Thursday, 23 June 2011

Writer's Lap Cats

I'm involved in a difficult project right now -- a project so challenging, I may never succeed in my efforts to bring it to fruition.

I'm not talking about actual writing this time, however challenging it is. And writing is, to be sure, very challenging. I'm making revisions on a novel I've written for adults. I thought I was finished with it two weeks ago. After numerous beta readers had weighed in, after umpteen revisions and rewritings, I even sent it off to my agent. Then I happened to reread one paragraph and found, within it, both unnecessary words and a small plot hole. So, I'm clipping and tweaking yet again, because if I found these infelicities in just one paragraph, there's no telling what horrors lurk in the rest of the manuscript. And yes, it's hard work. But my newest project is harder still.

I'm not talking about teaching either; although I find my small class absorbing, time-consuming, and exhausting. We've been working on graphs lately, and how to write simple sentences comparing statistical data. This ought to be straightforward, but I find breaking down the concepts into understandable chunks quite difficult. My students have also been scratching their heads on the finer points of English idioms, and how you can get something half right, but still manage to fail entirely in getting your ideas across. Consider that machines can break down, but couples can break up; that thieves break in while wars and skin break out. Consider that when you arise in the morning, you get up, but when you alight from a vehicle you get down. Then consider that people sing songs about getting down and getting it on and even, occasionally, tell others to get with it, which is all very mystifying if you are comparatively new to English. If you're already preposition-challenged, English phrasal verbs are hell on earth. Still, teaching them is no match for this latest challenge I have taken on.

I'm not talking about translating either -- which mercifully has been put on hold for a while, and let's hope that it stays that way for as long as possible -- and I'm not even talking about raising teenagers. Teenagers who might want to go to rock concerts in far away cities in the middle of the school week, for instance, when there are no reputable parents prepared to collect them, at midnight. Teenagers who almost certainly have to be nagged about homework assignments, household chores, and putting away their laundry.

No, this challenge is greater than all of these things: I am trying to train my cats to be lap cats. Specifically, a writer's lap cats.

My last cat was the perfect writer's lap cat. She would sit for hours on my lap, occasionally getting her head between my hands and the keyboard, but generally behaving herself and offering me nothing but slavish devotion and love. She had a few tiny bad habits: she drooled (disgusting until I got to know her); she brought me no end of dead rodents (which occasionally interrupted my work, especially when they weren't quite dead and managed to crawl under furniture to die in peace). But by and large, she was a huge help. Whenever I got rejections, she gave me her shrewdest, canniest look: she would stare up at me and in her eyes I would read How can you let this stop you from writing? Don't you realize what a gift you have, oh wondrous one? Her purrs soothed and comforted me.

Sadly, my current cats do not have her writer's lap cat skills. Occasionally, one of them will jump up on my lap. This would be encouraging, if only he or she would sit down, curl up, and start purring. But for some reason, they don't do this. Instead, they remain standing, blocking my view of the keyboard and screen. They then turn their backs to me, tails held high, presenting a view of themselves I would rather not become acquainted with. The male drools; the female meows incessantly. They both scratch furniture to get attention, they both hunt, and they both insist on bringing me their prey. On the rare occasions they have been with me during periods of writer angst, what I read in their eyes is Another rejection, huh? Haven't you figured it out, idiot? Get up and get us some grub!

But I am patient and I am stubborn, because those are skills I have had to hone as a mother, as a teacher, and as a writer. When they jump onto the keyboard, I gentle them off it. When they present their bottoms to me, I turn them around. When they scratch to get attention, I let them know, kindly but firmly, that this is Not the Way. Slowly, I am doing what I can to make sows ears into silk purses.

And who knows? It might just work. Especially now that I've got a 2-kg box of special-offer chicken 'n liver cat treats.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Getting The Joke

"Very bad news!" Samah confides, her pretty eyes round with surprise. "Did you hear? Prince William already divorce with wife!"

"Prince William is divorced?" I've been busy, pulling my books out of my bag, getting ready to start teaching, but this stops me in my tracks. "That's impossible, he only just got married!"

She shakes her head. "I read in journal. He is divorce already, so soon."

She pulls out her mobile phone, presses a few buttons, and brings it to show me. Intrigued, I put down my books and read.

"I really don't know what I was thinking—we're a terrible match, I don't love her and never have, and, to be honest, I never really had any interest in being married in the first place," announced the now unattached Prince William to a dead-silent British press corps.

I am stunned by this. "I can't believe it!" I splutter. "This is crazy -- they've only been married a month!"

Samah nods gravely. "It is crazy."

The other students, all Chinese, are intrigued now. "What is happen?" We tell them and they crowd around my desk.

