Friday, 16 November 2012


None of my students know what a ceilidh is and I can't get over this. None of them have even noticed the posters plastered all over the hallways.

"How pronounce?" one of them asks, pointing at the board where I have written CEILIDH in big block letters.

"Kay-lee," I tell them. "Surely somebody has told you about them?"

Blank stares all around.

"Seriously?" I ask them, exaggerating my shock by opening my eyes wide and holding my hands up. "Nobody here knows what a ceilidh is?" They shake their heads and knit their brows. Most of them are sitting, slumped, at their desks, mobile phones in hands, thumbs clicking away. Technically, they're still on their break and I'm just setting up, pulling books and papers out of my backpack. But I use this time to try and engage the livelier ones.

"And you've been in Scotland how long?"

"Since September," Gan says. Gan will answer any question, no matter how rhetorical. He lines his pencils up on his desk and breaks my heart by coming to class every single day in neatly ironed shirts and trousers with creases in them.

I hold up the poster I've swiped from the corridor so that everybody can see it. "Then you have got to go. You can't live in Scotland and not got to ceilidhs!"

"Dance?" one of the girls asks, pointing to the poster. I nod.

"Yes, but it's not just a dance, it's a whole experience. There's music too, and I'm pretty sure there'll be free food at this one."

This finally gets everybody's attention, especially the boys'.

"Free food?" a boy called Jiang asks, sitting up straighter.

"You bet. It won't be great, but it'll be there. And afterwards you'll dance and listen to music and have fun."

"But I can't dance," Jiang says, his face falling.

"Neither can I," I tell him, "but I still love ceilidhs. They're more fun if a few people can't dance." This is entirely true. People who don't know what they're supposed to do at ceilidhs provide a source of innocent merriment for the ones who do. I've done my bit as a graceless klutz at ceilidhs, and it won't hurt Jiang to do the same.

"But it is raining," a girl called Lin says, gesturing at the window.

"Ceilidhs are indoors!" I say. "And come on, this is Scotland. You can't use rain as an excuse for not going to ceilidhs." In fact, rain is one of the reasons people go to ceilidhs in the first place. What else are you going to do on cold, grey, wet days? Whooping it up to fiddle music is just the thing to revive your spirits.

Since everyone seems interested, I decide to show them a ceilidh video on the internet. The first YouTube clip I find is from our rival university. It shows a group of students being instructed in basic ceilidh dance steps. This isn't what I'm after, so I fast forward until the students are actually dancing. But the dancing is so careful, so earnestly, precisely executed and well-behaved, that I immediately abandon this clip.

"Okay," I say, clicking through YouTube videos, "this is going to take me a little time. Just hang on."

The students don't care: this is keeping them from reporting verbs and transportation graphs. We're near the end of term and they're exhausted. I could tell them we were watching a how-to taxidermy clip and they'd be okay with it.

And then I find the perfect YouTube clip. It shows a ceilidh in full swing, the fiddles merrily playing, the dancers' faces lit up, their hair plastered to their heads as they strip the willow. You almost feel the steam in the air. You can spot the ones who don't have a clue, but when they aren't tripping over their own feet or running into others, they are smiling.

"I will go," Jiang says, watching a boy run smack into another one. "Free food?"

"It says so on the poster," I tell him, fervently hoping it's more than potato chips and coleslaw this time.

After the class, the minute I open the door, I see one of our Asian students in a full kilt, obviously planning on going to the ceilidh. He is a strapping, good-looking boy. I can hear Lin behind me, saying something in Chinese to her friends. I wheel around and manage to catch her eye.

"We are going to the ceilidh too!" she says.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

To The Flags

When we lived in North Cyprus,  my husband and I decided one day to walk to the flags. These were huge flags, one Turkish, one North Cypriot (a flag recognized in precisely one country -- Turkey) and I was sure we could reach them if we just kept walking.  My husband, a pessimist, didn't think it was possible, and as we labored up the hill, I began to think he might be right. The road curved and twisted and spiraled, and it went up and down. Sometimes the flags looked like they were right around the corner; sometimes it looked as though the road we were on was taking us in the opposite direction. Then, almost an hour after we set out, we turned a corner and saw that we had reached the flags--we were there. And yet there was another road that zig-zagged away, up through the mountains, and I knew that the flags were just the first point of a much longer destination, and that one day we would have to come back and see where that road led.

