Sunday, December 28, 2014

Tea and Patience

In Japan, my official title was Import Manager, but more often than not I was called the Office Lady or the Office Flower (there for decoration alone, not having any substance). I worked at a small import/export company that bought interior decorations and architectural supplies from the U.S. and Europe and sold them to boutiques and restaurants in Japan. It was a great company to work for, and a wonderful experience for someone just out of college, but I definitely had a lot to learn about cultural differences. While my male co-workers could stroll in every day at the normal start time, the female employees of my company came in early. We had to clean the office, vacuum, and, most importantly, make tea.

In Japan tea is more than just a drink, just like rice is more than just a food. Both have religious and cultural significances that can easily be lost on foreigners. I quickly learned I knew nothing about tea or tea preparation. I tried, but soon noticed that every time it was my turn to prepare and serve it, everyone would ask for coffee instead.  It became a standard joke in my office, and the harder I tried, the worse it became. After a lot of practice, and the patient tutelage of our accountant, Mrs. Ando, I was able produce something my co-workers would accept. Maybe they didn’t actually enjoy it, but at least they attempted to drink it.

The tea I made those mornings was a loose-leaf ocha, the standard Japanese green tea that is the staple of their tea drinking culture. I was already familiar with kocha, the black European style tea. Most of this was served the way I’d seen tea served in the U.S., seeped in cup using bags. Later I learned to appreciate mugicha, or wheat tea. I drank this while hiking in the mountains, between the villages of Tsumagu and Magume. Our meal there of cold noodles served in an icy broth was perfect on a hot summer day, and the pale brown mugicha was the ideal accompaniment.  Each was a sort of acquired taste, something that my palette first rebelled at and later learned to enjoy. The final tea, however, was the most complex and interesting, the most difficult to make, and the most exotic. Macha.

Macha is made from a green powder and used in tea ceremony. I learned to sit in seiza for unbearably long periods of time, and follow the complicated and beautiful ritual that is Japanese tea ceremony. Rinsing the delicate cups with warm water, frothing the tea with a bamboo whisk, and serving it with a bow.

Macha became a bit of an obsession. I learned to love the bitter bite of the drink, especially if it was served with small sweets made of bean paste called omangu. I discovered other things made with macha, including ice cream, which was the perfect treat on a hot summer day in Japan. There was a delicate complexity to macha that intrigued me. Something I’d never experienced before or since.

I understood tea, but I was a failure at other aspects of Japanese culture, including ikebana. My teacher, Mrs. Hana (which, ironically enough, means “flower”) knew I tried to capture the beauty of traditional Japanese flower arranging, but I couldn’t.

“Wende-san,” she would say. “Everything you make looks like a bush. A shrub. Try to see the nature in the flowers. Try to make it less artificial. Try to make it….better.”

I couldn’t. I was the official bush maker of my ikebana class. Whenever Mrs. Hana would look at my work, she’d make a little clucking sound and fix it for me herself. I guess I should have expected it. The same thing happened with every single thing I tried to sew in my high school Home Economics class.  I was dyslexic at reading patterns and seeing patterns, or maybe I was just clueless. I’m not sure which one.

I tried Japanese calligraphy, too. Once. My home stay dad came from a family of Buddhist monks. He was an artist, and one of his brothers invited me to his temple for a day so that I could learn some basic calligraphy. I think I gave him a migraine. I know I made a Buddhist monk lose his inner Zen, which was not an easy thing to do. Those dudes are known for their patience. He gave up after about an hour and suggested we drink tea instead. That was fine with me. It took me a week to get the ink stains off my fingers. I don’t think he ever offered to teach a foreigner how to do calligraphy again. He may have even taken a vow.