"People thought our wedding was some sort of fairy tale," we read, "but I assure you it was all just some ghastly ceremonial farce that got out of hand. I'm just relieved it's over, frankly. And I'm glad I'll never have to see that awful woman again."

"You see?" says Samah, "is true!"

I'm still shaking my head. I can't get over this! "All that fuss! All that money--" But I stop myself. "Hang on, what newspaper published this?" Because on my way to work I passed half a dozen newsstands. All the tabloids headlines were about the sort of dull things nobody wants to read: a football player's illness, city planning. There's no way they wouldn't be having a field day with a story like this.

And scrolling up Samah's mobile, I see that the article we are reading is from The Onion.

I do my best to explain, but it doesn't go down well.

"Why someone write this?" my Chinese students demand. "Why write story not true?"

"It's a joke," I tell them. "The Onion plays little jokes like that."

"Divorce not joke!"

And no, it isn't. But as my father-in-law used to say, some fall on stony ground. Humor doesn't always cross cultures; a lot of it gets lost in translation. Nothing makes a joke less funny than trying to explain it to people who cannot get it. Nothing kills humor deader than repeated attempts to interpret it.

When the class is over, I am finished for the day. I decide to pay a visit to the ladies' room before leaving the building, but the cleaning lady is in the one I normally go to, so I nip into the disabled toilet. There is a long black cord dangling from the ceiling, but I haven't lived in the U.K. all these years without learning a few tricks: generally the flush mechanism here is a lever like we use in the States, but sometimes it's a chain, so why not a cord? I pull on the cord and immediately a high-pitched shriek of an alarm shrills, causing me to jump half a foot. I look for an off-switch, but cannot find it. I open the door. With any luck, the cleaning lady will come and tell me how to turn it off.

Instead, a small, international crowd has formed. The shriek-alarm is so loud, I can barely hear their anxious Are you all rights?, but as soon as they see my able-bodied, shamefaced self, they know exactly what has happened. One of them goes into the toilet and turns off the alarm.

"Please tell me I'm not the only one who has done that," I manage to say, blushing furiously. As I scurry out, they're still laughing.

Yes, the joke is on me. But at least I don't have to explain it.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Technological Breakthrough

I have a love-hate relationship with technology, heavy on the hate.

My first day on the job, it was all hate. "All the doors have security codes," I was told during my induction. This filled me with trepidation, but when I aired my fears, my husband laughed. The school he works in has security codes on its doors too. "They won't give you any trouble," he assured me. We've been married for decades and he knows me very well, but he obviously lives in hope.

During my whirlwind tour of the school, I was in awe of how many unfamiliar bits of machinery every classroom had. Uneasy awe, that is. "You'll love the visualizer," my husband told me. "You can stick a sheet of paper or a whole book under it, flick a button, and it's projected onto a screen for the whole class to see."

Actually, this sounded great. No more fiddling with Xerox machines, wasting time, paper and energy on handouts! No more endless scribbling on the whiteboard! But best of all, the visualizers stayed in the classroom permanently. In our school in Cyprus, we had to write everything on the white board as photocopying was discouraged. Also, things got stolen, so every piece of equipment that went into the classroom had to be taken out afterwards and locked away; we teachers were loaded down like pack-camels.

Unfortunately, the visualizer turned out to be a crushing disappointment. As soon as I put my carefully prepared handout in the visualizer and turned it on, the image on the screen began to jump and flicker.

My students blinked and frowned and rubbed their eyes. "We are get headache!" one boy complained.

"Leave it a few minutes and it'll settle," a colleague advised me.

I tried this, but it didn't work. The image continued to skitter and jump about, words perfectly focussed one minute, then blurred the next.

My students grimaced and rubbed their heads. "Please turn off!" they begged.

So I gave up. I scribbled some exercises on the board for them to do in my absence, and hurried out to make Xerox copies. The elevator was broken, so I had to take the stairs. When I got to the Xerox room, I punched in the security code, turned the door handle -- and found that it would not open. A few stress-charged minutes later, I'd already had the equivalent of a full day's work-out on the door, which remained unmoved. If a passing colleague hadn't pity on me and unlocked the door, who knows how long I'd have stayed there? But once I'd finally gained entrance, to my endless frustration, I couldn't get the Xerox machine to work. I almost wondered if it had watched me struggling with the door and decided to toy with me.

By the time I located a machine that did work -- after grappling afresh with the security code on the door -- I almost wept with relief. Clutching my copies, I raced back up the stairs.

The rest of the lesson went well enough until it was time to use the CD player. I had been assured that the CD players were straightforward, but there seemed to be half a dozen apertures, none of which seemed inclined to accept my disc. After five minutes of sweaty misery, I threw in the towel and called one of the students to help; I reasoned this was better than inadvertently teaching them words they had no business knowing. My student strutted up to the machine and inserted the CD player into the correct slot within seconds. He walked away, shaking his head. "I come long way from China to show my mother how use CD player," he commented. I could hardly blame him.

