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.