, venison stew, pork-fried rice, barbeque spare ribs, mango and ginger cheesecake, and lemon grass shrimp. Nothing she brings home from Stanley's ever lasts the night in our fridge.

"You're still okay about Saturday morning, right?" Stanley asked me now, and I felt a slow burn spread over my cheeks. I had completely forgotten. In a heady moment after a bang-up meal prepared by Stanley a few months ago, I had agreed to cover for him one Saturday morning in August.

I was up to my knees in books and weeds and moving misery, yet I had to cook breakfast for a bunch of strangers. There are always at least five cars out in front of Stanley's house, so I knew there might be as many as ten people, maybe more. Stanley could cook for fifty people, in the dark with his hands tied behind his back and never break a sweat, but not me. I've cooked for dozens before, but it has been a frantic, hellish business. Short-order cooking, like waiting on tables, is vastly underrated -- especially when you do it right.

"You bet," I said. "I've got it on my calendar." Which was not a lie: I did. The problem is, the calendar is behind a wall of books. It's been hidden for the past week, and I haven't looked at it.

"Good," said Stanley, looking considerably relieved. "We've got fifteen people in on Saturday."

I did it. Six bowls of oatmeal, eight fried eggs, twelve strips of grilled bacon, ten sausages, sixteen roasted tomato halves, thirty-six fried mushrooms, twelve tatty scones, six disgusting grilled black puddings (I almost gagged just touching them), one broiled kipper, four poached eggs (one with broken yolk), and one problematic boiled egg later, but ladies and gentlemen, I am still breathing.

But I've still got a lot of books to pack.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Full-time Jack Of All Trades

My first job was when I was twelve. I deseeded chili peppers, unloaded sterilized soil from a huge oven, and picked peppers and avocados. I worked under my father's supervision, and after one day of this I began to see why he always came home tired. Whoever knew that simply breathing in the air around cut-up peppers would make your eyes tear up and your nose run? That soil could weigh so much or your neck and shoulders would ache after only twenty minutes of picking avocados? There is a challenge in picking avocados. The trees grow to a great height, so you have to wear a pith helmet to protect your head against falling fruit. You also wear a great bag around your waist and carry a telescoping aluminum picking pole with a sharp blade at the tip. When the bag is full, it pulls on your shoulders and they start to ache. Your neck hurts from being bent back, and you have to squint to prevent debris from falling into your eyes. And yet picking avocados is far easier than picking peppers, which grow on small plants low to the ground; you aren't constantly stooping, squatting, then standing up again, but more importantly, you can work in shade. I have seen migrant workers bent over in fields, moving from pepper plant to pepper plant picking fruit under the full blast of the sun. My mind boggles when I consider that there are people who do this for hours a day, week after week, to feed their families. This is hellish work.

My second job was babysitting. I worked in a small day-care nursery that catered to working mothers and students at our local university. I worked twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday, walking two miles from high school to my job. There were eight kids, from ages two through five, and I loved this job. I played with the kids, I sang songs with them, wiped their noses and made them snacks and told them stories. I also learned how to get bubble gum out of hair, a skill I have since put to good use. (Peanut butter rubbed in, in case you're wondering.)

My third and fourth jobs were as a file clerk and clerk typist for insurance companies in Miami, Florida. Filing is deadly boring and I lasted only a short time; they didn't like my attitude. By the time I got hired for my fifth job, I had learned to be more punctual and not to ask questions that people could not answer. I worked as a clerk typist at a large land development company, also in Miami. Ninety nine percent of the management were gay or bisexual, and the other workers were a lot of fun. This is the first job I proudly listed on my resume.

I have almost lost track of the jobs I did after this one. I worked as a dictaphone transcriber, a receptionist, a medical transcriber, a waitress, a cleaner, a babysitter, a unit clerk in a hospital. I painted signs and tutored children in reading and cleaned people's houses and typed out letters, dissertations and surgical operations. I filled orders, bused tables, washed dishes and waited on people, and somehow, I managed to put myself through college and graduate school, but it took ages. Time was money for me, and the work I did to pay my way through taught me a lot. Mainly it taught me that learning to do any job well was a challenge. And it taught me that I didn't want to end up filing or typing for a living.

Since graduating from university, I have worked as a medical secretary, waitress and portrait artist (San Francisco and New York City), potter and dish-washer (Amsterdam and s'Hertogenbosch), translator (Japanese to English), teacher of English and Japanese (California, Japan, The Netherlands, and Wales), and waitress, legal secretary and inn-keeper (Scotland). And of course, I've been a mother too. Am I a jack of all trades? Absolutely. And I've had a blast. Believe me, there are worse things to do with your life. I don't necessarily recommend this way of life, but I'm certainly not knocking it either.

My main line of work has been as a teacher in Japan, where I worked for seventeen years. Then I started doing rewriting, proofreading and translations of short articles and educational materials, all of which I loved. My husband and I got caught up in the yen trap: we earned good salaries, but we were stuck in Japan. Now being stuck in the Japan is not a bad thing per se, but we began to feel that our options were somewhat limited. We also began to worry that our kids, who were as fluent in Japanese as English, were missing out when it came to reading and writing their parents' language. So we moved to the U.K. and started a business.

