Thursday, 26 May 2011

Happy Mother's Day

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a six-word memoir, asking contributors to sum up their mothers in just six words. You might not realize it, but you can work a lot of pathos, humor, and intrigue into just six words. Reading these memoirs, I roared with laughter, shook my head in admiration, and was moved to tears several times.

I immediately emailed my younger daughter the link. She and I are similar: we like things that make us laugh and cry in equal measures. We wear our hearts on our sleeves.

It took her a while to check it out. "I thought it was just one of those writing things you like," she told me later. Which was silly, because it was a writing thing, and I did like it. But I knew what she meant. She thought it was going to be boring. I send her a lot of links on the importance of getting enough sleep, eating nutritious food, and limiting your alcohol consumption, how valuable exercise is, the need for earplugs at rock concerts, and so on. Strangely enough, she does not find these words of wisdom thrilling; she pretty much deletes them just as fast as she can.

But she read straight through the six-word memoirs and was clearly moved by them.

"Oh my God," she said, "those were great!" And because we'd enjoyed them so much, we read them again, together.

Some impressed us:

Answered my questions. Questioned my answers.
My mother — often moved, seldom swayed.

(Both of those describe my mother perfectly.)

And we both laughed at these:

Her meatloaf was crunchy, with love.
Smart, kind, frugal. Makes great kugel.
There’s love in her green enchiladas.
She didn’t always follow the recipe.
I miss her rice and beans.
Kitchen is closed. Make it yourself.

(My mother was smart, kind, and frugal too, although she probably didn't know what kugel was. Unlike me, she hated cooking, but she made enchiladas occasionally, rarely with a recipe. And I miss her rice and beans.)

These made us laugh:

You’re going out in that?
Let’s play the quiet game now.
Wait ‘til your father gets home.
Just put on a little lipstick.
Get down here, right this minute.
Because I’m your mother, that’s why.
I’m cold. Put on a sweater.
I know how busy you are.
Let me look before you flush.
Now put a real skirt on.
Hello. It’s your mother. Call me.
Dressed to perfection, even in ambulance.

And we howled at these:

The original Google, Wikipedia and eHow.
Thought ‘LOL’ meant ‘lots of love.’
She learned to text for me.
81 years young with an iPad2.
Uh oh. Mom’s on Facebook now.
Mom’s on Facebook. Luckily not Twitter.
She’s my number one Twitter follower.
Expects calls — or e-mails unhappy faces.
Sends me “Thinking of you” texts.
Taught me the best swear words.
Hit her punk phase at 70.
Switched napping dad’s pipe for banana.

And laughed and cried at these:

Six kids. No wonder she drank.
Buried with her books and brandy.
I loved her, drunk or sober.
Kids need moms. Moms need wine.
God loves us through mothers, mostly.

These broke our hearts:

Gone suddenly. Things left to say.
She knew and didn’t stop him.
Alzheimer’s makes me the mom now.
Lost my biggest fan to cancer.
You missed out on absolutely everything.
Some moms should not be moms.
Killed herself when I was 8.
Difficult to love. Impossible to forget.
Escaped communist Albania. She was 19.
Even the Nazis bowed to you.
Loved Jesus, bourbon, cigarettes and me.

By the time we got to the winners, we'd been through the gamut of emotions and thought we were all finished. But we were wrong:

What’s she doing in my mirror?
“Mom, I am gay.” Nothing changed.
[Insert some great advice here], sweetie.
Not entirely happy until completely discontent.
Friends finally. But not on Facebook.

And finally, this one, which I personally loved:

She deserves more than six words.

My mother has been dead for 30 years, but she deserved more than six words too; I could write her a thousand six-word memoirs and she'd still deserve more. So here are a few for my mother: She devoured fruit by the truck-load; She knew I could do better; My best friend. (I wasn't hers.) and finally I'll never meet anybody like her.

Reading those six-word memoirs with my daughter was my Mother's Day present from her this year. But after a little wheedling, I got a good neck rub off her too -- and her very own six-word memoir for me:
Rub my neck, honey, will you?

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Dissing Johnny Depp

The following is a true story. I almost wish it wasn't.