I started this blog back in 2007, mainly because I'd always wanted to write, but also because I had nothing better to do. My husband and I had sold our small business, after which we could not find teaching jobs in our small town. We were in a difficult situation: virtually broke and missing intellectual stimulation, but reluctant to go to a new place with better teaching opportunities; we didn't want to put our children through the trauma of another move. So my husband did what he could: he found a job delivering packages. I did legal typing, applied for every secretarial job within a 30-mile radius, and took care of my family. And when I could, I wrote. I believe that writing kept me sane during that period.

Having a blog has been a great discipline and experience, and it has helped me meet so many interesting people who have given me so much. Someday I want to be able to do what these people have done for me:  to help other beginners find their way, deal with the frustration of endless rejections, and generally learn all the things you have to learn to be a good writer.  One of the things I have learned is that there is no pinnacle, no end point. Even if you publish something big and manage to become a bestselling author, you just keep going, keep writing, keep trying to get even better. 

This may or may not be my last blog post, but whatever the case, I won't be able to spend so much time here: I've been lucky enough to find almost more work than I can do teaching English and Japanese, proofreading, editing, and, especially, writing. I am writing this to explain why I'm disappearing:  I have so little free time now that I have to spend it on writing. I've made it to the flags, but I want to aim higher.

So thank you to everybody who has come here to read what I've written and to comment. I have loved reading your comments and your blog posts as well, and I hope to meet you again -- at the flags, perhaps, or beyond.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Something to be Thankful for

My daughter recently came back from school, disgusted. "There was this lecture," she told me, "on polio. And the people who gave it were great, but they made a lot of mistakes."

My daughter knows about as much about polio as I do, so this surprised me. "What kind of mistakes?"

"They had this map," she said, "of all the places where polio is still active."

"And it was wrong?"  Because really, how would she know it was wrong?

"There were lines pointing to the countries," my daughter told me patiently. "And they had Afghanistan as Pakistan!"

"Well, they are pretty close," I said, desperately trying to remember which was where.

"Fair enough," my daughter acknowledged. "Afghanistan and Pakistan are close. But how about this?" Her eyes flashed. "They had Nigeria labeled as Afghanistan!"


"Yeah, wow."

"So what did you do?"

"I pointed it out to them--" she paused, correctly interpreting my worried expression "--very politely and not in a know-it-all way."

"Good for you," I said, relieved. "What did they say?"

"That they were just testing us to make sure we knew our geography."

I nodded. I do this all the time myself whenever I'm caught out on an error in class; it's a trick of the trade.  "I do that too," I said. "My students are always catching me out on details, and I tell them I was just testing them."

My daughter rolled her eyes, not buying it any more than my students buy it when I screw up. "Sure. But come on--Nigeria as Afghanistan? That's unforgivable."

She's right, but it's also a little comforting:  I may struggle to remember whether Pakistan or Afghanistan is further west, but thank God I'm not so daft as to get Nigeria confused with Afghanistan.  That's something to be thankful for.

There's always something to be thankful for. Always. Never mind all those other things.

While I'm counting my blessings, here's another: I've got a daughter who knows the difference between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and cares about which is which -- and she knows how to point it out politely to people who've got it wrong. Never mind that she lost all her chemistry notes, has failed to turn in two essays, and cannot be pried away from her fan fiction.

Yep, there's always something to be thankful for.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Kentucky Jam Cake in Yokohama

"I have something good waiting for me at home!" the blonde girl squeals to her friends. "Something very delicious. And I will share it!"

They are walking together, four abreast, hogging the sidewalk and for the past minute I've been waiting for the chance to push past them. But I've missed lunch, and I want to hear what that something good is, so as I finally manage to get by, I do everything but swivel around, one hand cupped behind an ear.

