Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Topping It Up

The top-up woman has an unctuous, hyper-friendly voice, and everything she says has an exclamation point on it. "Welcome to the XYZ mobile top up service!" she gushes. "If you wish to top up by voucher or credit card, press one!"

I've asked my daughter to be nearby because I didn't trust myself to do this alone. "Okay," she says from across the room, "what you have to do now is--"

But I've suddenly noticed that my phone's touch screen is blank. "There's no keyboard!" I cry. "How can I press one when there's no keyboard?"

"Please press one!" the lady repeats in her smarmy voice, blocking out what my daughter is trying to say.

"But how!" I yell at the phone and my daughter. "There's no keyboard!"

"Mom! There's no keyboard because they know you'll be holding your phone against your ear and you might accidentally press the wrong number!" She leaps up and takes my phone from me, presses a series of buttons and hands the phone back. "Now, when the lady tells you to press one, you just hit this button first -- are you looking? -- and your keyboard will pop up."

I glare at the phone. "It's intelligently done," my daughter adds. "They've thought of everything."

"Yeah? I didn't hear them saying anything about what buttons to push to make the keyboard return. That would be a lot more intelligent."

"They expect you to know," she says crisply. "It's lower common denominator stuff."

The top up lady is back. "Press one!" she gushes, a smile in her voice. I press one. A one lights up on my screen but nothing else happens.

"Did you press one?" my daughter asks, leaning forward.

"Yes, but it's not doing anything!"

"If you wish to pay by pre-paid voucher, press two!" the lady says. I picture her as a combination of my junior high school science teacher and Betty Crocker. I'll bet she's got polished fingernails, fire engine red lipstick, and ironed skirts.

I press two and my one becomes a twelve. This is so obviously an error, I hang up. "What did you do that for?" my daughter demands.

"My one became a twelve!"

"It wasn't a twelve!" my daughter groans, "it was a two next to a one!" She presses a bunch of buttons and we go through the whole rigmarole all over. "Now press one, then press two, and don't hang up!" she scolds.

This time, I press one, then press two. The woman doesn't react to this. She doesn't seem to know what a monumental thing I'm attempting to do here. Insensitively, she launches into a sales pitch about all the cool things I can do with her top-up service. "What's going on?" I whisper. "Shouldn't she tell me what to do next?"

"Mom, they've got you where they want you. You just have to be patient and hear her out," my daughter advises.

"This is ridiculous! I don't need to know about their stupid services, I need to top up my %$£"!@-ing phone!" I say, ready to launch into a full rant but my daughter holds out her hand to stop me. "Read me out the number NOW!" she shouts.

I read out the number in a stiff, clench-jawed voice. My daughter finishes punching in numbers and hands the phone back to me. "There you are, you've got £20 of credit on your phone now. Congratulations."

"It's so complicated!" I fume, staring at my phone. "I'll never be able to do that on my own!"

"I told Dad not to get you a touch screen," she hisses, throwing back her head and rolling her eyes. "They're not adult friendly!"

I take a deep, sustaining breath. "I changed your diapers," I tell her. "I had to remind you when you needed to blow your nose." My daughter flashes me a brief, pitying smile. "Which was all the time!" I can't resist adding.

"Come on, Mom," she says in her perky, helpful voice. "It's just a matter of practice. Topping up really isn't all that hard. Even Dad's learned how to do it."

"I used to have to take you to the toilet at night!" I say. "You used to beg me to!"

My daughter pats my knee in an infuriating way. "Mom, you're a perfectly competent human being. But you know you're seriously technically challenged."

Somewhere I've got a picture of her in a big, saggy diaper, with pumpkin all over her face. If I ever figure out the technology, I'm putting it on Facebook.


Friday, 24 December 2010

A Merry Whatever!

Bits of torn wrapping paper, fir needles, and balled-up Kleenex decorate the carpet. The holiday tang of Vape-o-Rub fills the frosty air of our halls, and the merry echo of deep, bronchial coughs reminds us that it's that time of year again!

Our cats are racing up and down the stairs, excited by all the packages coming in, the crinkle of foil and wadded-up paper, the smells of baking, the crisp tsk-tsk-tsk of scissors, the stressed-out, sometimes panicky voices: "Have you written one to Auntie Freda?" and "Are you sure you wrapped the ones for my cousins?"

This morning, I fished an old used tea bag out of a corner of the kitchen. God knows how it got there, but in the dark room, without my glasses on, it looked exactly like a dead mouse frozen in rigor mortis, deposited there by my cats as a gift. I let out a scream as it flew from my hands. And then I saw that what I'd mistaken for the tail was really the string, and what looked like the body was really the almost-dry clump of leaves -- and that the dead mouse was nothing more than an innocent tea bag.

The mice are all outside, safe for the time being in their little mice beds under piles of leaves in the icy hedges. The birds are nibbling at the seed in the feeder: the cats have left them to it for a change. Small miracles around here. May I now hope for peace on earth, goodwill to men?

Whatever the case, Merry Christmas to all of you and your families, a very Happy Hannukah, and the best of holidays to every single one of you, whatever you believe!

Please join me in praying for a more peaceful and prosperous 2011 for the whole world.


Tuesday, 21 December 2010

What Are You Like?

My first week in Scotland, a woman in a shop asked me where I was from. When I said California, she gestured at the rain spattered windows. "I'll bet you're sorry you traded it for this," she said.

I was new in the U.K. and unfamiliar with the unwritten rule that you have to hate rain, so I shook my head. "Actually, I grew up in a desert where it hardly ever rained. I wouldn't trade this weather for all the sunshine in the world."

The woman tilted her head and stared at me. The look on her face said You're kidding me, aren't you? When she realized I was dead serious, she narrowed her eyes. "Well now. What are you like?" she said. I had no idea what she meant by this so I had no answer for her.

I heard the expression again a few months later when I told a neighbor I used vinegar to clean shower stalls and composted all my cardboard. She thought it was odd to use a foodstuff as a cleaning product and she questioned the wisdom of using cardboard as mulch. By this time, I was beginning to see that What are you like? wasn't entirely complimentary.

The third time I heard this was after I'd told an acquaintance we didn't wear our shoes inside our house. "What does that mean?" I asked her immediately. "You already know what I'm like!"

"It's just an expression," she said, not quite meeting my eyes. "It doesn't really mean anything."

For some reason, it took me years to look this up, but when I did, I got a shock. Used when someone has said or done something silly, I read on the Cambridge Dictionaries Online site. This rhetorical question is asked of someone who has done something stupid or outrageous, offered another reference.

Silly? Stupid? Outrageous? Just reading these definitions made my eyes flash and my jaw clench. Every time somebody asks me this, I feel my smile go all steely and I have to take long, deep breaths.

And ever since learning what this idiom means, I've heard it dozens of times. I've found that it can be used to refer to genuine idiocy, personal idiosyncrasies, small, perfectly understandable linguistic misunderstandings, or even variations in pronunciation.

For example, I heard this when I asked for ground chicken instead of minced at the butcher's, when someone told me he worked at a bookmaker's and I thought this meant he sold books, when I had a senior Japanese moment at the post office and tried to buy a 30-pence stamp with three 2-pence pieces, which suddenly looked a lot like ten-yen coins. I heard this when I accidentally forgot where I was and called our car's bonnet a hood, or referred to the boot as the trunk. I've even had people ask me what I'm like when I've pronounced oregano with the stress on the second syllable, which is the only way I will ever pronounce it because I am an American. And although I may not wave a flag and brag to all and sundry that I come from the Greatest Country in the World, as Popeye said, I yam what I yam.

Recently we had an American student stay at our house and the What are you like? idiom came up. I confided how long it had taken me to find out the meaning, and I whined about how tired I was of hearing it.

The girl's jaw dropped. "Is that what it means?" she whispered. I nodded and she blanched. "Omigod, people say that to me all the time -- I had no idea!"

What are we like?


Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Ecumenical Christmas

About this time last year, my boss came into the teachers' room and frowned. "Where's the Christmas tree?" she wanted to know. "Why isn't it up yet?"

There were only three of us in the staffroom and we were all busy with lesson plans and marking. "Isn't it in the secretary's office?" one of my colleagues mumbled.

But it wasn't. My boss came back and started rummaging around in the cupboards. "It's almost Christmas and we still don't have the tree up!" she lamented. "This just won't do!"

I knew I'd seen it, but I couldn't remember where. "Try the bottom cupboard, just under the dictionaries," I suggested.

There was a triumphant cry and my boss straightened up, clutching a tangle of plastic evergreen. "I knew it was here somewhere!" She gave it a little shake and a cockroach that had been wintering in the branches hit the floor and went scurrying."Okay, let's set it up," my boss said, undeterred by the roach. "And look -- here's a bag of decorations to go on it!"

She dumped everything in the middle of the table, shot us a bright smile, and went off to do more important things. I put down my pen and sighed. One of my colleagues groaned and the other rolled his eyes. Two more colleagues walked into the office, blinked, and smiled. "Oh good, you've got the Christmas tree out!"

As we all started stuffing synthetic branches into slots, I almost burst out laughing. We teachers were a mixed bag of nationalities and faiths. Among us were over half a dozen Christians -- Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox (Russian and Greek) and Syriac -- a Bahai, assorted atheists, and many Muslims, lapsed and practicing. Yet here we were, assembling a plastic replica of a pagan symbol manufactured by Communists in China, at the behest of a Muslim, to celebrate the birth of a Jew. How could you possibly get more ecumenical than that, or more surreal?