Before I tell it, I want to write about what happened to my cousin a few decades ago. My cousin is a teacher, but once upon a time she was also a Hollywood extra. One day, she was waiting on a set (something Hollywood extras spend 99% their time doing), when a man sat down at her table and tried to chat her up. This happened all the time to my good-looking cousin, but she was a happily married woman, so she didn't even look up from the book she was reading, All the President's Men. She was polite enough to answer yes when the man asked if she liked the book; she just didn't look up and make eye contact.

Until he made a comment about starring in the movie. Then she did look up -- and saw that she had been chatting with Dustin Hoffman. At which point she did what any sensible person would do: she apologized for her inattention, assured him of her great admiration for his work, and asked him to autograph her book. Which he did.

Yesterday, I was in Glasgow for a series of job interviews and to meet my daughter for a late lunch. It was a cold, blustery day and I'd had little sleep the night before after wrestling with a long, taxing translating/editing job. After getting lost half a dozen times and walking several miles, followed by a confusing trip on the train to Glasgow Central Station, I was exhausted, and exasperated to find that my daughter was late.

So I found a Costa coffee shop and nipped in for an espresso, but there was a long line. Too tired to spend even one more minute on my feet, I sat down to wait -- and dozed off. I don't do this often, but every time I do, something weird happens. This time was no exception: somebody rapped on the window. I thought it might be my daughter, so I shook myself awake, and saw a stranger grinning and waving at me. Not just any stranger either, but some guy got up to look like Captain Jack Sparrow in full pirate regalia. The resemblance was quite striking -- whoever they'd picked looked exactly like Johnny Depp -- but I was in a sour mood and very irritated to be woken up; I gave him my dirtiest look, mouthed something Captain Jack Sparrow himself might say, then settled back into my chair to doze off again.

When my daughter finally showed up, I told her the story. After insisting that I must have been dreaming, she thought it was hilarious. So did my husband when he came to pick us up.

Then today, my daughter sent me this.

Would somebody who knows how to do these things please put me out of my misery and find out if Johnny Depp actually was in Glasgow yesterday, near the Buchanan Street Galleries? Never mind that he wasn't Dustin Hoffman; if I actually met Johnny Depp yesterday, even through a window, I really want to know so I can write to my cousin and tell her.

If the man I saw really was Johnny Depp, here is a message for him: There are over six hundred thousand people in Glasgow, and half of them were at that shopping mall yesterday. 80% of that number were women, 100% of whom would give their eyeteeth to chat you up. Why did you have to pick the one person who was sleeping?

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Thank You, Liberty

Two months ago, I lost my mobile phone in Glasgow.

I noticed it was gone just after my first private lesson. I checked both pockets of my coat, emptied out my ratty old backpack, and later, searched through the glove compartment of our car in growing desperation, but the phone was gone. A thorough search of our flat was also futile.

"I must have dropped it," I finally told my husband. "When we got out of the car, I must have had it on my lap and it fell into a pile of leaves or mud."

My husband isn't known for his optimism. "In that case, you'll never see it again," he predicted. "Not in Glasgow."

Now, I'm no fan of mobile phones, but I've learned how useful they can be. On a trip to London to see my cousins, I'd been able to use my mobile as a camera and to stay in touch with my daughters and husband. I'd used it to arrange meetings with private students -- I'd even learned how to text on the damn thing, and I'd just managed to top up its credit all by myself. In fact, I'd been seriously considering letting my daughter show me how to access my email account from it. The more I thought about it, the more I missed it: the little wand thingy I used to punch out messages, the ceramic Korean cat dangling from it, its shiny new touch screen. I could practically feel the heft of it in my hand, the good, connected feeling it gave me when my daughters sent me texts. Losing it just about broke my heart; we could afford to replace it, but only just.

"Maybe someone picked it up," I said. "Maybe they found it, but they haven't figured out how to use it yet, so they can't tell me they have it." Even to me this sounded lame.

Days went by. I wondered what the finder had made of my phone. Obnoxiously pink, in a pink silk bag -- that was bad enough. But my husband and kids have wicked senses of humor: the ring tone they'd chosen for me was Merle Haggard's California Cotton Fields,. Half the names in my address book are Japanese -- my students and translating partner. There was a voice mail message from the mother of the middle school boy who I am teaching Japanese, a screensaver picture of our Turkish rescue kitten baring pointed little teeth in a cross-eyed snarl, and a scrawled message in clumsy cursive from my daughter : I love you mommy! Best of all, on the camera were several pictures of a grotty old vacuum cleaner on the landing in the cheap hotel where I stayed in London, plus a fuzzy shot of the underside of the scarred bedside table, studded with old pieces of chewing gum.

