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.