Friday, December 8, 2017

Do you have a life?

I took one look at the Egyptian flag and pyramid souvenir dangling from the rear-view mirror and with a hint of sarcasm I asked the cab driver where he was from. As he passionately replied, “I’m from Egypt!” I remembered sarcasm doesn’t translate in this part of the world. I let my eyes take in the eclectic taxi décor: the orange shag seat covers, the plastic mats on the floor with colorful flashing lights. Prior to getting into the cab, I had felt a bit woozy and worried I might be carsick. Now the flashing lights added to that anxiety. Everyone all around me seems to be getting sick: students, co-workers, friends, neighbors. So far, I’ve been young and healthy enough to only become briefly and sporadically infected. The taxi driver asked me where I was from and when I answered, “America,” he cheered, perhaps thinking an American woman in the backseat would perk up the atmosphere of his already pimpin’ ride. “Las Vegas!” he added. “I’m not that kind of American,” I told him.

He asked me if I liked music and handed me a thin cable, which I gathered I was supposed to plug into my phone. “I need to listen to your music,” he said intensely, which made me laugh.  I clicked on my “Chill” playlist and Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” came on. The driver managed to politely veil his disappointment. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back, trying to ignore the flashing lights that were clashing with my chill vibe. When that song finished, Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” came on. “So romantic,” the taxi driver commented.

Then he asked me something profound and personal: “Do you have a life?” I laughed again, thinking it was my slow, sentimental taste in music that inspired this question. “I have a small life,” I responded. For the rest of the ride, I pondered if the life I’m currently living truly qualifies as “a life.” I’m working harder than ever. I’m learning a lot. I have sparse time to work on my own creative projects. I ran a 10k last month. Is that a life? Maybe I should invest in some flashing lights and shag carpets.

I went home to put on makeup. I was going to hang out with a male friend. Knowing I had a social engagement made me feel that I did indeed have some semblance of a life. But then he cancelled. He’s sick. Before experiencing my small fleeting flu symptoms, I had been privately mocking all the people whining that they were “sick.” But apparently, there’s a serious bug going around. Let’s hope some other bugs make the rounds, like the “Not working so hard” bug, the “Sleeping through the night” bug, or the “Time to read and write for pleasure” bug. Then I could answer the question, “Do you have a life?” with an emphatic “Abso-(explitive)-lutely.”

Saturday, October 28, 2017

If You Build It . . .

I have a running buddy! Getting a running buddy, someone to huff and puff and plod alongside me, seems like just as much of an achievement as the actual running. My running buddy and I ran along the Arabian Gulf today. Her stopwatch beeped every five minutes and then one minute after that, our signal to run and then walk. While running, she told me about something interesting her driver told her. He speculated that the reason Kuwait hasn’t developed its infrastructure as much as Doha, Dubai, or Abu Dhabi is because, until Saddam Hussein was killed, Kuwaitis were always afraid that Iraq might invade again and destroy everything they had built. I’ll have to ask a Kuwaiti if this is true, if that fear of impending doom and having their work erased is etched onto the Kuwaiti psyche. After our lovely run on the waterfront, I walked home and gazed at all the old buildings--buildings that maybe existed before Iraq invaded in 1990. I suddenly felt a connection with Kuwait that I hadn’t felt before, as if deep down we shared some vulnerability.

I’m in a constant state of development, as a teacher, writer, and human being. But I came to Kuwait for a specific kind of development--professional development. I came to receive training and experience teaching the International Baccalaureate Curriculum, also known as IB. Developing ourselves can be daunting, especially if we have or have ever had unsupportive people in our lives. I can say with certainty that there have been people who would take sheer pleasure in toppling any sand castle I created. I’m going to venture a guess that most of us have some version of Saddam Hussein in our heads, something from our past that casts doubt on the durability of whatever we are trying to achieve. It could be some discouraging words heard once that somehow turned into a recording that our brain just decides to play every now and then. It could be a jealous person who tried to sabotage your success, so they could look superior. Whatever the Saddam Hussein demon in our closet is, we need to shoo it away and build. We need to better ourselves. (I’m thinking of Mr. Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors telling some girls loitering outside his plant shop to better themselves. Their response: “Better ourselves? Mister, when you from Skid Row, ain’t no such thing.” Sometimes we get in these Skid Row mindsets where bettering ourselves seems futile. (In any case, I think we can all agree that Little Shop of Horrors is a great film.) 

