Sunday, 30 January 2011

The African Queen

Sarah Jamila Stevenson, a middle grade / young adult writer and former writing group member of mine, has just published her debut novel, The Latte Rebellion I had a few peeks at this when it was in the making and I can vouch for how good it is. The Latte Rebellion is about a handful of high school students in California who get tired of being racially categorized and stereotyped. On a whim and to make some money, one of them decides to start a movement to celebrate people of all different races and mixtures, and she calls it the Latte Rebellion. It succeeds beyond her wildest dreams -- until things begin to spiral out of control. I won't spoil the ending by telling you what happens, but it's lots of fun.

I love the idea of a club that celebrates diversity. I'm largely Caucasian, but I've been a member myself, ever since I got lost on the way home from school in kindergarten and was taken in by a kindly family. While I waited for my mother, their little girl and I played together. She gave me chocolate gold coins. A few old ladies were steaming tamales in their kitchen and they had crucifixes on the wall. But what really fascinated me was the fact that they could all speak Spanish, even Maria, the little girl who played with me. People who cooked their tamales from scratch and spoke a language I could not understand! I'd discovered a whole new world and I was hooked.

When I was in the fourth grade, a girl named Melissa joined our class. Melissa had bouncy golden curls, a posh British accent, and a lot of perfectly ironed cotton dresses with crisp bows that tied at the waist. I was in awe of her. When she introduced herself to the class, I was astounded to hear her announce she'd lived with her parents in Africa. "We had tea with the queen," Melissa added, smiling prettily. My awe turned to speechless adoration.

I pictured a dignified, statuesque, blue-black African queen sitting with Melissa and her parents outside a tall grass hut, sipping tea. I imagined them talking about lions, the Nile, and malaria (Melissa's father was apparently interested in malaria). Afterwards Melissa would wipe her mouth with a lace-trimmed hanky, set her cup down on a polished tree stump, and say thank you very much.

When my best friend invited me over to make cupcakes for open house day, I asked if Melissa could come too. I was determined to get the details of her tea-drinking experience with the African queen.

Sadly, Melissa turned out to be a crashing bore. Not only did she refuse to lick the bowl or spoon after we had filled the cupcake tins -- "It's not sanitary," she scoffed, giving sanitary only three syllables -- but she laughed me to scorn when I asked her about tea with the African queen and whether she'd seen antelopes or elephants. She caught my misunderstanding right away. "Not an African queen, you silly," she said. "We had tea with the British queen!"

Melissa and I only managed to disappoint and confuse each other. I didn't realize that tea in the U.K. was a meal, not a beverage, and the thought of her sitting in a palace with a lot of stodgy old people in fancy clothes was nowhere near as exotic as my picture of her little party with the African queen.

As a child, I couldn't get enough of the exotic. Our school had a fair number of minorities: Latino, African-American, and Asian, and there was even one boy from Egypt, but there were never enough real live foreigners for me -- people with exotic accents who came from countries across the ocean. I worked hard to cultivate any kid who had been abroad or even had a foreign parent; I grilled them about the languages they spoke, the foods they ate, the clothes they wore. On Cinco de Mayo, I wanted to be one of the Mexican girls twirling in their colorful skirts, singing in Spanish. On Japan Day, I envied the Japanese-American kids from the bottom of my heart. They showed up at school in yukata or real kimono and zoris, rolling their eyes -- "My mother made me wear it!" -- but obviously proud, nevertheless. We who had no exotic traditions had to make do with embarrassments: housecoats with colorful patterns and scarves, simulating obis, wrapped around our waists. There was no comparison. Small wonder, then, that I dreamed of African queens.

When I went to live abroad myself, I discovered something interesting: suddenly I was exotic. After a while, the people around me ceased to be exotic to me, but I never stopped being exotic to them.

Many decades later, in Japan, I finally met African royalty when our kids made cameo appearances in a children's cooking show. My daughter and his son bonded over a mutual loathing for one of the presenters. "Kenji's dad is from Ghana!" my daughter told me proudly, "so he's a prince!" When Kenji's father and I finally met, it took me a while to broach the subject, but I was desperate to find out. "My daughter tells me you're a prince," I said. He laughed. "Insofar as such can be said to exist in Ghana, then I suppose that I am," he said in an accent remarkably like Melissa's. Interestingly enough, the prince did not seem particularly exotic: we were both foreign parents in Japan. We spent much of the day talking about childcare, the quality of education, and how our children had settled into Japanese society.