But as the week went by, I was glad of that tree. Amazingly, it brought back memories of childhood Christmases, the smell of eucalyptus, crushed fir,and cinnamon, the sparkle of glass ornaments, the thrill of finding this green, glittering thing in the middle of our living room.

The more I thought about it, the weirder it was: historically, Christmas trees have nothing to do with Christ, and yet they have become an international symbol of Christmas -- so much so that even in Muslim-owned shops and businesses in Northern Cyprus where few Christians set foot, you could see them. In Japan, where the population of Christians is about 1%, you can see many Christmas trees at this time of year. We had Christian friends in Tokyo who never bought a Christmas tree, but their largely agnostic neighbors dutifully decorated one every year. For some reason, decorating Christmas trees has become a compelling custom. The whole industrialized world seems to own Christmas.

"It's money," scoffed one of my colleagues in Japan. "Money and cultural imperialism. That's why people put up Christmas trees." And I could see his point: when Christmas trees go up weeks before Halloween, it's impossible not to feel cynical. "It has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity," a friend lamented, shuddering at the abomination of a PVC Christmas tree in a window, glittering with fiber optic decorations. Disco carols boomed raucously from a shop while girls in short red velvet skirts pinned shiny garlands of plastic tinsel to the display window.

But although I can't speak for those who are of other faiths or have no religion at all, I think there is something all human beings can celebrate over Christmas, something that has nothing to do with commercialism, the fundamental idea behind even the plastic replica of a pagan symbol: unselfish giving. Whether or not we believe that Jesus was the son of God, almost all of us have been lucky enough to experience this at some time or other -- a gift offered to us freely, given from the heart, with no strings attached. Yes, it takes a lot to see it there in an aluminum tree festooned with baubles, but have faith: the love is there. And faith and love are what Christmas is all about.


Saturday, 11 December 2010

Helping Hands

The snow and ice are finally thawing. All around us, there is the sound of dripping water and birdsong. For the past several weeks, our town has been covered in ice and snow, but now you can see grass and green leaves emerging from their mantle of frozen white.

We were lucky here: up in Glasgow, temperatures went as low as -17 C (1.4 F) and the snow and ice were so bad that schools closed down, businesses and shops sent all their employees home, and thousands of commuters were stranded on the motorways for as long as fifteen hours, waiting in endless lines. The snow and ice were so bad in some areas that they broke the blades of the snow ploughs. And the streets were treacherous to walk on too as the wet snow became impacted, then froze over. I've heard stories about people slipping and falling just stepping outside their houses. My husband, the most sure-footed person I've ever known, came home bruised and sore after slipping and falling on ice.

I am not sure-footed. In fact, I am spectacularly uncoordinated when it comes to walking on slippery surfaces. I don't think I could count the times I've slipped and fallen on virtually nothing, so what I can get up to on ice and snow has to be seen to be believed. My kids have inherited their father's So what? attitude to slipping and falling. They happily walk, skip, and even run on icy surfaces. I can't bear to watch them; I can't even watch people ski or ice skate without wincing.

So for the past two weeks, I've stayed inside whenever possible, venturing outside only to throw out the trash -- quite a feat as the lid freezes shut every night -- collect my daughter from school, or make the odd totally necessary trip into town to buy something. When I go out, I'm kitted out like Tenzing Norgay or Edmund Hilary preparing to tackle Everest, wearing many pairs of socks, legwarmers, and mittens, and on my feet, hiking boots with the deepest, sharpest tread I could find. The extra clothes aren't just for warmth, they're for padding. With all the compacted ice and snow, just making my way down the street took me ages and it got harder and harder to work up the courage to go out. Until the other day, when I saw that some wonderful person had decided to grit the road.

Striding confidently along, my feet crunching on fine grit, I wondered who had been out there so early to do this. As I turned a corner, I heard the sound of a shovel biting into sand, and I saw Harold, who lives around the corner from us and is 80 years old if he's a day. Someone once told me that Harold was in WWII. I've never asked him, but I can easily believe it. And there he was, loaded shovel in hand, bending over a wheelbarrow full of grit. "Thank you so much for doing that," I said, thoroughly humbled as I fought the urge to wrest the shovel out of his hands and start shoveling myself. "Well, somebody's got to," he said, shrugging. "Council are supposed to grit the roads, but they just take too long!"

This isn't the first time somebody of Harold's generation has helped me out with slippery surfaces. The first person who did this for me was my mother-in-law. I was pregnant with our first daughter and we were out for a post-Christmas hike in the hills. It had snowed the night before and the ground was icy and treacherous. When we got to a bad patch, I froze, not trusting myself to go on. My mother-in-law has 40 years on me and is half a foot shorter, but she slipped her arm through mine and we navigated the bad patch together. A couple walking towards us shot me an approving look that said Good for you for helping that old lady! I had to look down; my cheeks were burning with shame.

The next time it happened, I was in Tokyo, only 50 meters from my office in Ochanomizu. I had dressed hastily that morning and was wearing cowboy boots with no tread in them. All of a sudden, I realized that a good two meters of black ice lay between me and my office building. People flowed around me as I stood there, utterly frozen in panic. A tiny elderly man dressed in a great coat and a grey fedora was coming from the opposite direction. When he saw me standing there, stricken with fear, a big smile creased his face. He held out his elbow. "Allow me," he said. I struggled briefly with my conscience -- how could I let somebody so old and frail help me? -- but my terror won. I took his arm and did my best not to crush his elbow in my desperation. He walked me baby step by baby step over the black ice, then laughed off my thanks. Over my shoulder, I watched as he walked back over the icy road towards the station. A high school boy only a few feet behind him slipped and fell on the icy patch, then laughed and brushed the snow off his knees as he got up.

The last time it happened was in Cyprus, where there is -- thank God! very little ice during the winter. But unfortunately, whoever designed our university chose a smooth, shiny stone for the entrance. A fine film of dust settled on this overnight and when it rained, the surface became as slippery as oiled glass. On rainy days, most of my colleagues and even a few of my students had to offer me their arms to get me safely across. But early one morning, one of the cleaning ladies, a woman old enough to be my mother, was outside sweeping when I arrived. It had rained and I was stupidly wearing shoes without tread. At first, the woman ignored me, continuing to sweep. At some point, though, she looked up and saw me standing there. She said something that I can only hope was the Turkish for "Go on, you can do it!" I froze until she finally realized that the only way to get rid of me was to give me a hand. As I slipped through the lobby past the great bronze statue of Atatürk, I felt as though he was glaring down at me, disgusted by my klutzy wimpiness.

On the street, I watched Harold fill his shovel with grit from the wheelbarrow and sprinkle it over the icy sidewalk. "We owe a lot to you for taking the initiative to do that," I said lamely. Harold sank his shovel into the grit again, scooped up a good bunch of it, and scattered it over a stretch of compacted snow. "Like I said, somebody's gotta do it. But thank you for noticing!"


Sunday, 5 December 2010

A Few Heroes

I first heard about Donaldina Cameron in a Chinese history class. The last week of the class was devoted to the topic of overseas Chinese, particularly in San Francisco, and we learned how the Chinese Exclusion Act signed by Chester A. Arthur in 1882, prevented Chinese immigrant workers in the U.S. from sending for their wives and families back in China. It also led to human trafficking, as girls and women were smuggled into the States from China by the thousands, many recruited as domestic servants, but in reality sold to work in brothels. Some of the girls were bought outright from poor families, but many were kidnapped.

In 1895, Cameron went to work as a sewing teacher at San Francisco Chinatown's Occidental Mission Home for Girls, a charitable institution run by the Presbyterian Church. While working there, she began to expand her duties, helping the police rescue women and girls who had been sold into slavery. She had a reputation for fearlessness: she took an axe with her on nighttime raids at cribs and brothels, and she wasn't shy about using it. When she became superintendent of the home in 1900, the girls she rescued began to call her 'Lo Mo', or Old Mother; the people she rescued them from called her 'Fahn Quai', or White Devil. Over the decades she was active, she is credited with saving almost three thousand girls and women, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

Our professor became very emotional talking about her. "Her life was not easy," she told us. "For many years, there was a price on her head." A week after hearing about Cameron, I happened to talk to a woman I knew who had grown up in Chinatown. When I asked her if she'd ever heard of Donaldina Cameron, she laughed and rolled her eyes. "Everybody's heard about Donaldina Cameron!" She assured me that you could walk down a street in Chinatown and find half a dozen people with an ancestor she had liberated.

I learned about Saburo Ienaga when I was studying Japanese in Tokyo. Professor Ienaga was a Japanese historian and former high school history teacher who tirelessly campaigned against the Japanese government's censorship of high school history textbooks. Over the course of thirty years, he filed a number of suits against the Japanese government, arguing that their censorship of his history book was unconstitutional. His books covered subjects that the government hoped would be forgotten: atrocities such as the 1937 Nanjing massacre, in which imperial army troops brutally slaughtered 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians and the horrendous medical experiments carried out by Unit 731, the Japanese army's germ warfare unit, on mainly Chinese prisoners. During the war, Ienaga had been a high school history teacher himself. Although personally against the war, he still toed the party line, teaching imperial divinity myths to students who would soon become soldiers. Like many people in Japan, he did not dare to publicly oppose the war. It is easy to judge him now, but during the war, people could be imprisoned simply for owning books in foreign languages. Habeas corpus had been suspended, and civilians arrested by the Tokko, or 'thought police', might not even know why they were being detained. After the war, Ienaga greatly regretted the role he might have played in sending boys to their deaths. His tireless pursuit of justice helped him appease his sense of guilt. He didn't win all of his legal battles, but he never gave up.

