Saturday, May 4, 2019

Infectious


Infectious. This word has both a positive and a negative connotation. It can be used as follows: There was no cure for the infectious disease that caused blisters to break out on victims’ faces, oozing effluvial purple puss until the features were unrecognizable. Infectious can complement someone’s character: He possessed an infectious confidence that seemed to cry out that it was his destiny to become leader of the free world, or, The woman’s infectious laughter attracted the admiration of all the party guests, capturing them in a mirthful haze, as if possessing the power to hypnotize. Infectious can praise as well as repulse. I suppose that’s why infectious is a good word to describe my laughter. Some people love my laugh. Some laugh with me. Others recoil.

Recently, at a movie theater, my friend and I were instructed by the usher to please keep our laughter down. A man seated behind my friend and me had marched down the steps to complain midway through the movie. I watched him in the dark theater, his silhouette appearing in the bottom right corner of the screen, flailing his arms in frustration, not knowing that our unrestrained laughter was the source of his irritation. After the usher relayed the man’s complaint, I tried my best not to laugh. I wanted to be a considerate moviegoer. I suppressed my guffaws and giggles, like a dam holding back water. This was especially hard because the film was “Godzilla: Resurgence.” I knew that eventually the dam would collapse and that, just like Godzilla, my laugh would return, stronger than ever.

I had never seen a Godzilla movie before, nor any monster movie, for that matter. Before the movie started, my friend Naomi, a history buff, schooled me about the history of Godzilla. According to her, Godzilla was a metaphor for the atomic bomb. Apparently, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese people could relate to a monster destroying their civilization. This perspective fascinated me. I love deeper meanings and the thought of Godzilla embodying American military aggression assured me that I was going to gain some valuable insight into the Japanese psyche.

What I received was aching cheek muscles from laughing so hard and confusion as to how Japanese people can remain so calm amid a monster attack. It dawned on me early on that the title was misleading. If Godzilla had indeed resurged, then people would have known the drill. But no, they were perplexed, apparently never having seen the zillion Godzilla movies that came before.

After an eruption of blood and water in an otherwise peaceful bay, Godzilla was born. First, he wreaked havoc like a mischievous child yanking on a tablecloth at a wedding. The Japanese would have been smart to eradicate him during his toddler phase. But they didn’t, and not because he was just too darn cute. They were concerned about civilian casualties. A man with an old woman on his back scurried past and the army couldn’t bring themselves to fire at Godzilla because then those two people would be caught in the crosshairs. Meanwhile, Godzilla went on to kill thousands, knocking over buildings like a shopping cart bulldozing into a canned food display.

Godzilla slithered and lurched toward Tokyo. Its gills spurted blood with each metamorphosis, each stage more menacing and difficult to defeat than the last. Sometimes, he appeared to be not moving at all, like a toy in a miniature model village, which I’m sure it was. Japanese people responded to Godzilla’s presence, not by screaming and reciting doomsday prophecies, as Americans would have, but with stoicism that must be rooted in the teachings of Buddhism. Either that, or large doses of Valium.

Naomi and I tried to control our laughter, but it was no use. When the credits rolled, we both let out exhausted sighs from laughing so hard. Some people smiled at us as they left the theater and I apologized to them anyway. One man shot us an icy stare, and something told me he wished he could shoot atomic heat beams at us, like Godzilla. At thirty-five years old, I should probably be more mature and considerate of others, but I think people need to lighten up. Laughter prolongs life. We should try to laugh more and I know I am a snob, but if people view Godzilla: Resurgence as a serious film that deserves awed silence, then they need to elevate their taste. Even Akira Kurosawa, a brilliant Japanese filmmaker, incorporated humor into his films. After seeing Godzilla: Resurgence, I was reminded of how important it is to laugh, even if some may consider my laugh infectious in the sickly sense of the word. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A Tribute to Robert Chabon


I met Robert Chabon while working as a concierge at a Pearl District condominium building in Northwest Portland. Robert, his wife Shelly, and their son Andrew are the only tenants I remember fondly and miss. While other tenants were friendly enough -- greeting me by name, or at least trying to (Meredith and Meridawn were two variations I heard) -- and generous, buying me lattes from the Starbucks across the street, my conversations with them had a short shelf life. In contrast, my conversations with Robert could have continued, to my delight, well past the end of my shift.

We talked about literature. I remember we discussed H.L. Mencken, W.G. Sebald, and Patrick White, just to name a few. Whenever he recommended a book, I would jot it down, buy it for my Kindle, or walk over to Powell’s Books and buy a used copy. We talked about many other authors; it’s impossible to recall all of them. Once he asked me what I was reading, and I told him William Maxwell. He commented that most people didn’t know who William Maxwell was. Only “people like us” knew who he was. I felt exhilarated to be put in the same category as him. “People like us,” I repeated to myself, letting my pride swell. Robert Chabon was brilliant. To be like him in any respect, especially to have comparable knowledge of and passion for literature, was a tremendous honor.