"What is it?" one of the girls' friends asks, bless her.

"Finnish rye bread! My mother baked it because I have been longing for it!"

The others make appreciative noises as the girl tells them about this bread, fresh out of the oven, and  how wonderful it is spread with butter, served with soup and cold fish.

Suddenly I am ravenously hungry. And I think about my own daughter at university, far away from us, getting by on her own cooking: pot noodles, pasta, discount sandwiches. I don't have the time to send her platters of sushi or her favorite tofu dish, mabo dofu, but surely I could bake her chocolate chip cookies? If I did, I'll bet she'd tell her friends -- possibly even share.

And I remember my mother's Kentucky jam cake, and the one occasion she managed to send it to me my first year in Japan -- and how I almost didn't get it.

My  mother hated cooking and baking. For her, fussing over food was a ridiculous waste of time -- time that could be better spent reading, talking, gardening, or supporting charities. I grew up yearning for all the things my mother didn't cook, nagging her to try out the recipes she perversely loved collecting but not actually testing. But there was one thing she made better than anyone else: fruit cake. My mother's fruit cakes were always moist, the raisins in them didn't rise to the top and get hard and dried out, and they were a lovely pastel lavender because she made them with buttermilk and blackberry jam. The crumb was tender and fragrant with spices, and she frosted her cakes with a carmelized brown sugar frosting that I actually dreamed about.  

The year I moved to Japan, my mother sent me a Kentucky jam cake for Christmas. For weeks, I looked forward to it, eagerly checking my mailbox every day when I got back from work. I could almost taste the spices -- cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon -- and taste the plumpness of the raisins, the delicate crumb of the cake, the buttery richness of the caramel frosting.  But Christmas came and went and I waited in vain. Then in February, long after I'd given up hope, one of my co-workers told me a student of his had seen my name in the unclaimed mail section of the Japan Times. After work, I made my way to the Yokohama Main Post Office, wondering whether the thing I'd received was just a misaddressed postcard (this had happened before, a cruel disappointment), or my mother's Kentucky jam cake. I stood at the counter, waiting for the clerk to bring me my unclaimed mail. Ten minutes later, the man emerged, holding a package. My heart leapt as I saw my mother's careful writing. She'd forgotten to write the ward I lived in.

All the way back to my apartment I stood on the train, crushed on all sides by students and salarymen, clutching my mother's package, filled with anticipation. Would the cake still be edible, or moldy and stale? As soon as I got home, I unwrapped it and cut myself a slice. They say that food is always better shared, but I have to tell you that they lie. The two-month ship journey from California to Japan followed by six weeks in the Yokohama Main Post Office had done nothing but improve the flavor. I ate almost all of that cake in one go -- saving only a few slices for later -- and I can't remember enjoying anything so much. I don't regret my selfishness either: I wasn't to know it then, but that was the last cake I would ever get from my mother.

Tonight, I'm going to bake my daughter some chocolate chip cookies, and I will put pecans in them. I will double-check that I've got her address right.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Sidewalks of Glasgow

I have a brand new pair of shoes.

Now I am only telling you this because for me this is huge. I only buy shoes after long and careful deliberation, when my old shoes are full of holes or practically falling off my feet. When I do have new shoes, I make a big deal of it. I pull them out of the tissue paper nests of their boxes, breathe in their delicious new-shoe smell, and admire the wonder of them on my feet. I would almost leave the price tags on them to show that I, cheapskate Mary, have taken the plunge and shelled out for brand-new footwear.  As you can probably imagine, I treat my new shoes with extreme respect, only wearing them to work or 'out', and bending over backwards not to scuff or sully them.

My current new shoes are right-off-the-charts wonderful. They are comfortable, attractive, warm and well-made and, for all that they were on sale, still a good brand. They also have a good, deep tread for walking on icy streets, a real must for a klutz like me.