I first heard about Chiune Sugihara from a Japanese friend who lives in Edinburgh. She gave me a biography about him in Japanese, which it took me ages to read. But it was worth it.

In early 1939, Sugihara was sent to Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania, to serve as Consul General. He had barely arrived there when the German army invaded Poland and waves of Jewish refugees surged into Lithuania, bringing terrifying tales of German atrocities against Jews. Many of them had escaped with no possessions, money, or official documents. After the Soviets invaded Lithuania in June, 1940, they asked all foreign embassies to leave. Sugihara managed to get an extension. During that time, he and the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, worked out a plan. Zwartendijk would stamp Jewish refugees' passports with entrance permits for two Dutch colonial islands; Sugihara would issue them with Japanese transit visas. Over the next three weeks, Sugihara and his wife worked feverishly, writing and signing visas by hand. In those days before word processors, they worked all hours, managing a month's work in one day. They were still throwing visas from the windows of their train when they finally left in September 1940. Sugihara and his wife are credited with saving the lives of six thousand Jews.

I first read about Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish in the Guardian Weekly. Dr. Abu al-Aish is a peace advocate, a Palestinian gynecologist trained in Israel who lived with his family in the Gaza Strip. Having worked at Beersheba's Soroka University Medical Center, Dr. Abu al-Aish had many Jewish friends, acquaintances, and patients, and speaks fluent Hebrew. On January 16, 2009, his house was shelled by the Israeli Defense Force and three of his daughters and a niece were killed instantly; two other daughters were seriously injured. Dr. Abu al-Aish, who regularly reported on the medical crisis on Israel's Channel 10, was able to call an Israeli journalist friend to report what had happened, prompting a huge response from many people who knew and liked him. You might imagine that anyone who had been through such an experience would be filled with thoughts of revenge, but Dr. Abu al-Aish continues to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. "I had two options," he has said, "the path of darkness or the path of light. The path of darkness is like choosing all the complications with disease and depression, but the path of light is to focus on the future and my children."

You may have watched the television program Heroes, about a group of people who all have special skills such as the ability to fly, to bend time, to start fires by flicking their fingertips. Although skills like that are wonderful to imagine and entertaining to see performed, what I find far more heroic are the sorts of things these four people managed to accomplish. Bravery, dogged persistence through defeat after defeat, the moral courage to break the law and do the right thing, and finding the strength to forgive a terrible wrong -- those are more incredible to me than the ability to lift great weights or soar through the air.

People like that might not make it into a popular television series, but they are the sort of heroes I'm happy to have in my world.


Sunday, 28 November 2010

Holding Fast

The attendance sheet said there should have been six boys, but I saw right away there were only five. After I took roll, I ran my finger down the attendance sheet. "Where is Yousuf?" I asked.

Five pairs of eyes flicked down, then sideways. Glances were exchanged. One boy, the unofficial spokesperson, shrugged. "Perhaps he will come tomorrow."

It was early September, but fiercely hot outside even in the morning. "Shall we turn the air conditioner on?" I asked them.

Jamal, the spokesperson, shook his head. "No need."

After the first ten minutes of class, my hair stuck to my forehead and sweat beaded up down my back. I was so miserable, I had to take off the blouse I'd put on over my sleeveless dress when I'd learned I would be teaching six very religious Muslim boys.

They averted their eyes from my bare arms while I fanned myself with the roll sheet. "Are you sure you don't want the air conditioner on?" I asked, hoping they would relent.

Wordlessly, they shook their heads. I cracked open another window to let the feeble breeze through, and fanned myself some more. "You don't like air conditioning?" I had to ask.

Jamal spread his hands. "It is Ramadan." His eyes swept from side to side. "Ramadan, Pakistani boys no air conditioner."

I did my best to hide my shock.

"Teacher, you are married?" one of the boys asked during the break. I nodded.

"You have children?" another asked immediately.

"Yes," I said proudly.

"Girl or boy?"


"Only girl?" I nodded and they shook their heads sadly as though sorry for my great misfortune.

"Yousuf is still ill?" I asked to change the subject.

Their eyes flickered away. "Perhaps."

Over the next two weeks, they told me a bit about themselves. They came from a very small, deeply conservative village in Pakistan and had been sent to our university for a month of intensive English. They did not speak Turkish, knew no one but each other, and had not gone anywhere other than to their daily classes. When I asked them if they weren't bored having to study English six hours a day, Jamal quickly shook his head. "It is Ramadan."

I was to hear a lot about Ramadan in the two weeks to come, and I needed a lot of reminding. "Go and get yourselves some water," I thoughtlessly said during the break on the third day. It was blazing hot and we were all sweating freely.

"Teacher, Pakistani boy no water. Ramadan."

"Oh, I'm sorry -- I forgot!"

And only a few minutes later -- "Would you boys like some chewing gum?"

"Teacher, Ramadan!" they all practically chorused.


"Teacher," Jamal asked, narrowing his eyes, "you are Christian?"

My mouth dropped open. "Yes," I said, because it was the least complicated answer, and also the closest to the truth.

Jamal must have seen the hesitation in my face. He gave me a long, hard look as though he required proof. "Okay," he finally said.

"Yousuf is still ill?" I asked, tapping the attendance sheet.

Jamal looked away. "Perhaps." He had told me earlier that morning that during Ramadan, lying and bad-mouthing others were prohibited. But his eyes said it all: perhaps a little evasive truth-stretching was permitted.

"Any idea where Yousuf is?" I asked one of my colleagues after class.

She sighed. "He's disappeared. We asked student services to try and track him down, but so far no luck." She shook her head. "Those boys must be so bored. All day long, they do nothing but study English. No food, not even water to drink, and they can't go anywhere. It's hard to blame Yousuf."

On the last day of class, I accidentally pressed the radio button on the CD player and a blast of full-volume arabesque music made us all jump. For a split second, the boys' eyes lit up and two began to clap. One of the shyer boys even leapt to his feet to dance. I was amazed to see the sudden animation in their faces, the obvious joy this tiny break in the routine gave them.

When I left for my morning break, the shy boy asked if they could keep the CD player in the classroom until I got back. This was strictly against the rules -- even the awful CD players we had were occasionally stolen -- but I looked at the boy's eager face and I could not bring myself to say no. "Sure," I said, and there was a chorus of cheers. The shy boy's grin stretched from ear to ear.

I smiled all the way back to the teachers' room, but my happiness in their delight was short-lived. Jamal came into the teachers' room with the CD player almost as soon as I'd sat down. "Is it not working again?" I asked.

He shook his head and frowned. "Pakistani boy no music, teacher. Ramadan." The look on his face made me feel like a snake who'd been pushing an apple in the Garden of Eden.

The truth was, Jamal struck me as rigid and intolerant. Although with his dark looks and foreign accent, he couldn't have looked more different from my Uncle Cyrus, in terms of personality the two were remarkably similar. My Uncle Cyrus was a deeply religious man, but not a spiritual one. His knowledge of the Bible was formidable, but if others did not agree with his particular interpretations, he did not consider them to be Christians. The people he did consider Christians were other members of his church who agreed with his scriptural interpretations. I never heard him say that Catholics and Baptists might as well be atheists, but this was very much his position; people of other faiths, no matter how devout, were absolutely beyond the pale. His family quickly learned to toe the line; I remember one discussion about religion with my cousins: the many things they were not allowed to do featured prominently. Although his religion might have been a source of comfort and joy to Uncle Cyrus, it was mainly a way for him to impose his will on others. Uncle Cyrus was a bitter, angry man whose children hated and feared him.

When I went back to the classroom after the break, the atmosphere was strained and the boys' faces were sullen, as though they had been quarreling. I felt bad -- as though I'd started it all by offering the use of the CD player in the first place. I felt worse still after the class when I offered some of my grapes to a colleague who was also fasting for Ramadan. She smiled and patted my shoulder. "It's easy to forget!" Throughout her fast, she maintained the same radiant good cheer. "It's a good feeling," she said. "As though I'm stronger than my own physical needs. I just wish I could keep it up the rest of the year!" Just listening to her made me want to give fasting another go myself.

Yousuf never did come back to class. When it came time for the boys to go back to Pakistan, he was still missing.

Maybe he ended up like one of my cousins -- recklessly falling in with the wrong people, making the worst sort of friends, indulging in all of the things prohibited to him for so long. Maybe he ended up like others -- finding comfort and peace in his religion in a world torn by intolerance and hatred. Wherever he is, with all my heart I hope he is making the most of his freedom.


Sunday, 21 November 2010

Missed Connections

The first time I met a French person, I could hardly wait to talk to her about de Maupassant. I'd struggled through Camus's L'Etranger in French and yawned my way through the English translations of a few French novels, but when I discovered de Maupassant's short stories, I couldn't get over how wonderful they were. I was thrilled to finally be able to tell a French person this. I was sure she'd be proud and happy to be from the country that had produced one of my all-time favorite writers.

Boy, was I wrong. "De Maupassant?" she sneered, examining her fingernails. "Yes, I have heard that he is very popular abroad."

At a party in Tokyo, I was delighted to meet a man from Trinidad, the first Trinidadian I'd ever talked to. At the same party, I'd just met a Korean man born and raised in Kamchatka, which had been a huge thrill, but although I don't know of any writers from Kamchatka, I was going through a V. S. Naipual phase and was eager to talk to a native of Trinidad about the man who is arguably the country's most famous author. But at the very mention of Naipual, this man sighed deeply and all but rolled his eyes. "Ah yes, our Vido," he murmured, then "I take it you are a fan?" My jaw dropped, but I admitted that I was. "You aren't?" I asked. His lip curled. "Well, I suppose he has helped to put us on the map," he said grudgingly. After that we discussed the difficulty of finding a good international school in Japan.