But he was still loads more fun than Melissa.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Ye Banks And Braes

When our two cats arrived here, they were shy, skittish indoor cats who preferred carpet to turf. After they'd been here for two weeks, we put reflective collars on them, put their litter box in the garage, and encouraged them to spend time outdoors.

They weren't having a bit of it.

Maverick, the boy, cowered upstairs, his eyes wide and terrified. Mitzi, his female companion, was a little braver: she managed to follow me halfway down the stairs, but as soon as she heard the neighbors' poodle bark, she invariably scurried back indoors, her tail inflated to three times its volume.

Two months later, I was ready to give up on my cats. They would race outdoors, hurriedly do their business, and hot-tail it back upstairs like the hounds of hell were after them. On one hand, I felt irritated with them. What kind of cats skulk and cower and refuse to enjoy the delights of climbing trees and eating grass? Why couldn't they go outside and find hobbies like other cats? But I was partly relieved too: the last cat I had was an efficient and deadly hunter who netted a couple of birds a week and any number of rodents. Our mice and vole population might soar, but at least the birds and my carpets were safe.

Then Maverick brought home his first dead mouse. His face, as he deposited it on our welcome mat, was full of astonished satisfaction. If there'd been a thought bubble over his head, it would have read, "Get a load of what I just did! This thing must weight at least 15 grams!" Two days later, Mitzi brought in a still-wriggling vole. I didn't have my glasses on and thought it was a dead leaf. My screams sent all three of us running, and when she came back in and found it was gone, her look of indignation clearly said, "Hey, I didn't expect you to eat the whole thing!"

Ever since then, they've averaged a kill a day. Each. I thought my last cat was bad, but at least there was only one of her.

Tomorrow, is Burns Night. All over Scotland, people will be celebrating the birthday of Robert Burns by drinking whiskey, eating haggis, and reciting Burns' poetry. I don't drink whiskey or eat haggis, but with apologies to Robert Burns, I offer this ode to all the tiny creatures my Scottish cats are so hard on. It's too bad animals can't read poetry.

Ye Banks And Braes and Tiny Creatures

Ye banks and braes and roses sweet
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can your birdies chirp and tweet
And never see the danger there?

Ye’ll break my heart, ye mice and birds
That wanton through the flowery hedge;
Ye’ll come to grief, oh heed my words!
When ye nibble the seed upon the ledge.

For in that hedge, oh twitterin’ birds
Two skilled and hungry hunters walk
And never heed my angry words
As they snap the neck of the prey they stalk.

Oft hae I seen on shining floor
(That I have cleaned down on my knee)
Wee sleekit creature’s blood and gore
Abandoned there, a gift for me.

And oft hae I from my humble house
Spotted the hunters a stalkin’ their prey
And screamed to see the bird or mouse
Pulled through yon cat flap and left to stray.

So this I plead, oh tiny critters
Who creep in the thicket and sing in the trees
Stay in your holes—oh, hush your twitters—
—and keep your guts off my carpets, please.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

In Praise Of Diversity

Some years ago, on a visit to my hometown after years abroad, I accompanied an elderly family friend on an errand. We stopped at a place I hadn't seen in years, a shabby little cluster of shops that sold things like vacuum cleaner bags, typewriter ribbons, and pet supply goods. As soon as we got there, I saw it had changed completely. The stationery store had become a Thai and Vietnamese delicatessen; the appliance store was now a Korean greengrocer where you could buy tofu and kimchee. I stood in the parking lot and almost swooned at the smells of lemon grass, coconut milk, and ginger. I could have cried from frustration too: the people I was staying with had conservative food tastes. I wanted to buy pad thai and egg rolls, to gorge on spicy, smelly, delicious kimchee, but we were going home to a lunch of bologna sandwiches on white bread. What a waste of an opportunity!

When my companion returned from her errand, I gestured at the new, exotic stores. "I can't get over this!" I said. "It's totally different!"

She frowned and shook her head in agreement. "You can say that again. Awful, isn't it?"

I stared at her in amazement: this was a woman whose grandparents had eaten lutefisk, Limburger cheese, and sauerkraut. She was proud of her German, Norwegian, and Scots heritage, and yet she objected to a couple of Asian food stores?

"It's got so you can't even tell this is America anymore," she sighed, looking around us and shaking her head.

As if America had always been a place where only bland foodstuffs were acceptable.

"Not too long ago, this area would have been mainly Hispanic," I said as gently as I could.

"Oh, I know honey," she said. "But they're all American now."

By which she probably meant that they had learned to fit in, presumably by exchanging their diet for bologna sandwiches, Wonder bread, and Campbell's soup.

