Thursday, 28 April 2011

Sweet Seventeen

I can hardly believe it, but I have a daughter who went to the prom.

I can hardly believe this for two reasons. One is the obvious, sunrise-sunset one: Where has the time gone? I look at my daughter and can't get over the young lady she is now. I remember her as a squalling, red-faced infant, a chubby toddler, a headstrong kid, a smart-mouthed pre-teen. And now here she is in high heels and a fancy dress, curling her hair and putting on make-up.

The second reason is, I never went to the prom at my high school and neither did my sisters. Nobody invited us. We didn't really mind so much; we were introverted nerds and it never crossed our mind that anybody would want to go to the prom with us. Which was a very good thing, considering that nobody did.

In my heart of hearts, I'd have liked to be the sort of girl boys invited to the prom. I had an image of a nice boy calling me up and inviting me. On the night of the prom, he'd come to collect me on foot because he wouldn't have a car and it would be embarrassing to be driven by his parents. I could picture us strolling to the prom together, me wearing some kind of nice dress (though God knew what: I had a mother and two sisters with no fashion sense, and the shoes would be a problem since I hated high heels and wondered how I would ever walk in them). I had a vague notion of dancing (which should have panicked me because I could not dance), drinking fruit punch (because I was too much of a goody-goody nerd to imagine alcohol), and whispered pleasantries at the front porch when he dropped me off, perhaps a firm handshake, a kiss on the cheek, and a promise to meet again.

You can see why I never got asked to the prom.

I'm not one of those mothers who relives her youth through her daughters. My own youth is so far behind me, this would be absurd. Also, my daughters are entirely different from my teenage self: they may be nerds, but they're well-adjusted, gregarious nerds. So when our eldest daughter decided that she didn't want to go to her prom, I was fine with that. But a few months ago, I heard our youngest daughter talking on the phone. "No. Seriously. I'm not going," I heard her say. "Ask Heather, she'll go with you."

"What was that all about?" I asked her when she hung up.

She rolled her eyes. "Sam wants to go to the prom."

"He invited you and you said no?"

"Of course I did! I don't want to go to the prom!"

Sam is kind, smart, and good-looking. He plays the cello, is athletic, and has been pals with my daughter for the past ten years. I may not be one of those mothers who relives her youth through her daughters, but the teenager in me felt like crying. You got asked to the prom and you said no? What the hell is wrong with you?

Over the next few weeks, I heard further conversations, all of which went like this: "Well how about Mhairi? Have you asked her? Why not? Okay, then, how about Megan? Ask her!"

"So?" I finally asked. "What did you decide about the prom?"

"I told him I'd go with him if he couldn't get anybody else."

Which is exactly what happened. My daughter didn't let Sam down. She bought the cheapest dress she could find, and thank God I didn't have to help her pick it out. "Only seventeen pounds on sale!" she crowed, twirling around and modeling it for us. She borrowed a pair of high heels from a friend. I watched her in awe: I could never have picked out my own prom dress. I would never have been able to walk around in high heels.

Sam showed up at our house in a kilt, bearing a corsage. His parents drove him and my daughter to the prom. I shook my head as I watched them drive off. I never imagined I'd have a daughter going off to the prom. And definitely not with a boy wearing a kilt.

"How was the prom?" I asked her when she got home.

"It was great," she said, "but my feet are killing me. I hate high heels!"

Thursday, 21 April 2011

A Case Of Mistaken Identity

Our cats, Mitzi and Maverick, are both completely black. When we first got them, the woman who gave them to us pointed out that Mitzi has the tiniest fluff of white on her chest -- so small that you can barely see it. At first we were entirely dependent on that tiny white patch to tell the two cats apart.

After a week, we had no trouble distinguishing them from each other. Mitzi is smaller than Maverick, and more nimble. Her face is flatter and wider, her eyes are cannier, and she is a natural-born climber and jumper. If you walk into our kitchen and there is a cat on top of the highest shelf, it is Mitzi. Maverick has a skittish, skulking, humbled air about him. He's also klutzier and heavier than Mitzi. If you're in the kitchen and a cat takes a flying leap to the top of the table and misses, it is Maverick. Mitzi is noisier and she is a restless spirit: even after she has been fed, she will roam from room to room, meowing plaintively, for all the world as though something vital is missing from her life. The first week she was here, we wore ourselves out supplying her with more water, more food, and attention whenever she yowled. Nothing worked. Now we just tell her to shut up. Maverick, though big and fierce-looking, has a tiny little voice that he saves for emergencies: a hailstorm, a big dog in the garden, a stuck cat flap.

