Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Something For Nothing

My friend Dina is a shrewd shopper and clever bargain finder. Just as there are people who can wear clothes they have made for themselves without anyone suspecting they sewed them, there are people who can buy their Christmas presents at thrift shops and you'd never be the wiser. (Coincidentally, Dina does sew her own clothes and gets compliments on them; on the one occasion I had the temerity to do this, all I got was pitying glances.)

Dina also supports charities -- not just at Christmas, but throughout the year. But at Christmas, she goes all out. This year, everybody in her family exchanged things like contributions toward clean wells and inoculations for people in poor countries, donations to homeless shelters, and meals for the hungry. But they are also overflowing with holiday cheer: at this time of year, their house is full of heavenly cooking smells, beautifully decorated Christmas trees (Dina never settles for just one), and dozens of brightly-wrapped charity shop presents, all carefully and personally chosen. Their doors are decorated with wreaths that Dina made herself, the table is laden with mouth-watering homemade pies, cakes, and roasts -- and if she wasn't such an all-around generous and decent person, I would seriously envy Dina for the unfair distribution of talents she has been bestowed with.

Just before Christmas, Dina went to the supermarket. After she and her husband had paid for their groceries and were on their way out, she noticed a selection of tapas on special offer. A closer inspection revealed that some, which were close to their sell-by date, were going for almost nothing. Dina has a large extended family and she entertains frequently, so she bagged the lot and went back to pay the grand total of 88 pence for a feast's worth of tapas. Just listening to Dina tell this story made me grit my teeth in envy: I love tapas and I like getting a bargain even better. "But I'm not finished!" she said, when I told her as much.

After the tapas had been rung up and Dina and her husband had dug out a pound to pay, the check-out lady frowned at her register. "Hang on -- you get some money back for buying these in bulk."

And she handed Dina and her husband two pounds and 66 pence -- all for the pleasure of carrying off a feast's worth of olives, marinated peppers, sun dried tomatoes and other delicacies.

Dina immediately put the £2.66 into the charity box. Like I said, she's a hard person to envy.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Dumb And Dumber

My youngest daughter is one of the smartest people I know. Whatever genes for intelligence my husband and I had going, she has managed to inherit in abundance. Unfortunately for her, she has also received other traits from us which are not so desirable, including a disproportionate share of my scatterbrainedness and  laziness, which I firmly believe is the only reason she hasn't already gotten into a leading university on a generous scholarship, but you can't have everything. And on that point, I remind myself that having above-average smarts doesn't mean that you are incapable of doing stupid things, and that the good thing about doing stupid things is that it keeps you humble.

Last week, it was bitterly cold here. Icy rain turned into sleet and gale-force winds tore branches off our trees and sent  garbage cans rolling down the street. My daughter arrived at school, only to find out that it had been cancelled due to extreme weather conditions, including possible 90-mph winds and flood warnings. Just after she called me to say that she was on her way home, I stepped outside to collect our rain-drenched welcome mats. Our front door, slightly warped, blew shut and I could not open it.

I was in a bind: our back door was locked and I know from experience that it is impossible to break in. After pushing, pulling, swearing, and finally giving up, I sat down on our damp front step and waited for my smart teenager to arrive home. If anybody could figure out how to get our door open, it was her!

Five cold, wet minutes later, my daughter came home, soaked to the skin. She had 'forgotten' both her umbrella and coat -- in any school assembly she is always the one child who is not wearing a coat, sweater,  knee socks, or any other appropriate winter clothing although at home she is perversely the first person to turn on the heater -- and when I told her what had happened, she did not look pleased.

And then something really weird happened: we fell into a simultaneous twilight zone of idiocy. "Wait there," she said. "I'll go around to the back and let you in."

"But how will you get in?" I asked.

"You'll unlock the door for me," she said, not quite rolling her eyes.

"Of course!" I said -- and wondered why I hadn't thought of that myself.

It took us both thirty seconds to figure out why this would not work.

Fortunately, it took her a mere five seconds to figure out how to unstick our front door and pull it open, and she was laughing so hard by this time, it was a wonder she could do it. We turned the heat on and she spent the next 30 minutes telling me all about endoplasmic reticulum and, I think, various kinds of saturated and unsaturated fats.

My daughter has much to thank me for, especially her well-developed sense of humility.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

White Elephants, Orange Plastic Cats

My mother had a keen wit, a love of good books, reading, languages, and life-long learning, and a generally impeccable sense of justice. She had a number of faults too of course, and one of them was a perverse talent for unwittingly picking the last thing in the world you would want as a gift. Having grown up in the age before plastics were widely used, my mother never got over her fascination for Mellmac, Tupperware, and just about any other plastic product you could mention. "It never wears out!" she used to say, when I expressed my loathing for polyester. "You can drop it and it won't chip or break," she would say when I longed to eat off china instead of Tupperware. "Termites can't eat it!" was her standard line when I wondered why we couldn't buy more furniture made of wood. Over the years, she never quite learned what I liked, so I accumulated a collection of things I could never use or develop an aesthetic appreciation for. I had pink and white keychain decorated with kittens, a hideous lace-trimmed yellow pantsuit made of double-knit polyester that gives me nightmares to this day ("It was on special offer!"), a woven plastic sewing kit, and any number of horrific accessories I quickly consigned to my bottom drawer.

But the one item that really gave me pause was a clear orange plastic cat she sent me one Christmas. My friends and I puzzled over this piece of schlock for days. We'd never seen anything remotely like it and none of us could figure out what it was. We knew that despite its green rhinestone eyes and glittery ears, the cat's function could not be purely decorative: its paws were raised head-height to form an exaggerated W, suggesting that it was for holding something. But what? Rings or other jewelery would not fit over the plastic paws. When I finally got up the courage to ask my mother, she told me that it was something you rested your glasses on when you weren't using them. "But I don't wear glasses," I reminded her. "Well you will someday. And it was on special offer!"

