Tag Archives: childhood

Naming your cows: Mike’s childhood experiences

It’s going to be a childhood-themed week – later this week I’ll be posting on author’s favorite children’s books. So in keeping with the theme, here’s Mike’s list of childhood experiences that will probably sound foreign to our own kids (heck, some of them sound foreign to me).

  1. Growing up in the same postal code as both sets of grandparents.
  2. Having a much larger extended family, with many cousins on both sides of my family.
  3. Growing up on the farm and doing lots of hard physical work, especially in the summers.
  4. Taking care of animals every day – seeing all sorts of animals give birth and die.
  5. Chopping the head off a chicken, scalding it in boiling water, and plucking its feathers.
  6. Growing almost all the vegetables we ate and canning or freezing them for the winter.
  7. Naming your “pet” cows … and then discussing who you were eating over the dinner table.
  8. Being able play outside the house (entirely out of sight from my parents) for long periods of time.
  9. Taking my first flight when I was 20 years old and in college.
  10. Getting my first email address when I was 18 (upon entering college).
  11. Getting my first mobile phone when I was 23.
  12. Having only 4 channels of TV.
  13. Going out to eat at a restaurant was a special occasion – we ate out at a restaurant once every couple of months and it was a big treat.
  14. My school (and the community) was very monocultural. There were about 1300 students enrolled at my school, and only 5 were non-Caucasian.
  15. There were teachers at my school who had taught my parents when they were students.
  16. My parents rarely consumed alcohol – only once or twice per year, on special occasions.
  17. My mom did the dishes (and the cooking, the laundry, and almost all the house-hold cleaning) … 🙂

OK, OK, so I might not be doing many dishes here (thanks to the services of our wonderful maebaan) but I am making our own baby food. My first attempt ended in Dominic’s first temper tantrum, but my latest effort was received with much happy table thumping and head-bobblings of approval.

“What did you make?” my mother asked when I told her this.

“Baby ratatouille,” I said proudly. “Eggplant, tomato, onion, a little bit of broccoli, and garlic.”

Garlic?” both my parents said at the same time. “We’ve never heard of anyone feeding a baby garlic.”

“Well, now you have,” I said. “And he liked it.”

What did your kids love to eat when they were little?

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My childhood experiences that will sound strange to my kids

This post was supposed to go up on Friday but, ironically, the internet went down and stayed down for almost two days. Why ironic? Well …

The summer before we moved to Laos, Mike and I met both sets of our parents in Alaska and we all did the inner-passage cruise together. We learned something about our parents on that trip, something that shocked us.

Only one of the four of them had an indoor toilet in their house when they were born.

I know, sort of hard to imagine, right?

During that week we spent more than one dinner talking about childhoods. All four of them grew up on farms. Mike grew up on a farm. I, with my globally nomadic childhood, was the odd one out. But even my cross-continental urban mishmash provided a patchwork of experiences that I suspect will seem utterly foreign to my own children.

Here are some examples.

1.   The only show I can remember watching television before I was nine is the A-Team (Bangladesh). If there were other English language programs playing there, I don’t remember them. I’m sure I probably watched Playschool etc. in Australia earlier, but I don’t remember those either. Between the ages of 12 and 16 (Zimbabwe) we only had two channels on TV. English programming came on one at 3pm and the other at 5pm. My favorite shows were MacGyver and Mash. MacGyver was my first and most serious tele-crush.

2.   I spent hours in 7th-10th grade (Zimbabwe) taking dictation by hand in my classes at school and then memorizing those hand-written facts because we didn’t have textbooks.

3.   I researched many of my school assignments using the big set of encyclopedias my parents kept on our bookshelf.

4.   I first learned how to sew on a hand-crank sewing machine.

5.   I weighed out all my ingredients for cooking class on scales using little bronze counterweights.

6.   I had to do my 10th grade national physics exams using log tables instead of a calculator (that one was archaic even for Zimbabwe, I think).