I had ample time for writing at that job, especially in the early morning when the condo dwellers were still asleep. In a conversation with Robert it came out that I was an aspiring writer. Robert asked me to share my writing with him, offering his appraisal of my work as naturally as someone might tell a house guest to help themselves to whatever’s in the fridge. I believe he told me to prepare a ten-page sample. So I did. He warned me that he was going to be honest in his critique, staring at me intently before he took my pages to make sure I understood. After I’d braced myself for his brutally honest feedback, he came back to me, saying that I had “a real ability.” He assured me that he wouldn’t lie to me and smiled, as if my writing had given him real pleasure. He lingered at the front desk to tell me again that I had real ability.

To help me better understand how serious he was, he told me a story. He said all his sons had shown him their writing and Michael was the only one he encouraged to pursue a writing career. “My other sons I told to go to law school,” he said. His son, Michael, is the Pulitzer Prize winning writer of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” I couldn’t believe he was now putting me in the same category as his son. I had ability, he said. Like Michael Chabon. I didn’t need to go to law school. Not that I would have anyway. Robert recognized so much potential in me; I was radiant with promise I hadn’t felt since childhood, back when confidence came so easily.

Robert had all sons and no daughters. I had no father. I knew our friendship consisted of book talks at the concierge desk and nothing more, but I secretly envied his sons for having such a wonderful father and I liked to pretend that he was my father too.

I acquired an interest in 1950s racial segregation and the advent of the Civil Rights movement through my conversations with Robert. He told me about a girl named Gloria Lockerman, a contestant on the show, “The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question.” When I told him I wanted to write a young adult novel about her with the historical context being the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, he thought that was a great idea and began asking me, “How’s Gloria doing?” as a way of checking my progress.

Robert talked to me about America in the 50s. He became an ally for his black classmates when his Washington D.C. high school was integrated. A fascination with child prodigies influenced culture back then. When he was a boy, he was featured on a radio show called “Juvenile Jury.” It didn’t surprise me that he was a brilliant child, selected to be on a radio show with other brilliant children. After all, he was a brilliant man, a doctor and a lawyer, passionate about justice, possessing a vast and ever-expanding knowledge of literature.

When his son Michael visited Portland, Robert gave him my stories to read. He reported back to me that Michael was “enthusiastic about my abilities” and that “he said only good things.” I self-published a small comic book about my experiences living in Qatar and shared it with Robert, along with some drawings of my dreams. Robert told me that Michael asked if he could keep my self-published book. He said he saw Michael pack it in his bag before he left for the airport. When I met Michael, I noticed he had that same smile and personable quality that his father possessed, that ability to make the subject of his attention feel wonderfully interesting. The dream drawings received no comment from either Michael or Robert, so I assume they weren’t as well-received. I knew from reading one of his essays that Michael Chabon hates dreams; my dream comics apparently failed to change his mind. But it was worth a try.

Now I’m taking an online writing class and my work is subject to thorough feedback, which I find both exhausting and gratifying. The feedback is usually positive, but last week, my confidence was shaken. I was scared to submit my work. I reminded myself, “Michael Chabon is a fan of my writing.” Then I thought about Robert and realized it gave me more pleasure to say that Robert Chabon was a fan of my writing. Without Robert’s guidance, I don’t know if Michael Chabon, as the world knows him, would have existed. Robert is the man from whom I felt a kind of parental approval, which boosted my confidence.

I just read that Robert passed away on March 22nd. I wish everyone could have such a wise, supportive mentor in their lives. The short time that I knew him was a gift to me and I am forever grateful. I will do my best to honor him and continue to write well. Otherwise, I may have to go to law school. 

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Susan Sontag


Image result for susan sontag annie leibovitzThe name Susan Sontag has always been synonymous with “Intellectual.” At the university bookstore where I used to work, I regarded the book, Regarding the Pain of Others, but that’s all I did. I just regarded it, the same way the man in the cover illustration is regarding the hanged person, dangling lifelessly. I was too afraid to open it. I knew it probably contained deep infinite wisdom, but it may have also contained disturbing photos and stories of pointless, incurable human suffering. The intensity of that book was intimidating enough closed. To open it might be dangerous. Either the contents would be too much for my delicate sensibilities or so intellectually torturous that it would make me feel totally stupid. I knew she was Annie Leibowitz’s partner and had seen photos of her, taken by Leibowtiz. I assumed Sontag was a brooding intellectual because she looked like one.