I would love it if Kuwait built some overpasses, so I didn’t have to fear for my life while crossing the street. Oh, and a big, used bookstore would be great. That’s all I need. I am happy in my apartment and my school. I’ve decorated my apartment with my framed art, Turkish lamps, Turkish carpets and pillows. I’m currently writing this while sitting on my comfy couch and sipping hot chocolate. I don’t know how long I will stay in Kuwait, at least two years, maybe three, maybe four. That depends on my level of fulfillment, which is still yet to be determined. Even if I don’t stay beyond my two-year contract, I am glad I invested in decorating my apartment and making myself at home. I’ll just go ahead building everything to last, as if everything is durable and nothing can destroy my work. I’ll build my career with new challenges. I’ll build my writing life with ambitious projects that I finish before the nagging voices keep me from reaching the end. My apartment is already complete, and I should probably stop decorating, lest I end up living in a cluttered apartment. But my life can be prolonged with exercise, which I did today. Nothing lasts forever, but let’s not let a fear of an outsider tearing us down keep us from doing what we love to do. 
My cozy living room

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Defenestration of the Administration

Even when we try to follow traditions, my family ends up breaking away and reaffirming to the world how weird we are. As a child, I thought we must have been the inspiration for the children's book series, The Stupids. If my mom could have worn a dress made out of chickens like Mrs. Stupid, she would have, but I don't think that outfit would have gone over well with the animal rights activists in Portland, Oregon.

One Christmas our friend Richard visited from Alabama and he was flabbergasted that my mom made a pot roast for Christmas dinner. (Apparently, the traditional Christmas dinner is a ham.) I was flabbergasted that she cooked at all. This is a woman who used to throw blankets on our Christmas presents instead of wrapping them. If Richard were still with us, (R.I.P.) he would have laughed at yet another one of our deviations from tradition. Today we celebrated Christmas and we ate Korean food for dinner. (We went to a restaurant for dinner, of course. I mean, who cooks dinner on Christmas? Am I right?)

Maybe it's my affection for the Alabama accent, but I have a soft spot for Jeff Sessions now that he's being bullied publicly by our fake president. In one of my most cherished memories of Richard, he threatened to throw one of my mom's friends out the window if she said one more critical thing about Alabama. My mom and I frequently joke that we are going to throw each other out the window. We also regularly joke about throwing people we dislike out the window, and tonight we both agreed that the appropriate thing for a Southern gentleman to do in this situation was to throw the POTUS out the window. 

Although Jeff Sessions is a liar with a dismal civil rights record, he doesn't seem nearly as bad as all the other disgusting people contaminating the White House. The same goes for Sean Spicer, who seems so infantile it's impossible to be upset with him. The headline of the last article I read was "The Strange, Slow-Motion Defenestration of Jeff Sessions." To sum up the article, our fake president is between a rock and a hard place. If he fires Sessions, everyone hates him. If he doesn't fire Sessions, everyone hates him. And one thing I know for sure: Our fake president is the one who desperately needs to be thrown out the window. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Beatriz at Dinner

Do you ever feel uncomfortable at high society functions, standing around with a glass of wine, wondering if you’re holding it right, knowing your scuffed up tennis shoes are painfully conspicuous, feeling as though you don’t belong and should be at home, wearing your ratty old sweater that was knitted by your great-grandmother and drinking from your own jug of Carlo Rossi? Oh, you don’t? Uh, yeah, me neither. I was just asking.

Tonight I saw the film Beatriz at Dinner, which could also be called White People are Insufferable. Beatriz, a massage therapist, unintentionally crashes the shindig at one of her client’s gated mansions after her car won’t start. One aspect of Beatriz’s character that I loved was that although she is out of place at this dinner, she doesn’t feel uncomfortable. On the contrary, the boring, upper-class white people at the party feel uncomfortable around her. Beatriz is interesting and they are not. Beatriz connects on an emotional level, and they’re about as personable as weighty bookends. Beatriz has musical talent, which the other guests are too shallow to appreciate. She ornaments her neck with a dolphin necklace (foreshadowing?) and her car with Buddhist and Christian emblems. These simple decorations give insight into her character. But the fancy clothes and jewelry worn by the others speak to their unremarkable characters.

In conversations between these dullards, which include so many nauseating lines that privileged white people actually use, the superficial guests blend together as one boring mass of uncaring, materialistic, power mongers. The dialogue is fantastic and brought to mind Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Maybe one trick to creating compelling dialogue is to have characters who are incompatible forces of nature: Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois, or in the film I just saw, Doug Strutt and Beatriz, and put them in an uncomfortable scene together.