7.   I was still buying tapes instead of CD’s when I was fifteen.

8.   I was in 11th grade (and back in the U.S.) before I turned in my first typed school assignment.

9.   The first two years I was at university (in Australia) while the rest of my family was in Washington DC, I used to write them letters once a week (yes, the type that require you to put pen to paper and use an envelope and a stamp). Also, we shared one phone between nine dorm rooms, and that phone could only accept incoming calls. I was lucky if I got to chat with my family for half an hour (usually Sunday morning) once a week.

10.   I was 21 years old when I got my first personal email address.

11.   I was 27 years old before I ever owned a cell phone.

Most of these experiences that will probably seem old-fashioned to Dominic (heck, they seem old-fashioned to me) have to do with how much information technology has changed during my lifetime.

I came of age right alongside the internet, and in many ways I think I’ve been very lucky in this. Yes, I didn’t have email or facebook during those early, hard days of separation from my family. But now I also don’t have much childish or teenaged awkwardness documented in Technicolor for all the world to view. You can find out a startling amount about me online now, but basically none of that has anything to do with my life before the age of 25, and that suits me just fine.

If and when he wants to play this game in twenty years, Dominic will be able to tell people that when he was born his parents didn’t own a car or a motorbike (we only own bicycles) and that we didn’t have hot running water on the ground floor of our house (the water in the showers is heated by wall-mounted units). He can thank Laos for that. He will also, however, be able to thank the internet and his mother for the fact that anyone who so desires will be able to find photographs of him the day that he was born and any number of baby anecdotes. Little D’s got the best of both worlds. Or perhaps, the worst?

What are some of your childhood experiences that will probably seem foreign to your own children? And what do you think about parents writing about their kids?

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Bank cards and inner children

I found my credit card today. It’s been, well, not exactly missing, more like “vacationing in an unknown location”, since we got back from Australia. That was three weeks ago.

I remembered to ask my parents whether they’d seen it while we were on skype the other day.

“Have you seen my credit card lying around?” I asked, oh so casually, in the middle of our conversation.

My father, as I’d guessed he would, sighed.

“Lisa,” he said, and then paused. “Does your husband know about this?”

“Not exactly,” I said, grinning just a little. “I’m a firm subscriber to the theory that one of the best ways to keep your marriage healthy is not to let every single thought that goes through your head come out your mouth.”

There was silence while my parents, I’m sure, tried to figure out what this had to do with my credit card.

“Almost every day I think that maybe I should really try to find it,” I added helpfully.

Dad sighed again.

“We’ll keep an eye out,” he said.

So “find my credit card” has been on my to list for weeks now, and since today is a day full of life admin – filing, sorting books, and trying to catch up on email – I gritted my teeth five minutes ago and went in the bedroom determined to do a thorough search. I’d already looked in my wallet twice but started by flicking through it again just to make sure… and there is was. Nestled somewhere I still can’t understand why I would have put it. Halleluiah. I found it and I got to tick something off the to-do list and I do not have to go through the hassle of trying to get it replaced over here in Laos, not to mention having to confess the whole debacle to Mike. Happy days.

The whole thing has made me think of one of the first essays I wrote after I started emailing Mike. Called, “Inner Child” I thought it was merely an “all’s well that ends well” tale that kept me amused writing it up on an overnight flight to London. I found out later that Mike found it less amusing than terrifying. So, today, here’s a walk down memory lane and a look at an essay I sent out just over three years now. (PS, Despite this post’s evidence to the contrary let me assure you that I’m heaps more responsible and organized now. Heaps.)

Inner Child (October 2007)

What does my inner child look like, I wondered, rifling through the pockets of all the jackets hanging in my closet, and where on earth was my bankcard?

Both were pressing questions. Ed was picking me up for the inner child party in two hours, and I was getting on a plane to head to Kenya in less than 24. I had six dollars in my wallet, and it was Saturday at 3:30pm. The banks were closed (which I had discovered when I rocked up at my local branch at 3pm with passport in hand all set to make a withdrawal sans bankcard). They were going to stay closed until Monday morning by which time, all going well, I would be in London. This was somewhat of a problem. Plus, I still didn’t have a costume for the party. The afternoon was not going as planned.