So the other morning, when I accidentally planted my feet squarely in the middle of a big, wet, freshly-left dog mess right smack in the middle of the sidewalk, I was beside myself with dismay. I'd been busy adjusting the strap on my backpack and I hadn't seen it. But there was no way whoever was walking their dog could have missed it; it would be like missing Texas on a map of the U.S.A.

I did everything I could to get it off my shoes. I tried to get off the worst of it by raking my feet through grass; I used a stick and what Kleenex I had in my bag and I scraped the soles of my shoes on the edge of the curb at every block. But it was all in vain: the stuff had filled every single square millimeter of tread. And it stank to high heaven.

When I got to work, instead of doing the copying I needed to do, I had to wash dog-do off my shoes. I attracted a fair amount of attention in the Ladies' restroom, but after 20 minutes of unstinting effort, my shoes were 99% crap-free. My heart, however, was full of rancor for the people of Glasgow. How inconsiderate for someone to leave such a mess right in the middle of the street where anybody could step on it!  What kind of boors would do such a thing?  Although a lot of dog owners do clean up after their dogs, Glasgow sidewalks can be a real hazard course. As I sprinted across the campus to get to my class on time, I couldn't help but notice all the steaming piles left right there for me to step on. Every person walking a dog got a long, hard look from me.

Then, during the final 15 minutes of my last class, a student told me a story. Her friend, newly arrived from China, had gone shopping. At some point during the day, she had dropped her wallet, full of cash, her passport, student ID, and a number of credit cards. "In China, if you do such thing, you must forget it," my student said, shaking her head. "You will never see wallet again. But my friend, she went back to home and she had a call from university. Her wallet was there! Somebody find it and give it back!"  All the money and documents were still in it too, amazing and delighting the owner and all her friends. "People in Glasgow honest people," they unanimously concluded. I told them my story about losing my mobile phone and getting it back. I was grateful to them for reminding me that there are plenty of good people in Glasgow, dirty sidewalks notwithstanding.

Even the dog-walkers got big smiles from me on my way back -- on the few occasions I looked up.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Cat Compensations

5:30 in the  morning. We don't need an alarm clock; we have cats.

It's below zero outside, the ground frozen hard, ice everywhere. We've got another 15 minutes before we have to start the whole ball rolling -- another precious 15 minutes, but we're not going to get them. Mitzi wants to party. She's tearing around the room, chasing something under the bed. For one horrible moment I think she's brought in something tiny, scared, and wounded -- something that could be leaking body fluids and worse all over the place as it runs for its life. But no: I see she is hotly pursuing an earplug. The very one I was looking for last night, as a matter of fact, which I knew I'd left in the middle of my bedside table. But just like the wash I hang neatly over the laundry caddy, or the towels I fold carefully over radiators, it's no match for my  hell-bent-on-chaos cat. With Mitzi around, clean laundry ends up on floors, under dusty beds. Small but necessary items -- keys, memory sticks, earrings, pens -- don't stay where they've been put. Foodstuffs have to be wrapped and stored like plutonium.

Finished with suspending disbelief, Mitzi has started to meow. I've had dozens of cats in my life -- well over a hundred, probably -- but I've never heard any cat meow like her. Her meows are loud and operatic, lasting many seconds, with trills, pitches, and arpeggios. Maverick, her companion, has a simple, wimpy meow which is more of a mee, over in half a second. Mitzi puts him to shame. In fact, in every way she outdoes him: as she engages in manuever after manuever to get us out of bed, he does nothing more than stand there like a sentinel, wearing an expression that manages to be both benevolent and clueless.

We burrow down into the warmth of our bed and pull the blankets over our heads, so she launches her next assault: the highly effective flying-leap-onto-human-bladder attack, followed (if we don't manage to catch her), by the even more effective dancing-about-the-human-head ploy. She's a hefty cat, but we finally manage to grab her and fling her off.

But she doesn't give up. This is the one thing that amazes us about Mitzi: she never, ever gives up. Her next attack is the one that finally works:  the mattress assault. Our mattress is a good one and relatively new too. I can't let her do to it what she has done to the carpet. Groaning, I heave myself up. Both cats race joyfully out of the room as soon as I push the door open, which infuriates me -- as though the very first action of any groggy, fresh-out-of-bed human being is going to be filling their bowls.