I knew that if I'd found my phone, those vacuum cleaner and chewing gum shots alone would have driven me mad with curiosity: What kind of a weirdo takes pictures of old vacuum cleaners and wads of chewing gum?

Almost a week after I lost it, I got a call from a young woman whose voice I didn't recognize. "I think I've got your phone," she said. "I found it in the street just across from Glasgow University."

I was so happy I forgot to take her number, but we arranged to meet in a few days, when I was next due to go to Glasgow. Her name, she told me, was Liberty.

"You really think she'll show up?" my husband said dubiously as he dropped me off in front of the library.

"She said she would."

"How will she recognize you?"

"I told her I'd have on a green scarf," I said, tweaking my green scarf.

"You'll need some cash," he said, "to give her as a reward."

I'd already thought of that. I had £20 in carefully saved £5-bills.

Liberty turned out to be a stunningly pretty girl who showed up exactly when she said she would. She handed over my phone with a smile and shook her head when I tried to give her the £20.

"Do me another favor," I told her. "Please give whoever raised you my thanks and sincere appreciation." She blushed and smiled and we waved goodbye.

So thank you again, Liberty, for finding my phone and getting it back to me. I'm going to learn how to access my emails on that phone if it's the last thing I ever do. And if we ever meet again, I'll tell you about those vacuum cleaner photos if you tell me how you ended up with that name.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


Years ago, when I was a graduate student fresh back from a year in Japan, one of my housemates pointed out an acquaintance at a party. "You'll be able to talk to Calvin," she said. "He's Japanese."

I wondered about Calvin's name, which certainly didn't sound Japanese. Maybe he'd given up trying to get Americans to pronounce his real name and picked one they could manage. Maybe he'd chosen Calvin because he was an admirer of Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. If so, he was worth getting to know. "Calvin doesn't sound like a Japanese name," I said, watching Calvin pop the top of a beer can. "Are you sure he's Japanese?"

My housemate nodded. "Positive."

Whatever Calvin was, he was definitely good looking, and he didn't look stuck up either. So a few minutes later, I worked up the nerve to talk to him. "Melissa tells me you're Japanese," I said hesitantly. Now that I was standing next to him, I saw that Calvin dressed more like an American. No Japanese person would have been caught dead in jeans with frayed knees, or beat-up trainers with holes in the toes. And for that matter, the heels of his trainers weren't run down. A lot of Japanese kids wear down the heels of their shoes, changing out of them so often.

Calvin made a face. "Yeah? Funny she should say that, because I'm actually American." He took a long drink of beer and looked me in the eye. "Chinese-American. Third generation."

I did what I could to apologize, then hunted down Melissa.

"For your information," I fumed, "Calvin is American, not Japanese. And he's not even of Japanese descent, he's Chinese-American."

I was seething. I'd just embarrassed myself and it was all her fault. And she'd made me blot my copybook with Calvin, who'd been even better looking up close.

Melissa, however, wasn't the least bit embarrassed or apologetic about her gaffe. "Chinese, Japanese, whatever," she said with provoking nonchalance.

I let her have it with both barrels. "You can't just say whatever," I almost cried. "The Japanese and Chinese speak totally different languages. They eat different food, and their cultures are vastly different. And for God's sake, Calvin's a native speaker of English! You can't just blithely call somebody Japanese when he's not and say whatever when you find out you're wrong!"

"You act like it's such a big deal," Melissa said.

"It is a big deal," I told her. "Would you want somebody saying they'd heard you were English?" Melissa was, in fact, of Welsh extraction.

"You act like you know everything about Orientals," she countered.

I sucked my breath in. "You know, the preferred term is now Asian," I told her.

Melissa sipped her beer. "Whatever," she said again.

I gave up and walked away. Correcting ignorance is one thing, but correcting willful ignorance is a tough call. Especially when you're angry, a little tipsy, and wearing your party clothes.

But what Melissa said really stung. I hate being called a know-it-all because in my heart of hearts, I really do want to know everything. What I should have said, though, was You act like it's okay to be ignorant. Because that was just what she had done, and it was wrong.

