Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Leashing The Tiger

Once, years ago, I saw a group of middle-aged ladies in our neighborhood 'walking' their cats on leashes. Leashes like you'd strap to a dog's collar, but fancier, mostly with rhinestones. The cats, most of whom were the stuck-up pedigreed type I've never been terribly keen on, were nevertheless self-respecting cats: they weren't having a bit of it. If you've ever tried to put a cat on a lead, you'll know what I mean: cats aren't like dogs. Once you've hooked a lead to their collars, they don't yank your arm out of your shoulder socket, desperate to run lickety-split with you chasing merrily behind. In fact, they don't move at all. They allow their legs to buckle under them and they curl up in a ball with a do-with-me-as-you-will look of martyred resignation on their faces. If you want to move them, you have to drag them.

The sight of half a dozen cats curled into balls, clearly on strike was funny enough, but the perplexed looks on their clueless providers' faces was so funny I had to look away fast or I'd have burst out laughing.

I know my cats: they won't be bossed and they won't be led. They won't tolerate being tethered and taken where you want them to go; they are free spirits who will go where they damn well please no matter whether you like it or not.

So imagine my surprise the other day when my daughter and I were out walking. "Mom," she cried, gripping my arm, look at that cat! It's on a lead!"

I looked. She was right. My jaw dropped as I saw that the cat was not only on a leash, he was perfectly happy about it. And even more amazing, he was standing in the midst of a group of dogs. Large typically un-cat-friendly dogs: a German shepherd, a greyhound, and a St Bernard. My daughter and I exchanged a long look.

"I've got to ask," I finally said. And my daughter, who is usually horrified by my American tendency to strike up conversations with strangers, nodded.

The person holding the cat's leash was a teenage boy. When we asked him how he'd managed to get his cat on a lead, he shrugged. "He kept following us when we took the dogs out for a walk. So we just got him his own lead and he's been fine with it."

We pet the cat, just to make sure he wasn't a tiny dog in drag. He did all the typical cat things: he cocked his head to the side to get us to scratch him where he wanted to be scratched, he purred, he pushed his head into our hands. He was 100% cat. And there he was on a leash, happily fraternizing with scary dogs.

"He's okay with these dogs?" we asked.

The boy nodded. "They get on fine. They're pals."

The other day, my husband and I set out on one of our long walks. Our cat Mitzi started to follow us, so I scooped her up and ran back to the house with her. I threw her over the gate and ran back to my husband. We resumed our walk and had gone a few blocks when we heard the sound of a bell tinkling behind us. Sure enough, there was Mitzi again, clearly intent on accompanying us. After five or ten minutes of her slinking along behind us, we worried about her safety, especially when cars whizzed past. So my husband picked her up and stuffed her into his jacket. He zipped her in tight and she seemed quite happy with this arrangement. I'll bet she'd have stayed there too if a tractor hadn't rumbled past and spooked her.

"Next time, we lock that *(&$" cat indoors," my husband fumed after I'd brushed him off, staunched the bleeding, and reassured him about his eye.

"I've got a better idea," I said. "Let's get her a leash."

The last time I was in town, I picked one up. It's black, with white rhinestones. I'll let you know how it works out. I know my cats, but you never know.

Friday, 26 August 2011


I am walking down a country road with two of my teenage daughters when we pass a family with two young children. The mother is pushing the youngest one in a stroller while the older one is skipping, holding her father's hand. I smile at them as we walk by and try not to sigh. Seeing parents with little children always makes me feel so nostalgic.

"You two were once that little," I say.

My daughters smirk and exchange looks. This is the kind of idiotic stating-the-obvious comment they have come to expect from me whenever I see little kids.

"We remember," my youngest daughter says.

My acquired daughter nods and they exchange another look. For a few moments, we listen to birdsong and enjoy the dappled sunlight filtered through branches.

"I'm tired," my youngest daughter says, heaving a deep sigh. "Are we there yet?"

Acquired daughter swings our picnic lunch. "I'm tired too and my feet hurt. I didn't know it was this far!"

Before I can say anything, they trade side-long glances and grin.

"Yeah," says my youngest daughter. "If I'd known it was this far, I'd never have agreed to come."

"This is stupid," they chorus. "All this way for a stupid picnic."

"Yeah. I need to sit down. And did you bring Coke? I hope you brought Coke. I'm going home if you didn't bring Coke."

"Are we there yet?"

"My shoes are pinching my feet! Why didn't you tell me it was so far? And I'm hungry."