I met my Turkish husband while I lived in Japan. After three years, we moved to Istanbul, and there I discovered the wonders of Turkish tea. Grown on the shores of the Black Sea, this tea is made using two teapots. The smaller pot on top holds the tea. The bottom pot is hot water. This allows the tea to be served to individual taste, as dark or as light as desired, and in small, delicate glasses.  The whole world knows about Turkish coffee, but it’s the tea that is the daily constant in their culture. A pot of tea always seems to be boiling in every house.

When I worked in Turkey, I did not have to come in early to make tea. Our company had a tea man, who brought tea around in a cart. Usually served with cubes of sugar, some people preferred to put the sugar between their teeth and sip the tea through the sugar. After several near death experiences trying to pick up the hot glasses, I learned to lift it by the very top and sip it slowly. Honestly, I gave up on drinking it at the temperature most Turks enjoy. I don’t really have the hand-eye coordination necessary for it. I let it cool (although I have heard my husband teasingly call me “uncivilized” under his breath for doing this).  Being uncivilized seems better than having third degree burns on my tongue.

My husband did an internship in England many years ago, and during that time he acquired an adopted family, a lovely couple named Ken and Jean. We visited them in Yorkshire shortly after we were married, and it was the first time I craved sugar and milk in my tea. There is something about being in the green, cool, rolling hills of Yorkshire that demands sweet, hot tea for breakfast.  My favorite memories of England seem to involve teashops. The tea was fabulous, but it may have been the other things that made it memorable, too. Scones served with jam and fresh cream. Toasted teacake. Biscuits (aka cookies) in every shape and size.

We drank tea in outdoor cafés in York, on the Royal Mile in Scotland, and in hillside shops in Whitby. Some of the buildings were ultra modern and new. Others were ancient, with uneven floors and oddly shaped stone walls. Each place was unique. Each was an experience.

When Ken and Jean came to visit us in the States, however, I tried to make them tea. I even bought their favorite Yorkshire Black tea and had it waiting for them when they arrived. They just smiled, shook their heads and said (ever so kindly), “Coffee, please.”

Sigh. Now to learn how to make a true "cuppa".

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boys Will Be Boys

Growing up, I always thought I’d have girls, little angels dressed in pink who quietly held tea parties and played with their dolls.  This image was, of course, pure fantasy, but as some sort of cosmic joke, I was told, in two out of three pregnancies, that I was having a girl. Each time they were wrong. For the third, I told them not to bother trying to guess since there really was no point. 

It worked out exactly as it should. I adore being the mother of three boys, but I had to learn some lessons along the way. I got used to buying blue, investing a small fortune in Thomas the Tank Engine, and understanding the rules of soccer (it took years for me to understand offsides, and I’m still not entirely sure I fully grasp the concept). Sometimes I see myself as a sort of cultural anthropologist, exploring the unknown world of the male psyche. Now that the boys are older (20, 16, and 13), bigger, and much hairier, there are still lessons to be learned.

1.     Pants are optional.  Once the door to the outside world is closed, everyone in my house loses their pants and strolls around free and unfettered in boxers. I don’t wear boxers and don’t understand the joys of being pants-free, but if I did, panic and chaos would ensue.  My boys shriek and cover their eyes if they catch me even for a second in my undies, so I have come to the conclusion that pants are mandatory for any and all female members of this household (aka me).

2.     The pants optional rule remains in effect even if visitors appear, but only if the visitors are close friends or family.  I can tell how close a friend is by the reaction of my boxer-clad bunch. If it’s someone in their inner circle, no pants are required. They remain in their normal lounging position, which is something between a sit and a sprawl on the couch. If the visitor is not part of that group, however, they spring into action, covering with a blanket and sprinting up the stairs, like a herd of pants-less cockroaches.

3.     Second breakfasts aren’t just for Hobbits. People aren’t exaggerating when they say teenaged boys are hungry all the time.  I recently had to explain to someone why we have dinner at the ungodly hour of 4:30 pm (on most days). It’s because my boys get home from school and their afternoon activities completely ravenous, and have a very narrow window of opportunity to eat before their evening activities begin. Don’t worry – they normally eat an additional meal at a time that even the most sophisticated Europeans would condone later in the evening. We can call this “supper” or simply “foraging in the pantry.” It involves a lot of standing, staring, and cries of “What do we have do eat?” and “I’m so hungry.”