One day at work, a Japanese colleague pointed to my copy of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood. "How do you like that?" he asked. I told him I was enjoying it very much. "Hmph," he said, "I guess it's true." I narrowed my eyes. "You guess what's true?" He tapped my book. "Foreigners like this guy's books," he practically snorted.

I've since met plenty of Japanese people who love Murakami's books, but my colleague's snarky comment has stayed with me all these years.

In Cyprus, I reread Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun. By coincidence, I had a copy of the book on me when I went with a friend to visit a young Nigerian woman who had just had her first baby. I knew that this woman was an Igbo, like Adichie, so I was sure she'd be happy to know that I was reading this world famous international best-seller written by her countrywoman. While my friend and I were admiring her new baby, I pulled out my book to show her, anticipating a lively conversation about the book and its author.

To my great dismay, she had never heard of the book and she had no idea who Adichie was. In fact, although she glanced at the cover politely, she was far more interested in the episode of Gossip Girls she was watching on T.V.

When I was teaching Turkish students English, it took me over a month to find one person who admitted to reading any of Orhan Pamuk's novels. Likewise, a Chinese woman I met shook her head and smiled when I told her how much I'd enjoyed Jung Chang's Wild Swans. She'd never heard of Jung Chang or Wild Swans, she said. And for what it's worth, my British husband does not like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, or the Bronte sisters, and he is not a fan of D. H. Lawrence. He has never read anything by Virginia Woolf.

Now, I know that all of these authors are read and loved in their own countries -- I am convinced of it. What drives me half crazy is that I don't seem to meet any of their fans in my travels. It would be wonderful to talk about these famous authors with natives of their countries, but I have seriously begun to think that they all stay in their own countries instead of finding their way to wherever I happen to be. And there is a certain irony in the fact that I keep running into people who are big fans of Hemingway, Thomas Pynchon, and Henry James.

And then one day, one of my colleagues, a Russian woman, asked me if I'd ever read any Russian novels.

I regarded her warily. "I absolutely love Chekhov," I said. "In fact, I don't think it's possible for anyone to write better short stories than his."

Her smile lit up her face. "Oh, I completely agree!"



Sunday, 14 November 2010

Just Desserts

Not long after we moved to this town, I baked five dozen oatmeal, cranberry and walnut cookies, packed them into a clean foil-lined tin, and took them down to the local church where I proudly handed them over to the women running the church bake sale. All profits from the bake sale would be donated to Save the Children. I told myself that my good deed was worth the hassle, and getting my kids to help out with me was a good way for us to meet the local people.

"Where are your cookies, Mom?" my kids kept asking as we set platters of meringues on tables.

"They'll be out soon, I'm sure."

Ten minutes later, my girls frowned as the ladies from the kitchen handed us trays of cupcakes and tray bakes. "They're still not out!"

"Be patient. A lot of people have baked things."

In the kitchen, I heard two women at the sink chatting. "Fancy somebody bringing her failed scones to a bake sale!" one of them huffed. "I'd have thrown those right into the bin, so I would have!"

"Aye, these younger women," her friend agreed. "They take no pride at all."

I took out a platter of rice crispy bakes and handed them to my daughters to distribute. "Your cookies still aren't out?" my older daughter demanded.

"It looks like they haven't gotten to them yet," I said, shrugging.

My eyes scanned the platters for my cookies, but I couldn't see them anywhere.

Thirty minutes later, we'd served dozens of people, but we still hadn't seen my cookies. The kids were especially irritated: I'd promised them a few if any were left over. "I'll bet the people in the kitchen saved the good ones for themselves," my younger daughter said. "Yours are so good they decided to keep them for their own families."

Actually, I was a little disappointed -- and mystified, especially when I went into the kitchen to reclaim my tin and found that it was empty. Could my daughter really be right? Had the kitchen ladies really wolfed down five dozen oatmeal, cranberry and walnut cookies?

If I hadn't gone to get a plastic bag to put my tin in, I wouldn't have passed by the garbage bin. God knows what made me look down.

But when I did, I saw my five dozen freshly-baked cookies lying in the trash.

I stood there, shocked and devastated. Those cookies were made with real butter. They had a shot of decent whiskey in them and several cups of cranberries and walnuts. But more importantly, they were chock full of all the good will in the world.

I took a deep, fortifying breath, then bent over for a better look. The bin liner was new and there was no other garbage in it. In two seconds, I had whipped open my tin, emptied my poor cookies into it, and stuffed it into a plastic bag. If any of the women saw me, they were wise enough to keep their mouths shut.

Walking home, I held my daughters' hands and fought back tears. I remembered the bake sales of my childhood, how the cookies that nobody bought were the ones that stank of cigarette smoke or tasted of hand lotion. The 'failed scones' the church ladies had been dissing were in fact my very own oatmeal cookies. Maybe the ladies who dumped them had problems with their vision, but still, how humiliating!

"Were there any of your cookies left?" my daughters wanted to know. All I could do was nod.

A few months after this, I ran into an acquaintance just outside the church. She was holding a large covered pot and she looked irritated.

"What's in the pot?" I asked.

She curled her lip. "Soup."

"Ooh, what kind?"

"Mushroom," she sighed.

"For the church potluck?"

She nodded, but her face looked grim. "At least I don't have to make dinner tonight."

"You've got a lot left?" I said, trying not to smile. I was beginning to feel better about my oatmeal cookies.

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, I do -- the whole pot, in fact." She sighed. "I got up at five in the morning to make it because the ladies who organize the potluck asked me specifically. And then they didn't even serve it!"

I stared at her, relief beginning to flood through me. I'd eaten at this woman's house and knew that she was a fine cook. "At least they didn't pour it down the sink," I commented. I told her my cookie story and she perked right up.

Not long after this, we were both approached by the church ladies and asked to bring baked goods to the church bake sale. We politely declined.

"Ach, these younger women," I heard one of the ladies commenting to a friend. "They can't be asked to spend time in the kitchen!"


Monday, 8 November 2010

Cat Quirks

Years ago, a friend of mine who came from a family of asthmatics achieved a life-long ambition: she got her first cat. While she was thrilled to finally have a cat of her own, she was also aware of how comparatively ignorant she was about cats; all she was really sure of was how pretty they were and how much she liked them. A week or two after getting her cat, she called me up to ask for advice. "How do you keep your cat out of the bathroom?" she wanted to know.

"Just keep the bathroom door shut," I told her.

She sighed. "I try to keep it shut, but it doesn't quite catch. And sometimes I forget."

"Okay," I said, "then just accept that your cat is going to get in."

"But he makes such a mess in there!"

"Does he scratch in there? Crap on the floor?"

My friend was indignant. "No! He sharpens his claws on the scratching post we got him, and he uses his litter box in the patio."

I was impressed about the scratching post. My cats had one too, but they far preferred shredding my furniture -- or my trouser legs. And if her cat wasn't sharpening his claws on her bathroom's wicker furniture or doing his business in the tub, I couldn't see how much of a mess he could make. Was he knocking her shampoo bottles off the shelf maybe, or sleeping on her freshly-laundered towels? "You've got a cat now," I told her, "so the way you live is bound to change a little. But he sounds like a good one."

"Oh, he's a wonderful cat," she said, but she still sounded worried.

"Really," I assured her, thinking of my shredded jeans and splintered kitchen cabinets. "Every cat behaves differently, but yours seems to have great manners. Not all cats use their scratching posts and litter boxes properly right off the bat. Things could be a lot worse."

She sighed. "I guess you're right. But I'm just so worried he's going to drown in there!"

I sat up a little straighter. "You mean he's fallen into the bathtub when it's full? For God's sake, let the water out when you're finished!"

"I always let the water out," she snapped. "I'm talking about when I'm running it."

This made me blink. "You mean your cat climbs into the bathtub when you're running the taps?" I was sure I'd misheard her.

"Yes, and sometimes when I'm actually taking a bath, he pushes the door open and climbs on in." She sighed. "I know they say that cats like to be clean, but I never realized they got in the bath with you. I always thought cats hated water."

"They do," I barely managed to say. "Really."

"Well, mine obviously doesn't. Come over some time and see for yourself."

This woman had never lied to me, but I didn't believe her. When I grew up, we fed and cared for many dozens of cats, and although we did pull a few out of the toilet, soaking wet, angry, and very unhappy about the subsequent bath they always got, not one of them ever climbed in the bathtub when they knew it was full.

On my next visit to her house, I was gobsmacked to see her cat casually stroll into her bathroom and climb right into her full bathtub. "I leave a plastic stool in there so he'll have an easier time getting out," she told me, "and there's always a bath mat on the floor. But he still leaves a big mess. And it takes ages to towel him dry."

Barely a year later, another friend told me she had the exact same problem with her cat. The cat kept climbing into a tub of water in her garden and splashing it about, meaning that she constantly had to keep it topped up, and he was also crazy about the bathtub. Being heavily pregnant at the time, she was not inclined to share her bath with her cat, but he had other ideas.

Not long ago, I had one of the conversations I sometimes have with dog people who are not cat aficionados. "All these people who make a fuss about their cats," he sniffed. "As though cats are special! Dogs have different personalities and intelligences, but all cats are the same. They're so predictable."

You can bet I set him straight.


