Monday, December 31, 2007

The parent trap

Introducing my esteemed mother who is visiting from England (left).

You may be wondering what she is doing cowering under a blanket with her feet up on a chair. No, this is not how the English traditionally celebrate Christmas. Allow me to explain.

Having found evidence of seasonal rodent visitors during the holiday, we decided to lay a trap. Let me tell you, this was not an easy decision for a family of vegetarians to come to, and in our defence, we did examine the humane contraptions offered by our local DIY store before discarding them on the grounds they would involve actual human-to-rodent contact.

Our first serious attempt to catch and kill our unwanted visitor (the English not being renowned for their hospitality, after all) was made using a trap invented for those--like mum, like me--who wish to carry out extermination without ever having to see evidence of the crime (a bit like Congress when it authorizes wars). The natty little black box we bought had an indicator light which promised to let us know when a creature was caught, killed, and hidden away inside its black plastic shroud. The only problem was that after several days, it had caught, killed, and hidden away precisely nothing.

Venturing out once again, my intrepid mother and I allowed the Home Depot guy to talk us into a traditional wooden trap on which we were to smear peanut butter. Following the instructions almost to the letter (ie getting the neighbor's boy to do all the smearing and setting), we awaited the sound of snapping and squealing with trepidation.

Of course, what the instructions don't tell you is that these traps do not always kill their victims outright. Sometimes, they simply trap the unwary and wound them badly, allowing them to scrabble about for hours with wood and metal hinges attached. This was the situation which led to my mother's pose (above left). You might note that the camera angle is above and slightly to the right. Yes indeed, I was the one standing on the table while taking the picture.

My oldest daughter declared us "a bunch of bloody cowards." In vain did I try to explain that a "bunch" could not truly be said to represent only two people and that my mother and I were therefore no more nor less than a couple of cowards.

Off went Joy to do battle, her sister Lizzy aiding and abetting in the scooping activity that followed. Later, I explained to my daughters how proud I was that I was the kind of mother that raised brave daughters. "So what exactly," scoffed Joy at her grandmother, "did you raise?" I quickly came to my esteemed parent's rescue. "Gran," I informed Joy, importantly, "was the kind of mother who raised daughters that would bear brave children!" What can I say--it's a generational thing.

Barack in the House

For my sins, I was substituting in the Dallas Independent School District recently. My two secret weapons were Mary Poppins and the future. Who knew that some students would give me their respect just because I sound like the legendary English nanny? With most, however, I had to work hard just to keep some semblance of order in the classroom. I told one young boy I needed better behavior from him because I wanted to hear he was working in the White House some day. When that happened, I told him, I wouldn't want to have to tell the papers he had once been naughty with a tube of glue. He just about broke my heart with his reply.

"But Miz Hill," he told me, as though explaining something incredibly simple to someone particularly stupid and unobservant, "I can't work in the White House. I ain't white."

I'm not voting for Barack Obama because he's black. I'm voting for him because I think it will make a refreshing change to have a man of integrity leading this country. Nontheless, I have to tell you this: it helps that the color of his skin might make a Dallas second grader think twice about the possibilities for his own future. It helps a lot.

Barack Obama: because we're all worth it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


I talked to my sister in England today. Being British, my family doesn’t do much in what my daughter Lizzy calls the “Ushy-Gushy” line. I think this year was the first time I ever told my sister I loved her--must be the recent naturalization ceremony I’m suffering from! Anyway, now I’ve said it, I can’t seem to stop.

I love my sister.

Just under two weeks ago, at the grand old age of 42, Rebecca suffered three strokes. Strokes, I have discovered, are not like sicknesses or diseases but more like car wrecks or bombings. Rebecca was hit in her language center as well as in her face and arm.

It’s wonderful to hear her speaking again. Her tone is modulated and tentative, like someone using a hard-won second language in place of her own. Some of the words are simply not there when she reaches for them. She picks her way through her vocabulary like someone stepping carefully in bare feet around broken glass. Here and there, the sharp edges catch, and the words fall away. It seems that communicating is sometimes like trying to bite into a hard green apple when half of your teeth have been knocked out of your head. The analogies between what my sister is doing and what my ESOL students do every day are startling.

Let me tell you a bit about my sister. She is wild and brave and irreverent. When I was 13, she would plaster me in make-up, stick my feet in high heels, and drag me down the nightclubs of Huddersfield for a taste of “life.” Should a bouncer question me, I was instructed to speak only in Dutch. Since all I could do in Dutch back then was swear up a storm (Rebecca having taught me well), it was a good job there were no linguists on site. At 15, after years of playing hookey, she announced she would not be returning to school unless they taught her something worth knowing. Convinced that would never happen, she vanished into London, then Holland, then South Africa for a time. Somewhere along the way, she picked up her legendary cooking skills, credentials to teach the Alexander Technique, a temporary husband, and her beautiful son Adam.