4.     I know more about sports than I ever cared to know. My boys play soccer and tennis, so I am pretty knowledgeable about both those sports and enjoy watching them compete. I’m not terribly interested in sports in general. My cries of support during soccer games are usually along the lines of “Good job! Now tie your shoes.” I get a little startled when the other parents shout things out that sound awfully negative, and I’m often seen clapping even when the other team gets a goal. Tennis is a little easier since you aren’t really allowed to shout things out. My comments in tennis consist of the ever popular “Nice shot” and that is about it. My boys only play these two sports, but they seem to know everything about every sport. I don’t understand it. They know the players, the teams, the rankings – and I have absolutely no idea how they acquired this vast knowledge. Maybe having the “y” chromosome allows some sort of sports knowledge by osmosis thing to occur. It’s a mystery.

5.     They don’t understand how the laundry chute works. Yes, they get the complexities of rugby, even though they have never been to a single game, but they cannot understand that the hole behind the secret door in my bathroom leads directly to the pile of unwashed clothes in the laundry room. Instead they leave their clothing, like some sort of sacrificial offering to the laundry god, on the floor right next to the laundry chute.  Why? It’s also a mystery.

6.     Speaking of laundry, it is a never-ending, full-time occupation.  I just got a new washer and it changed my life. Honestly. I can wash like ten pairs of jeans at once now. In the last twenty years, I have learned a lot about laundry. I know how to remove grass stains (even from the brand new khakis that weren’t supposed to be worn for impromptu soccer games), how clean and dry cleats and shin guards without ruining them, and how to get chocolate, blood, or vomit out of anything. It's also a chance for my to express my feminine side. They don’t really sell any manly scented fabric softeners, so I get the most floral, girly, lavender and vanilla scented stuff I can find just to mess with them.

7.     Scents, deodorants, and why I really should buy stock in Axe. Walk down any middle school hallway anywhere in the country, and soon you’ll get a little tickle in your nose and feel your eyes begin to sting. The aroma of Axe, that magnificent spray-on deodorant that has become a rite of passage for pre-pubescent boys. Breathe it in. Enjoy it. Accept it. I’ve tried holding my breath so I didn’t have to inhale it and just ended up getting lightheaded. Just embrace it and move on.

8.     Speaking of smells, boys have a lot of them. Some of these make them very, very proud. There are certain smells, produced by their own bodies, that bring them great joy, especially if the are accompanied by sounds. In a freak accident, I lost most of my sense of smell about ten years ago. I am oblivious to almost all of the odors they produce. I also can’t smell sweaty shin guards, old shoes, or nasty socks. It’s a blessing. Really.

9.     Balls. Lots of them. I’m constantly tripping over soccer balls, tennis balls, inflatable balls, and little rubber bouncy balls, but these aren’t the only kind of balls I’m talking about. Boys are obsessed with balls, especially their own. They love talking about them, scratching them, and sometimes just sticking their hands in their pants to reassure themselves that they are still there. I’ve observed this in adult males as well. Boys also love making jokes about balls and other parts of the male and female anatomy. Girls don’t seem to find this quite as amusing. There is nothing even remotely funny about a uterus.