Monday, 1 November 2010

Coolest Mom In Town

Yesterday, my daughter and I carved three pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns. I bought three bags of mini candy bars, two bags of apples, and a mess of plastic skeletons. I spent the afternoon cleaning out the porch and stringing up the skeletons on orange netting. In the evening, I popped corn and put it in bowls. Then I fished out a couple of gorilla masks, some luridly-colored wigs, and my claw fingers. And finally, my daughter and I put candles in the jack-o-lanterns, which was no easy feat: we couldn't find the tea candles, so we improvised by chopping down some dusty old candles we found in the shed and putting them in glass jars. It took us ages to get the wicks lit, but when we went outside to look, the effect was eerie -- totally perfect. Our black cats raced in and out of the house, scattering dead leaves and adding beautifully to the whole tableau. We put the candy in a big wicker basket, put on our masks, and sat down to wait for our first trick-or-treaters.

Only one child showed up, a three-year-old from down the road whose mother I know. He was a very cute Batman, but he was afraid of our gorilla masks and he only wanted a handful of popcorn.

My daughter tried to cheer me up. "We've been gone for two years. Plus, tomorrow is a school day. And nobody my age trick-or-treats anymore."

It's a little sad. I'm the mother of grown-up teenagers now. All the kids who knew that our house was the place to go on Halloween are now in university or high school. What's sadder still is that I'm no longer the coolest Mom in town.

I won my coolest-mom-in-town status partly by default and partly by coincidence. Our first Halloween here, I made popcorn balls to use up some hardened brown sugar. They weren't very good -- I was in a rush and didn't manage to get the syrup past soft-ball stage -- but that didn't matter. To this day, my eldest daughter and her friends, big hulking college kids approaching their twenties, fondly remember the little bags of sweet popcorn I told them were popcorn balls.

Our next winter here, I somehow ended up with twelve bags of cranberries fast approaching their use-by date. Desperate not to waste them, I went on a mad cranberry-cooking rush. I made half a dozen jars of cranberry and apple sauce, three batches of cranberry and walnut cookies, and two large cranberry, almond and sour cream coffee cakes. That afternoon we had our first snowfall. We were running an inn at the time, and as the weather conditions worsened, guests began to call to cancel their reservations. When the last cancellation came through, I got worried. The cranberry sauce would keep, but there I was with three batches of cranberry cookies and enough coffee cake to feed half the town. When half a dozen of my daughters' classmates showed up, wanting permission to go sledding down our sloping driveway, I invited them in for coffee cake and tea. I got rid of a dozen cookies and an entire coffee cake, and my impromptu hospitality, in conjunction with the failed popcorn balls, pushed me over half the way to the coolest Mom title.

The following year, a friend of ours who was running a vending machine business decided that it was too much work and gave us all of his remaining stock. When kids showed up for Halloween, I had two jumbo-size bin bags full of plastic baubles with toys and candy inside, plus another stuffed with lolly pops. Word got around and in no time, our house was Kid Central. After that, my coolest Mom status was in the bag.

It embarrassed me: I knew I'd won the title because of a series of fortuitous coincidences, not because of my imagination or special effort. When I was a kid, there were houses in the neighborhood where the Moms got into costumes and gave out homemade cookies and candy. Their front doorsteps were lined with jack-o-lanterns, their shiny-clean windows were festooned with fake spiders' webs (mine had the real thing), and they would have scorned my pitiful attempts at popcorn balls. And yet here I was, effortlessly the coolest Mom in town. In fact, I was assured that no other contenders came close.

On my way into town this morning, I passed by a house with jack-o-lanterns on the stoop. The hedge was shrouded in cheesecloth with black plastic spiders attached, and a stream of orange crepe paper lay in the driveway. "They had a werewolf there last year," one of my daughters' friends told us last night.

Another Coolest Mom in Town is born. I hope she honors the title.


Monday, 25 October 2010

Happy Birthday, Blog-father

October 25th is Kim Ayres' birthday. In case you don't know who Kim is, he writes the excellent blog Ramblings of the Bearded One.

Kim has a special place in my heart for many reasons, not the least of which being that he lives within visiting distance so we are actual flesh-and-blood friends who have eaten each other's food and know each other's family members. In addition to being a writer, Kim is a photographer and I can vouch for his skill -- and great patience. The next time he comes to visit, he has offered to take my author photograph for the umpteenth time. This time I won't be planning an international move and I will not lose the CD he gives me.

But what I really owe Kim for is showing me how to start a blog and encouraging me to keep at it. And since the way we met was highly serendipitous, I thought I would use the occasion of his birthday to write about it.

Back in 2006, I entered a few flash fiction pieces in a local writing competition. When I read the other selections, one piece, about a crazy man convinced that he kept the universe in order by believing in it, stood out as obviously the best. We were allowed to vote for our favorite stories, but I couldn't figure out how to do this, so I gave up. The writer was a woman, though -- that much I knew. Her name was Kim.

None of my stories won even third prize. To my surprise, Kim's story didn't win any prizes either. But to my immense delight, I saw that she had voted for my story. I was thrilled and enormously grateful. If I hadn't already read Kim's story, I would have just been mildly pleased, but to have the one person whose work I deemed the best pick my story was almost like winning myself. I wanted to thank Kim, so I googled her name -- something I had only just learned how to do. I pictured a quirky, savvy woman -- Scottish, of course, given that she lived in Scotland and had a name like Ayres. That is how I found Kim's blog.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that Kim was actually a bearded Englishman who was born and raised in Wales.

One of my daughters showed me how to write a comment on Kim's blog, so with great trepidation, I left an anonymous comment. I wrote Kim an email too, thanking him for voting for my story and telling him that I had liked his story more than any of the others and would have voted for it if I'd only figured out how to do this. I knew I sounded sycophantic, but I also knew that I was telling the truth.

Kim wrote back to me, then I wrote back to him. We struck up a correspondence. I learned that Kim had been a web designer and that he was a photographer. I told him that I had written a story for kids which I was hoping to get published, and that I was writing a memoir about learning Japanese and teaching English. "Have you ever considered writing a blog?" he asked me.

It pains me to remember how utterly clueless I was, but the fact is, I had only just found out what a blog was. I imagined that writing a blog must be very mysterious and difficult and, worst of all, expensive. I knew zip-all about the internet, my husband and I were jobless and money was tight; how could I possibly start my own blog? Kim never once laughed at me. He navigated me through the murky waters of blogging and showed me how to start my own blog, step by step. I called my blog ResidentAlien, and wrote my first post in January, 2007. Kim was my very first commenter. A few months later, he dropped by and showed me how to set up a site meter.

Almost four years later, I can hardly remember what it was like not to have a blog.

Through blogging, I have been able to do so much. When I was teaching, I could vent about my students: in the middle of the longest, most awful classes, I gritted my teeth and thought to myself Hey, I can blog about this later! I can vent about my kids: whenever they do or say something outlandish, with a blog, it's grist for my mill. But above all, through my blog I can connect with other writers. I had no idea how much I needed this. Thanks to keeping a blog, I have found a great writing group and an excellent critique partner and any number of beta readers who have given me invaluable help with my various manuscripts.

I owe so much to all the people I have met through my blog. And I never would have started it if it hadn't been for my blog-father Kim Ayres, whose story really was the best. So thank you, Kim -- come around when you can; the French roast is ready and waiting. And HAPPY BIRTHDAY!


Monday, 18 October 2010

The Dog That Talks To Pretty Wives

I grew up in a parched, hot town in Southern California, which may be why I love rain. As a child, I dreamed of rain. On the rare days it rained, I loved the way the sky marbled over with billowing grey clouds and the air grew heavy with moisture. Storms brought drama, fun, and breaks in the boring everyday routine. Rain always made the world a snugger, cozier, happier place.

In my mind, anti-rain words and lyrics got converted automatically into pro-rain sentiments. For me, the children's jingle Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day became Rain, rain, come and play, come again some other day. In the song 'Home on the Range', where the skies are not cloudy all day, became where the skies are all cloudy all day, because who wanted to sing the praises of a place where there was never any rain? I was puzzled by the title of the hymn Uncloudy Day, which made little sense to me. When I sang it, I automatically changed the lyrics: Oh they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise became Oh they tell me of a home where the storm clouds rise, which sounded a lot more like a place where I wanted to live.

"Why do you always change the lyrics?" my parents used to ask. "Why are you always putting rain into songs?" This confused me: I genuinely didn't realize I was doing it.

Like all children, I tried to make sense of whatever I heard, but I frequently failed. My mother had a metal-framed laundry bag that was called a Save-your-back. When opened, this looked a little like the mangers we would see in nativity scenes. One day my mother caught me placing a doll in it. "It's baby Jesus," I told her, "lying in his Savior Bag."

When our oldest daughter was five, she used to like belting out the lyrics to songs she'd learned in nursery school. To this day, everybody in our family can sing Puff, the Magic Dragon, Here Comes Santa Claus, and My Grandfather's Clock in Japanese. We loved learning these things from her. But there were times she got things wrong too, and we liked that even better.

"I don't understand that song," I told a friend one day as our daughters walked ahead of us singing Hyakupasento Yuuki, or '100% Bravery', a song from a popular children's TV program. We didn't watch TV in Japan; we only knew our daughter's version of the song. One of the lines always threw me with its reference to poteto tamayaki, which sounded to me like 'fried potato eggs'.

My friend stared at me. "Poteto tamayaki? What does that mean?"

"I assumed you knew."

She shook her head. "I have absolutely no idea."

"Well, it's in the song!"


When I sang it for her, she burst out laughing. My daughter had gotten the lyrics addled. Oretachi no moteru kagayaki -- 'our shining zeal' -- had become oretachi no poteto tamayaki -- 'our fried potato eggs'.