A few minutes later, I am standing in front of the cupboard, saying, through gritted teeth, what I say every single morning: If you do not get your *&$£"!! paws and tails out of my &$(£*-ing way, then I cannot fill your &^%(*&-ing dishes! They never get it, of course. Not even the occasional crushed paw will keep them from weaving in and out of my legs, getting in my way as I attempt to find their food and fill their bowls.

Then we make our way down the stairs, one foot at a time, gingerly -- because when you've got cats, you've got a built-in obstacle course, only the obstacles never stay in the same place where you can see them.

You non-cat people are shaking your heads at this. Why, you wonder -- with very good reason -- would anybody put themselves through all this trouble? Why do people pay to keep cats, to wake them up in the morning, get in their way, shed on their clothes, shred their furniture, and foul their houses with the bodies of rodents? And believe me, we ask ourselves the very same question, all the time.

On the porch, my husband and I see yesterday's mail: university brochures addressed to our youngest daughter. "At least we'll never have to send Mitzi or Maverick to college," I say. "Mitzi could probably get a scholarship," my husband replies. But then we are quiet. Because we can both remember a time when it wasn't just cats who woke us up in the morning, who trashed the furniture and made noise and clamored for their breakfast.

When we get home, Mitzi is waiting for us at the gate. She greets us with one of her operatic meows and follows us up our drive. Maverick waits with admirable patience while we unlock the door. Later, while we eat, they put on an impressive and highly entertaining floor show, leaping from table to welsh dresser to counter top. After dinner, Mitzi curls up on my lap and purrs; Maverick chooses to settle on my husband's feet. So, you see, there are compensations.

When our daughter leaves for university next year, there will be even more.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012


Yesterday was one of those days.

It started very early. All I wanted to do was write, but instead, I got a head-scratchingly complicated last-minute editing job with a pressing deadline, and it took me ages to finish. During the time I was working, the stray cat who is felina non grata all over the neighborhood because of a spraying problem, got into our flat and let loose. Our own cats, worrying that the overpowering smell of cat pee would tempt us into welcoming this incontinent Wandering Tom into the bosom of our home, thus reducing their daily ration of Whiskas, decided a special gift was in order.  Unfortunately, we weren't quick enough to claim it. When I went downstairs to get the mail, I found masses of feathers, blood, and a few grisly bits of leftover bird everywhere -- especially in all the hard-to-clean places. Later, to further secure my affection, one of my cats topped this treat  up with an entire litter of some kind of rodent, all pink, hairless, and dead as doornails on the porch step.  I thought of the mother-rodent coming home to her empty nest and felt like bursting into tears. Until I saw what I'm pretty sure was her a few feet away -- headless.

The cat pee smell would not go away, no matter what I did. The feathers in the hard-to-clean places stayed right where they were; I reasoned it was just a matter of time before they took down another bird, so why bother cleaning it up?

I was feeling bad enough, but when I started skimming the new textbooks I'll be using this term, I felt even worse. There is no key, I have no teacher's manual, and some of the exercises were too hard for me to do. I sat for twenty minutes, staring at a graph and  feeling colossally stupid. How can I ask my students to do what I personally find challenging?

I went to  bed with a pounding headache, after barely finishing my lesson plans, and the smell of cat pee kept me up. I did not feel one bit like teaching. I did not feel warm, fuzzy feelings towards my cats.

When I got to work, I still had the headache. But hurrying from one class to another, I ran into two students from last term. The minute they saw me, their faces lit up and they shriked my name: they'd passed their exams and they were giddy with joy. Two minutes later, I ran into a few more who had passed too, then three more. I don't know by what miracle I managed not to encounter a single former student who failed today -- I know they're out there -- but I didn't. There is no greater reward than the grinning face of a student who has passed an exam she was positive she'd fail. After that, despite my lack of sleep and cat-pee headache, I was able to understand the new textbooks, and my classes went well.