The unpleasant characters, led by the cringe-worthy Doug Strutt, will be recognizable to most people because they’re typical of the kind of power mongers currently running the country. The men who brag about getting into fights in bars (or theatrical wrestling matches) are the same men who brag about killing animals for sport and are the same men who build hotels and casinos and golf courses just to line their own pockets, cheat vulnerable people, deny climate change is real, and find other ways to destroy the world. The women who are complicit in this bad behavior are just as bad, because they too are driven by power and money and are willing to justify destructive behavior and turn a blind eye.

Beatriz speaks up because she represents goodness. She reminds me of another heroine in a film I love, The Girl in the Café. Both films are a call to action, a demand that we speak up and call out evil when we see it. We all want good to overcome evil, right? Right. Well, Beatriz at Dinner raises the question of whether we’re receptive enough to recognize goodness when surrounded by evil . . . before it’s too late.  

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Notes from Istanbul

According to the M.A.S.H. game I filled out during my long flight back to Portland, I’m going to live in a house in the Netherlands with my husband named Aster, two children, and a Newfoundland dog. I will be an illustrator. Aster will be a painter. And we will drive a yellow Prius. The reason I was predicting my future with this game from my childhood is that my last night in Istanbul my friend Kelley gave me a small notebook, which she had filled with her own personal notes and activities to keep me occupied during my trans-Atlantic, multi-stop flight. I had cancelled my previous plans to travel around England and Iceland, deciding to travel to these places when I am not so eager to get back home. These last-minute changes meant that my journey would be punctuated by long stopovers in Frankfurt and Denver before finally arriving in Portland. The notebook came in handy because none of the films on the Lufthansa flight appealed to me. And now I have an exciting life in the Netherlands to look forward to!

Besides the contents of the little notebook, I recall other notes from my last night in Istanbul, flavor notes of cheese and almond in a delectable dessert as well as notes of black licorice from a liqueur from Finland. “Notes” is actually an understatement. It tasted just like strong, full-flavored black licorice, liquefied. I took a photo of the bottle with Kelley in the background, a reminder to buy this stuff if ever I am in Finland.

On my final flight from Denver to Portland, the woman sitting next to me nudged me awake in order to warn me of some threat that needed my immediate attention. In my foggy state, I saw her point at a boy’s hand retreating through the gap in the seats. “He was trying to steal your phone,” she said. She then twisted her face in a dirty look that conveyed disgust and bewilderment that such a child could even exist. I heard the boy explain as he made a video on his own phone that his plan to steal the phone from “the sleeping lady” didn’t work. I realized he was traveling alone when one flight attendant kept checking up on him with adoring smiles and handing him large bags of gummi bears and cans of Coke. Twice the boy yelled, “This one’s for the blog! Exaggerated noises!” and then filled the tiny aircraft with his tortured shriek, perhaps inspired by Macaulay Culkin’s Home Alone scream. I was too exhausted to reach over the seat and strangle him. I don’t know if a video of me sleeping during the foiled phone theft is on this boy’s blog or not, but I can tell you that an American child trying to steal my phone certainly came as a surprise. I have just returned from Istanbul, where I would sit at outdoor cafes with my purse on my lap. If my phone was out, my hand was always hovering over it, so that little Turkish artful dodgers sneaking around wouldn’t see an opportunity and run off with it. Stealing a phone is the sort of thing I would expect from a poor street kid in Turkey, not a spoiled, sugar-crazed American kid on a flight from hell. Thankfully, that flight was only 2½ hours.

During the last year, a woman I considered a friend wrote a malicious blog entry about me pertaining to a time I confided in her about a personal problem. I know I’ve been guilty of expressing my frustrations about random people who disappoint me, but friends are off limits. Also, if it’s just a vent and doesn’t add anything positive to the world, I usually come to my senses later and delete the post. A video of me made without my awareness on some 10-year-old boy’s blog doesn’t bother me so much, but betrayal by a friend does.

A Shakespeare mural I painted. 
As is often the case with living overseas and starting over every few years, I met some people with whom I really clicked right before I left. I wish I had met them sooner because perhaps these fun interlocutors could have eased the stress of living in a big chaotic city. I’m lucky that I did have good friends all along and I did what I could to relax. I painted a couple of murals for my school, and designed a tattoo for a friend. I worked on my illustrations, which, as I look at them now, are not very good. I think calm is conducive to creativity, which is why I’m drawing so much better now that I’m back home. Calm is also conducive to making friends, which explains why cool and interesting people flocked to me in the last few weeks of my last residence, when I was calmly confident that my departure from Turkey, a country that is becoming a more stressful place day by day, was just around the corner. 

A Langston Hughes mural I painted.