Friday, 20 November 2009

Time Well Spent

I have a weird habit: I cart around all sorts of junk just because I think it might come in handy some day.

In fact, practically everything in my bag does come in handy. If you have a headache, I've got a foil packet of aspirin tucked into my wallet. If you spill something, count on me to always have a couple of spare paper towels nicked from the lavatory. If you need a safety pin, I'll burrow around in my bag until I find you one. I've got a tiny sewing kit in my bag which has saved several falling hems and a dozen loose buttons, a handkerchief that has wiped up dozens of messes, a miniature bottle of hand-wash to keep swine flu at bay, hand cream and lip balm for dry or chapped skin, Kleenex, and -- everybody in the staff room knows this -- a whole mess of sugar packets just in case anyone around me ever goes into a diabetic coma. Nobody ever has, but whenever you run out of sugar for your coffee, I'm your woman.

I should point out that I don't do this out of virtuousness; I'm a born pack-rat. After dozens of moves, many international, I've had to suppress my accumulative tendencies. When I can indulge my inner pack-rat, I feel a lot better.

As much as I love being useful, I hate waste. I've been known to fish things out of the trash if I know I can use or recycle them. I once carried almost a dozen metal biscuit boxes home on the Tokyo subway: I'd found them in the rubbish heap, newly discarded and absolutely pristine. For ten years, they held crayons, loose jigsaw puzzle pieces, Chinese checker marbles, playing cards, and accessories for my kids' Girl Day dolls. If I'd walked past those boxes there on the rubbish heap, I'd be regretting it to this day. Stopping to pick them up was worth every bit of the embarrassment at being caught out, too -- and the hassle of dealing with them on the crowded train.

I hate wasting time too, so I usually have a book in my bag along with my Japanese calligraphy practice notebook, sudoku puzzles, and my harmonica. This way, whenever I get stuck waiting in the car, I can amuse myself in a variety of ways.

The other day, I had to take my class to a lecture on English, delivered in Turkish. I hate it when this happens. Inevitably, I shepherd my class to the lecture hall after taking roll, answer their endless, aggrieved "Do we really have to stay for this?" appeals -- "Yes you do, now sit back down and be QUIET!" -- then sit through the long session myself, bored out of my mind. (My students are lucky: at least they can understand Turkish.)

Good thing I had my bag of junk.

While we waited for the lecture to begin, Ilker started fidgeting, then wheeled around in his seat, his face radiating misery. "Teacher, very illy today. I have cold!" He pointed to his nose and mimed blowing it. I reached right into my bag, pulled out a packet of Kleenex, and handed it to him.

Two minutes later, Cem tapped my shoulder. "Excuse me, I go wash my hands come back, okay?" I rolled my eyes: Like hell he would! I shook my head. "You don't need to wash your hands." Cem's eyes widened. "Teacher, pig flu very dangerous!" I fished around in my bag until my fingers closed around my small bottle of anti-bacterial hand wash. I relished the look on his face as I handed it to him. My bag of tricks was really coming in handy: I even had enough chewing gum for the three people who wanted it.

But boy, was everybody jittery. Even after the lecture began, the seats shook with the boys' jerky, restless twitching as they readjusted their legs, fiddled with their mobile phones (which none of them can go any longer than five minutes without consulting), and passed items back and forth. I heaved a deep sigh: I was stuck here in their midst for the better part of an hour with nothing to do but examine the portrait of Atatürk, study my fingernails, and twiddle my thumbs. Stealthily I fished my calligraphy practice book out of my bag and began writing kuzushiji, the equivalent of Japanese cursive.

Five minutes into my practice, I suddenly realized that Abdullah, sitting next to me, was no longer fidgeting. And he was practically breathing down my neck. "Hojam, what language?" he asked, pointing.

"Japanese," I whispered.

He raised his eyebrows. "You know?"

I nodded and kept writing. Abdullah watched me, enthralled. I might as well have been turning water into wine.

Abdullah pulled out his notebook. "Teacher, you write my name please!" he said under his breath with barely concealed excitement.

Foreign names don't look very interesting in Japanese. You have to write them in katakana, the squarish syllabary used for non-Japanese words and names. People are always disappointed to see their names written in Japanese and Abdullah was no exception when I penned アブジュラー in his notebook. "What does your name mean?" I whispered. "If you tell me the meaning, I can write it better."