Faced with a whole row of stubbornly empty pockets I stood back, took a deep breath, and tried to think.

When confronted with multiple crises it’s always wise to take a moment to evaluate which is the most pressing. Clearly that was what I was going to wear to the party. Perhaps if I figured that out, the secondary issue of how I was going to manage to spend two weeks in Africa on six dollars would seem more manageable.

Robin said we were supposed to come dressed as something that reflects our inner child, and this had me stumped. Did she want us to come dressed as the inner child that actually was a child? Because then all I’d have to do is straighten my hair, put on some appallingly thick glasses, and braces, and then go and sit in a playground and read a book – because that child didn’t actually have many friends and hence, didn’t go to parties often.

Or did she mean the inner child we have now – the un-self-conscious, comfortable-in-our-own-skin inner child that tempts us towards silliness and fun and levity? Come to think of it though, I’m not sure why those qualities get associated with inner children. I got better at embracing them as I got older. Most of my childhood I spent feeling like an adult trapped in a little body.

Perhaps she meant the inner child we always wanted to be when we were children? If that was the case I could go for the entirely unremarkable outfit of jeans and a tee shirt on the grounds that I spent a significant portion of my childhood wanting to just be more normal. Or perhaps I should wear a sari because when I wasn’t thinking it would be nice to be normal, I was thinking it would be nice to be Indian. Or maybe a formal dress and a tiara? I can’t actually remember fantasizing about being a princess (except being a sari-clad Indian princess) but I’m sure I did. Doesn’t every little girl want to be a princess?

I sighed and looked longingly at my bed, which was covered with clothes, work documents, and an open suitcase.

What I really wanted more than anything else in that instant was to climb back into that bed, read a good book, and forget about Africa and parties. And I’d give my kingdom to have someone bring me some ice cream. And a nice glass of wine. Or two.

That was it! My inner child just wanted to be in bed. I would go in pajamas.

“Good idea!” Robin said, when she heard what I was planning. “I will too, and Sharla, probably. Then we can have a slumber party!”

Awesome. Not only had I come up with a decent idea, this inner child went to slumber parties. This inner child had some friends. Things had definitely improved in the last two decades.

Now, the bankcard.

I’d been convinced it was in the car.

This was not an entirely stupid assumption. I’m a relatively neat and ordered person. My office, my bedroom, the house… all fairly neat – if not germ-free clean. Captain Waldo, my car, is a totally different story. My theory is that he is actually a different planet, with his own field of gravity, which has an almost irresistible affinity for things like receipts, empty coffee cups, cans of diet coke, Tupperware containers, CD’s, and books. On Saturday morning he looked like a mobile library. There were at least forty books scattered on the back seat. It seemed likely that my bankcard was buried in there somewhere. It’s been known to happen before.

It was a great theory. The only problem being that during the half an hour it took me to dig through all the detritus it became clear that the bank card was not buried in there somewhere.

I tackled the problem logically. I marveled at the cleanness of the car for a minute or two, then I went back inside and decided it still wasn’t time to panic. It was likely somewhere in the house, I reasoned, but just in case it wasn’t, I’d better go to the bank before it closed and make a withdrawal using my passport as ID.

So off I toddled to the bank.

Which is when I learned that the bank shuts at 2pm on Saturday.

So now my costume was all sorted and another half hour of searching in the house hadn’t yielded any bank-card-joy there was no avoiding the fact that I was going to have to figure out a plan B or embrace solidarity with the poor.

Plan B would normally be Bank-O-Dad. But, unfortunately, Bank-O-Dad only has one branch, which is in Australia rather than Los Angeles. But, I suddenly realized, I had friends. Friends who would be coming to a slumber party with me that night. Friends who would surely empty their checking accounts for me. After all, what are friends for?