For years, that orange plastic cat rattled around in my bottom drawer. After my mother died, I couldn't bear to part with it; the cat was duly packed into various boxes and moved from flat to flat in San Francisco and New York (though it stayed in Southern California during my second year in Japan where I didn't have room for most of my possessions). During my last year of graduate school, however, I did a major-clean out when my housemates and I had a garage sale, and I decided that the cat had to go.

On the day of the sale, I put out boxes of books, used clothes and bedding, pots and crockery, my seashell collection, some Japanese dolls, and several sticks of furniture. Without much hope, I added the orange plastic cat to this lot, along with other junk I was pretty sure would not sell. The Japanese dolls went first, followed by the seashell collection. The books got snapped up, as did the crockery and furniture, and so did the bedding and clothes. In the end, I was left with an iffy crock-pot and a few threadbare shirts -- and the orange plastic cat.

My housemates and I were just about to pack up our unsold items when a little lady from down the road walked past our house. I'd seen this woman a few times before; a recent Indochinese refugee, she spoke no English and was usually accompanied by a grandchild or two, who interpreted for her. On this occasion she was by herself. She was almost past our house when she suddenly stopped and stared. Her eyes widened, her mouth dropped open, and as she moved towards our table of rejects, I could see the longing in her eyes. I knew it had to be the crock-pot, which worked, but not terribly well. I decided I would let her have it for free; it would be too hard to explain what was wrong with it. The woman stared at my table of rejects and looked up at me shyly. "How much?" she whispered. And I noticed that she was pointing to the orange plastic cat.

"Fifteen cents," I told her. The woman's eyes widened. She fumbled in her purse, pulled out a few coins, and held out her hand. "Okay?" she asked in a breathless whisper. When I nodded, she actually snatched the cat up, as though fearful I would realize my mistake and change my mind. Reaching into a plastic shopping bag, she pulled something out to show me: an identical plastic orange cat.

Selling my neighbor my mother's orange plastic cat was one of the most satisfying experiences I've ever had. There is nothing like pleasing someone else by getting rid of a piece of junk. And it taught me something else: no matter how unwanted something is, no matter how dubious its function or seemingly eclectic its appeal, there is bound to be somebody somewhere who will snap it up and treasure it. Which gives me hope for my  manuscripts.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Poker Faces, Wisdom Teeth, and Rip-offs

To this day, my face gets hot whenever I hear the expression poker face.

I got asked this question in Japan, by a student in my advanced English class: "Why poker face? Why does that mean not laughing, not smiling?"

I grew up in a non-card-playing household and only learned the difference between a spade and a club after I turned 30. Put on the spot, I told the student what I myself had always imagined was the inspiration behind this term: that poker faces were as straight as pokers, with which one stirred fires. I might have gotten away with it too if Etsuko, the classroom know-it-all, hadn't raised her hand.

"Isn't it poker face because when you are playing poker you should not show your expression?"

There is no horror like the horror of being shown up by a student in front of the entire class. At first, I tried to save face by saying that both origins were possible -- before breaking down and telling the class that Etusko was probably right. When I left the class, I was still blushing. What an idiot!

Ten years later, I was working in another school, this time with a small group of native English speakers and a large number of Japanese language experts. "Why do they call wisdom teeth oyashirazu in Japanese?" one of my American colleagues asked a Japanese coworker one afternoon. I listened attentively to the answer -- I'd long pondered this myself. Oyashirazu means, literally, 'not knowing parents', which seems like a strange thing to call teeth.

"It's because you get your wisdom teeth after your parents are dead," our Japanese colleague said.

My mouth dropped open. My parents had me late in life, but they were still alive when my wisdom teeth came in. "Really?" I said. "I always thought it was because your wisdom teeth never had any other teeth come before them. Your other teeth all have baby teeth that come first, sort of like parents. I thought that was what it meant -- teeth that didn't have any parents."

My Japanese co-worker's mouth dropped open. His eyes glazed over and his cheeks began to flame. "That's--" he started to say. "I mean, I don't know. I never thought about that. You might be right."

To this day, I don't know which one of us had it right, but this was one of the most satisfying moments in my Japanese-learning life.

Yesterday, poker faces and wisdom teeth came back to me when a student asked this question: "Why rip off? Why mean steal?"

"Rip off comes from the Prohibition period in America," I said, with perfect confidence. "Lots of people used to hide alcohol in their houses and they generally kept it under the floorboards of their kitchens. So when thieves broke into houses, they had a pretty good idea where to find it. They would pull the floorboards off, take the forbidden alcohol, and leave. When the owners came back, they would find their floorboards ripped off and the alcohol gone. It became fairly common and after a while people started to call it being ripped off.

Most of the students were satisfied with this explanation, but the smartest girl in the class narrowed her eyes at me. "Really?" she asked. "Is that really true?" She didn't follow this up with any challenge or alternative, but my cheeks began to burn. I heard this interesting story about rip off from uncles who were alive during the Prohibition. Is it possible that they were only teasing me? Might rip off have a completely different etymology?

Last night when I got back from work, I looked up rip off. I cannot find any mention of Prohibition, ripped-off floorboards, or references to rip off that precede 1969.

One thing I've learned from this: just because we're native speakers of a language doesn't mean we're the final authority on every single word, phrase, structure, or idiom.

But I'm never telling her that.