Well, I still haven’t read, Regarding the Pain of Others, but I just read an essay by Susan Sontag called “Pilgrimage,” which is about the time she met German novelist Thomas Mann when she was just 14 years old. Her self-congratulatory exclamations over her brilliance made it sound as if she never got over her egocentric adolescence. Either that, or she was just a very confident woman, aware of her intellectual superiority and not shy about expounding upon her own extraordinariness.

I loved the essay. I imagined meeting one of my heroes when I was that young. When I was in elementary school, I thought Mark Twain was God. Really. (You can blame the ending of the movie, The Adventures of Mark Twain, in which Mark Twain’s compassionate face appears in the clouds.) In middle school, I thought Tom Waits was Jesus. Not really, but he was just as worthy of worship if you asked 14-year-old me. I would not have handled a meeting with one of these men with as much grace as Susan Sontag did when she met Thomas Mann. I also wouldn’t have been so critical of one of my idols, especially if he had been as kind and hospitable as Thomas Mann. She called him a god, but she also said he sounded like “The Saturday Evening Post,” when she read the much more high-brow “Partisan Review.” She wrote, “We neither of us were at our best,” but why would Thomas Mann be aiming for his “best” just to please a fourteen-year-old fan? Perhaps he just didn’t sound as intellectual as she had hoped. I will have to read her essay again. Also, I just discovered that one of my new favorite writers, Sigrid Nunez, wrote a memoir about her relationship with Sontag. Apparently, Sontag mentored her. They are both incredible writers. Actually, Sontag was. She passed away in 2004.

Here is an interview with Susan Sontag I found on youtube. I think she’s being rude to the interviewer. I wonder if 14-year-old Sontag would have appreciated her meeting with Thomas Mann more if he had assumed this kind of superior attitude and expressed  this same kind of loathing for her. 


Saturday, February 23, 2019

Delivering Hard News


Image result for north korean human mosaic
Thursday was a day of modest celebration and considerable relief. A small number of students showed up, wearing their choice of either traditional clothing or the colors of the Kuwaiti flag. Arabic music blasted from the loud speakers in every classroom and I continually adjusted the attendance, as students trickled in at a slower pace than usual. One student brought a tin of chocolates, which I opened and shared with everyone. I love fruit and chocolate combos, especially chocolate and orange, and I wondered if the one I popped in my mouth was some kind of truth elixir, because when a boy asked me, “Are you coming back next year?” I couldn’t answer with an ambiguous “Inshallah.” I looked straight at him and said, “No, I’m not.” I was worried by how students would take the news, but they showed poise and maturity, saying, “If it makes you happy, then we’re happy for you.” I had been fretting over making an announcement, but it came about in an organic way, and to my relief, only two people’s eyes teared up: mine and those of a female student who had been counting on me being her English teacher next year.

One student’s initial reaction was particularly heart-wrenching. She asked, “Are you leaving because of us?” I said, “No, of course not. I would bring you with me if I could.” When I told them I may be moving to Philadelphia, one student agreed to come with me because, “They have good cream cheese there.”

Later that day, I was on the rooftop, chatting with a friend who teaches in the middle school. All the students were corralled into sections and given colorful sheets of paper to hold over their heads, so when a drone took a picture, it would look like a Kuwaiti flag. Another teacher warned us, “We’re not sure if this is even structurally viable. The roof has never held this many people before, so if you feel the ground wobbling, run.” That made me a little nervous, even though I knew this teacher was half-joking, so when my friend and I were asked to participate in the human flag, I considered the possibility of the roof caving in and the colorful sheets of paper fluttering down on all the bodies and wreckage.

We weren’t as uniform as the North Koreans making their giant human mosaics; some students were tired of holding the paper over their heads. Some could not resist the urge to make paper airplanes. Organizers made commands into the speakerphone, like, “White students, get closer to green students.” Apparently, the Kuwaiti flag in the pictures looked unacceptably patchy and we needed to bunch together. My friend found my fear of the roof collapsing very funny and bounced up and down to make the roof wobble even more. Needless to say, we all survived, and more importantly, no one died in a display of nationalism, taking part in a human flag formation.

When I told another teacher that students took the news of me leaving surprisingly well, she said, “They’re used to it. Teachers leave all the time.” But here I must contest that I am not just any ordinary teacher who comes for two years and leaves again. I am not just one red square in a giant flag formation. I am a unique individual who recognizes students as unique individuals with limitless potential. I can’t imagine the hurt students must go through having to say goodbye to teachers every year. Sometimes they don’t even have the chance to say goodbye. I thought I had built a resilience to having transitory friendships as an international teacher, but I think it’s something you never quite get used to.

Because I’ve maintained some level of independence, buying and carrying my own groceries rather than having them delivered to my door, and cleaning my own apartment rather than hiring someone, one of my friends tells me that I’ll have an easier time transitioning to living back in the states. One aspect of living in the states that I have not forgotten is that people are recognized more for their individual qualities, even when political factions are quick to judge people with opposing views.

