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.