10. Which brings me to my final point. I’m so glad I have boys. Girls seem much more complicated. They have all sorts of feelings, and although boys are hormonal, girls take it to a whole new level. An annoying level. A scary level. My boys are basically always pretty nice to me. They have their moments, of course, but compared to some of the teenaged girls I’ve observed, they are a walk in the park. Another bonus, they aren’t interested in stealing my clothing. If anything, they are terrified that the unisex sweatshirt I offered to lend them might be (gasp) a “girl” shirt.  They approach it with the same caution and wariness an Amazonian would a brightly colored snake in the jungle. Perhaps poking it with a stick a few times to make sure it won’t bite.  My husband’s clothing, on the other hand, is open game - especially his socks. In a valiant effort to protect the last few pairs of sports socks he possessed that weren’t grass stained and pair-less, he hid an entire stash in his closet. The boys sniffed them out in minutes. Nothing is sacred.

There are so many things I haven’t mentioned. Their sudden hairiness. The way they can break furniture just by sitting on it. The wrestling. The noise. The endless episodes of South Park. They might seem like a pack of St. Bernard puppies at the moment, but they are growing into interesting, amazing, and caring men. I’m just glad I got to go along for the ride.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ten Titles for Christmas - From Our Family Bookshelf

When my boys were small, this was the time of year we curled up on the couch and read Christmas books together next to the fire. It brings back memories of warm little wiggly bodies encased in footie pajamas vying for a spot on my lap, smelling of soap from the bath and hot cocoa. We read together all year of course, but there was something magical about those books, the sparkling lights of the tree, and the anticipation in the days leading up to the holidays.

I miss those days, so I thought I’d share a list of some of the favorites on our shelves. Yes, they are still on our shelves even though my oldest is now in college, my middle son is a junior in high school, and my baby is in eighth grade and far too cool for this sort of thing. I keep them because I can’t bear to part with them. They are too precious, and the memories I have of them too dear. Get them for your own children. Buy them as gifts for others. Share the love and make some memories of your own.

1.     AUNTIE CLAUS (Elise Primavera) – Sophie has a lot of questions about her sophisticated aunt and why she goes away on business trips every year at Christmas time. Is she just another eccentric New Yorker, or is she something else altogether? This is a gorgeous book with beautiful illustrations and a great story.
2.     OLIVE THE OTHER REINDEER (Vivian Walsh) - Olive is a sweet little dog who hears the verse in the Rudolph song “all of the other reindeer” and thinks the song is about her. She rushes to the North Pole to help Santa, and ends up saving Christmas.
3.     HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (Dr. Seuss) - Come on. It’s a classic. If you don’t have it on your shelf, you need to buy it. I guarantee your heart will grow three sizes that day.
4.     BEAR STAYS UP FOR CHRISTMAS (Karma Wilson/Jane Chapman) - A sweet book about a sleepy bear who needs to hibernate, but wants to spend Christmas with his woodland friends. Beautiful story and illustrations.
5.     THE LAST STRAW (Fredrick Thury/Vlasta Van Kampen) - I’m really sorry to say this book is not available on Amazon, but I'll share the link below in case you can find it at a library. It’s an incredible book, and the toy camel that we bought to accompany it is also adorable. This is a family favorite, and I hope it goes back into print again soon.
6.     SNOWMEN AT CHRISTMAS (Caralyn Buehner) - All of the Snowmen books by Caralyn Buehner are fantastic, but this one is really special. Besides a wonderful story, there are hidden pictures on each and every page. Absolutely glorious.
7.     THE POLAR EXPRESS (Chris Allsburg) - Another classic about a train that takes children to meet Santa at the North Pole. Every year we tried to replicate the hot chocolate the children drank on the train, but never really succeeded.
8.     THE SNOWMAN (Raymond Briggs) - And yet another classic! This book is so gorgeous and wonderful, and we really enjoyed the film as well. There are no words in the movie – just the beautiful illustrations from the book and incredible music.
9.     THE MITTEN (Jan Brett) - What my children loved about this book, besides the absolutely intricate and perfect illustrations and great story, was the fact that there is a hint on each page about what is to come on the next page. Wonderful!
10. THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS (Robert Sabuda) - Who doesn’t love a pop up book? And this one is amazing. I still like to flip through it now. We have several of Robert Sabuda’s books, and they never ever disappoint.

