Thursday, 29 September 2011

Wuthering Lows

It rained here the other night, and the wind blew fiercely. The leaves in Scotland have already begun to change and there is a chill in the air. So we lit a fire in the fireplace and the girls and I decided to watch Wuthering Heights. With the wind moaning in the chimneys and the rain lashing the trees, it seemed like good Wuthering Heights weather. The house was cozy, we had blankets and snacks and mugs of hot cocoa, and we were all prepared to be enchanted.

I'm not sure when we first started getting irritated with the characters, but it didn't take long.

"Drama queen," one of my three girls murmured after one of Catherine Earnshaw's tantrums. "Spoiled brat," another one muttered under her breath.

I've read Wuthering Heights at least three times. Why didn't I remember how headstrong and volatile Catherine Earnshaw was? Why didn't any of her reckless bursts of rage stay with me?

"What a jerk," my youngest daughter said as Heathcliff threw his weight around, swearing and tormenting everybody in his family.

And Heathcliff really was a jerk, so why didn't I remember that either? As a teenager, I came away from Wuthering Heights as besotted with him as foolish Isabella Linton, his much-abused wife. How could I have been so stupid?

"He's not even handsome," one of the girls muttered. "And even if he was, he's a total dickwit."

As we kept watching, even less flattering, unprintable things were said about him and his true love, Catherine Earnshaw. I listened to their conversation with interest:

They're such losers. They're totally spoiled and selfish. No wonder they're so crazy about each other, and They ought to just shut up and get married to each other. They don't deserve the people they're married to. And even though I've been a Wuthering Heights fan since the first time I read it, I totally agreed with them.

Heathcliff and Catherine should have eloped and lived a life of blissful poverty until the first baby came along and threw them into confusion. Neither of them being the nurturing, selfless type, parenthood would probably have turned them into the kind of ill-tempered, sour-faced people you see snapping at their kids and each other in public places, but at least they'd have only made each other miserable. There would have been no story then, but after an hour of Catherine's tears and fits and Heathcliff's swearing and cruelty, that hardly seemed like a raw deal.

We watched as much of it as we could bear, finally turning it off just before Catherine Earnshaw-Linton died in childbirth (Good riddance to her, too. Prat.) In the end, the only person we could all stand was Nelly Dean, the housekeeper. We all loved Nelly Dean, a woman who was compassionate, intelligent, and useful. Who didn't make the wrong choices and then spend her life making everybody around her miserable, whining and moaning and agonizing over it. Who didn't destroy a perfectly good pillow and leave it for somebody else (Nelly) to clean up.

I still think Wuthering Heights is a great book. But I marvel that I could ever have been moved by Heathcliff's smothering, destructive, obsessive love for Catherine, or that I could ever have thought her emotional dependence on him was romantic.

We put the Wuthering Heights disc away and watched Up instead. I watched the girls laughing and crying, and I said a little prayer of thanks that my girls are a lot smarter than I was.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Got It All

I stare at our front porch and frown. Someone has dropped a mess of string there, dozens of thin strands of silvery plastic. So I bend down to pick them up, but find myself plucking at thin films of dried slime. Slug tracks. The slugs have been having a field day out here. I meant to put down slug traps last week, but I forgot, and this is the depressing result. The pretty potted flowers I put on the porch a few weeks ago have all been chomped down to the stems. No doubt it's been happening over the past week or so; I've just been too busy to notice. There are dead leaves there too, and weeds growing up through the porch paving, and over a dozen pairs of shoes and boots scattered merrily about, all mud encrusted. When I pass through the kitchen, it helps if I walk fast with my eyes semi-shut. Looking around is risky, though walking without keeping an eye out for obstacles on the floor is even riskier. After all those shoes and boots on the porch, you wouldn't think we'd have any left for the rest of the house, but unfortunately that's not the case.

And of course, that's not all: dirty laundry has piled up waist high. Although we had a good run of dry weather through the week when we were both working, on my day off, the sky is dense with layers of thick grey clouds and rain is pelting down. Our flat has filled up with steaming laundry, on the back of every chair, hanging from every radiator.