Yesterday, I was reflecting on the fact that so many people living in Kuwait express the same grievances. People complain of being horribly disrespected. They say the people in their home countries are friendly, but as soon as they come here and see the tactics some use to assert their power, they become . . .  mean. There’s no other word for it. Just that simple word that denotes senseless playground taunting, but this kind of meanness shouldn’t be associated with children, because these are adults taking part in this kind of behavior.

Recently, I went into Jo Malone, just to sample some of the luxurious perfumes. The saleslady treated me to a complementary hand massage and a lesson about pairing scents. The art to pairing scents, she said, is to choose two that will complement each other perfectly. They must bring out the unique qualities in the other. Both scents, even if one is warm and the other is intense, can create a lovely new fragrance. Wouldn’t that be nice if people could work together the same way? Nobody likes it when domineering personalities take over like a cloying perfume, and yet this is the what so many mild-mannered people, the warmer perfumes, experience every day.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Belgium



Yesterday at the comics museum in Brussels, I was thrumming with excitement and a strong desire to draw. I found the character sketches, showing faces in various states of emotion and at different angles, very interesting. The process leading up to the finished page lay right before me. I saw how famous cartoonists developed their characters, sketched layouts, studied movement, and blotted out imperfections with white ink. I especially loved the artwork of Aimee de Jongh, Jordi Lafebre, and Regis Loisel and Jean-Louis Tripp. I need to practice injecting life into my drawings. Statuesque and expressionless is unfortunately how I would describe some of my characters. I practiced a sketch of myself mid-yawn, not very flattering, yet exactly the kind of natural behavior I need to capture.

Today I felt more like painting. I hummed the Norah Jones song, “If I were a painter,” while snapping pictures of swirling cloudy skies with pink and orange hues. My flights of fleeting whimsy, one morning wanting to draw and the next afternoon wanting to paint, and the following evening wanting to write, means I hardly ever finish creative projects. I realized while walking around the Magritte Museum that passion has a habit of dying and that I should stick to one project at a time before my enthusiasm for it evaporates. I used to love Renee Magritte, but I walked through the museum unmoved.

I guess tastes change. However, if my taste for Italian food and red wine ever goes away, I think it’s safe to assume my heart and soul have been possessed by aliens. My mom and I enjoyed the most satisfying and affordable feast at an Italian place right by our hotel. Il Colosseo doesn’t look like the classiest of venues on the outside, but on the inside it’s charming, vibrant, and redolent with cooking aromas.

Unlike London, where there was too much to do in too little time, Belgium has given us some welcome relief. We have explored Brussels, Bruges, and Leuven at our own pace, taking frequent cappuccino breaks, leisurely strolls, and dips into souvenir shops.

In Bruges, one of the highlights was feasting on mussels at a restaurant called Breydel-De Connick. The Groeninge museum featured paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Botticelli and some Belgian masters I’d never heard of: Jacob Van Oost, Edmond Van Hove, and Joseph Benoit Suvee. My favorite painting was “Invention of the Art of Drawing,” by Suvee. I love it because it resonates with the thrill of discovery.

Belgium has some disturbing history, both recent and not so recent. I have been meaning to read the book, “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” by Adam Hochschild. I feel that in order to learn from history, we must study it evenly, and not just examine selective parts. Why is it that some genocidal maniacs escape people’s memory and moral judgement? I don’t understand.

One night my mom and I decided to toss back some beers in our Airbnb and watch the film, “In Bruges,” a dark comedy about two hitmen waiting for their next assignment. The reference to pedophilia in the film ignited my curiosity, so I decided to google it. Well, now I have some more disturbing associations with Belgium that I can’t get out of my mind, not to mention unanswered questions, and the feeling that justice was never served.

For New Year’s Eve, my mom and I traveled to Leuven. My research had informed me that Leuven was a college town and that the Old Market Square was dubbed “the longest bar in the world.” I anticipated that Leuven would be a lively place to ring in the new year, not realizing that most Belgian college students would take the train home for the holidays. Leuven was a ghost town and everything was closed. Fortunately, the town hall was lit up, but there was absolutely nothing to do but walk around and laugh and make sarcastic remarks about all the wild excitement happening in Leuven. It was a beautiful town and I would love to return when there’s more activity than just blowing tumbleweeds, like in an old Western movie.

Brussels is also beautiful, and we are enjoying our time here. The highlights of Brussels were the Comics Museum and walking around the Grand Place, a huge town square lined with 17th century buildings and accentuated by a dazzling Christmas tree, bedecked with twinkling blue lights. Tomorrow I return to normal life, refueled and fortified by my adventures around England and Belgium.