Last month, one of the cats started spraying. We never caught them at it, but the evidence was plain. Even people like me who are passionate about cats hate the smell of cat pee. Cat urine is so awful that even Einstein had something to say about it: A man has to work so hard so that something of his personality stays alive. A tomcat has it so easy, he has only to spray and his presence is there for years on rainy days. Almost all days are rainy days in Scotland. When strangers came by, we didn't need to tell them we had cats.

We shut the cats out. We yelled at them when they sidled up to the furniture, took to feeding them on the porch, and would not allow them into the living room even on the coldest, rainiest days. I scrubbed the smell away (to little avail), sprayed lemon perfume about, and ground pepper into the corners. Then one day it hailed and the wind blew fiercely. We took pity on the cats and let them into the living room where we could keep an eye on them. Mitzi was sitting on my lap, purring away, when all of a sudden she stopped and began to growl. She stood up and her tail inflated to twice its size as she stalked across the room, arching her back and hissing. I followed her out -- and found a well-fed, furry tomcat in the act of spraying our staircase.

I have a very good sense of smell. I can smell the difference between Mitzi (wet fur, spice, and crushed flowers) and Maverick (wet fur, leaf mold, and tuna). But Mitzi had been able to smell a strange cat from a distance of 50 feet.

I felt so guilty, I gave our cats extra food that night and let them both sleep in our bedroom. In no time, the bedspread was covered with bits of black fur.

A few weeks ago, the cats started acting weird. Maverick would come into a room Mitzi was in and she would fly at him, hissing and snarling. Once, she came into the kitchen where he was eating, and flew at him, sending him running. Maverick started to meow more too, and he lost his skulking air. Instead of flattening himself against the wall when somebody walked past him, he strutted proudly.

At first, I put this down to the catnip I'd just planted. Not all cats react to catnip, so we were thrilled to find that Mitzi and Maverick were both susceptible to it, behaving in the kind of outlandish ways it is so entertaining to observe. Just as people react differently to certain drugs, cats react differently to catnip. Could it be that the catnip was making Mitzi paranoid and freeing Maverick from his usual inhibitions? It seemed to be making them hungrier too: both cats, especially Maverick, were suddenly ravenous, begging for food even after they'd been fed.

We scolded Mitzi for being so unkind and Maverick for being so greedy.

Then last week, Maverick followed me into the kitchen. As we walked in, he let out a low growl and backed off, his face a mask of terror. Mitzi was in the kitchen, on top of the refrigerator, glaring down at a black cat who was gobbling up her breakfast. This cat was identical to Maverick in every way. Except, of course, for his smell -- and his personality.

We shooed the extra cat out -- he is well fed and well groomed.

Needless to say, our bedspread is now covered in cat fur.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A Few Things, Lost In Space

You learn a lot as a teacher. Over the years, I certainly have.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering journey into outer space. I'm relieved that my daughters know this landmark voyage was made by a Soviet; a handful of their peers assume that the first person in space must have been an American.

So did half a dozen of my students, when I taught refugees at a retraining center in San Francisco. On the last day of class, we played a modified game of Trivial Pursuit, and this was one of the questions: What nationality was the first person in space? A man from Guatemala raised his hand to speak, but he was interrupted by a young Vietnamese woman. "American!" she called out, beaming. The Guatemalan frowned, but he nodded. "American," he agreed. "Americans first in everything."

I had the book, so I knew they were wrong. The awful truth is, I'd completely forgotten that the first person in space was Russian.

This class was mainly Chinese, Indochinese, and Hispanic, but as it happened, there were also three refugees from the U.S.S.R. Before I could open my mouth to correct their classmates, they all started talking at once, spluttering in indignation. "Not American, Soviet!" they protested. "Yuri Gagarin, 1961!"

"Not American?" the girl from Vietnam said, tilting her head. "I think American. Americans go to moon."

The former Soviets assured her that she was wrong. I confirmed what they said and blushed to imagine how embarrassed I'd have been if I hadn't had the answer.

Today, I read an article about Gagarin in the Guardian. His daughter mentions that he enjoyed literature and, like almost all Russians, was familiar with Pushkin, widely considered the Shakespeare of Russian literature.

When I was in Cyprus, I had a few classes with Nigerian students. During one break, the subject of literature came up. I had just read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, and was surprised to find that many of my Nigerian students had never heard of it. Then we got to talking about poetry and somebody mentioned Pushkin. "He was part African," one of the Nigerians said, "like Obama." (Obama had just been elected president in America, delighting and impressing every single African student on campus, and dominating most conversations.) "Pushkin's great-grandfather was kidnapped from North Africa and he was sold," my student went on. "He was taken to Russia, to live in the palace."