I've got four private lessons to plan, all for people of entirely different language levels, with completely different needs. I've got an overworked, stressed-out husband due home from work in a few hours. I've got over a dozen essays to mark; I've already peeked at a few and they don't look like they're going to be smooth sailing. I've got houseguests coming for the weekend, rodent-killing cats that want to eat and play and leave their prey on our filthy floors, and a sick kid coughing upstairs. I've got bulbs to plant in the garden, weeds to hoe, and a tree to dig up. I've got a chapter to translate, two more to edit, and a meeting with my partner to discuss it all. I've got next week's lessons to plan, shopping to do, dinner to cook, and unread library books that need to go back to the library.

And I've got absolutely no time to write.

And it occurs to me: I've got it all, just about, don't I? Well, I don't want it all.

So here's the deal: I'll keep the kid upstairs, and the husband, but leave the cough and the stress -- I don't need them at all. The cats will stay too, but I have no need for their dead mice and voles. The private students will stay as well, but their lessons will be simpler next week, and my students' essays will get a lick and a promise, and my students will learn important self-marking skills. The bulbs I ought to plant can go to a neighbor, the dirty shoes will be swept into one massive pile, and anybody is welcome to my superfluous tree and all my well-fed slugs, as long as they come and collect them. In exchange for all of those things I'm giving up, I'll have a nice publishing contract. Sigh.

Too bad it doesn't work like that, isn't it?

Thursday, 15 September 2011


Pancakes are easy. You can whip them up in no time at all with a minimum of ingredients and a little elbow grease, and the response you get is so gratifying.

On Sunday, we had no bread in the house, but we did have a dozen eggs, flour, and a liter of sour milk, courtesy of certain family members who can never remember to put the milk back in the fridge. We also had a house full of teenagers, mainly boys, one of whom was already sitting at the table. Pancakes are always better with sour milk. "Want pancakes?" I asked. He said yes.

What a great word yes is. We don't hear it enough in the right context.

So I cracked half a dozen eggs into a bowl and whipped them into a froth after adding some sugar. I chucked in my sour milk and whipped it into the eggs and sugar, then added a few spoonfuls of oil and whipped that in too. Another boy came into the room and sat down. "I'm making pancakes," I told him. "Want some?"


That wonderful word again!

I chucked in a few cups of flour and half a cup of wheat germ, and I beat all of that in.

"Do you want any help?" one of the boys asked, scraping back his chair.

"Yes," I told him. "Keep me amused with your teenage wit."

The boys obliged me.

I peeled and grated some cooking apples and put them in a saucepan with some blueberries we've had in the fridge for a week or so, still good, but looking a bit neglected. While I shaved lemon peel into the pot and added sugar, more teenagers filled the room. They sat at the table and looked expectant.

"Everybody want pancakes?" I asked.

There was only one no and a whole chorus of yeses. Boy, I love the word yes.

So I warmed a stack of plates and added a dash of cinnamon to my pancake batter. I spooned a dollop of batter into my hot skillet and tilted the pan just so until bubbles formed, then I flipped it over and cooked the other side until it too was golden brown. I stacked up pancakes and poured the blueberry and apple syrup into a pitcher.

I served up plate after plate of pancakes, and every time I asked if anybody wanted any more, I got another yes. It was so beautiful I could have wept. Want some more pancakes? I would ask, or Can anybody manage more blueberry syrup? And the answer would be yes. Not just yes, in fact, but Yes, please! and Yes, I can! or even Me please! I've only had two and he's already had five! When I ran out of pancake batter and blueberry syrup, it was all over, but for a while there, it was pure poetry. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. What a great word. More encouraging than Maybe. And infinitely more inspiring and less discouraging than Sorry, but no.

Cooking pancakes for teenagers is highly gratifying. Writing for them is even more gratifying, you just get fewer yeses.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Gender Confusion

Maverick pushed the door open with his nose, slunk into the room, then froze. He hadn't realized the lady from over the road was visiting. Before she could put out her hand for him to sniff, he'd shot back out the door.

"Wow," our neighbor said. "She's really shy, isn't she?"

"Actually, that's Maverick," I said. "Our tomcat."

She opened her mouth, then closed it. "Then why is he wearing a pink collar?"

"Because my daughters have a sense of humor. Before he chewed them off, that collar had pink feathers on it too." I didn't mention the fake pearls that had since turned grey.