The business prospered and our kids did well in school; we were miserable. So we sold up, and my husband retrained for a job that no one would hire him to do. Everyone told him he was over-qualified and advised him to dumb down his C.V. My husband is no slouch: in addition to teaching and writing, he has driven a tractor and picked grapes and hauled strawberries to the market. And though he has not been able to work in his chosen field -- English teaching qualifications are not recognized in Scotland -- he has managed to feed his family. My past work experience came in handy too: since settling here I have waited on tables and cleaned rooms and babysat for children. I have typed and filed too, but we live in a stunningly beautiful area and a lot of people have come here for quality of life reasons. Whenever a halfway decent secretarial job comes up, it is immediately snapped up by someone more secretarially qualified -- and more British. I have looked long and hard for a full-time job doing anything more challenging than waiting on tables or wrapping cheese, but I have not found one.

Then something utterly amazing happened: I sent some stories off to a writing competition and won first prize. Shortly after this, I entered a short story competition and won another prize. Someone paid me for another story, then a poem, then an essay. Admittedly, they all paid peanuts, but even a pittance that you earn through writing is huge. One thing led to another, and through writing -- and competing -- I met another writer, Kim Ayres, who encouraged me to start a blog. Until meeting Kim, I didn't even know what a blog was.

Even before that first wholly unexpected win, I was hooked on writing, but after this I began writing non-stop. If I'm ever properly published, I look forward to telling the world I became a writer because I could not make it as a legal secretary.

Now something else amazing has happened: our eldest daughter has passed her higher finals with flying colors and she has been accepted at the university of her choice. Upon learning this, my husband applied to over a dozen overseas teaching posts. Just last week, he and I were tentatively offered teaching posts in a land far away which I will not divulge as I do not want to tempt fate. So now we're packing up and moving away, and he'll take the high road and I'll take the low road, but we're all leaving Scotland together -- even our eldest, who claims this will be a kind of gap year for her. And although I am still bristling with stories, this is why I may not be able to post for some time.

It will be strange to be teaching full-time again, and there will be a lot of challenges getting used to living in yet another country. But I look forward to it too; waiting on tables and typing up depositions is only exciting for the first couple of weeks.

And whatever happens, I'll still be your Resident Alien.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Getting The Joke

My good husband has taken to watching comedy skits on YouTube. He comes home exhausted after a long hard day at work and he and our youngest sit together at the computer and laugh until the tears run from their eyes. Sometimes I even join them.

It has taken me some time, but I get British comedy skits now. At first, I was completely flummoxed by a large number of them, but now I can watch them and laugh almost as much as my husband. In fact, if any uninitiated Americans happen to watch them with us, I can even interpret.

The sad thing is that a lot of the American stuff confuses me no end now. There are cultural references that elude me -- and my husband. "Who's that?" he'll ask, or "What does that mean?" and I cannot answer. The other day, I was thrilled to be able to explain who Tammy Wynette was. He had no idea; the fact that she co-wrote and sang Stand by Your Man made everything clear.

Of course it's hardly news that humor is culturally bound, but one thing I've come to see is that a joke that is shared is far funnier. This must be why they always had canned laughter on the comedies of my youth. I always assumed that this was to prompt the audience to laugh, but now I see it was there because laughter needs to be shared. There is something rather sobering about being the only one who is laughing your head off. When everyone else laughs with you, the joke is better and the whole experience is infinitely richer.

Before I went to Japan for the first time, I went to see the movie Love at First Bite in a Manhattan cinema. There is a scene in which the hero, a Jewish psychiatrist, brandishes a Star of David at a vampire. In New York, this brought the house down, but when I happened to see the same movie about eight months later in Tokyo, you could have heard a pin drop. And suddenly it just wasn't as funny.

Or take the British skit that features a large group of British sub-Continentals who go to an English restaurant and eagerly study the menu. One of them insists that she cannot bear English food; that she must have something spicy. Her friend urges her to at least try something a little mild -- why go to eat English cuisine if you do not at least try? The skit ends with one of the young men bragging that he can take the very mildest dish of all. He gets a bit too exuberant and begins to dance on the tables and behave loutishly. The first time I saw this, I was fresh off the boat and it sailed right over my head. The second time I saw it -- after years in the U.K. -- I could hardly stay in my seat. The fact that everyone else around me thought it was hilarious made it all the funnier.

When you cannot understand the humor because of linguistic and cultural limitations, you are doubly cursed. Once at a friend's house, we played a silly party game in which a series of questions with obvious answers are read out. Everyone knows, of course, that the obvious answers cannot possibly be the right ones: the response to What does a dog do on three legs, a man do on two, and a woman do sitting down? will absolutely have nothing to do with peeing. Everyone knows this, of course, except any hapless non-native English speakers who are present. We'd all had a laugh over the answer (shaking hands) and moved on to the next question when one of the guests, a boy from France, suddenly leapt to his feet, after long deliberation, and shouted "Pissing!" This response made us laugh far harder than the joke itself, and for the life of us, we could not explain to him why it was so funny.