Today, my mother has called the carpenter in to my sister’s house to move shelves and put in banisters. I should mention this is the house Rebecca built herself, and I don’t mean she hired a contractor. She put on a hard hat and worked on that building site for two long years, she and the local cooperative.

My sister has fought many demons in her life, and though she has not always won the battles, she has never stopped fighting for long. Why should stroke be any different? Having convinced the hospital to discharge her early, she’s on a mission. Seven times a day, my sister picks up a book with her good arm and reads a paragraph. When she first began, the words made no sense to her, but little by little, she says, the mists are clearing. Her next goals are mastery of the computer and the cell phone which have temporarily become a mystery.

Life has done some incredibly mean things to Rebecca, and it can’t be denied she’s done life a few mean things in return, but the two hobble on together, despite their frequent differences, in grumpy communion and sometimes even in cahoots. Recently, I asked a class to write about the person who inspired them. The examples I gave from my own life were people like Nelson Mandela and Thich Nhat Hanh. I never thought to mention my sister, so I’m mentioning her today.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tom One and Tom New

Let me tell you about the new man in my life. His name is Tom, and he has a sexy English voice. He only ever talks when he's telling me what to do next. Strangely, I do not find this irritating in the least. Tom has many wonderful qualities. He is absolutely sure of himself; he simply oozes confidence, and it's infectious. He never argues with me, even when I do the opposite of what he wants. He just continues to state his preference in calm, even tones. He usually gets his way in the end.

I had a panda once, also named Tom. He was black and white and very soft. We were together for years, from the time before I could talk to the time I set off, Whittington-style, to seek my fortune. When I was young and the world was unaccountably mean, I would string him up by his ears and punch him before repenting with tears and wailing. He always forgave me. As a teenager, I told him all my secrets. Later, we settled into a comfortable marriage of true minds which involved sleeping together but no talking. The last time I remember seeing him was in an orphanage in Romania just after the Christmas revolution when Ceaucescu got shot. I didn't mean to leave Tom there. Maybe he just needed a break. He wouldn't be the first or the last man in my life to jump off the train while it was still moving, but that's another story...

Sometimes I feel that my new Tom is really the old Tom who has reinvented himself for the twenty-first century and come running back to my rescue. He is smaller than he used to be, and harder. He fits in my purse and in the palm of my hand. My sister sent him to me, assuring me he was better than sex and religion combined, and he would change my life forever.

The packaging he came in trumpeted: "TomTom One: You will never be lost again!" I must confess this slightly unnerved me. I have been getting lost for forty years now; it is a state of being to which I am peculiarly accustomed. I have been lost in many places in the world, in many time zones. My friends would tell you I am capable of getting profoundly lost even in a supermarket or a car park. I was not sure how comfortable I would be with always being found. So far, perhaps surprisingly, things seem to be working out. And there's always the "off" switch...

It's the war, Stupid!

Back in 1992, so the story goes, the presidential contender who shot to victory had a sign hanging in his office to remind him to stay on message with the electorate:

"It's the economy, Stupid!"

So what’s the message in 2007? Some would like to debate about whether we should describe the deaths of thousands as a “waste” or a “sacrifice.” I can see the arguments on both sides of the issue, but let me be blunt: the body bags look the same however you describe them. This is not the question on which we should be concentrating.

Frankly, I’m less concerned with the correct way to label the slaughter on the killing fields of Iraq and more concerned with bringing it to an end.

We saw clearly in the last election how staying on message played a pivotal role in swaying votes. That’s not just a lesson for leaders but for all of us. If you are supporting Barack Obama for president, consider yourself drafted. Like it or not, you’re an ambassador for the cause. What comes out of your mouth when you’re asked the question, “Why are you voting for Barack Obama?” matters. So here it is in a nutshell:

“It’s the war, Stupid!”

Of all those running for office in 2008, Barack Obama was the only one who declared from the start that this war was wrong. Lately, a variety of contenders have noticed the body count. Some have even apologized for casting the fatal vote and admitted going to war was wrong. Here’s the thing that separates Obama from the pack: he knew it five years ago.

Tell your friend, your co-worker, the barrista in Starbucks who asks you the billion-dollar question that one of the reasons you’re voting for Barack Obama is because he had the wisdom to see ahead of the curve.

We need more from a future president than an apology for lack of foresight. I applaud those who have admitted their mistakes, but I’ll sleep better in my bed knowing the next Commander-in-Chief is not someone prone to wage war first and apologize later. We’ll all be safer with a president who has a better grip on foreign affairs than that:

someone who will exhaust every option for dialogue;

someone who will examine every piece of intelligence;

someone who will offer us a better choice than “waste” or “sacrifice.”