Sunday, 27 February 2011

Strangers In The Night

Once, long ago, Orihime, the weaving princess, wove beautiful cloth by the bank of the Milky Way. She was so busy with this important job, she never managed to do anything else, such as meeting interesting men. And then one day, Orihime happened to meet Hikoboshi, the handsome young cow-herder, who worked on the other side of the Milky Way. The two fell instantly in love and married.

Unfortunately, once they were married, they were so happy together, they had no time for anything else. Orihime stopped weaving her beautiful cloth and Hikoboshi stopped tending his cows, letting them wander all over Heaven. This caused so much trouble, that Orihime's father, Tentei, separated the two and forbade them to meet. Orihime was brokenhearted and begged her father to relent. Tentei finally gave in and allowed the two to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month -- if they promised to work hard and do all their work.

And so every year, on the 7th day of the 7th month, Orihime and Hikoboshi meet for a delightful day of sweet togetherness that makes the remaining 364 lonely days somehow bearable.

I tell you this tale because of my two cats, Mitzi and Maverick. When we first heard about them, we were told that they were a pair, that they had been together for a few years and had grown used to each other's company. In fact, it may have been that I wanted to hear this and was actually told something else, but this is what I expected when we got them: two companion cats, rather devoted to each other.

Reality has been such a disappointment.

On the day they arrived, we let them out of their cat boxes and allowed them to wander around the kitchen and hallway. The two belted out of their respective boxes, then did all the usual cat things -- jumping onto chairs, darting under tables and work surfaces, sniffing every single item in the room. Every few minutes, they would come within each other's orbit and briefly touch noses as though to say, "You holding up okay?"

But after these fleeting meetings, they split up -- and remained apart all evening.

Later, they returned to their cat boxes. I've never known cats who were perfectly happy to be in their cat boxes; in fact, I've never known cats who would willingly enter their cat boxes, but never mind. They had many chairs they could have slept on together, but they preferred their own solitary little cubicles.

Over the course of the next week, they continued to do this. Even when we allowed them free access to the entire house, they made sure to return to their cat boxes to sleep. Gradually, they began to find their own special places. Mitzi preferred our bedroom; Maverick's favorite spot was the third step down on the staircase.

But never, not once, did they snuggle up together. In fact, if one of them happened to jump onto a bed or sofa the other was on, entirely by accident, their reaction was exactly what you might expect from a fellow train passenger who had wandered into your sleeper by mistake: embarrassed confusion -- "Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't see you there!"

Even when they join me in the garden, these cats play separately. They do not chase each other, groom each other, bask in the sun together. They lead completely parallel existences. It's like living with a middle-aged feline couple, determined to see their way through a cheerless, though amicable, marriage.

So imagine my shock when last night I walked into our lounge and found Maverick hunched over Mitzi, licking her ear. For almost five minutes I stood there and watched, spellbound, as this took place. Then he jumped off the sofa and found another place to sit, and for the rest of the evening, the two continued their usual let's-ignore-each-other routine.

Who cares if the only reason it happened was because I accidentally dropped tunafish on Mitzi's ear? Who cares if they went against tradition and did this on the 27th day of the 2nd month? For five minutes, Orihime-Mitzi and Hikoboshi-Maverick crossed the skies and met for a romantic rendez-vous and I was there to witness it.

Let us hope the heavens soon get over the shock.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Love Divine

I'm crazy about chocolate, and I have a strong sense of justice. So it's probably no surprise that I'm a big fan of Fairtrade chocolate.

A few years ago, when I saw that Divine Chocolate, a Fairtrade chocolate company 45% owned by farmers, was having a poetry contest, I was thrilled. What a great idea! So I wrote a poem and submitted it, but I didn't win. Still, writing the poem was fun. The next year I entered again, but my poem was not picked. Nevertheless, writing that poem was fun too.