"I'm hungry too, and I'm cold! Can we eat our picnic now?"

"Yeah, can we? In fact, I'm so hungry I'm about to be sick. Give me a sandwich!"

"Don't take the cheese and tomato! Don't let her have the cheese and tomato sandwich Mom, it's mine."

"Are we there yet?"

I get the joke, but an older couple passing us on the road look horrified. They stare at my girls and shoot me a look of pure amazement. What spoiled brats of teenagers I have!

"Oy," I whisper, "those people who just passed us thought you were serious. You should have seen their faces!"

For a fleeting moment my girls are obviously embarrassed, but they quickly get over it.

"Are we there yet?" my youngest daughter asks again. "This picnic is so stupid!"

We have a great picnic. We sit in a green grassy spot and stare up at the wispy feathers of clouds that trail through the bright blue skies. "It's going to rain," my younger daughter says through a yawn. "Why did we pick a day when it was going to rain? I want to go home."

"Yeah," my acquired daughter says sleepily, closing her eyes and smiling. "This is horrible. Let's go home."

I feel utterly happy. In fact, I don't feel quite so nostalgic anymore: I remember when my kids were like this for real and what a pain in the neck it was. Anyway, who needs toddlers when teenagers are this much fun?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Mobile Madness

"All jackets and backpacks on the floor, and turn your mobile phones off," I tell my students, holding up my own so they can see it. "I'm turning mine off right now."

I press the button that turns my phone off and put it on my desk. My students quickly pull their phones out of their bags and pockets and switch them off. I distribute the test papers and the examination begins.

Five minutes later, I am halfway down the aisle distributing extra paper when there is a blast of guitar music and Merle Haggard begins singing California Cotton Fields. This is my ringtone partly because my kids have a sense of humor, but mainly because I happen to love Merle Haggard. I don't love him singing during this examination, though. Cheeks flaming, I race down the aisle and answer my phone, cutting off Merle. It's from my husband. "Mary?" I hear him saying. "Are you all right?"

"Exam!" I whisper angrily. "Can't talk!" I hang up on him and this time manage to turn off my phone properly.

My students grin, but I am incensed. How dare my husband call me during class time? He knows my schedule! He knows I'm giving exams all afternoon today. If I called him when he was giving an exam, he'd have a fit and rightly so.

"Why did you call me this afternoon?" I ask him when we meet up after work. "You knew I was giving an exam!"

My husband gives me a funny look. "I only called to answer the two calls you made to me during my morning class," he says hotly.

I feel my chin drop. I pull out my phone and check my call record. And there they are: two calls I apparently made to my husband this morning. But how can this be? My phone was lying in my backpack all morning; I never even touched it. How could I possibly have called him?

"I didn't call you!" I tell him. "I never went near my phone all morning."

My husband gives me his extremely irritating oh you and your problems with machines! look.

When we get home, I am cooking dinner when Merle Haggard starts to sing again. "Answer that for me!" I beg my husband, but by the time he finds my phone it has stopped ringing.

No sooner do I go back to my pots and pans than it starts up again. My husband groans and picks it up.

"It's from me," he says, wrinkling his forehead as he pulls his mobile phone out of his pocket. "My phone appears to be calling yours..."


Friday, 12 August 2011

What They Said

There is a pretty French girl standing in front of me at the intersection, waiting for the lights to change. She is with a Scottish boy; they have obviously just met and there is some light-hearted flirting going on.

"Have you been to the art museum?" she asks him in charmingly accented English.

"No," he says, grinning down at her foolishly.

The girl smiles and shrugs. "I have not too."

"Either," the boys says. "I have not either."

There is a long pause. I can't see the girl's face, but I can imagine her frown. "Why?" she wants to know.

The boy considers this. "I don't know. That's just the way we say it."

It takes all of my willpower not to butt in here. I'd like to tell her that we use either after negatives, but it isn't my place.

The lights change and we cross the road. Before we part ways, I hear the girl ask the boy about Edinburgh castle. But she pronounces the burgh in 'Edinburgh' like the burg in 'Pittsburgh'.

The boy shakes his head. "Not burgh," he tells her, "it's pronounced burra."

The girl lets out a long sigh. I don't blame her. Cracking the code has been hard enough for me here in Scotland and I'm a native speaker of English.

Two middle-aged women in the market are talking. "That's me done with the messages," one tells the other in broad Glaswegian. This makes me smile. Not so long ago, I wouldn't have had a clue what this meant, but now I know it means she's finished with her shopping. Doing the messages doesn't have anything to do with messages. When we first got here, I wondered why people were so obsessed with passing messages to each other. Couldn't they just email or use the phone? It took me months to puzzle that one out.

