Sunday, November 30, 2008


Today I started reading a rather wonderful book called Curries and Bugles: A Memoir and Cookbook of the British Raj, about life at the end of the British Raj and the food that went with it. It is full of information about colonial India, reminiscences, recipes, and information about the spices that are such an important part of Indian cuisine. I am learning a lot, and enjoying it very much.

For example, I have learned some things about peppercorns. Peppercorns grow on an evergreen vine. That surprised me. I'm not quite sure why it was surprising. I had never thought about it before and had no idea how peppercorns grew. It just wasn't like that, I suppose.

Also, did you know the difference between black and white pepper? I didn't, but now I do. Black peppercorns are picked when they are unripe and then dried in the sun until the skin turns black. White peppercorns are picked when they are ripe, soaked, and rubbed to remove the skins. Then they are dried in the sun until they are bleached white. In other words, they are the same thing, only different.

Whenever I read about something like that, I wonder who thought of it first, way back in the mists of early culinary history. Who was the first person to think, Hey, I wonder what will happen if I pick these before they are ripe, and dry them in the sun without removing the skin? What made them even think of it? Or did it happen by mistake? Maybe there was a big storm one day and the peppercorns were blown from the vine before they were ripe, and then there was a series of hot, dry days, and then someone, um, accidentally ate a peppercorn? Or what? What would make someone even consider picking up that black, wrinkled little hard thing and tasting it?

It's just as well they did. My favourite spaghetti recipe just wouldn't be the same without the black pepper.

I have also learned some things about nutmeg (and mace). Nutmegs look a bit like apricots when they are growing on the tree. Also, they are not nuts. Actually, I didn't think they were, but I was a bit surprised to find out that they are fruit. At least I suppose they are, although it is the seed of the fruit that is used, not the flesh. Did you know that the nutmeg tree only grows in a very limited area? Because of this, nutmeg has caused wars.

The biggest thing I am learning from this book so far, really, is that I am extremely ignorant about spices. The book is a fun way to remedy this, and I can heartily recommend it.

At least I can heartily recommend chapter one. I haven't started the second chapter yet.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Spider dreams

This morning when I stepped outside I noticed the spider that was silhouetted against the pale morning sky, hanging between the honeysuckle and the power line where it has been for the past couple of weeks. It is a large spider, and its web is enormous. The web is getting a bit messy with bits of leaf and other rubbish stuck in it, and I wondered if spiders ever did housework.

The spider did not move. I have never seen it move, and I wondered if it was awake yet. Then I wondered if spiders actually sleep. Do they close their eyes? Do they even have eyelids? Do they dream? And if they dream, do they dream in colour, or in black and white? What do they dream about? Do they ever have nightmares? What are their nightmares about? Brooms?

I have to go to work now, so I'll leave my readers to answer these questions for me.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Yesterday I wore my favourite hat to work. I think it makes me look like a spy from a WWII movie. When I wear it I feel all mysterious and glamorous. I was enjoying crossing campus in my hat, with my coat collar pulled up around my ears against the chilly wind and the hat brim pulled down.

Then, in the staffroom, one of the other teachers told me that my hat made me look like Mary Poppins. My self-image was rudely shattered, and my ego deflated like an old balloon.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why things are unravelling

Yesterday I received an email from a friend, rather upset about a letter he had received in response to a letter he had sent. In his letter he had asked two questions, only one of which was (insufficiently) answered in the letter he received in reply. He assumed that this meant the sender was not interested in his second query. These were business letters.

I started composing an email in reply to my friend's email, which got longer and longer as I developed a theory that has been lurking in the back of my mind for quite some time. As I was writing, the theory developed further, and it had become almost fully fledged when I accidentally deleted it.

Thus the world came very close to losing yet another of my wonderful theories.

But then I thought that perhaps I could try again, and this time explain it to a wider audience. So, here it is: an almost but not quite complete explanation for the world's current economic crisis.

The short version of my theory goes like this: IT'S ALL BECAUSE OF FEMINISM AND COMPUTERS.

The long version is . . . well, longer. Sit back and prepare to be enlightened.