When I got home and sat down to write, both my cats came into the room. One sat at my feet, the other curled up on my lap. And neither one had a dead rodent or a bird.

Now that is a gift.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Flushed With Pride

I grew up with the standard models: white, shiny ceramic, with metal lever flush. But throughout my childhood, another toilet was always on my mind: the one my mother grew up with.

"You have no idea how lucky you kids are, having an indoor toilet that flushes," she would frequently remind us. She never said this in a You spoiled brats! spirit, though I'm sure she was tempted to, just as I am tempted to say the same whenever I hear my kids whining about computer glitches and I remember having to pound out term papers on a dodgy, sticky-keyed secondhand manual typewriter which weighed a ton.  On the coldest days in Southern California, whenever we complained about the temperature, my mother would recall the winters of her childhood -- particularly the snowy backyard that had to be crossed to reach the outhouse. A Sears & Roebuck's catalogue always  hung from a rusty nail inside, recycling being a necessity of life instead of the virtuous, ecologically-minded practice that it is today. On Halloween night, you had to be on guard for jokers who liked moving outhouses just a few feet beyond the pit. Anyone who wasn't vigilant paid a terrible price in those days before plumbed bathtubs with instant hot water. During the  night, foul-smelling chamberpots were kept under beds, although they weren't called that; they were referred to as 'vessels'.

Having heard my mother's stories, my sisters and I realized that we benefited from state-of-the-art, lifestyle-enhancing, modern technology: no emptying and cleaning out of nasty vessels, no traversing dark obstacle-course ridden yards to get to a smelly outhouse; all we had to do was pad down the hallway, do what had to be done, and flush.

A few trips to rural Mexico and Guatemala only increased my sense of gratitude. There's nothing like waking up in the middle of the night out in the middle of  nowhere, and having to pay for your last (much regretted) cup of tea with a long, scary tramp through onion fields,  past barking dogs to get to the privy, which you could probably locate blindfolded, so horrific is the smell.

In Japan, my first toilet was a standard Asian squat-style number, perfectly easy to get used to, but not for anybody with weak knees or a poor aim. Over my years there, I had a succession of similar toilets, and most of them required squatting, even the ones in posh office buildings. Some of our office toilets were unisex too, and it took me some time to develop the sang-froid necessary to walk past my boss, feigning ignorance of  his presence, and casually enter one of the stalls. Some emptied into septic tanks which periodically had to be emptied by a foul-smelling truck that made the rounds of the neighborhood, with a wide, coiled  hose attached to the side. But they all flushed.

In Cyprus, we had a  modern flush toilet too, but there was not always enough water to flush it with. With three teenage girls in our flat, we always seemed to run out of water quickly, so my husband and I soon learned to fill plastic bottles with water from the nearby swimming pool for emergency situations. My very first day of teaching, I went off to work after a quick, unsatisfactory sponge bath with pool water and I was grateful that our school had a bathroom. But the university toilets used to run out of water occasionally too, so  I took to recycling the water from the students' plastic bottles.

In the Netherlands, I lived in an artists' colony for half a year. Every week it was my turn to clean our communal toilet -- an ancient old thing with a chain you pulled, but nevertheless a flush toilet. The first few weeks there, I was puzzled by a jam jar filled with water which was always on the left side of the toilet, on the floor. One day, someone emptied it and threw it away, and I learned its function when another artist, a Dutch-Indonesian woman, protested. "It has a hygienic purpose," she told me. "It does what paper alone cannot, and if it is not there, I feel very uncomfortable."  I've adopted this custom, and although I'm sure guests here wonder what a pitcher of water is doing on our bathroom floor, I wouldn't be without it.

That pitcher of water froze the other night. We can only afford to heat two rooms, the kitchen and our living room, and our bathroom is like a freezer. When it's below zero inside, getting up in the middle of the night to do what has to be done is a character-building test that takes great courage and fortitude. But I tell myself that all I have to cross is a carpeted floor, not a cold, dark farmyard, that I'll never have to empty or scrub out a 'vessel', and all I have to do is flush -- with gratitude and pride.