Our daughters often did this with English too. When they were still toddlers, someone sent us the DVD of Disney's Pocahantas. Our girls loved 'Savages', a very effective piece in which both Powhatans and the newly arrived English question each other's humanity. The chorus is stirring with its refrain of "Savages, savages -- scarcely even human!" Our daughters would belt this out together with great spirit and feeling, but savages invariably became cabbages. "I don't get it," our oldest daughter mused one day. "Why are they singing about cabbages anyway? And cabbages aren't human!"

When our youngest daughter was ten, we heard her singing the lyrics of one of our favorite songs, the indie group Say Hi to Your Mom's 'Super'.

"Sing that again?" my husband said one day, his eyebrows raised. Our daughter obliged, and we almost fell off our chairs laughing. She had misinterpreted It's just a matter of a little time / before you have the dogs, the tots, the pretty wife as .../ before you have the dog that talks to pretty wives.

"What's so funny about the way I'm singing it?" our daughter demanded. We tried to explain that the song lampooned a self-important boor bent on acquiring a lifestyle to elevate his social status, i.e., a dog, children, and a pretty wife. She strongly felt that her interpretation of the song made sense too. "A dog that could talk to pretty wives would be a great thing for somebody like that to have," she reasoned.

To this day, we've kept her lyrics. And my skies are beautifully cloudy all the time.


Monday, 11 October 2010

Don't Know How Good They've Got It

There are only half a dozen people in the waiting room when I go in. The receptionist smiles and apologizes. "I'm afraid there'll be a bit of a wait this morning."

"How long?" I ask, surprised.

She glances at her watch. "It might be as long as fifteen minutes."

Fifteen minutes? I feel like laughing out loud. Where I come from, the receptionist wouldn't even bother to tell you if the doctor was running only fifteen minutes late. When I was thirteen, I once waited an hour and a half in the doctor's office, shivering and sweating with a 104-degree fever. A friend in New York once waited over an hour to see a doctor, and she had a dislocated shoulder.

"I can wait fifteen minutes," I tell her. Fortunately I've brought a book and my glasses, but as I open my bag, the elderly woman across from me leans over to her friend and puckers her mouth as she stage whispers, "It never used to take this long!"

Her friend scowls back. "No, it didn't. Ten years ago, you got seen the minute you came in!"

They both shake their heads and give the receptionist a disapproving look. "It's all these new people coming in," the first woman says.

I find myself bristling at this: we've been in this town almost ten years, off and on, but we're definitely some of the new people. We could spend the rest of our lives here and this would still be true. You have to have been born here to be considered one of the town folk, and it helps if your parents and grandparents were too.

"How long have you been here?" the second woman asks. I almost expect the first woman to say We got here before the war, but she huffs and checks her watch. "Twenty minutes!" she says.

The second woman tuts at this and the two of them sigh and settle back for another wait in the clean, cheerful doctor's waiting room with its stacks of relatively new magazines, its comfortable seats, and its tasteful classical music playing in the background. Two minutes later the door whips open and the doctor calls one in. She gets up with an aggrieved look on her face. I'll bet the doctor is in for a chewing out.

My husband and I have lived in quite a few countries now, and we know what we're talking about when we say that the medical service here in our part of Scotland is tops. It drives me wild to hear people complaining about twenty-minute waits at the clinic when they can almost always be seen immediately. In a part of the country where the doctors still go on house calls in emergencies, it irritates me no end to hear people whining about the doctor refusing to come when all they have is a cold.

These people have no idea how the rest of the world lives. My husband spent a week in one of the best hospitals in Sudan and clearly remembers opening a door to a linen closet and seeing a stray cat nursing her kittens on a pile of laundered sheets. The cat, he learned, was a vital member of the hospital: she helped keep down the considerable rodent population. He had to walk 20 minutes to the hospital, shivering and shaking from malaria, because there were no ambulances. Aid worker acquaintances of ours in Uganda once decided to take the bus back to the town where they lived instead of continuing their journey across Africa: they had forgotten their yellow fever vaccination certificates and were told that they would have to be vaccinated. The doctor who would be vaccinating them had only one needle. He knew better; he had been waiting quite desperately for another consignment of needles; but he also knew that yellow fever was a more pressing risk than HIV at that particular point in time.

The United States has a well-deserved reputation for first-rate medical care, but I have never spent less than fifteen minutes waiting to be seen by doctors. Even in Japan, a country with generally excellent medical care, hospital and clinic waiting times are notoriously long and most people resign themselves to losing an entire morning or afternoon when they have a medical appointment. I once spent a miserable four hours in a Tokyo hospital lobby, trying to pacify an infant who was burning up with fever and had, I was virtually positive, German measles. "No problem," sniffed the receptionist when I urged him to give us priority, "we don't have an obstetrics department here." I pointed out that the most vulnerable people were women who might not realize they were pregnant, and that such young women were perfectly likely to visit the hospital for broken bones or head colds, but my arguments did not move him. When we first moved back to Japan with our new baby, our first pediatrician's office was dark, cold, and musty. The floors were filthy, the stuffing of the couch was coming out, and we always had to wait at least an hour. Our local hospital had a water fountain with a single plastic cup which was used by everyone. That has since changed, but I still remember when.

Here in Scotland, when our daughter had a suspected case of the flu, the doctor came directly to our house. A friend of mine had a mammogram which revealed a suspicious lump; within three hours, she'd had an ultrasound and a biopsy -- and a diagnosis of benign. "Sorry you had to wait so long to find out," the doctor actually told her.

The door opens and another elderly woman comes in. "I'm sorry," the receptionist tells her, "there'll be a bit of a wait today."

"No bother!" the woman says cheerfully, picking up a magazine, "I've got plenty of time."

I watch the woman sit down with a sigh of contentment as she pulls out her glasses and opens the magazine.

Perhaps she's one of the new people too. Or maybe she's lived abroad herself.


Monday, 4 October 2010

High Road, Low Road

I am terribly math challenged.

Please believe me when I say that I am not the least bit proud of this. I have met girls and women who seem to enjoy telling people about their math inability, but I am not one of them. My mother and sisters were straight A math students. Sadly, I take after my father, who was not.

I would like to think that I am secretly capable of doing math. I am not stupid, and I had perfectly decent teachers, including my own mother, who did everything in their power to help me. Friends who were struggling with simultaneous equations or recurrence relations would come over to my house to be taught by my mother. We would sit on either side of her and she would take us both through whatever we were studying step by patient step. "I get it now!" they would say when she had finished, eyes brimming with the light of reason. My mother would then turn to me, at which point I either faked it and pretended to understand or confessed that I hadn't been paying attention.

I squeaked through high school with Cs in algebra and geometry. Much to my mother's distress, but possibly also to her relief, I never went any higher.

My daughters, I am amazed and delighted to say, do not take after me in math cluelessness. They may not be the best students in their math classes, but they are capable and interested. I listen to them telling me about quadratic equations or trigonometry and I marvel that I could have produced children who understand and like math.

The other day, my daughter came home from school with a funny story. A particularly dimwitted girl in her math class was butchering the differentiation of a form of X. (Please don't ask me what that means -- my eyes glazed over just writing it.) The class had been set the task of finding the differentiated form of a function and to do so there were several different stages they had to go through. While everyone was working on the problem at their own rate, they could hear the teacher berating this girl, telling her that her methods were total nonsense.

But the girl insisted that she was right.

Finally, the teacher threw up his hands. "Okay," he spluttered, "I'm going to give you a problem which you are going to solve with your method." His lip curled when he said the word method, but the girl flounced up to the board in her short skirts and waited while he wrote out a particularly nasty problem. She took the marker. In a most inexpert fashion, she shifted numbers around with no apparent logic while the teacher smiled with barely concealed scorn. The teacher, who had not yet worked out the answer himself, then tackled the problem in his own methodical way, step by step. And when he got the answer, his mouth fell open in amazement as the entire class exploded into laughter.

They had both come up with the exact same answer. The teacher claimed that in twenty years of teaching, he had never seen anything like it.

Interestingly enough, I once experienced something very similar. After my disgraceful performance in algebra and geometry, I graduated from high school and went to Florida, flying in a plane for the first time in my life, to visit my cousins in Pensacola. Shortly after we took off, a quiz was distributed inviting passengers to calculate the precise time we would be flying over the Alamo. We were given certain information: the departure time, the plane's average speed, the head winds, the tail winds, and total distance covered.

I took one look at this and felt a little weak in the knees -- I knew math when I saw it! -- but I had stupidly forgotten to bring a book and after all, we weren't being tested on it. So I worked out an equation, marked down my answer, and turned it in to the stewardess.

Twenty minutes later there was an announcement made over the intercom. An accountant from New York City and I had tied for first place. We had each won a bottle of champagne.

The stewardess gave me a bright smile as she handed me my champagne voucher. "You must be one of those math whizzes!" she gushed. I gave her a weak smile back and thanked God that she would never know.

To this day, I will never understand how I did that. "Maybe they made a mistake marking it," my younger sister said when she heard the story. "Even a broken clock is right twice a day," my older sister said. But in my heart of hearts, I want to believe that just like my daughter's classmate, I reached the correct destination -- finally -- my own creative way.


Monday, 27 September 2010

Little Boxes

The other day I had to get my daughter registered at a new school. We sat together in the deputy headmaster's office and filled out a lengthy form.

"Uh oh," groaned my daughter, pointing to Nationality, "I always hate this one."

"Just put Other British," said the deputy headmaster promptly.

"But I can't," she said. "Because I'm not really British."

I craned my neck to look. The categories for Nationality were Scottish, British (Other), and Other.

"Then British, Other," the deputy headmaster said, raising an eyebrow and looking at her surreptitiously.

"But I'm not only British." She glanced at me meaningfully.