"Have you ever tried Vietnamese food?" I asked. "Or Thai, or Korean?"

She shook her head. "They don't even speak English!"

"Then why not just point to something that looks interesting? You don't know what you're missing!"

She shivered. "Some of those things they eat, though. I've heard they eat chicken feet!"

"What if they do? What's the difference between eating chicken and chicken feet? It's still chicken."

She gave me a long, worried look.

I had known this woman a long time and she meant a lot to me, but I could not get her to change her narrow-minded views. Most of her ancestors, like most of mine, had arrived in America as foreigners, and with or without English, they had certainly had their own distinctive customs and their own smelly, foreign foods. Many decades later, all of those interesting distinctions had vanished. Their descendants thought of themselves as Americans and feasted on things like hamburgers, deep fried potatoes, and packaged macaroni and cheese.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I gave a fervent prayer that the people who ran those Asian food stores would be there the next time I passed through, and still immune to the delights of Jello and tuna casserole.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Detail Man

My husband is generally not detail-oriented. I see evidence of this almost every day and it drives me half wild: empty beer bottles left on the kitchen table, an overflowing trash basket left in his wake, bits of food left on the side of the skillet after he has washed the dishes. And although he will deny this until he is blue in the face, I know he's largely responsible for the little bits of plastic I've found in the compost.

This past autumn, I turned our gigantic compost heap and picked out hundreds of little bits of junk: pieces of Styrofoam, plastic juice carton pull-tops, and foil seals from milk bottles. Every time I stooped down to pull out another bit of something that didn't belong there, I felt the rage well up afresh.

It's not as though he does this intentionally. I've watched him walk over to the compost bin, chuck a few foil wrappers into it, then move all the way across the room to carefully place used tea bags in the trash -- all the time wearing the expression of a man who has performed a useful service, not one who has put one over on his fussy wife.

When I'm cooking dinner, my husband sometimes comes into the kitchen to chat. We've had a few memorable discussions about this and he will now generally ask what he can do to help if I tell him I'm ready to serve. While I appreciate this, it sometimes drives me wild: there I am, doing a dozen things at once. I'm making a sauce for the fish I've got in the broiler; I'm mashing potatoes and whipping up a custard; I've got a pie baking in the oven, carrots and broccoli in the steamer, and tomatoes and basil ready to chop for a salad. The table has a scattering of breadcrumbs, a smear of jam, a box full of drill bits, and somebody's homework on it. There is a mobile phone in one corner, and a set of headphones tangled up with a scarf. There are two empty beer bottles on the counter; across the room the glass-recycling bag half full of bottles is gaping open, ready to receive them.

Does he really have to ask me what needs to be done? Isn't it as screamingly obvious as a four-arm-alarm fire?

And here is something truly amazing: I can walk into the kitchen when he is cooking and drive him wild precisely by doing the things I wish he would do for me! He doesn't mind (or, in some instances, notice) if I clear the table and set it, but when I clear away vegetable peels or turn the fire down under a pot, he is not grateful. When I get into his way to bundle up trash, he fumes and accuses me of interfering.

But here is something even more amazing: on two occasions, my husband has spotted details that I managed to miss. Important details, too, with possible life-threatening consequences.

On the first occasion, we were walking through the park near our house, deep in conversation. We were passing the lake when I was peripherally aware of a woman running along the bank, calling a name over and over; I assumed she was trying to find her dog. We had passed the woman and were at the busy intersection in front of the park, when we noticed a little girl about four years old. The lights turned green and I started to cross, but my husband stopped in his tracks. "She's too young to be out on her own," he said. "I'll bet that was her mother, looking for her."

"Who?" I asked. "The lady calling her dog?"

He shook his head. "Didn't you see her face? She wasn't calling a dog, she was freaking out." He frowned. "We've got to go tell her we've found her daughter."

This was a problem. My husband's Japanese wasn't 100%, but he didn't think it was appropriate for him to wait with a little girl he didn't know. Quickly I coached him on what to say to the mother, who we could not be certain would know any English. Ojosan wa kooen no iriguchi ni imasu yo. Tsuma to issho desu. My husband went to find the putative mother while I waited with the little girl. "Are you lost?" I asked her. The little girl shrugged and giggled.

A few minutes later, my husband was back with the woman. Until I saw her face, I really hadn't realized just how anxious she was. She threw up her hands, burst into tears, hugged her little girl, then pulled back and slapped her across the face. "Twenty minutes!" she cried. "Do you have any idea how worried I've been?" We left them sobbing, but safe.