Last December, I saw that they were running the competition again, but I was too busy revising a manuscript to enter. And then I saw that Meg Rosoff was judging it and knew that I had to make time. I'd read her book, What I Was, when I was flying to Turkey for the first time. If you haven't read it, I won't spoil it for you, but let me just say that there is a clever twist in it. I'm usually pretty good at anticipating twists, but this one threw a rope around my foot and pulled me right off the deck. Which wouldn't have been enough to make me love the book, but it still amazed me. And the book was great. It was so good that even my husband liked it -- and my husband is notoriously fussy about books.

So I wrote another poem about chocolate and submitted it much the way you write a message on a piece of paper, seal it into a bottle, and chuck it into the sea. I mentally crossed my fingers. And a few weeks ago (after maybe a hundred clicks on the Divine Chocolate poetry competition site, I learned that my poem, I am Divine, was a tied runner up.

And I was overjoyed!

I told my husband I was a tied runner-up and he gave me the sort of look I've grown used to: supportive of my writing efforts, but pitying me in my clueless desperation. Then he looked over my shoulder at the site. "Hey!" he said, "Did you realize Meg Rosoff was the judge?" I told him I did.

"Well done!" he said, shaking his head. Unfortunately, my generally supportive, husband is not a huge fan of poetry in general (or mine in particular).

And although I wouldn't have thought it possible, I was even more overjoyed.

Does that sound just a little pathetic? Five years ago, I'd definitely have thought so. I had big dreams: I wanted first prize and nothing less! After five years of writing and rewriting, and a good, steep learning curve, the honor of being picked tied runner up for anything is sweet. But the honor of being picked by someone who wrote a book I loved is right-off-the-charts sweet. As sweet as justice, and as sweet as the richest, creamiest, most melt-in-your-mouth chocolate, which, as it happens, is what I get for a prize.

Justice, perseverance rewarded, and chocolate. That's not win-win, that's win-win-win.

This is the incredible, wonderful rush you sometimes get, as a writer -- the reward for all the labor, soul-searching, angst, and rejections. And it is very sweet indeed.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Writing The End

I've been struggling with an ending for months now. I hate writing endings!

Beginnings always write themselves. I feel like I've just started a journey: flushed with excitement, not yet footsore or weary, not yet dreading the weight of my backpack or tired of the same old clothes packed inside. Later on, my beginnings tend to unravel a bit and need reworking, but they generally stay the same. They take off at a good gallop, pulling the plot merrily behind them.

They pull me right along too, panting in their wake, huffing and puffing as I plan the rest of the story. As I work my way toward the middle, all the major sign posts are there and I can see them clearly ahead, but carving the way to them is everything. Just as in real life, a straight line will seldom get you from point A to point B, in fiction, the way is circuitous and there are rocks and dips and barbwire fences. But I enjoy figuring these out and working my way around them. Yes, beginnings and middles are the part of writing I relish the most: that first heady, dizzying rush, then working my way from signpost to signpost, over all the hurdles and obstacles.

Following a basic formula helps. First of all, what happens has to be at least a little bit funny. Because for pity's sake, what is life -- or fiction -- without humor? Then you have to give your protagonist loads of problems, providing plenty of tension to keep readers from looking at their watches and thinking about what's for lunch, but you also have to let your suffering protagonist have the occasional bit of fun so they don't end up so miserable and overstressed that you hate yourself for causing so much torment.

And then slowly but surely, you pave the way to a satisfying denouement, making sure not to forget the clues, the details that have to be there from the very beginning, woven deftly through your story so that the reader isn't left wondering what the hell just happened and how did that get there? This takes an incredible amount of fine-tuning, as the clues and contextual details have to be significant, but in an unobtrusive way, so that later on, your reader can go back and think to herself, "Ah, so that really WAS a dream, it was her all along!" and marvel that even with such great clues, they never guessed.