So I rang Robin back.

When she didn’t answer I left a message telling her I had an “unusual request.” I tried for an upbeat, “I have a really neat plan for a big adventure” tone, but had a nasty suspicion as I hung up that I had sounded more guilty than cheerful.

This was confirmed when she rang back and the first words out of her mouth were a wary, “what do you want?”

“A thousand dollars,” I said in a small voice.

“Lisa!” Robin said in a tone I’ve heard more than once in the last four years of our friendship.

“Where did you have it last?” She asked after I explained the problem.

“Chicago,” I said, even more softly.

“Lisa! You went to Chicago a month ago! I heard you say your bankcard was missing weeks ago. You didn’t find it in between? When did you really start looking for it?”

“This morning,” I whispered.

“Lisa! Wow!” Robin said. There was a long silence that gave us both ample time to reflect on my idiocy. “Well I can’t get out a thousand dollars at the ATM. I can only get four or five hundred.”

“That’s okay,” I said, relieved. “I can write you a check right now for that, and I’ll ask some of the others too.”

In the end my Bible Study group came through with the goods, and Robin, Paul, Sarah, Sharla, and Joe, all contributed to my financial solvency for this trip.

“Don’t lose it,” Robin warned me as she handed me an envelope full of cash. “And don’t tell Jenn about this. She’ll be mad.”

Yeah. Our mutual friend Jenn, and my parents, and everyone else who manages not to do things like this on a regular basis. But the way I see it I’m home free now. I only make one or two big and potentially serious mistakes per international trip. And this was my second, because this year I completely forgot that I needed visas to go to Kenya and Ghana until three weeks and two days before I was scheduled to leave and anyone who knows anything about the pace at which African embassies generally operate know that’s not exactly a safe margin. So given that I’ve already had a potential visa-debacle and weathered a missing bankcard… it should be a great trip from here on out.

Thank the Lord for growing out of lonely childhoods, for grown-up pajama parties, and for good friends is all I can say.

And, for those good friends who live in Chicago – if you happen to see my bankcard, can you mail it to LA?

Thanks.

Pebbles, insults, and memories

Something awesome happened today.

Chip MacGregor, literary agent extraordinaire, called my book a “cult hit” on his blog. But that wasn’t the only awesomeness in his post. He also reproduced a letter he’d received from someone who’d sent him an unsolicited proposal. He wrote her a brief note saying that he didn’t think there was a market for her book, and she sent him back a letter saying, “Destruction? Is that not your very identity? Your cruelty oozes…You should be immensely worried about who you are… Believe it or not, Chippy, you’re a pebble, like all of us.”

There was a lot in there I left out, but I think the best part of the whole letter is the pebble line. Who gets all worked up – using the words gross, ugly, hatcheting, and demolishing – and then caps it off by calling someone “Chippy” and “a pebble”?

A pebble.

So I’ve been thinking about pebbles and smiling today. And that’s made me think about Alaska and a moment when I wasn’t smiling quite as much.

That story starts with souvenir collecting – a topic I wrote about a couple of years ago in an essay called “Thanksgiving”. Here’s an excerpt from that essay (and I swear that the word pebbles was, indeed, in there when I originally published it):

“What is it about being somewhere different that breeds the need to capture something we can carry with us when we leave?

The root of “souvenir” is the verb “to remember”, and the word has come to refer to keepsakes of sentimental value that remind one of past events. Despite the fact that stores selling mostly snow globes and magnets have managed to cheapen this French contribution to the global vocabulary almost beyond use, I still can’t quite let it go. I must admit that I love souvenirs. At their best, they are so much more than things. They are pebbles picked up along the path of life. They are reminders that this path stretches far beyond my living room.

This admission should not be taken to indicate a wholehearted abandonment of all pretension or my endorsement of plastic shot glasses and cheesy tee shirts. To the contrary, I consider my tastes to be highly refined. I may not be able to consistently assemble a trendy outfit, but I am an expert on what constitutes a good souvenir.

