Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Leftover Magic

Recycling leftovers is a skill worth developing.

A few years ago, I had a problem: the house was filling up with teenagers and I had nothing to feed them. So I opened my refrigerator and took stock. There was half a pint of milk and a couple of chunks of cheese, hard and stale, but fortunately not moldy. In the vegetable bin I found a cauliflower that was rapidly approaching its use-by date, half a dozen overripe pears, and a ton of leftover mashed potatoes. In one corner nestled a couple of sad-looking onions. I stood there, puzzling it out. And then suddenly I knew what I would make: Soup!

I took a quick look around to make sure there weren't any teenagers in sight. They say laws and sausages are two things you don't want to watch people making, but in this house, soup is another. Once it's made it's perfectly tasty and wholesome, but for an optimal dining experience, it's best not to witness the creative process.

I sauteed the onions until they were brown, then popped them into a kettle of boiling water with the cauliflower. When it was tender, I peeled and cored the pears and dropped them in, then blended the whole thing together in my food processor. After adding some stock, I put in the mashed potatoes and simmered the whole lot with the milk, then grated in the cheese and added some curry powder and white pepper. Perfect: a big pot of soup and no pesky leftovers around to make me feel guilty and wasteful.

Just as I was serving up the soup, ladling it into our best bowls and swanning around the kitchen like Martha Stewart, in came my daughter's pickiest friend. This was a girl who, until she visited our house, had never heard of let alone tasted avocadoes, mangoes, papayas, kiwi fruit, or kidney beans. Who'd had no idea what a tortilla was, or that refried beans were actually tasty. Who actually turned her nose up at tomato sauce made with real tomatoes in it.

I was feeling lucky, so I served her a bowl too. With a flourish.

To my utter amazement, she loved it. Not only did she finish her soup, she wiped the bowl clean with a stale tortilla. Then she asked for seconds. A week later, she asked me for the recipe. A month after that, I ran into her mother in the store and she asked me for the recipe. I felt like an idiot telling them (leaving out certain details, of course), but I learned something from that experience: even junk is acceptable if you arrange it right. If you serve it up well, artfully packaged, with pride. If you select your leftovers with care, spice them up perfectly, and present them with confidence, they aren't junk at all.

I'm rewriting my latest work-in-progress, yet again. It's been hanging around like leftovers for ages, but for the umpteenth time, I'm trimming off bits, tweaking others, rearranging, and discarding. Who knows? Maybe I'll manage to make it so palatable my pickiest readers will lap it right up.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Clint And Me

Have you ever had a dream so surreal you just can't account for it?

It was bitterly cold and windy here last night. My husband and I got home from work late, bone tired. I fell asleep just before midnight after marking sixteen tests and three compositions.

And in my dreams, I met Clint Eastwood.

I doubt I've spent more than fifteen minutes of my entire life thinking about Clint Eastwood. Although I know he's considered handsome, even if he weren't way too old for even me, he's not my type and I've never been a fan, so why he should have shown up in one of my dreams beats me. But there he was. He'd taken over the vacant lot opposite our flat, where he was planning to start a small farm. As a fellow American, I decided I should go over and welcome him to Scotland.

"Don't go," one of my friends cautioned me. "He'll be full of himself, being so rich and famous."

But I ignored her. I took him a gift of a bag of pine cones and some banana bran muffins made with garam masala, fresh-grated ginger, and extra cinnamon. And you may be interested to know that Clint Eastwood was as friendly and down-to-earth as the next guy. We were having a long chat when my daughter showed up. This worried me: everybody knows that famous movie stars are all born womanizers. But again, Clint surprised me. He was friendly but respectfully distant and showed no untoward interest in my nubile daughter.

As soon as she left us, however, he commented on the fact that her hair appeared to be of different lengths. I owned up to having cut it for her to economize, and Clint (we were on first name terms by this time) shared a new business venture with me: he was opening a string of low-cost hairdresser shops for women and girls of low means. I pointed out that I was not poor, but simply wished to save money; he assured me that my daughter and I would still be welcome at his shops.

After this, we got to talking about teaching. Clint was very interested in my accounts of my students' many strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. He listened attentively as I described their most recent composition attempts and how frustrated I was with them, never once glancing at his watch -- Clint has a proper wristwatch, by the way; he doesn't rely on a cell phone -- and asked pertinent, relevant questions about their progress. What a great guy!

Then we started a new topic of conversation about cows and the advantages and disadvantages of raising Holsteins versus Jerseys. At some point, I realized I had misled Clint, who somehow believed that I knew much more about cattle raising than I do. But before my ignorance could be revealed, my cat took her customary early morning stroll across my face and woke me up.

I was filled with overwhelming regret and relief. Regret because I had never managed to discuss the long, hard business of getting published with Clint, or get one of his hairdresser chain cards with a telephone number on it. Relief because he never found out how next-to-nothing my knowledge about cattle raising happens to be.

Tonight, who knows who'll I meet in my dreams? I hope it's somebody I like this time. Just in case, I'm locking the cat out of our bedroom.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Good Old Days

My students are reluctant to buy their textbooks.