Once upon a time, back in the early days of the modern business world, women were considered (by men) to be suitable only for breeding and for menial secretarial work. This meant that they either stayed at home and spent their time raising boys to become businessmen and girls to become secretaries or housewives, or they went to secretarial school and learned, ostensibly, how to type and do shorthand. I say ostensibly, because in fact what they were learning was how to be the severely underpaid brains of a business organization while taking none of the credit when things went right and all of the blame if things went wrong. Managers did not need to have brains, or to know what they were doing. That was what secretaries were for. In reality, managers were just decoration. Managers had long lunches with one another while secretaries ran the business world. Managers mumbled drunkenly into dictaphones after their long lunches, and secretaries read the mail and composed sensible replies for the managers to sign. Secretaries from different organizations met in tearooms after work and discussed who pinched whose bottom at the latest office party and the finer details of running the business world without anybody else noticing. Everything worked smoothly, and babies had warm feet.

With me so far?

Then feminism came along, as indeed it needed to, and women said, hey, why am we doing all the work and getting none of the credit (or, more importantly, the money)? So they stopped learning how to be secretaries. At around the same time, computers also came along. Unfortunately, since everybody (men, actually) thought that all secretaries did was to sit around filing their nails or knitting baby booties, and since secretaries were paid peanuts, nobody rushed in to fill the sudden void in the brains department of business organizations. Women started to do other things instead, for which they could actually get real money and even some respect. And men were not interested in becoming secretaries because what self-respecting man cared what his nails looked like, or knew how to knit? Also, computers could do the job just as well, right?


Sadly, a business world without secretaries does not work well at all, and gradually, as the last properly trained secretaries began to retire and leave the workforce, everything began to unravel, rather like a half-finished baby bootie that has slipped off its needles. Recently this unravelling has been more dramatic. It seems likely that there was a 'secretary-boom' at some point in the past which has resulted in a recent mass retirement of secretaries and a sudden catastrophic loss of brains in financial circles. Secretaries were the only ones who actually knew what was going on, and now that most of them have gone nobody has a clue.

Even more sadly, nobody saw this coming. Even now, hardly anybody has figured it out. (Except me, of course.) Managers thought that with the advent of computers you could hire any school-leaver with fingers and put him or her in charge of answering letters and faxes (and, later, emails), and things would be just fine. After all, it's just secretarial work, right? Women used to do it all the time, and still managed to look pretty and have nice nails and/or knit booties for babies. It MUST be easy. Who needs training?

Who needs secretaries?

WE ALL DO. That's who. Feminism is not a bad thing. What is a bad thing is that nobody noticed women were ALREADY doing an extremely valuable job, but were not being valued or respected for what they were doing. And who wants to stay in a job where they are not valued or respected?

I told my friend, in the long email I accidentally deleted (because I do not have a properly trained secretary to take care of these things for me) that his mistake was that he asked two questions in one letter. Asking two questions in one letter was far too much for any organization that does not have a secretary and therefore has no brain. The rule these days is ONE QUESTION PER QUERY, AND KEEP IT SIMPLE. I have learned this from many years of occasionally writing business letters and emails in English for Japanese business people. If the Japanese person has two questions they wish to ask, I need to send two emails, and the second one should not be sent until the first is answered. Most people who are in charge of answering these things cannot cope with more than one question at a time. You need a properly trained secretary for that.

My most memorable experience with the dire results of the world's secretary shortage was the time I foolishly asked THREE questions in one email. It was rash, I know, but I honestly thought that since they were easy questions, it might work if I numbered them clearly. I numbered them clearly.

It did not work, of course. It took exactly fifty-three additional emails (I keep these in a special folder as a reminder to myself) and nearly three months to sort out the resulting confusion, and my Japanese client ended up with the impression that all foreigners are idiots.

So there you have it. If you need fifty-three emails and three months to achieve one small business transaction, imagine how unwieldy really large transactions must have become, and how long they must take! No wonder the world is falling apart!

Everybody has a theory about what has caused the world's current economic crisis, but my theory is the only one that makes sense. If there were still properly trained secretaries, this would not have happened.

Also, there would be fewer babies with cold feet.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bad timing

On Tuesday (I am behind, aren't I? I seem to have so little time to blog I am just now getting around to Tuesday) I had one of those dreadful experiences at work that you hope will never happen to you. I bumped into one of my bosses in the corridor.

Now, I know you probably think that is not all THAT dreadful, but you have to understand that this is not a particularly nice boss, that I generally see him about once every two years or so, and that I happen to know that he thinks English teachers are a waste of space. He thinks the university would be better off outsourcing our jobs to backpackers, through an outsourcing company. (Which he used to work for. Kickbacks, anybody?) He is the second-in-command of our department. I do not think I have ever met the Big Boss of our department, and from what I have heard, I don't want to.