These are just ten of our favorites, but there are many, many more out there. I’m curious about the new books coming out this year. I may have to go to the book store, pull up one of those little chairs in the children’s section, and get lost in a few of them.  Maybe I can even convince one of my big, far-too-cool-for-picture-books teenagers to come with me. Now that would be a memory!

What are your family favorites?


Monday, October 13, 2014

To Post or Not To Post.....

A very wise woman once told me never to talk about politics, religion, sex, or money at a cocktail party unless you like an argument or want to go home with a drunk.

The internet is like a great, big cocktail party, except we’re all usually in our pajamas and don’t often see the repercussions from our words, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. If you are a writer, or a public person, you need to heed these words. It’s for your own good. Honestly.

Things you might not want to talk about online:

1.     Politics. I completely understand being passionate about the subject, but choosing one side means isolating the other. If you are a writer, you don’t want to alienate half of you audience.
2.     Religion. You’ll never know who you’ll offend with this one so just don’t go there. Yes, I would love to hear about your experiences as a Wiccan high priestess, but some of your readers might not. They may try to convert you to their religion or even (egads) stop reading your books. As I said already, don’t go there.
3.     Sex. There is definitely such a thing as TMI, and there is also such a thing as too many racy photos. Moderation is the key. There is a difference between a sexy post and a trashy post – and one person’s sexy is another person’s trashy. Be careful.
4.     Money. No one ever asked me how much I made until I became a writer. Since then, I’ve had several people bring it up. Directly. It’s very strange. Don’t talk about money in your posts. Don’t brag about how much you’ve made or whine about how poor you are. No one wants to hear it.
5.     My perfect life.  Everyone is happy you are happy, but no one has a perfect life.  There is a fine line between sharing good news (with a proper dose of humor and modesty) and bragging. Make sure you don’t cross that line.
6.     Kids.  This is a tough one for me. My in-laws and many of my friends live overseas and I share lots of info (sometimes too much info) about my children because I want them to feel more connected to our lives. Not everyone online is a doting grandmother or a loving uncle, though. Sharing too much might not only be boring, it can also be dangerous. And never EVER share anything that could be potentially embarrassing to your child. Some of my writer friends use code names for their children to avoid using their real names on line. I often call mine the extremely original “oldest son, middle son, and youngest son.” Do what works for you.
7.     Negative Stuff.  In general, keep it positive. If you are negative, make it funny. Don’t say mean things about people. Don’t post about your misery. It’s just as annoying as posting about your perfect life.  I’ve read posts that sounded like a cry for help, and others that were just sad. And needy. Don’t pretend to be happy if you aren’t, but don’t air your dirty laundry in front of strangers. There are people out there who don’t have your best interests at heart. If you are in pain, call a friend. Don’t send it out into the void.
8.     Your books. This might seem counterproductive, but talk about something besides your books online.  My super agent, Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency, said to follow the one-third rule. Talk about your books one third of the time. Talk about (and promote) other books one third of the time. Use the remaining one third of the time to talk about something else.  If you talk about nothing but your books and your writing all of the time, you will lose readers. And friends.
9.     Gross stuff. I’m really sorry about the gaping wound on your foot, but do I want to see it? No. Please – NO.
10. Share your passions and be yourself. This may seem like the opposite of what I advised above, but it’s important to talk about what you enjoy. I love coffee, books, and wine (not always in that order), and I post about those things often.  Very often. Maybe too often. But it makes my readers feel a connection to me, because they know my enthusiasm is genuine. Be real. Be passionate. But don’t be annoying.

No matter how hard you try, or how diplomatic, kind, and light-hearted you might be, you will insult someone eventually. When it happens, apologize and move on. Don’t respond to negative posts. Ignore them or delete them. If you jump into the mud, you’ll get dirty, too.  And getting clean again in a public forum is a difficult thing to do.