"Too expensive!" they wail. And yes, £20 might seem a lot to pay for a book if I didn't know how much had gone into writing it -- the years of close collaboration, the research, the thought. I tell my students about the textbook authors I've met, how hard they work, how little they profit from their labors. Unfortunately, my students are not sympathetic.

When I mention the students' reluctance to buy textbooks to my colleagues, they are not sympathetic either. One of them tells me about a Chinese student in London who illegally photocopied all of her textbooks to save money, adding "It wouldn't have bothered me so much if she hadn't come to class with a Ralph Lauren handbag."

It may be a mark of advancing age that I compare these kids to their parents and find them lacking. Over twenty years ago, I knew their parents' generation, and what a contrast. They were leaner, more intense, and tougher in every way, but more than anything else, they valued books. I know I shouldn't make the comparisons I'm making, and I know that I'm comparing apples with oranges. The overseas Chinese students I knew in the eighties were not just a whole different generation, they were the cream of the cream. Few Chinese students were allowed to study abroad back then, and those who did were generally hand-picked or had won scholarships, having competed with thousands to get them. When they got to Japan, the first thing they did was buy books. They couldn't get over the fact that nothing was censored, and they were staggered by the variety. With the internet just a glimmer in the horizon, you had to get your books the old-fashioned way back then: already published and printed for you.

When I was teaching in northern Japan, I remember two Chinese acquaintances looking around my tiny apartment. "You have many books," they sighed happily. They didn't care that I wasn't wearing designer clothes, that my television was fresh off the junk heap -- or that my books were stacked in piles on the floor and my one small table because I didn't have a bookcase to put them in. The main point was, I had the books: I was rich.

While I appreciate much about China's economic growth, I miss those days. I miss those earnest, make-do-or-do-without bookaholics who burned their candles at both ends. I miss the days when books were precious items you saved up to buy; when you hoarded them, discussed them, and read them over and over. When you wrote your name in them -- neatly, carefully -- only loaning them to friends you could trust to handle them gently. When your wealth was not measured by how fancy your clothes or electronic gadgets were, but how many books you had.

"I don't want other people's things," one girl sniffed when I told her where she could find used books. "I want new things." She has a shiny new mobile phone that looks like it does everything but housework. If I could afford her shoes, I'd treat myself to a whirlwind thrift shop blitz. In my mind's eye, I line this girl up with Yingying, a literature student I knew back in the eighties. Yingying was bilingual in Chinese and Japanese; she could talk knowledgably about modern Japanese writers and the works of Saul Bellow and John Steinbeck. She had a good collection of much-loved books. And she never turned up her nose at used things: she competed with the other foreign students (and me) for good junk heap finds and combed used furniture stores for bargains. Compared to my spoiled princess of a student, Yingying won hands down.

I was wallowing in similar good-old-day musings when one of my students approached me before class the other day. "Teacher," she said, pulling a book out of her bag and putting it on my desk. "I buy used, Amazon." She patted it proudly. "Grammar book too. Almost new, and cheap."

I watched as the other students admired her find, pulling out their mobile phones to record the ISBN of the grammar book. This generation may be vastly different, but a bargain is still a bargain.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Making My Mark

I have left my mark in Glasgow. Dozens upon dozens of schoolchildren will never forget me.

Glasgow is normally a wet city, but yesterday, the heavens opened up and instead of the usual gentle drizzle, we had torrents of rain, rivers of gutter water, and lakes of puddles. At one point, the wind was blowing so hard, it was impossible to use an umbrella. I pulled my hood over my head, prayed all the books in my bag would stay dry, and sprinted out of the cafe where I had been marking papers. I had to walk a mile in that rain and I cursed silently as I found myself in a huge crowd of small children on some sort of field trip. They were all carrying sports bags, and for all that they had enough energy to scream themselves silly, they walked very slowly.

I was in a hurry and desperate to break free of the crowd, but no matter how I dodged this way and that, I could not seem to get through. A few of the teachers leading the group gave me sympathetic looks, but the sidewalks were crowded with other people too, and it wasn't their fault I had left myself only ten minutes to get to my next class.

"Excuse me," I said several times, to no avail.

For the next two minutes, I trudged along, inwardly fuming, getting wetter and wetter as we moved along at a snail's pace. All around me, children giggled and yakked and horsed around, driving me half wild with impatience. And then suddenly, I saw an expanse of empty sidewalk the kids were, for some silly reason, steering clear of. Gratefully, I leapt into it -- and felt my feet sinking into the cement. Wet cement, and not just from the rain. My feet sunk in a good half inch.

I took two, perhaps three steps, the wet cement sucking at my feet and my face flaming. Too late I saw the ribbon with WET CEMENT, KEEP OFF clearly printed on it.

"But that lady walked on it!" I heard a child's voice pipe behind me. "That one there, in the bright red raincoat!" This was followed by the disapproving rumble of her teacher's voice.

I made myself as small as possible and wished to God my raincoat was any other color.

Next week, I'll be back in Glasgow. If it's dry, I'll try to find where I made my mark. Long after I'm gone, I'll bet my foolish footprints will still be there. And the kids won't forget me in a hurry either.

No, it wasn't the way I wanted to do it. It wasn't the way I've dreamed of doing it. But at least I've made my mark.