He didn't get it, so I wrote out my own name in katakana. "See, メアリー is how my name sounds in Japanese. But 芽亜里 is how I write it sometimes, for meaning. 芽 is like a small flower--" it's actually 'bud', but I wasn't about to try that on him "--and 亜 is for Asia, and 里 is for homeland. So if you can tell me the meaning of your name, I can write yours like that." I was pretty sure I'd lost him, but no, after a few minutes of feverish consultation on his mobile, Abdullah came back to me and scribbled the following in his notebook: Abdullah=God's servant.

Grinning, I took the pen from him -- I knew how to write this! 神の召使 I wrote in his notebook. Abdullah's mouth hung open. "Thank you," he breathed. And for the remaining thirty minutes, he did his damnedest to write his Japanese name, 神の召使, as perfectly as he could.

True, the only English Abdullah learned was God's servant. But he also sat quietly for a whole thirty minutes, a miracle in itself.

Next time, I'll have one of those beginning English readers in my bag.


Christy said...

...And my harmonica

That is the most awesome part of the story and you just slid it into the background! I am going to swipe my son's harmonica just so I can whip it out while waiting for soccer games to end.

Postman said...

You never can tell what you're going to need out there in that big wide world. Your bag of tricks sounds particularly impressive. I always overdo it. I've been known to pack a man-sized duffel bag for a two-day trip.

Teaching Japanese to the Turks (in a lecture about English)! Man, wonders will never cease. How the world's cultures meet...

Postman said...

P.S. I have a lovely harmonica purchased from a top-end toy store in Prague given to me by an English friend. I plan to play it on top of the world's little-known mountain ranges as I climb them.

Travis Erwin said...

Always good to have an ace in the hole.

Vijaya said...

I love this story, Mary. I, too, keep an assortment of notebooks, pens, pencils, puzzles and small stuffed animals in my bag.

But you've given me the best idea for teaching my kids a bit of Hindi. As a coveted activity ...

Charlie said...

I thought I knew quite a bit about you, Mary, but I never suspected you were (are) a dumpster diver, that your bag is equipped for Armageddon, and you play the harmonica around the campfire out on the lone prarie.

All I carry is a wallet with my name and address so people know where to return me when I get lost.

Lily Cate said...

It's like you have a diaper bag- for your whole class!

My husband has been fighting- and loosing- with my packrat ways for 10 years now. I want to keep everything, he wants to keep almost nothing. I think a saucepan and a change of pants are all he needs in the world. I want to surround myself with every cool thing I find, and then make drawings and sculptures of them.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- I didn't want to go into my harmonica too much; I can play a dozen songs pretty well, but I'm no great shakes. But O Susanna, Clementine, and Sweet Betsy from Pike have kept me well entertained in many parking lots. The Turks don't seem to mind, but threats of impromptu harmonica recitals sometimes keep my own kids in line.

Postman -- It DID seem pretty weird, but it kept Abdullah quiet for a whole thirty minutes, so I told myself it served its purpose.

I can't even remember where I got my harmonica, but I suspect yours is fancier than mine. I like the idea of playing it while hiking up mountains. And my kids would probably go along with that too, especially if the mountains were really high ones.

Travis -- It is, isn't it? Whenever I'm caught short and don't have something I know would come in handy, it just drives me wild.

Vijaya -- Good for you! I could practically open up an eraser store myself: half of the kids I teach don't even bring pencils to class. And stuffed animals are good for pacifying little children on buses and trains, as are those picture puzzles where you can create different scenery by lining them up in various combinations.

Definitely try this with Hindi! I'm sure if I'd tried to get Abdullah interested, he'd have scorned the very idea of writing his name in Japanese. Or looking up what it meant in English.

Charlie -- I'm more of a dumpster skimmer than a diver, but I'll pick over trash with the best of them: it's in my genes. My friend Dina is just amazing. She finds things like solid oak chests of drawers, designer coffee tables worth hundreds of pounds, and nasty old things she proceeds to convert into beautiful treasures -- all from the trash heap! My husband and I still have a beautiful set of Paulowina wood chests that he picked off a rubbish heap in Tokyo -- that's our biggest claim to rubbish-picking fame.