Barely a week later, we were in a different park with our daughters. We were watching them playing in the sandbox when all of a sudden my husband yelled, then went racing toward the swing set. A toddler had wandered away from her mother and was directly in the path of a descending swing. Just before the hard plastic swing could crack the child across the face -- as it certainly would have -- I saw my husband swoop down and scoop her up. The momentum sent him flying past the swing set, but he managed to keep his balance. Taking a deep breath of air, he returned the little girl to her astonished, horrified mother who could hardly thank him enough. When we left the park shortly after, we felt like VIPs.

I am all about details. I can walk into a room and spot every single thing that doesn't belong there; I can proofread papers half a dozen people have given a thumbs-up and still find errors. But I did not hear the desperation in that mother's voice, and I did not see the toddler step into the path of the swing.

This doesn't mean that I'm happy about the junk in my compost heap or my husband's infuriating What do you want me to do? when it's as obvious as a cockroach on a wedding cake. But it's also obvious that when he does notice details, they're worth noticing.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Small Mercies

Here is the current state of our living room: the Chinese checkers board is still out; the only reason the marbles aren't everywhere is because my husband tidied them away last night. Several blankets are lying in a heap: from under one I can see a cat's paw and a tail. There are ashes and small pieces of coal scattered around our fireplace, and the plastic bucket my husband transfers coals in has a melted edge because one of our daughters forgot it was plastic and left it leaning against the stove. I won't mention which daughter because I am kind. And consider this: she put it against the stove because she was sweeping up the ashes and bits of coal. Small mercies.

Many other things are lying around too: shoes, slippers, socks, newspapers, books, empty cracker boxes, an embroidery hoop, cushions, board games, cat toys, matches, homework notebooks, lap top computers, a fire poker, magazines, scarves, plastic bags, candy wrappers, musical instruments, and more socks. I can't get over how many socks a family of four can generate. Add another person to the mix, and I'm betting we'd barely see the carpet for the socks. Most of the stuff belongs to my kids; a few of the items belong to my husband and me. I won't mention the things he's left lying around, because he is my husband. I won't mention the state of my desk, because this is my blog.

One of the cats has killed another bird, but someone must have locked the cat flap because the feathers are all over the front porch, but not in the kitchen this time. Small mercies. And apart from the feathers and a few drops of blood, there is nothing to clean up: the prey was obviously consumed this time, unlike the large rodent that I found, headless, just outside the front door a few days ago. Small mercies.

It ought to start getting tidier around here: our eldest daughter has gone to visit a friend. She has suffered a huge disappointment: a university friend and she were planning to travel around Europe for a whole month, staying in the homes of other pals and visiting half a dozen countries together. Last night, this much-awaited holiday was canceled: her friend's parents found out about her less than stellar academic record and they nixed her vacation plans at the last minute.

After venting her extreme irritation (tickets were purchased! reservations were made!), our daughter got on the phone and arranged to stay with another friend. I heard her discussing films, shopping excursions, visits to the gym -- and breathed a sigh of relief. Small mercies: her holiday won't be spoiled. And we won't have a miserable teenager sulking around the house for the next month either -- which is really not a small mercy. She stripped her sheets and pillowcases off her bed before she left too: that's another small mercy.

I can't look at this room without wincing, my poor husband has managed to sprain his back again, and it snowed overnight, making the roads treacherously slick and difficult to navigate. I've got rejection letters in my in-box, an oven sorely in need of a good scrub, and the leaking spot in our roof has been joined by another, bigger one. There's a nasty stain on our carpet, a rotten spot near the shower where water has soaked through the wood and boy, is that going to be expensive to fix. But I'm grateful for the small mercies, which surround me in abundance.

And quite apart from the silly trivia of my life, there are people like this woman and this man in the world.

And that's not a small mercy either.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Lifestyles Of The Poor And Obscure

When I was a kid, we drank our Tang and Kool-aid out of recycled jelly jars.

"Oh, we did that in my family too!" a friend laughed years later when I confided this. "We used to break glasses all the time, so I guess my Mom got desperate." I smiled and pretended that was why my mother did this too: to keep her nice glasses intact. But the truth was, jelly jars were our nice glasses. Melmac cups and tin mugs were for every day.

I'm not sure how old I was when I realized that our family was vastly different from the ones around us. Of course, all families are different, and I know how privileged my life was: we had indoor plumbing, a roof over our heads, enough food at every meal. We had a t.v., a car, and the standard electric appliances, though I'm told my mother reluctantly agreed to buy a washing machine only after my older sister was born. We also had two parents, both of whom graduated from university, books on our shelves, and religion. But we were the only people I knew who bought Dutch Pride imitation ice milk.