Mitzi swanned into the room just then, wearing her dark blue collar with black studs. The neighbor frowned.

"So I guess this one is a girl, then."


She shook her head, clearly disapproving.

And yet Mitzi looks very fetching in her black and blue collar. She's not a girly sort of cat anyway. If she were a human, she'd be a tom-boy, scaling the highest trees, climbing the walls, ever curious and generally fearless.

Our neighbor's dog is black and his name is something like Midnight. When we had a white cat, she kept wondering why we didn't name her Snowflake.

"You shouldn't put a tomcat in a pink collar!" our neighbor protested. "Poor thing."

But the pink collar suits Maverick. He's a big cat, and the collar, which was probably intended for a small dog, gives him room to breathe. Plus, he keeps losing his collars, and it's only a matter of time before this one bites the dust too. At least his pink collar was cheap.

"I'm sure he doesn't care as long as we feed him," I said. "The collar shines in the dark and has his name and number on it. That's all he needs."

"What does it matter if people think he's a girl anyway?" my daughter said later.

And she should know.

Although she has since slimmed down, our youngest daughter was a fat, sturdy, spitfire of a toddler with an iron will. We used to imagine her as an adult, a tough, savvy woman who wouldn't take any nonsense. "Margaret Thatcher," one of her teachers said once, horrifying my husband, who is not a Thatcher fan. We dressed our rough-and-tumble baby Margaret Thatcher in easy-to-wash clothes she could get dirty in: dungarees, sturdy overalls, tee shirts in bright colors. When, against our explicit instructions, relatives sent her gifts of pink dresses with lace trim, we quietly gave them away. Nobody ever realized she was a girl, but it didn't really bother us.

When my daughter was almost two, she was at her noisiest, feistiest best. One day, we took a taxi together. The driver was most impressed with her.

"That's a fine looking boy you've got there!" he said, grinning. "He'll be a sportsman for sure!"

I smiled uneasily, praying my daughter wouldn't correct him. It was funny that he assumed she was a boy: she had on a pair of pink corduroy overalls of which she was inordinately proud. For that matter, she was proud of being a girl too; she probably wouldn't mind being called a boy, but she'd certainly set the record straight if she could. "Thank you," I said, wishing we were closer to home.

"You've got yourself a sumo wrestler there, no mistake about that!" the man went on, making my cheeks burn. My daughter would surely say something.

"You're going to be a wrestler, aren't you?" he said, shifting gears and grinning at us in the rear-view mirror.

"Actually," I put in quickly, "she's a girl. But for what it's worth, we think she'll be a wrestler too."

There was a long, embarrassed pause. The driver's face in the rear-view mirror was ashen.

"That's never a girl."

"No, she really is."

"Why is she dressed like a boy then?"

I did my best to explain even though it was hardly his business. When we got out, he mumbled something about dresses and patent leather shoes.

When our daughter was almost three, we borrowed a kimono and took her around the neighborhood one fine November day, as is the custom. In Japan, there is a special day for children known as shichi-go-san, or seven, five, three, when parents used to traditionally register their children at the local shrine at the ages of 3, 5, and 7. Nowadays, children are registered at birth, but the custom remains. People dress their children in their fanciest clothes and take them around the neighborhood to be admired and receive little presents of sweets and money.

Our daughter wasn't crazy about having to put on a kimono, but she liked all the attention as well as the assurances of candy. Once she was fully kitted out, she let us lead her around the neighborhood, teetering a bit in her fancy lacquer geta. There was a middle-aged policeman who lived down our street, a favorite of our daughter, who was in the habit of waving to him every time we passed his house. He was a rough, gruff sort of fellow, a body-builder who lived alone and liked guns. When we led our kimono-clad three-year-old past his house, his jaw dropped.

"Why've you got a boy dressed up in a girl's kimono?" he asked.

We stared at him. "She's a girl," I finally said.

"No!" The man turned to my husband, incredulous.

My husband nodded his confirmation.

We left the man shaking his head, still obviously unconvinced. For the next four years, I could see him eyeing our daughter every time we walked by his house, his face tight with disapproval. He'd thought she was a great kid back when, for all he knew, she was a boy.

I'll bet he wouldn't have liked Maverick's pink collar either.