But get out the beans and bacon and rosin up your bow, and I'll do my very best. (Don't ask Kim, though. He's heard me play.)

Lily -- Why do we always seem to gravitate toward our mirror opposites? I think we're trying to even out the gene pool.

It really would be great to get by in life with only a change of pants and a saucepan! My husband is always begging me to get rid of junk too. But I've seen his flowered jeans from Thailand and collection of old coins and medals.

Charles Gramlich said...

I seldom have more than a book with me. but Iv'e got a credit card.

Patrick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick said...

Your post is still as interesting and enjoyable as always. Love reading them..=)

Kim Ayres said...

I always leave the house with my wallet, keys and phone. I figure as long as I have these I can survive pretty much anything except a piano dropping on my head.

If I know I'm going to be waiting anywhere for any length of time, then a sudoku book and a pen are placed in my jacket pocket.

But that's it.

Mind you, I quite often find a couple of small sachets of brown sugar in a pocket somewhere from last time I was in a cafe hagving a coffee

Postman said...

Well, harmonicas are harmonicas (though it beats the cheap ones I used to buy at roadside gift shops in Georgia and Kentucky). Maybe they won't be the HIGHEST mountains (I'm thinking some of the world's little-known ranges, like the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, the Remarkables in New Zealand, and...oh yes! The Taurus Mountains in your neck of the woods. Ask the kiddies how high those are for me.

P.S. I've nominated you for a blogging award. Head to my blog and check it out if you wish to accept...I know this award doesn't mean much coming from a neophyte like me but I did not nominate you lightly.

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- I am envious! I have this vision of myself as someone who travels light, with only a book and a credit card -- and a raised eyebrow for all the slobs who drag around everything but the kitchen sink. But then I go someplace and find that the stores are out of Kleenex packets AND my favorite type of chewing gum and I desperately dwish I'd stocked up. And you can NEVER find a harmonica or a Japanese calligraphy notebook when you want one.

Patrick -- Aw, thank you for saying that! Every time I find myself thinking about stopping this blog, someone writes something like that and convinces me to keep cranking them out.

Kim -- Phone, wallet, sudoku, keys, pen: right there you have my rock-bottom minimum bare bones traveling kit. (Though what do you do when you need Kleenex?) Glad you told me about the sugar sachets! When Armageddon befalls us, a lot of people are going to be mighty grateful that you thought to stock those!

Postman -- My kids would define 'high/remote enough' as an altitude/location where the probability of meeting another human being was less than ZERO. Essentially, the moon would be their ideal venue for my harmonica practice. Ditto for my singing and fiddle playing. (My musical aspirations are way higher than my ability.)

An award for me? Thank you very much!

GutsyWriter said...

Interesting to see the differences between personalities. Perhaps as a teacher, you learned to have stuff to keed the kids occupied. I always tell my family, especially my husband to declutter. I'm the type who likes to get rid of stuff. The less stuff around, the happier I am.

Robert the Skeptic said...

My wife collects and keeps all kinds of "useful" items as you do. HER mother and father even more so. Her parents grew up during the Depression and wasted nothing.

One day her father was eating some strange looking crackers; he offered us some. They tasted horrible, like flavorless cardboard. "Where did you get these?" We asked. He showed us -- out in the garage were boxes containing large tins of Civil Defense rations he had picked up from an old bomb shelter at the university that they wanted to use as storage. The box of Cold Ward Civil Defense era crackers was marked: "Packaged: January 1955".

Waste not, want not.

Helen said...

Aaah Mary - how useful are you!!!! I'm the sort of person, that de-clutters others. I better stay away from you and your handbag! I'd be fishing around in there chucking things out, leaving you standing horrified, mouth agape, wanting to kill me. How do I know this? I do it to my poor husband all the time. He is such a hoarder...

Mary Witzl said...

Gutsy Writer -- Deep inside, I tell myself I'm just the same: one of those people who can get by with the bare minimum. Who knows how to make do with only a few choice things. The reality is very different, but at least this is a goal I can aspire to.