I don't think I could count the times this happened to me in Japan. When all around me, people were laughing themselves silly and I just sat there, aching to understand the joke, but not getting it at all. There is nothing sadder than not getting the joke when everybody else does. I remembered the boy from France and his triumphant "Pissing!" and felt great sympathy. Even if you crack the linguistic code, you've still got the cultural hurdle left to negotiate, and chances are that if you manage both of these against all odds, you'll be too tired to get the joke.

But boy, when you do, it's heady stuff. "What beer makes you smarter?" a beginning EFL student asked me once. I pretended not to know the answer. "Budweiser!" she screamed, and the rest of the class got quiet. Brows were furrowed. Puzzled looks were exchanged and lips silently mouthed the words. All of a sudden there were explosions of laughter as student after student got the joke. I did my best to laugh along with them.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Made For Music

Before we moved into our house, the landlady, who lived next door, told us that her daughter Mizuho was a concert pianist.

"She lives in Vienna," the landlord added. "She's been studying there for twelve years."

"It hasn't been easy for her," his wife put in. "People don't like living next door to a music student; it's too noisy."

"She's been kicked out of her last two flats," the landlord said. "She moves in and no sooner has she got the place all fixed up but they want her out."

"It doesn't help that she's a foreigner," they sighed. "So we can imagine how hard it must have been for you, trying to find a house to rent."

In fact, it had been hellish for us to find a place to live in the suburbs of Tokyo, and our landlady's sympathy was appreciated. Few landlords wanted to rent to a foreign couple with a ten-month-old baby, especially when one of them did not speak much Japanese. The house we were moving into had crumbling plaster and rattly windows. The roof was sound and there was a little patch of garden out in front -- a huge rarity in the Tokyo area -- but it was old and dilapidated. In short, it was nearly perfect for a couple with a soon-to-be toddler.

The house was unfurnished except for a grand piano in our front room which almost entirely filled the space. This room had fake wood paneling and a cracking linoleum floor. With its smooth dark wood polished to a high gloss, the piano looked as out of place as a jewel on a dung heap.

"It's Mizuho's," our landlady told us. "We'll be moving it into our new house, but we've had to hire a company with a crane."

A week later, the piano movers wrapped the piano in a blanket, took our sliding glass windows out of their frames and managed to lever the piano out. We shielded our eyes from the sun, watching its slow progress through the air. There was a lot of salty language as they painstakingly maneuvered it into the upstairs window of the house next door.

For five long years, the piano sat silent. Then one day, our landlady came over, her face lit up with happiness. "Our daughter is coming home this weekend!" she informed us. A week later, she proudly introduced me to Mizuho.

"Will you be playing the piano?" I asked eagerly.

"Yes, but I'll try not to make too much noise," Mizuho assured me, creasing her brow.

"Make all the noise you want!" I told her. "We love piano music!"

For the next four years, we could hear her playing from early morning until around ten at night. She was a fantastic piano player and we never once tired of listening to her, but we learned that we could not tell her this. Just mentioning her playing made her nervous. "I hope it wasn't too loud!" she would say anxiously. Clearly, her experiences in Vienna had made a dint in her confidence.

"It wasn't loud at all -- it was heavenly! You have amazing talent!"

"Really, if it is too loud, you must complain. My father has put in sound insulation, but I can play at different hours if it bothers you."

We finally had to give up complimenting her.

Lying on our futons, my husband and I would smile and sigh as a ripple of chords came wafting across. It made us think of birds singing, water splashing, a sunlit morning. "Debussy, isn't it?" one of us would ask the other.

"I think so. What was that thing she was playing earlier?"


"I thought it was Mozart."

"Maybe it was."

"What was that piece you were playing first thing this morning?" I once made the mistake of asking Mizuho.

She bit her lower lip and clasped her hands. "I'm so sorry! Was it too loud?"

No amount of reassuring could persuade her that it was not.

In fact, it was never too loud. Her music would soothe my headaches. It lulled our kids to sleep. We felt so grateful that we could retire every night to a virtual piano concert. When our eldest was six, Mizuho offered to give her piano lessons in return for English lessons from me. I eagerly accepted, and we got the better deal.

Clearly, Mizuho was a dedicated musician -- almost obsessively so. I marveled that our landlady, who did not seem pushy or academically minded and was by her own admission no musician herself -- should have a girl for whom music was everything. I pictured Mizuho as a small child, forced to practice hours a day. Our daughter had to be pushed; what a lot of patience our landlady must have had!

"I don't know how you did it," I told her once, after we'd pestered our eldest to do her twenty minutes of practice. "But whatever you did, it really worked!"

She stared at me. "I didn't do anything. In fact, I begged her to stop practicing. I had to bribe her to go outside and play with her friends." She sighed. "If I hadn't interfered, she would never have left the piano at all."

That night Mizuho played again. I think it was Vivaldi.