This expertise was gained the old-fashioned way – practice, practice, practice. As a wee child I started by collecting “things” – marble boxes inlaid with lapis from India, carved rhinos from Zimbabwe, bronze windmills from Amsterdam… By the time I was ready to leave home and head for University my bedroom looked like a miniature inanimate petting zoo had wandered into a Ten Thousand Villages display. As I packed box after box I decided that two new qualities needed to guide my souvenir collecting – a consistent theme, and portability.

So, in what I now see as my delayed “girl scout” phase, I started collecting patches. As a little girl I would have loved to belong to a club like Girl Scouts that awarded patches for doing things like setting fires, memorizing Bible verses, and reading 5,000 books (especially if that club had awarded patches by mail so that I didn’t actually have to interact with any other children to participate). Instead of a club, however, I got the occasional family-cockroach-massacre in Bangladesh where we competed to see who could amass the biggest pile of carcasses, and spent many hours on my belly in the dirt with my siblings trying to sneak around the entire perimeter of our five acre garden in Zimbabwe without the family dogs discovering what we were up to.

Perhaps if some caring soul had awarded a younger me patches to recognize outstanding achievements in cockroach hunting and canine evasion, I would not have had to spend time working through this phase as an adult. But no one did. So in a spectacular demonstration of resilience, I decided to start awarding patches to myself as souvenirs of my travels..”

After my delayed girl-scout phase I moved on to collecting Christmas ornaments. And, recently I’ve taken to picking up a pebble here or there.

The first pebble I picked up was in Turkey in 2007, at Gallipoli – that site of Australia’s most celebrated military defeat. Before we went, I hadn’t particularly wanted to visit Gallipoli, but my day there impacted me deeply. Just before we left I picked a pebble in Anzac cove. The stone I selected was red. Round on one side and rough on the other, it has been split in half. White veins of quartz run through it in a mirror image of the human body. I carry that pebble in my camera case now, and whenever I look at it I don’t think first of blood and loss and needless sacrifice, or even bravery and “mateship”. I think of graciousness.

But that is another story – the story of the Gallipoli pebble – and perhaps I will tell it someday.

Today’s story is about a pebble I found in my makeup drawer a couple of months ago while I was packing up to move to Laos. This pebble was a smooth, flat, oval. It was grey. It had three white lines of quartz encircling it. And I could not, for the life of me, remember where I had picked it up. Or why.

I kept this pebble on the bench for days, puzzling over it.

After a week, I threw it out.

Not even I could justify shipping a rock all the way from LA to Asia when I could remember exactly nothing about why it may be significant.

About a month after this, Mike and I were in Alaska. We drove from Anchorage to Talkeetna one day to gaze upon the majesty that is Mt McKinley, and when we were done gazing upon majesty we wandered down to the river. Like every river in Alaska, it seems, it was flowing cold and clear over thousands and thousands of smooth, grey, stones.

The pebble I had puzzled over and then discarded had probably come from a river, I realized. And, with that, I remembered…

I had picked up the grey pebble in New Zealand, on our honeymoon, the day we went white water rafting. I remembered reaching down for it – all wet and silvery and cold, so cold – just as the river had been that day. I remembered thinking (unusually sentimentally, for me) that the three parallel lines of quartz that marked the stone could represent Mike, me, and God.

“You threw away our honeymoon rock?” Mike asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face as I relayed all of this to him. “You threw me, you, and God, in the trash?”

“I couldn’t remember,” I said, sulking. “It gets really hard to keep track of where you, me, and God have been, where we’re going, and what it might mean. I was throwing away all my memories, trying to be an efficient packer, because someone wants me to move to Laos.”

“The memories you couldn’t actually remember?” Mike asked, not even trying not to laugh anymore. “Those ones? And that was really talented, by the way, you managed to blame both me and Laos.”

“Thank you,” I said.

So that is my pebble story for the day. What about you? What souvenirs do you favor?