Robert -- I am in awe of your father-in-law's daring. No WAY would I eat crackers from 1955! Up until I read that, I thought I was pretty intrepid just braving the week-old tunafish salad or leftover potato casserole. If I had crackers that old, I'd put them on the bird table. Or donate them to a museum...

Helen -- Weirdly enough, I'm pretty good at decluttering for other people. I can be very cruel and cold when it's not my junk that's on the line. But when it's my kids' papier-mache tie racks or my precious black velvet jacket from when I was 20, then I'm a whimpering mess.

It's good that you and your husband married: you are evening out the gene pool. The real trouble starts when two hoarders marry. And their children are just hopeless!

Carolie said...

You blow me away, Mary. You really do. Your writing, your teaching, your knowledge.

Wow. Just wow.

Falak said...

Can I join the club??? My friends hate carrying my hand bag for me when ever such an ocassion arises... I think I got it from my mom... You can find anything and everything in her bag except my brother and me..... Oh wait! I think she has our photos too inisde that;)

Anne Spollen said...

Remember Let's Make A Deal?

Angela said...

What a great bag of tricks! Your students will have to get pretty creative if they want to ditch a lecture in the future.

I'm like you--I hate waste. But what keeps me in check is that show, 'Horaders'. If I can find a use for it, I keep it. If I don't, I recycle it.

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- Eek! I'm not any kind of paragon, especially not of knowledge or teaching! You ought to see me struggling to remember where I put my keys in the morning. Or how to find my way to a place I've been two dozen times.

Falak -- Do you have to clean your handbag out every week or so like I do? All too often I find things like old sticks of gum, wadded up Kleenex, and half-eaten cookies in it. I blame my kids for the half-eaten cookies. My bag sometimes does double duty as trash bin.

Watch out when you become a mother: this tendency is NOT improved by motherhood.

Anne -- I think I saw that show maybe once in the 70s. I am a t.v. dunce. Now I'm wondering what it had to do with packrats...? Wasn't there something about zonks?

Angela -- I've gotten VERY hardheaded about stuff in my house. I got rid of a ton of stuff last August, then again when we went back to Scotland in June: whole drawers full of fabric, china, kids' clothes, books. But my hand-bag is my Waterloo. Sure, I can't think of a use NOW, but I just KNOW there'll be some reason I need to have that pack of playing cards or pair of castanets.

Shelli said...

wow! that;s awesome! you are a great resourceful teacher

Elizabeth Bradley said...

One of my favorite cartoon shows as a kid was Felix The Cat, he had a magical bag of tricks, sounds like you do too.

Chocolatesa said...

LOL @ the harmonica :P I can just imagine you sitting in your car waiting in a parking lot playing a tune on it with a very red-faced teenage daughter trying to sink into the seat beside you :P

And the rest made me laugh too! I love these stories :D

I used to be a pack-rat but after moving more times than I have years to my name (26 actually) I got over lugging junk I didn't use and threw most of it out or gave it away, and try to keep things simple now. In my purse I have: a bunch of plastic cards, money, folded papers, Listerine breath freshener, dental floss, camera, cover-up, kleenex, corticosteroid pump for my lungs, extra batteries for camera, lip balm, feminine hygene products and a pen. Those are my bare essentials. My keys and cell phone are kept in my pockets in case I ever forget my purse or it gets stolen. I'm planning to downgrade my purse to an even smaller one so I can't put as much stuff in.

Mary Witzl said...

Shelli -- Thank you -- I wish! I would LOVE to be a GREAT teacher, but I settle for being resourceful.

Elizabeth -- Thank you for commenting, and how happy I am to find a t.v. reference I'm actually familiar with! I loved Felix the Cat and his bag of tricks. Now that I think about it, maybe that's where I got my inspiration?

Chocolatesa -- I've changed my pack-rat ways too, through moving. I've honestly lost count of how many times I've moved, but it's something like 20 times in the States, almost a dozen times from the U.S. to Japan, the Netherlands, and the U.K., and maybe another dozen times in Japan. Postage adds up and it's far too expensive to send junk, isn't it?

But a bag carried over my shoulder, that's a different thing entirely! The entire world can go into that, and what a comfort it is when it does. Especially when one of the items is a harmonica and there are teenagers around...