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Treachery Of Things

I love soft-boiled eggs with gooey yolks, and I'm generally good at getting them just right. Yes, I know there's a risk of salmonella, but for the pleasure of eating a runny yolk, I'm prepared to live dangerously and take a walk on the wild side. So last week, I boiled four eggs, following my normal soft-boiled protocol: I put the eggs in a small, deep pan filled with cold water which I slowly brought to the boil. Then I turned off the burner and let the eggs sit for a few minutes.  To my great disappointment, three of the eggs, when opened, proved to be hard-boiled, the yolks as tough as shoe leather.

My husband and kids ate them. They aren't as fussy as I am when it comes to eggs.

There was no way I was going to eat a hard-boiled egg, so I put my egg, uncracked, back into the refrigerator. The next day, I decided to make egg salad for sandwiches, so I took out my hard-boiled egg. I also boiled two more eggs; if you're going to make egg salad, go whole hog, right? I boiled these two eggs for a full five minutes, even setting the timer. I know that you're supposed to boil them for ten minutes, but all my life, I've settled for five and the eggs have generally come out hard-boiled.

When the timer went off, I pulled out one of the eggs and peeled it, but I could tell that it wasn't properly hard-boiled yet, so I popped it back into the boiling water and boiled both eggs for another three minutes. By which time, the yolks should have been hard enough to bounce off the floor, but no: when I opened  them, I found that the yolks were gooey. And even more surreally, the egg which had been in the refrigerator had a gooey yolk too. All of the eggs were the same size: I swear it. The altitude of our house has obviously not changed, and I can't imagine the chemical composition of the water was significantly altered in 24 hours.

When I wanted gooey yolks, I got hard. When I wanted hard-boiled eggs, I got drippy. Call me paranoid, but I put this down to the Treachery of Things.

Have you ever noticed that when you drop something, it quite often skitters out of your range of vision and disappears?  Moreover, the distance the dropped item travels and the time and difficulty involved in tracking and retrieving it will be directly proportional to the importance of the item. If, for instance, you drop a paper clip you don't particularly need on a floor that is already cluttered, it will be right there at your feet. If on the other hand, you drop a paperclip you do need, or the back of one of your favorite gold earrings, say, or the cap off a tube of expensive super-glue, or the tiny screw you need to repair the only glasses you have with you on a vacation when you are intending to do a lot of reading -- it's a different story, isn't it?  A great deal of time will be spent on all fours, bent over awkwardly, your questing hands coming into unpleasant contact with icky things stuck to the floor as they grope around, vainly, in spider-lurking crevices and corners.

Some people call this Murphy's law, but I call it The Treachery of Things. The laws of physics can be bent, and they are bent by things, quite capriciously. Things know when you want them a certain way -- or when you just plain want them -- and they can't resist toying with you. This is why the needle and thread you always carry in your backpack will mysteriously vanish on the one occasion you need them to tack up a hem that has decided to unravel when you are due to give a speech in front of 200 people, only to be found when you are searching for the missing VCR, under the cushions of your sofa. This is why the magic marker you finally locate on the one day your class is being observed, will turn out to be the indelible sort that cannot be used on white boards -- even though you generally have so many perfectly useable markers that you are spoiled for choice.

Take my word for it: things know what they're doing and they find our panic, our profound irritation, and our utter humiliation very entertaining.

So be forewarned--and take care. You can bet I'll be watching my eggs very carefully.

Monday, 2 January 2012

All Mixed Up

A few years back, our oldest daughter came home from school one day and, after dumping her backpack on the floor, slumped into a chair and muttered, "I'm nothing."  Before I could open my mouth to protest, she went on. "I mean, I'm not English, I'm not Japanese or... American or Scottish. I'm nothing."