Beginnings and middles, I flatter myself, I can do. To be sure, there are many adjustments, hundreds of reworkings, characters dropped, plots restructured, beta readers consulted, and a whole teetering crap-load of angst, but I manage, all the same. But endings are my Waterloo, and this one is driving me wild. I know the outcome, I just don't know how to achieve it in the most incredible-but-believable, satisfying-but-not-predictable way.

Not so long ago, I had an epiphany: endings are hard for me because I don't like getting rid of things. I am a pack-rat by nature: I yearn to hoard and treasure the things I prize. I don't like saying goodbye, leaving places, finishing anything. I was always the kid who ate all the way around the blueberries on my danish, saving them until the very end, the one who made a bar of chocolate last until it had started to melt down my fingers. And once I finish writing something, the story is gone -- over! -- and all other chances for how the story might have ended are gone too. That goes against my grain, and that is why endings cause me so much difficulty.

So I am going to leave this ending for a day or two. I am going to clean out my drawers right now and sort through a few boxes of old shoes. It may not work, and it will be agony to throw out all those old shoes, but I can still use the cupboard space.

Wish me luck!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Words You Remember

"Oh honey, you're wishing your life away. I just wish it was Friday."

I heard those words from a fellow employee on an elevator in Miami, a middle-aged divorcee raising three teenagers on a single salary. When we'd gotten on the elevator, she'd sighed and said, "Gee, I wish it was Friday." I was young and callow; right away I went one better, blurting that I wished it was next month. Maybe what she said stayed with me because it was the right time for me to hear it: through her words, I suddenly had a glimpse of how precious time could be.

There are words I've remembered all my life, for a number of different reasons. Sometimes the words are pure poetry, hauntingly beautiful. Sometimes they're memorable because they contain an element of truth I'm ready to hear; sometimes they come at an apt moment or are full of good will, or the speaker's character and personality make them compelling. Some words have stayed with me because they echoed my own sentiments so succinctly. Words have such power.

My cat is graceful, a student of mine once wrote in his journal, when he buds his head against me. My cat moves very silkly.

Those words have stayed in my memory for decades. I doubt they would have if he'd used the right verb; 'bud' might have been technically wrong, but it was strangely, poetically perfect: the idea of a cat's head, hard and round like the bud of a flower, the cat moving with the fluidity of flowing silk.

"You folks take care now. And you have a good trip."

I was twenty years old when I heard those words, in a tiny town in Arizona, on a Greyhound bus. My eyes were half closed when the bus stopped to let out two men who'd been buying sacks of seed. I knew this because they'd been chatting with the driver, a man they obviously knew. For a few hours, I'd heard them making smalltalk: a brother-in-law with a cold, the birthday of a shared acquaintance in Albuquerque. They had shoulder-length black hair and the deeply tanned skin of farmers. When they got off the bus, one of the men addressed those words to us remaining two dozen passengers in a soft, low voice. For the rest of the trip, his words followed me all over America and Canada, like a benediction.

"Every time I see him, I don't know what to do. I don't want to patronize him, but I wish there was a way I could show him how very much I respect him."

My friend and fellow graduate student Cleo said those words. We were standing in the corridor of the English Department at San Francisco State University when another student fell down, a young man suffering from a serious nervous disorder. His legs were in braces; he had trouble controlling his arms and legs and he used crutches on a permanent basis, but whenever he fell down, you knew not to offer help: he always managed to stand up again through his own efforts. I remembered Cleo's words because they were heartfelt and touched me almost as much as this man inspired me. Cleo was a non-native speaker of English, but I can't imagine anyone expressing those sentiments more eloquently.

"Well, it wasn't pleasant!"

My friend Carol told me that when I asked her to describe her experience of childbirth. Carol is so upbeat, so gently understated and calm, that I was taken aback. I can turn a hangnail into a broken leg; Carol can make major surgery sound like a bump on the head. No harrowing tales of agonizing 50-hour labors could have scared me more than her Well it wasn't pleasant.