Anyway, on Tuesday I bumped into this boss in the corridor, in MOST unfortunate circumstances.

It happened like this.

I had given the students homework. From that homework, I selected ten sentences that had common errors in them. I wrote those ten sentences on the board. Then I handed the yellow chalk to the naughtiest student in the class, told him (or her) that he (or she) was in charge, and issued a 'class challenge.' I said that I would leave the classroom for five minutes, and their challenge was to have all the mistakes fixed when I came back.

Then I left the room.

This worked very well in the first class. They used the five minutes well, and most of the mistakes were fixed. I was peeking through the little window in the door at the back of the room (of course), and noticed that they were all very, very serious about it, and quietly concentrating.

In my second class, when I did the same thing, a riot apparently erupted the moment I stepped out of the room. I closed the door, wondering whether I had misjudged the class. But when I peeked in, they had overcome their surprise at their teacher suddenly abandoning them, and were working on the problems. They were VERY argumentative about it, and the temporary 'teacher' was having a grand time ordering them around and telling them to speak one at the time.

I was dithering in the corridor when the door opposite opened and my boss came out. He smiled and said hello. He used my name, which was a bit freaky. How come he remembered my name? He has hardly ever laid eyes on me!

That was the first worrying moment. I realized that I have been teaching right opposite my boss all semester (all year, possibly) and never noticed before.

The five minutes were up, so I opened the door to my classroom. A student immediately rushed up and closed it again in my face. Then he opened it a crack.

"Five more minutes!" he said. "We need five more minutes!"

I shrugged and went back to dithering in the corridor. I looked at my phone, to check the time, and noticed that there was a message. I opened my phone, and started reading the message.

And of course THAT was when the boss came back up the stairs, and saw me again. This time he did not say a word. He ignored me. Pointedly.

That had to be the worst timing EVER.

(The students got all the sentences right, though, and were very proud of themselves.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fair dinkum

Today as I was just about to leave work, one of the Japanese English teachers stopped me to ask a question I found myself completely unable to answer. I hate it when they do that. Sometimes I wonder if they're doing it on purpose.

Today's awkward question was this:

"What is a dinkum, and why is it fair?"

To which my answer was, intelligently,

"Er. Um."

I felt less stupid after coming home and looking it up. Apparently I am not the only one without a clue.

In other news, the weather has become cooler, and the leaves have started to turn.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Today my students were having a very hard time with wh- questions. They always have a hard time with wh- questions, but the worksheet I had prepared for them didn't seem to be helping. I realized after the first couple of classes that I needed to have more exercises for all the question words they'd been practicing, and also that I needed to make the who questions clearer. They always get confused about how to ask such questions as Who called Michael? and Who did Jennifer call? when the original statement was Jennifer called Michael.

In fact Michael and Jennifer ended up having quite an adventure today. The original scenario I had given the students in my worksheet was that Jennifer called Michael. But when I wanted them to ask who Jennifer called, they tended to ask who MICHAEL called. I tried telling them that Michael didn't call anybody – he was called – but that only confused things further.

In my last class I drew a little picture on the board, trying to make it clearer. I changed the sentence to Jennifer kissed Michael. This rapidly confused things even more, because not only was my picture very, very unclear (who was doing what to whom?), anybody can kiss anybody, so it still wasn't clear to them who was the subject and who was the object.

So I drew another picture. This picture had stick-figure Jennifer standing over the prone stick-figure body of Michael, holding a dripping knife. (I even had red chalk, which helped.) Then I wrote under the stick figures,


I thought that would make the subject-object distinction clearer, and it did. It was perfectly obvious which was the stabber and which the stabbee, and this time the students wrote the two questions exactly right.

I overheard a couple of the girls talking about it.

""It's a suspense story," one of them said, shuddering as she stared at the gruesome stick-figures. "Jennifer called Michael, then she kissed him, and then she stabbed him."

"Yes, but ... WHY?" asked the other.

I did not tell them why, but I can tell you. It was because it was the end of the day and I had become tired of thinking up new names for my stick figures.

Monday, November 03, 2008


Yesterday I said to The Man,

"Stop yawning me!"

And then I corrected myself.

"I mean, stop making me yawn!"

But actually, it seems to me that yawn SHOULD be a transitive verb. After all, yawns are transitive, aren't they?