I made her a cup of tea and mulled over all the things I could say. Such as Nonsense -- you've had a good sampling of lots of cultures!  But she was actually right. She was born in Wales, to an English father and an American mother, and she was taken to Japan as an infant. Her first words were in Japanese, the language of her nursery school peers. She has read the first two Harry Potter books in Japanese and can still pass for a native -- but only over the telephone. She can pass for an American too, or a Scot, if she feels like it. Is it any wonder she feels alienated now?

When she was two years old, I took my daughter to America for the first time. When we got off the plane, she shrank back from all the non-Asians around us. "Gaijin!" she whispered at one point, meeting her little blonde cousins. "Gaijin means foreigner," I explained to my sister, blushing. I had to interpret for my daughter for the first three days we were in the States; to this day, my relatives all know the Japanese for Pick me up! and I don't want to, not to mention Can I have a snack? I didn't realize how thoroughly out of her realm she felt until we visited Chinatown in San Francisco. My daughter, who had remained guarded, shy and a little suspicious, suddenly burst out laughing, clapped her hands, and began talking non-stop. I had my work cut out for me, explaining why the people around us could not understand her Japanese.

When she was five, our daughter came home from her first school field trip uncharacteristically quiet and thoughtful. "She got picked on," her teachers told us, clearly embarrassed. "Her friends here accept her -- they've known her since before she could walk -- but the other kids took one look at her and all they saw was  a foreigner."  She'd gotten called gaijin a lot, on this trip. "She's not a gaijin!" her nursery school pals had fired back at the hecklers, "she's our friend!"  To this day, my eyes fill with tears when I remember their words.

"People always want to know what I am," my daughter sighed, sipping her tea. "Then they don't believe me when I tell them."

"You're third culture kids," I tell her. "And don't you think it's pretty interesting having had all your experiences? I'd have given my eyeteeth to learn a foreign language when I was your age!"  Which is absolutely true: I used to pore over books in Spanish and German. When I was nine, somebody gave us a stack of Japanese magazines and I'd never been so intrigued or fascinated in all my life. I'd have done a lot for the chance to learn Japanese back then.

"At least you fit in!" my daughter protested. "At least you were the same thing as everybody else!" I never know what to say to this. I was socially inept and awkward; I didn't fit in, and I never felt like the same thing as everybody else. But I wonder how much worse it might have been if my nationality had been different from that of my peers. 

"It's a unique experience, but not always enjoyable," our youngest daughter said when I asked her to describe how she felt about being a third culture kid. When we first came to Scotland, she used to follow me around. "What are they saying?" she'd whisper urgently in Japanese. "Can you understand?" Now she interprets for me. When we traveled around Turkey, we'd have been lost without her.

"It's weird," my oldest daughter told us last week. "All my friends are all mixed up, like me."

"Even Mena?" Mena is Pakistani and as far as I can tell, thoroughly uncomplicated.

"She's Christian, Mom. That kind of changes her perspective."

She went on to describe half a dozen of her friends, all of them of mixed cultures and/or bilingual. It was fascinating hearing about them: Scottish-sounding kids who can speak Cantonese, Czech nationals raised in Spain, Belgian kids with Turkish roots. My youngest daughter's friends are the same. Here in Scotland, she's pals with a Thai/Chinese girl who swears like a Scot. In Cyprus, she had a Pilipina friend who could write Hebrew and speak Tagalog and Spanish. My daughters' favorite musicians are all mixed up too: a Nigerian/German, a Rwandan/Belgian, and any number of Japanese-born-and-raised Koreans. And the food they like is right off the charts: hummous, sushi, haggis, mabo-dofu, sukiyaki, kabobs, paella, dim sum, pizza, kimchi chige. For Christmas, we had pot stickers, red-cooked Chinese cabbage, sushi, and stuffed grape leaves with filled pitta bread. Dessert was sweet potato pie and tiramisu.

"So," I said to my daughter, "you don't feel like you're one of a kind anymore. Or do you?"

She shrugged and smiled. "I'm used to it now."

The other day, I happened to overhear a conversation between two bilingual women. "You must keep the languages and cultures separate," one of them sniffed. "No mixing up or everything gets very confused, and that is no good for anybody."

She's probably right. But I couldn't disagree more.