This sounded pretty far-fetched to me, so I looked it up. When I googled Pushkin, I found that his African genealogy is well known and well documented. In fact, his great-grandfather's life story is so incredible, fiction could hardly do it justice. Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal, was abducted from Africa, sold to a sultan in Istanbul, then passed on to the Russian court, where he quickly became a favorite and was made a page. Russia's Shakespeare was indeed the great-grandson of a kidnapped African greatly prized by the Russian tsar. How did I manage to miss this? As a child, I watched Bill Cosby's Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed, and if he ever mentioned Pushkin, I never picked it up.

I like to think about Yuri Gagarin, floating up there in space, reciting Pushkin to himself. His daughter says that he loved learning new things too.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Getting It Right

Teenagers are hard on your ego.

My youngest daughter has a really good ear for tunes. I used to think I did too, especially compared with my mother, who got Oh, Susanna mixed up with Campton Races. My mother didn't let her inability to distinguish one tune from another interfere with her love of singing. If she heard somebody humming Oh Promise Me , she would happily join in with Sweet Genevieve. When it was pointed out to her that the song being hummed was actually Oh Promise Me and not Sweet Genevieve, she was always amazed: Really? They sounded exactly alike! We sang a lot in my family, so this happened with exasperating frequency.

As a teenager, I used to give my mother a hard time for her musical cluelessness. My scorn must have hurt her, but she took it with grace and humor.

I'm nowhere near as good a sport as my mother was.

The other day, I had the temerity to join my daughter in singing Ginza Ondo. This is a popular Japanese folk song beloved of Tokyoites, and it is a challenge to sing it well. My daughters grew up singing Japanese folk songs and they sing Ginza ondo a lot. I knew Ginza Ondo years before my daughters were born, but I've always had a tough time singing the beginning, drawing out that first long hahhh, and knowing just when to launch into the main melody.

But the other day was different. I finished the hahhh right on time and started the main melody, totally in sync. I was thrilled: I actually remembered the words and had a handle on the rhythm! By the time we got to the chorus, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Then I happened to see my daughter's face. She was scowling and her eyebrows were knitted together. My joy and triumph at nailing the song vanished in a flash.

"Mom!" my daughter fumed. "If you can't do any better than that, why do you bother?"

"What in the world did I do wrong?" I spluttered.

My daughter took a long, exasperated breath and sang the phrase I'd allegedly messed up. It sounded exactly like what I'd just sung.

"Now try it again," she said, rolling her eyes.

I did, with exactly the same results. No matter how hard I tried to repeat my daughter's phrasing, I could not get it right. Einstein's definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time. Let me tell you, he was right on the money. I went to bed that night, feeling crazy and delusional; why did I think I could sing? I might not confuse Oh Promise Me with Sweet Genevieve, but my daughter could obviously hear what I could not. How humiliating! How had my mother coped?

The next morning, my daughter was rushing around as she usually does in the morning, looking for things she should have packed the night before. She was at the door, struggling into her shoes when I happened to glance at the calendar: April the first!

"Where's my other shoe?" my daughter cried, looking around frantically.

"It's there somewhere," I said, preoccupied.

April the first, and I hadn't tried my usual April Fool's Day trick! I was really slipping. Even if my daughters had both assured me that this year I wouldn't get away with it. That this year, I'd have to find another lame gag and pull that instead...

"Is it in the hallway?" my daughter called, bending down and looking under the table.

"I'll just check," I said. In her current state, she was off guard. Vulnerable. My much-used lame gag might just work yet again.

"Can you see it in there?" she cried.

Yep, she sounded frantic. I seized my chance.

"Oh crap!" I yelled. "Don't tell me you didn't see this dead mouse in the hallway! Its guts are all over the place You know very well it's your turn to clean it up!"

"Nooo!" my daughter wailed. "Mom, I can't! I'll be late for school!"

I marched back into the kitchen. "Then I'll call the school. But you are going to clean up this dead mouse before you leave this house. Because you promised."

Her reaction was near-apoplectic hysterical rage fading into open-mouthed exasperation when she knew she'd been had. It could hardly have been more satisfying.

Sometimes you do the same thing over and over and get the exact same results. My mother got me a few times with the cat-mess trick, and I got her a few times too.

Now I remember how she coped.