"There may be people who'll stab you in the back, but it will never stop me having friends. It will never stop me trusting. Because when it comes down to it, I just love people."

I heard those words from a fellow PTA volunteer in Abiko, Japan. We shared afternoon patrol duty and she was telling me about an acquaintance who claimed her dog was her best friend, and that she didn't need people. Those words brought tears to my eyes.

"Yes, we knew what he said was rude, but it was just so classic, so New York! He made our trip there totally special!"

Those words came from my friend Liz, in Wales. She and her husband Brian had gone to New York on their honeymoon. On a trip to see the Statue of Liberty, they had mistakenly pushed ahead in line. A man with a Brooklyn accent had expressed his displeasure: "Oi! Assholes! Wait your turn!" They brought that story home like a precious souvenir: "It was like we were in a movie," Liz sighed, "with Robert deNiro!"

Those are just a few of the words I'll never forget. How about you? What are the words you remember?

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Full Circle

When my husband and I first met, we were colleagues, teaching in a large British English school in Tokyo. At first, I knew little about him other than his first name and the fact that he got bad sunburns when he played cricket.

One day, I was at my desk, marking papers in our large staffroom when a student came in to ask him a question about her composition. He had marked a phrase incorrect and she wondered why.

"Because it's wrong," he said.

"But my dictionary says it's right," she protested.

"What dictionary is that?"


"Ha!" he scoffed. "No wonder. That's an American dictionary and an American phrase -- and this is a British school! Next time use a British dictionary." He made a deprecatory little gesture to go with every use of American. I gritted my teeth and turned back to my papers. This wasn't the first time a colleague had dissed my country and I was pretty sure it wouldn't be the last.

After the student left, my husband got up to leave too. His desk was around a corner, out of my sight, but as soon as he saw me sitting there, he froze. "Oh!" he said. "I thought I was the only one here!"

"Mmm," I replied, not looking up.

Later that day, I was walking past his desk when he stopped me. "I want to apologize for what I said earlier," he said. "I was going for a cheap laugh and I'm ashamed you overheard. I'm genuinely sorry; I meant no disrespect."

"That's okay," I told him. "I'm used to it."

"But you shouldn't be!" he said. "It's just wrong -- I was wrong. Anyway, I'm sorry."

I was amazed: after ten years of enduring jokes about stupid, spoiled, fat, over-privileged, filthy rich Americans, it was the first time anybody had apologized for a mere gaffe. And what he'd said hadn't even been all that offensive, considering.

After this incident, we got to know each other. I learned that he was good at putting his foot in his mouth, but almost always contrite afterwards; he learned that I too was prone to speaking first and thinking later. Eventually, I was bowled over by his strong sense of justice and integrity; he liked the fact that I had learned Japanese and marched to the beat of my own drum.

Over twenty years of marriage later, we've had plenty of experiences hearing our respective countries trashed. We both wince when comedy routines open with gratuitous Aren't Americans stupid? jokes; we both bristle when we hear people condemn the British as xenophobic, classist snobs.

My Kazakh students used to complain about Sacha Baron Cohen's fictional Borat and his unfair treatment of their country. It infuriated them that Kazakhstan was made to look like a nation of illiterate, uncultured, anti-Semitic boors. "It is wrong for him to say these things about our country!" they used to protest. "Why doesn't he say them about Kyrgyzstan instead?" I used to tell them that when Kyrgyzstan got as wealthy and popular as Kazakhstan, they would get joked about too. Just like the U.S. and the U.K.

My husband now works with a diverse, cosmopolitan group of teachers from all over the world. The other day, one of his new colleagues began telling the staffroom her opinion of Americans and their accents. "They all sound so foolish!" she said. "Like they're sucking on marbles!" My husband listened for as long as he could stand it, then finally held up his hand. "I guess you don't know that my wife is American," he said.

Let's hope she too meets an American one day. And falls in love...