The deputy headmaster took a deep breath. "But you were born here."

My daughter shook her head. "I was born in Japan."

"Put down British (other) and add 'American'," I suggested.

My daughter did this, then she groaned again. "I hate this one too!"

I took a look. Ethnicity was next. I can't even remember all the choices, but there were quite a few: British (Scottish), British (English), British (Black -- Caribbean), British (Black -- African), British (Asian), European, and British (other -- please specify).

"Surely you can find one there that best fits you," the deputy headmaster sighed, looking at his watch.

"A lot of them sort of fit me," my daughter said proudly, "but I'm not only one."

I think we settled for British (other) again, but decided not to specify. The deputy headmaster looked happy to see the back of us.

On our way back home, my daughter was a little quiet. "You're okay about that nationality and ethnicity thing, aren't you?" I asked.

My daughter shrugged. "I envy the people who can say 'I'm Scottish' or 'I'm Chinese'. But sometimes I feel proud that I'm lots of different things."

When I come to think about it, though, very few of my daughter's friends can say they are only one nationality or ethnicity. At her last school, most of my daughter's classmates were Turkish. There, her friends were invariably 'others': a Filipino/Spanish girl who looked Chinese and spoke Hebrew, a Palestinian girl who spoke Arabic but called herself Israeli, a Turkish Cypriot girl born and raised in the U.K. Even at the school she is attending now which at first glance appears to be all white and Scottish, there are a handful of kids who were born in England, who have one or even both parents from Europe or Asia or Africa. This year there are more 'others' than there were two years ago, and when I compare the number to what it was ten years ago, the increase is even more remarkable.

In fact, fewer and fewer people fit neatly into any one category anymore. I'll bet those people who racked their brains to come up with all the different options for Nationality and Ethnicity thought they'd exhausted all the possibilities.

It's getting complicated. Ten years from now, it will be even more so. Twenty years from now, very few people in the U.K. or U.S. will be just one nationality or ethnicity. Thirty years from now -- I hope I live long enough to see it.

And I wonder how they'll modify those forms.


Monday, 20 September 2010

Smokin' Clean

Way back when, I had a middle-aged student called Mr. Uehara. One day when we were talking about likes and dislikes, I said that I hated the smell of cigarette smoke and Mr. Uehara nodded. "So do I," he said.

I was surprised by this because I'd seen Mr. Uehara smoking in the lobby during the breaks. "Have you quit smoking?" I asked. Mr. Uehara shook his head. "I like smoking clean," he informed me.

I blinked. "What in the world does that mean?"

He spread his hands. "I find clean place, I smoke there. Then, smoking clean."

I found this so mind-boggling I had to sit down. "Smoking clean means smoking in a clean place?"

He smiled and nodded.

"Mr. Uehara, you can't smoke clean. Once you're smoking, the air is not clean."

He shook his head. "Other people smoke, air is dirty. I go to clean place. Smoking clean."

After a few minutes of this, I gave up. Mr. Uehara amazed me. He wholly rejected my idea that smokers should go to special smoking rooms to smoke, that on long-distance trains like the shinkansen, they should not seek out the non-smoking car to light up. He strongly felt that he was a superior smoker because he liked to smoke in clean places. I thought to myself that if I ever caught him pulling out his smokes in the non-smoking car of the shinkansen because the air was purer there, I would not spare him any more than I did the other smokers I told off there on a regular basis.

I mention this because I now have acquired two wonderful cats, Mitzi and Maverick. Their former caretaker (I never use 'owner' when I'm talking about cats) is now in Australia and due to be there for up to two years, so Mitzi and Maverick need a home and we need cats that we know will be claimed in a few years' time when we're ready to go abroad again. They are great cats, but Maverick has a little problem. When he's nervous, he uses the bathtub as a litter box.

Maverick, I should mention, is a very nervous cat.

When they arrived, Mitzi and Maverick came kitted out with more paraphernalia than I have ever seen two cats possess, including their own toys, a month's supply of food and treats, medicines, collars, a scratching post, their own individual cat carriers and beds, and a state-of-the-art covered litter box with a huge bag of environmentally friendly cat litter. I'd been warned about Maverick's little habit, but given this superior litter box and an entire household tiptoeing around with lowered voices, I hoped that he would not need to avail himself of our bathtub after he'd gotten used to us.

This was sadly not the case.

The first morning after they arrived, I found the inevitable in our bathtub. I was both irritated and impressed. I've had cats use the carpet before, but this was my first bathtub experience. I cleaned it up and warned everybody to shut the bathroom door overnight. Unfortunately, our bathroom door doesn't quite close and is easy for a determined feline to push open. The next morning, I had a repeat performance, and this went on all week until my husband fixed the bathroom door.

The next morning, my husband reported that when he'd gone for a shower, he'd found four cat turds in the drain. He fixed the shower room door. I cleaned out the litter box for the umpteenth time, brought Maverick out to the veranda to remind him how it worked, and crossed my fingers.

The next morning, someone left the bathroom door open during the night. I cleaned out the bathtub and filled it with two inches of lavender-scented water. I drizzled a bit of lavender bath oil on the side too, where he has managed to do his business when the bathtub was too wet for his liking.

I shut the shower stall, smeared a little lavender oil in the shower room sink, then went to bed confident that I had finally sealed off Maverick's forbidden toilets.

Maverick got the message. This morning, he'd gone in the corner of the lounge, behind a cabinet. On the nice, clean carpet.


Just as Mr. Uehara liked smoking clean, Maverick likes crapping clean.


Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Sittin' On The Verge Of The 'Way

There were five of us in the car when it broke down the first time: my husband, two of our daughters, our friend Güzin, and me. We were on our way to Dina's, tired from a long hike, and ravenously hungry. But it's okay to be exhausted and ravenously hungry when you're on your way to Dina's, because that is the way she likes her guests: tired and famished. At Dina's, I happened to know, we would dine on grilled Portobello mushrooms stuffed with Stilton cheese, wholemeal breadcrumbs and onions. We would eat melon and our choice of vege-burgers or roast chicken, an assortment of steamed vegetables straight from her garden, and apple and blackberry pie with ice cream for dessert -- unless we wanted lemon syllabub instead.

We were all very much looking forward to Dina's. Güzin had heard a lot about Dina and her culinary skills, especially back on the days we were first teaching together and had too short a lunch break.

The car had stalled earlier, worrying my husband. "It hasn't done that in a long time," he murmured, turning the key in the ignition and frowning. The engine caught and we cruised along for a tense five miles or so when there was suddenly that awful, unmistakable smell of an engine beginning to fry accompanied by a telltale death rattle.

"My God," said my husband, "the engine's overheating -- look at the temperature gauge!"

The thin red needle was pointing to maximum, like an accusing finger. We crested a slope with our fingers crossed and prayers on our lips, then my husband eased the car into neutral and steered it onto the verge.

It was cold and windy. I phoned Dina to let her know we would be late and my husband contacted the RAC to explain the problem and our location. Dina said she'd put lunch on hold for us and the RAC said they'd get to us as soon as they could. "They said no longer than an hour and a half," my husband reported.

We tried not to think about our aching knees and thighs or our rumbling bellies. Or, for that matter, stuffed mushrooms, melon, and roast chicken.

It was a long wait. Tales of former breakdowns were related, including the one we'd had on our way back from Christmas shopping in Northern Cyprus, when we discovered the car we had been sold had a cleverly repaired crack through the base of the engine. Japanese proverbs were quoted, and much to Güzin's amusement, two stanzas of the Turkish anthem were sung. My daughters took many photographs, and I told Güzin about all the headaches we've been having with our house and various machines and appliances: our vacuum cleaner, our refrigerator, my husband's computer, the washing machine, the leaky roof and rotting joists. When we had exhausted all other diversions, I pulled out my harmonica and gave everybody spirited renditions of Oh, Susanna, Betsy from Pike, Clementine, and Ali Baba's Farm. We waited more-or-less patiently for an hour and thirty minutes, but once that time had elapsed, so had our patience.

"This is ridiculous!" my eldest daughter cried. And of course she was right: Güzin didn't come all the way from Turkey to sit on the verge of a Scottish highway watching truck drivers leer down at us. But what could we do? "It could be worse," I told them. Everybody groaned as I reminded them that we had shelter and warm clothes. That the country we lived in was not under attack, that we had running water, good nutrition, and no communicable diseases. Oh yes, it could be worse -- it could always be worse.

Ten minutes later the RAC man came along, managed to replace our car's corroded radiator pipe, and we were on our way with shouts of joy.

Dina's mushrooms were succulent, the chicken was perfectly roasted, and the syllabub was so delicious that Güzin and I managed two each. When I drove us home several hours later, the car purred happily along, gallons of fresh coolant coursing through its radiator.

There were five of us in the car when it broke down the second time too, two days later. We were on the motorway, coming home from a day's touring, when we had a repeat performance of death rattle, overheating engine, and stalled car. My husband managed to get the car off the road and we all had to pile out. Güzin wondered why, and we explained that this was the law in the U.K. The RAC told us it might take up to an hour.

We had to make several phone calls, including one to Dina, who had been planning to drop by our house on her way home from Glasgow. We explained our predicament, called our remaining daughter at home to tell her dinner would be late, then lay down on the grass verge and watched the trucks roll past. I wove a braided grass bracelet, chatted with my husband, and played my harmonica. Time passed. Every vehicle was scrutinized for RAC recovery vehicle likeness. More time passed.