"My Mom buys ice milk sometimes," a friend commiserated when I whined to her about this. "It's gross," she said, shrugging, "but she says she has to lose weight." My sisters and I were all rail thin and so was my father, but my mother was pudgy. What a relief to pretend our weird desserts were for diet purposes! The truth was that real ice milk would have been a treat deemed beyond our means, but admitting that would have been acutely embarrassing. "Imitation ice milk" another friend of mine queried in amazement, studying the label. "I don't even know anybody who eats ice milk!" Whenever my friends stayed for dinner, I learned to dread dessert.

Our clothes were another source of embarrassment: I was over ten years old before I had anything brand-new that wasn't from a mail order catalog, and I'll never forget the weird lack of smell, the exotic rustle of tissue paper, the bizarre smoothness of material that hadn't been washed a hundred times. Occasionally we bought our clothes at thrift shops, but mainly, we got hand-me-downs. When we were little, we got them from our three girl cousins in Florida, the youngest of whom was a year older than my big sister. This fortuitous age difference must have pleased our respective parents as much as the great distance between our homes displeased them: I can imagine how they must have sweated out the postage of a whole box from Florida to California -- how they must have weighed the package (on borrowed scales) again and again until it came to within a fraction of an ounce of the maximum weight.

Our uncle in Florida was a preacher who adhered to the vows of poverty out of sheer necessity; every few years when we received our long-awaited clothes box from Florida, we would pore excitedly over the threadbare dresses, skirts and blouses, smelling of mothballs and already ten years out of fashion. "Those clothes were hand-me-downs when we got them," my cousin told me decades later when we shared an apartment in Miami. "They were donated by people in our church, and don't think their kids didn't point that out when we wore their stuff to school!" It was a great relief to trade stories with our Florida cousins; they were the only people with whom I could share some of our family's more embarrassing economies, like recycled fat used as a sandwich spread, the vast bag of rags my mother kept as dusters, the fact that we recycled Christmas wrapping paper and tinsel year after year. In fact, swapping stories with our Florida cousins, we came out looking recklessly affluent. Their first house was a tar-paper-and-chicken wire shack with a pounded dirt floor. They shared their living space with snakes and small furry animals and dreamed of indoor plumbing. Years later, when we visited them in Pensacola, they had a proper house, but a shopping trip to the local grocery store was obviously still an occasion.

"Do you eat out a lot?" one of my cousins asked us in hushed tones. They had made one trip out to California years earlier in a battered old Winnebago, a vacation that was clearly the adventure of their lives, and I can still remember their admiration and awe on learning that we could actually afford to eat out once a week. It didn't matter that eating out meant a meal at the local taco joint; this still put us in an enviably higher income bracket. "Sometimes we eat at Thrifty's Drug Store," I bragged. "They've got a fountain there and it's really neat." My cousins practically swooned.

I loved eating at the fountain of Thrifty's Drug Store. In our heady pre-vegetarian days, their hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches were delicious, but my favorite meal was a hot roast turkey sandwich swimming in gravy, and a Sprite. We would sit in a battered Naugehyde booth at a Formica table with dozens of wads of spent chewing gum plastered to the bottom (we frequently confirmed this by bending down to look, always marveling at the different colors and sizes), and it always felt special. On very rare occasions, no more than once a year, we would eat at a smorgasbord restaurant called Sir George's where the water glasses were made of real glass and did not have the name of any beverage on them. When I was eleven, my friends and I were making fun of a nasty, ignorant boy in our class. "I'll bet he eats out at Sir George's!" one of my friends snickered. "No!" cried another, "Thrifty's! His Mom and Dad take him to the fountain at Thrifty's!" To this day, I remember my shock and confusion. Did they know my family ate there? Whatever the case, I vowed never to admit to this.

"Those people!" I heard someone scoff at a party a few years ago. "They're so backwards, they don't even know what a fish fork is!" My first impulse was to laugh, as though as I found this funny too -- the idea of not knowing what a fish fork is! But I didn't know there were such things as fish forks until I was over thirty. And up until I was twenty, the only fish I knew came out of a can.

I'm a rich snob now: I buy real ice cream once in a while, and I can scale and gut my own fish if I have to. My rag bag has worn-out scraps from Japan, Mexico, Turkey, and China in it; I may buy my clothes at thrift shops, but they are posh thrift shops, and the clothes are nearly new. But I ate at Thrifty's Drug Store and I loved it. And God smite me if I ever laugh at anybody for not knowing what a fish fork is.