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.