I should qualify that. In many ways, we're all ignorant -- to begin with. It's okay to be ignorant, and I should know; the older I get, the more overwhelmed I am by the colossal extent of my own ignorance. No matter how much I learn, there will always be a mountain of things I don't know: languages I can't speak, music I can't read, crafts I can't do, concepts I can't grasp. I try hard to be culturally sensitive, but I've confused Ukrainians with Russians, Australians with New Zealanders, and Indians with Pakistanis. But for all that it's okay to be ignorant, that doesn't mean it's right to stay that way. Still, I've got one thing going for me that Melissa didn't: I really want to learn. And when I'm caught out, however embarrassing it is, I've learned to own up to it.

That may be why it drives me wild to find people like Melissa who are blissfully, unashamedly ignorant. Especially nowadays when we have radio, television, the internet, Wikipedia. When, in America, we are blessed with free libraries, cheap books, and a multi-cultural society which includes all sorts of people who can, if we are willing to learn, share so much about themselves and their cultures.

After seventeen years in Japan and many years of teaching a variety of Asian students, I've lost track of how many times I've heard people confuse Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, you name it; if it's Asian, it's all one big muddle in many people's minds. Moreover, whenever I point out -- politely, of course -- that the restaurant we're going to is actually Korean, not Chinese, or that Mr. Tran is Vietnamese, not Korean, or that foot binding was not practiced in Japan, but in China, the responses I've gotten have largely been the same as Melissa's whatever. The same people who think Chinese and Japanese can be treated interchangeably, that Koreans and Vietnamese are pretty much the same because, after all, weren't their countries divided up after wars? - might wince to hear a ship referred to as a boat, the objective confused with the subjective, an Irishman described as an Englishman, Budweiser mixed up with Coors.

So, for what it's worth, Chinese and Japanese are not the same; Koreans and Vietnamese are not the same; Cambodians and Filipinos are not the same. All of these people, their languages, food, and culture, are vibrantly, fascinatingly different, and the generally preferred term for all of them is now Asian.

But most of all, while it's perfectly okay to be ignorant, it's never okay to stay that way.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Growing Pains

Gardening is loads of fun, but it can be hard on the ego.

Some years ago, a friend of mine stopped short halfway through my garden and pointed. "Are those peonies?" he asked.

I said yes, they were.

"Peonies!" he said, shaking his head. "How did you manage to get peonies to grow?"

"I just planted them," I said. "I stuck them in and they came up."

"Mine didn't," he said, frowning. "And I tried three times."

"Maybe your soil is different."

He grunted. "My soil is exactly the same as yours."

"I use chicken manure," I told him. "And bone meal too. Maybe that's what you need."

"Yeah." He gave me a sour look. "So did I."

I shrugged, but it was hard not to swell with pride. My friend had a much nicer garden than mine, but I'd managed to get peonies to grow and he hadn't! Maybe I was developing a green thumb at long last.

The other week, I visited my friend Dina. Just outside her house, there is a bed filled with periwinkles. They are healthy and vigorous and studded with little blue flowers. They make me feel sick with envy: I can't grow periwinkles.

"How do you get such great periwinkles?" I asked.

Dina gave me a funny look. "Periwinkles? It's not hard to grow periwinkles."

I know this must be true: everybody tells me. Not being able to grow periwinkles is like not being able to grow dandelions.

"They don't work for me," I mumbled.

"Do you break up the soil?"

"Of course."

"Make sure they get enough water?"

"Duh." This is Scotland, after all.

"Then your problem shouldn't be getting them to grow, it should be getting them to stop."

When I went home, I planted the periwinkles Dina dug up from her garden and watered them in. I need them for a weed-riddled patch, but I was kind: I started them off in a relatively weed-free area. A days later I went outside to see how they were doing. They looked wilted and sullen, like teenagers asked to do an unpleasant chore. I watered them anyway. Two weeks later, I came out again and they looked even more pathetic. It was obvious they weren't going anywhere.

"It doesn't look like they've taken," I told Dina the next time I saw her.

"Take some more cuttings," she advised. "Believe me, anybody can grow periwinkles."

"I've got some great peonies, though," I bragged, stuffing my next lot of periwinkles in a plastic bag. "My peonies look fantastic this year."

"Yes," she said. "Mine are doing well too."

I miss my friend who couldn't grow peonies.