For over a dozen years, I taught at a school in Tokyo that was virtually prehistoric in its habits. We had blackboards in all our classrooms. At the end of every lesson, a respectful lackey would scurry in, remove the erasers, and go beat out the chalk dust. We used ancient tape recorders, almost no audiovisual materials, and textbooks with dated material. During that time, a technological revolution was taking place in the world of education, but we were blissfully unaware of smart boards, CD players, or power point presentations. After a week of fighting Xerox machines, grappling with the flickering visualizer, and trying to figure out how to enter my attendance figures online, I began to long for my old school in Tokyo. What good is technology when you have to fight it every inch of the way? Isn't it easier to scrawl something in chalk on a board if the alternative is a temperamental machine that goes AWOL when you need it most?

Then today, several miracles occurred. First, I punched in the security code, turned the handle -- and the door most obligingly clicked open. Next, I managed to use the CD player without any help. So I was in a good mood when one of my students asked for a copy of the homework I'd given the class earlier this week. Unfortunately, I'd left the material I needed downstairs. "I'm sorry," I had to tell her, "I'll run downstairs and make you a copy."

"No need!" she told me, after a brief conference with another student. She touched a button on her phone and showed me a copy of my laboriously written graph her classmate had photographed with his phone. "I make photo," she said simply.

Like I said, I have a love-hate relationship with technology. Today, it was heavy on the love.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Labor Of Love

Seven years ago, for the first time since I was 14, I could not find a job. I studied the want ads diligently. Every time I saw a position advertised I thought I might be remotely qualified for, I applied to it. I sent out queries to scores of colleges, schools and companies, carefully attaching my C.V. Few replies came back. "It's your American degree," people told me. "It's your age," others said. "It's the field you're in," one woman told me. "Nobody needs English teachers in this area."

Whether it was my age or my degree or my field, it was definitely depressing. All the people who needed to learn EFL lived in the big cities. Nobody wanted to learn Japanese.

But our family needed to eat and my husband was struggling to find work himself, so I did what I could. I signed up with a temporary job placement company and started going on interviews. I was thrilled to get a long-term temporary job doing legal typing, but the man I worked for was hopelessly messy and disorganized; filing cabinets bulged with out-of-date files and piles of current files teetered on top of high shelves. Paralegals would come in, desperate to find missing files for cases soon to be tried. My attempts to put things in order, however, were met with general disapproval. "We've always done it that way," the others told me. "You'll just have to put up with it." Once, in the hallway, a former file clerk told me he'd had a nervous breakdown. "I couldn't take it anymore, d'ye ken?" he whispered, looking over his shoulder. "People screaming for files I couldn't find -- it did my head in! You've got my job now," he added, looking enormously pleased. I was never happier to leave a job in my life.

The next job I got was working for a woman who was wonderfully organized. I was replacing someone who had recently quit. I was thrilled to be working in such a tidy, smoothly-running office, but alas, the woman I was replacing must have realized her mistake: she came back to work.

When I heard the local college was looking for lifelong learning teachers, I quickly put in my name as a Japanese language and culture teacher. I was accepted, and given a short training course. On registration night, my heart fairly raced as I prepared my props: origami paper, sets of chopsticks and crockery samples, a Japanese cook book, my ink, paper and calligraphy brush set, my bag of kimonos and obis.

Only one person signed up to my course, so it could not run. The belly dance instructor had ten students register for her class, the guitar teacher had a dozen, and the upholstery teacher was swamped. As I packed up my things to leave, I bit back tears.

After teaching two years in North Cyprus, we came back to Scotland knowing that the job situation had gotten worse. Then out of the blue, my husband found a job opening in his field. He applied and was immediately hired.

I remained unemployed. "Look on the bright side," friends kept saying. "At least you have plenty of time to write!" I love writing, and yes, it was great having plenty of time. But I wanted to work. "Don't quit your day job," agents and editors tell you. "Very few writers make ends meet on their writing alone." This was painful to hear. I wanted a day job. If only I had a day job!

Then a friend asked me to help her translate a book. No sooner had I started than I got another job, editing manuscripts. Then I met a woman whose son wanted to learn Japanese, followed by a handful of Japanese housewives who wanted to learn English. More editing jobs came my way too, and finally, a formal teaching job at a university.

I'll finish my first week of teaching tomorrow. I've just turned in my first chapter of translating and rewriting, along with my last editing job.

Suddenly I've got so much work to do, I hardly have time to write. But I'm not complaining: I love the work. And oddly enough, I've never written more.