"I can't believe these RAC people!" my daughter fumed after an hour. I practiced yoga breathing and tried not to think about the dinner I would now have no time to prepare on Güzin's last night in Scotland. And finally, the last of my patience had dribbled out. When a passing driver beeped at us, I utterly lost it. "I hate it when people do that!" I snapped, making a rude gesture far too late for the offending driver to see it. "Don't they realize we know we look like idiots?"

Güzin shrugged. "Perhaps they were wishing us well," she said mildly.

"Oh no they weren't," I said. "When people beep like that here it's to let you know how stupid you look."

The RAC arrived about ten minutes later. As we were being towed home, weary and worried about the possibility of having to buy a new car, my husband's cell phone rang and I answered it. It was Dina. "I saw you guys," I heard her say through crackling static. "I beeped at you, but you didn't see me!"

No, we didn't see her. And thank God: she didn't see my rude gesture.

The next day, we got a call from the mechanic telling us the car was fixed and perfectly road-worthy: the first mechanic had simply failed to tighten the radiator valve properly. We almost fainted from relief: we don't have to buy a new car after all!

Things could always be worse.


Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Montbretia From Hell

I have a lot of montbretia in my garden. I wish I didn't.

This is actually a huge understatement, like saying there are a lot of mosquitoes in West Africa or a lot of landmines in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For someone who seems to spend half her life battling montbretia, it hardly seems fair that I've still got so much of it, but there it is.

Montbretia, in case you don't know, is a pretty flower that grows from corms. The corms make baby corms, which make other corms and so on. If you plant a lot of montbretia corms, you get a whole forest of plants if it rains a lot.

The last people who lived here planted montbretia like it was going out of style. And it rains a lot in Scotland.

"Spray it with a herbicide," Sam the local busybody said when he caught me kneeling in my garden, swearing and digging up corms. "A little glycophosphate will do the trick."

Sam rides around town in a tractor offering to trim people's hedges for extortionate fees, but I suspect that he is a frustrated spy; his main purpose for doing this seems to be keeping track of what everybody is doing. When my husband and I were digging up ground elder in the back garden a few years back, Sam actually walked across the yard to see for himself what we were up to; the fact that we'd already told him cut no ice. His face fell when he saw that the hole contained nothing but stones and ground elder roots -- a hole as big as the one we were digging was big enough to hold one of us. I felt like we'd shattered his hopes.

"I'd prefer not to use herbicides," I mutter as my trowel bites into the earth and a few more embedded corms fly up. Sam's face lights up at this: I know he loves to hear my views on herbicides. It delights him to have me confirm yet again that I'm a latter-day hippie who resists herbicides and pesticides -- I've seen him scrutinizing my slightly wormy apple trees. Sam chugs off in his tractor to tell his cronies in town all about my scruffy apple trees and montbretia daftness, leaving me to my digging.

So far, I've dug all the montbretia corms out of three flower beds, but it flourishes in a dozen more. The worst one was supposed to be done by one of the other tenants here. For years, I've walked past it, wishing it were full of pretty flowers and shrubs instead of weeds, grass and montbretia. It used to have a riot of golden daffodils, scarlet tulips and purple and yellow crocuses in it, but the montbretia grows so vigorously that all of these have been choked out.

Montbretia is beautiful with its fiery orange flowers and lime green leaves, but ours is seriously in-your-face and it does not behave the way it is supposed to. This isn't me dramatizing the issue or being paranoid, it is the honest-to-God-truth.

"Cover the corms long enough and they'll rot," a friend suggested, and her advice is echoed by professional gardeners. Here is what one gardening site has to say about growing montbretia: Find a location where the soil drains well. If there are still water puddles 5-6 hours after a hard rain, scout out another site... Crocosmia will not survive in soils that are water logged.

This is not the case with my montbretia, which could probably grow in a salt marsh on the moon.

Our soil is heavy, with a load of clay in it. When it rains, the puddles are there for a whole day afterwards, but if any of our montbretia plants have rotted, I've seen no evidence. In fact, they seem to thrive in our clay. In that central patch, the flowers spring up endlessly, growing virtually on top of each other, verdantly green, unblemished and vigorous -- I only wish my chrysanthemums looked half as good, or my poor apple trees, for that matter.

We can't imagine gardening without montbretia, the same site enthuses. Can you? And no, I can't. But I'd sure like to.

I picture the things I could grow in that big central montbretia-infested patch, the only place in the garden where there are few trees roots to chop through and almost full sun. Roses! Tulips! Dahlias! Sweet peas!

And one day, I can bear it no longer. I go out to the overgrown montbretia patch with murder on my mind and I pull out every single one. I pile montbretia plants on top of each other until I have a mound five feet high. Sure, it's only a drop in the bucket -- from both sides of my garden, overgrown montbretia patches wink at me, cheekily defiant -- but never mind: this six-foot square will be montbretia-free if it's the last thing I do. I find daffodil, crocus, tulip and bluebell bulbs and carefully preserve them to plant again. The corms left by the uprooted montbretia plants are as thick as fleas on a stray dog and they go down at least three inches. I can barely get my trowel in the ground, they are packed in so densely, but I pull out as many as I can until in no time I have at least a kilogram. These go straight into the trash: I've learned my lesson about trying to compost them. I rake the soil smooth, scatter it with a top dressing of grit, then layer after layer of cardboard and leaf mold. Over this, I stretch a vast roll of polyethylene.

Finally, I wipe the dirt off my hands and stand back to savor the beauty of what I have done. If this doesn't rot them out, I don't know what will! I feel like cackling and throwing up my hands, but before I can, a neighbor walks past our house and pauses. "Oh," she sighs, her face crumpling as she stops to survey my beautiful montbretia-free bed. "What a shame! They were so pretty."


Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Mom Static

Do you have Mom static? I'm pretty sure that most mothers get this as part of the whole motherhood package, but I've seen plenty of non-parents suffering from it as well. It's the censorious reaction in you that pops out when you notice something that is not quite right, something -- or someone -- that should be corrected. It is not an attractive thing.

Last Sunday, we took our three teenagers to Edinburgh to hear Modest Mouse, an indie folk rock group. Even before they took our tickets at the door, my Mom static started getting in the way.

"Who's smoking?" I said in a stage whisper as we stood in line outside, freezing cold. The wind kept delivering the offender's smoke to my eyes and nose, making my Mom alarm go off.

My daughters hate cigarette smoke themselves, but being half British, they're not crazy about scenes. So they pretended not to notice the smoke, even when the wind blew it right into their faces. In fact, the wind was making us all miserable, especially my youngest daughter, who was shivering, her arms wrapped around her shoulders. Suddenly I realized that she'd taken off her coat. That all she had on was a pair of tight jeans and a flimsy, sleeveless cotton top with a plunging neckline. My Mom static kicked right in.

"Where's your coat?" I snapped, rubbing my hands over her arms.

"Mom!" she hissed, "This is a rock concert!"

She had put her coat into her sister's capacious bag, which was gaping open. I tried to suppress it, but my Mom static sounded off again.

"Anybody could put their hands into your bag with it open like that," I said almost despite myself. "For pity's sake, do up the snaps, how lazy are you?"

My eldest daughter gave me her famous raised eyebrow. "Dude, there's nothing in there to steal."

"Your mobile phone?" All we need around here is another lost mobile phone.

The eyebrow went up again. "In my pocket."

As we walked into the theatre, my Mom static was suddenly overwhelmed by my sense of being at a rock concert. I didn't go to many of these when I was young, so they still have a special allure all their own. For one brief, fleeting moment, I was with people my age and we were all roughly 19. I was a fetching young thing in a green halter top with zebras on it and a pair of low-hipped bell bottom trousers. And then I realized that almost everybody was 19, but I was one of those staid, mainstream people of a certain age, barely even on the radar anymore. My husband and I might have been invisible as our daughters almost shrieked and ran towards the stage.

As soon as the music started, my Mom static kicked in so hard I could barely stand it. I could barely stand the music either: it was too loud. When Modest Mouse came on, they were over-the-top too loud. They are a great band and I love the songs they play, but the excessive sound made it impossible for my ears to enjoy (or even process) the music. I was miserable because the theatre was packed and I could not make my way down to the stage to urge my daughters to plug their ears with the pieces of Kleenex I had balled up and used to plug mine. Besides, I was pretty sure that if I did show up proffering Kleenex and looking anxious in a motherly way, they might not speak to me for a week. Not that I'd be able to hear them if they did.

The music was great. I know this because I've heard it before and since, on our own modest sound system. In Edinburgh, I might as well have been down at the airport, listening to planes taking off. In the middle of one of the numbers, my Mom static went off again, full blast when one of the drummers lit up a cigarette. I could clearly see him smoking, and so could everyone else. I felt like jumping up and screaming. Did he realize what he was doing? Smoking in front of all those young, impressionable people who could see how cool he was? What kind of a role model was he? It was all that I could do not to rush right down to the stage and snatch the cigarette from his hand.

When it was over and we were all shuffling out of the theatre, my Mom static interfered again. I tried to smother it, but it pushed me over the brink. "Look at all this trash on the floor! Look at all these plastic cups! Who's going to clean all of this up?"

My husband shrugged. "Well, at least you don't have to."

"But somebody does!" I almost shouted. "Look how much beer they've spilled -- that'll stink this place up for the next month!"

We had joined my daughters by this time. "Come on, Mom -- be fair. Can you see waste bins around anywhere?" my eldest asked.

"So you put your trash in your own bag and you take it back to your own house and throw it away!"

A pale, nose-studded youth whose trousers seemed to be falling off his hips slowly turned around to look at me. I struggled not to ask him if he'd dropped his trash on the floor.

My girls sighed and shook their heads. If they ever have Mom static themselves, I know they'll forgive me.