In my classroom, the students are full of questions about their coming written presentation. "How long we spend on the bag one?" Michael asks me, raising his hand. Michael is from Beijing, and he has a rather cavalier attitude towards English stress patterns and vowels.

I am completely and utterly thrown by this. "The bag one?" I query, tilting my head.

"Yes, the BAG one," Michael says, nodding. "You tell us we should write BAG one."

Is he trying to say the big one? What big one?

"Do you mean the biggest paragraph?" I say, stalling for time.

Michael shakes his head vigorously. "BACK one!" he almost shouts. "You tell us today. We supposed to write report BACK one, you say."

"Write it down," I sigh, giving up. I really need to work with Michael on his stress and pronunciation.

He pulls out a pencil and scrawls it on the back of his notebook: the word he's been aiming for is background.

Yes, we've definitely got to work more on stress and pronunciation. But all in good time. In the meantime, every day we crack a little more of the code.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Composition From Hell

A few days ago I brought home a large number of student essays on traumatizing past experiences. I finished marking almost all of them except for Student X's.

In many ways, Student X is a model student. She's a sweet girl: bubbly, conscientious, friendly, and hard-working. If I had a whole class full of Student Xs, I would consider myself very lucky -- except for one thing. Student X is a God-awful writer.

There's really no excuse for it. I went over the procedure in class, in great detail. We did a similar writing activity together and I talked everybody through every single step. Moreover, I made sure they had a model they could follow when they wrote their own compositions. I told them not to worry about plagiarizing just this once, that I wanted them to follow the sample text, subsitituting their own experiences in certain key areas. This may not be a brilliant way to learn how to write, but these students still struggle with grammar -- and it's the way I learned how to write Japanese when I was at their stage.

As luck would have it, when I opened my folder of papers, the first composition I saw was Student X's. It was so bad, my head swam. Forget a topic sentence (which she most certainly had), there was no opening paragraph -- in fact, there were no paragraphs at all. Student X had not double-spaced, she had not used her dictionary to check spellings or her grammar book to check irregular past tenses. She had ruled her own paper, in pencil, and she had written her composition in pencil too -- a pencil which she hadn't bothered to keep sharp. And she must not have had an eraser either: she'd scribbled out her changes. Messily. If you took Faulkner, gave him a pencil, and turned him into a low-level EFL student, you'd have what Student X turned in: long, surreal run-on sentences, bewildering turns of phrase, words whose meanings I could only guess at.

I felt like crying, but I went and read a book instead. Later, I opened up my notebook again, putting Student X's paper on the bottom of the pile. I worked through the entire pile, vastly relieved to find that the rest of the class had gotten the idea and more or less followed my instructions. There were misspellings, of course, subject-verb disagreement, and problems with tenses, word forms, etc., but nothing was as bad as Student X's and I was able to work through the lot. The next day I gave the corrected compositions back to my students. I told Student X that I would soon have hers finished. I explained that she hadn't double-spaced and that I was having difficulty reading her writing.

This morning, I took another look at Student X's composition. It was worse, if anything, than I remembered it. I went outside and mowed the lawn. I trimmed the hedge behind our house and weeded the vegetable beds.

Then I went back into the house and took another look at Student X's composition. It was still horrible.

So I swept under the bed. I put flowers in the bathrooms. I put away the dishes, wiped the crumbs off the counter, and fed the cats again. I translated two paragraphs of the book I'm working on and edited another paragraph of my partner's translations. I read another book. I cleaned the grass out of the lawn mower, scoured the bottom of a copper kettle, and tidied the pile of laundry in our room.

Then I took a deep breath, went back to my pile of papers -- and marked the first ten lines of Student X's so-called composition. In ten lines, there were 33 mispellings, six subject-verb disagreements, and I stopped counting the problems after that because it was too depressing. I could barely understand anything other than the fact that there had been a fire (blasing enfierno?) in her aunt's house. The only thing I didn't have to correct much of was punctuation as she'd used hardly any.

I can't do any more. On Monday, I will have to hand this back to Student X and tell her to try again, in pen, double-spaced, on proper notebook paper, with her dictionary open in front of her. I will say this kindly, but I will be firm.

At least my house is tidy, and I'm caught up on my translating. And if I ever take another Japanese composition class, I've got my traumatic experience all picked out.