Monday, February 13, 2017

Manchester by the Sea

I left the theater, letting the powers of this absorbing film continue to absorb in a kind of post-film cool down, the kind of cool down you need after giving your brain a workout. I felt peaceful and inspired, contrary to the reactions of friends who had seen Manchester by the Sea, or who had tried to see it, but couldn’t get very far due to the sadness factor.

My good friend told me, “It’s slow and depressing, but you liked Brooklyn so you might like this one too.” That turned out to be an accurate prognosis. Both Manchester by the Sea and Brooklyn involve love and heartbreak, complex relationships with both people and places, and conflict between the past and the present. Also, both films examine working-class characters with accents that add depth to the characters’ authenticity.

I loved Manchester by the Sea. Everything was so palpable. Casey Affleck plays Lee, a broken man whose flashbacks to his old life with his wife and children explain his frequent flights of self-harm. Lee’s general approach to life is to act as if he’s doing a thankless chore, perhaps expelling the vile contents of a clogged sink, which is also what he does for a living.

I had seen another film by the same director, Kenneth Lonergan. His film Margaret also commanded my respect because it’s about complex characters. I found that dignity and honesty so refreshing, even purifying because I was able to see his films’ characters at their most vulnerable and not judge them for mistakes they had made. So often we hear a little bit about people who have screwed up and snap to harsh judgments. We are so quick to condemn each other. How do they sleep at night? How do they look at themselves in the mirror without throwing up? What a terrible mother! (A passerby in Manchester by the Sea even says, “Nice parenting,” to Lee when he sees him arguing with his nephew.) The film is full of small, self-righteous characters who think they understand more than they do.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.” I believe that’s good advice for writers and non-writers. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but films like Manchester by the Sea serve to remind us that we are all complicated people with our own set of demons.     

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

On Hold

I’m listening to repetitive soft rock music, courtesy of my bank, which has me on hold. I’m imagining some mundane 80s or 90s romantic film, scenes transitioning between a man and woman doing their daily routines in their separate worlds: brushing their teeth, opening their umbrellas, walking down the street to the bus stop, or frowning at a parking ticket on their windshield. The audience watching this film knows that the people are destined to meet. Their lives will be forever transformed, their blissful romance blossoming, their boring worlds colliding and forming something spectacular. These people, let’s call them Guy and Ines, are now rid of their lonely routines, which had been accompanied only by a dull, repetitive keyboard music. The audience thinks, “They used to be ordinary people like us, but now their lives are marvelously happy and exciting. How romantic! Then the music abruptly stops and a woman’s voice thanks me for holding.

I came to the realization today that I should try to work on my listening skills, not because I’m a bad listener, but because some people don’t appreciate my style of listening. Occasionally, someone wants to let off steam, and I respond to them the same way I like people to respond to me, by relating. If someone says, “I had a dream that I was eating a taco and the taco had Donald Trump’s face in it! It was so scary!” I might say, “Yikes! That sounds terrifying. I had a dream that Anthony Hopkins took me mirror shopping in this really creepy antique store and I was trying to get away from him!” My aim is not to steal anyone’s thunder or shift the focus back to me. Really, it’s just to say, “Hey, we both have weird dreams!” I suppose it’s the teacher in me that so badly wants to make connections. I don’t want students to just listen to me and then never relate to the words and concepts I’m teaching them, to never apply the skills I’m teaching to their own lives.

My friend Kelley, who has a sophisticated understanding of people, tells me that most people just want to be heard. I know that’s important. People need to feel heard and sometimes it seems people aren’t paying attention when really they are. I also enjoy knitting while talking, and some people find that distracting. Trying to relate to what someone is saying by sprinkling in your own anecdotes can be similar to multi-tasking when someone is talking. It drives some people crazy.

I suppose that’s why I need to practice the art of being put on hold. Only then can I resist the urge to interrupt and share. I am on hold, in the thrall of whatever someone else is saying or whatever music is playing. This can be especially tedious if the hold music is repetitive, like the kind my bank plays. But I think it will be good for me.  

Thursday, February 2, 2017

An Amulet Against Fear

The pendant on my new necklace looks like an intricate but asymmetrical snowflake. The artful Arabic calligraphy reads “Maşallah,” a word I have appropriated and use whenever I want to exclaim over the beauty or excellence of something. Some folks also believe that uttering this word is a way to banish evil.

My necklace, purchased in the Sabancı Museum gift shop, will go with the evil eyes I’ve purchased in Greece and Turkey, along with other spangled, studded, and sparkly symbols of protection. I don’t wear a cross, as I have never identified as Christian. I’m much more drawn to the power this blue eye holds.

As a teenager, I hesitated when my first crush, a Catholic, suggested I wear a chastity ring. Sure, jewelry can symbolize promises to other people: two halves of a Best Friends charm, a heart-shaped locket, or a friendship bracelet made of colorful string by kids at camp. I suppose a wedding ring is the ultimate promise and symbol of protection. It’s the most prized and valuable symbol anyone could give. And yet, excluding a necklace or two given to me by ex-boyfriends, all my jewelry symbolizes promises I have made to myself.

With this necklace I am promising to reject my flying anxiety, which crept up on me like a fungus after a terrible Air France flight. I have also sworn to never fly Air France again, although I do not need a piece of jewelry to remind me of that promise. I know it may sound strange to replace an irrational fear with an irrational feeling of security based on an Arabic expression adorning my neck, but this Air France flight proved to me that my other support systems weren’t working. Usually, when turbulence gives me a hint of anxiety, I look at the flight attendants. If they’re calm, I’m calm. But what happens if the plane suddenly swerves to the left and descends precipitously upon Istanbul and the flight attendant screams over the speaker, “Everyone buckle up! It’s dangerous!” Once the pilot slowed down and evened the plane, he explained over the speaker that he had to swerve and descend rapidly to avoid hitting another aircraft. I think after that experience I may be better off placing my hand on a pendant that has special meaning to me than trying to mirror the mood of flight attendants who are freaking out.

As creatures of habit, we get stuck in ruts of irrational beliefs. Sometimes these beliefs are harmless: Maşallah pendants and evil eyes give protection, the Mamas and the Papas music playing out of the blue means it’s going to be a great day, a row of ıdentıcal numbers on a digital clock mean something amazing is going to happen. (These beliefs have been brought to you exclusively by Meriwether’s mixed up mind.) Then there are the dangerous ruts some minds may sink into, such as “Muslims are dangerous. We need to ban them! Mexicans are dangerous. We must create more barriers.” It’s easy for a lot of people to get bogged down and stuck in the gooey mud of these ideas. We all like to think we’re on the side of the good guys, but the truth is the bad guys make up a small portion of humanity and these so-called bad guys, or “bad hombres,” don’t belong to any ethnic or religious group.

So how do we get on solid ground again? There’s hope! If I may use my flying anxiety as an example, I am working on dispelling this fear. I am tending to the garden of my mind, weeding out bad ideas and helping positive ones grow. I know flying is way safer than driving. But it’s still a relatively new experience to be sitting in a chair in the sky, even for a world traveler like myself. The truth is that the daredevil pilot on the Air France flight was probably just doing what he needed to do. And that flight attendant was reasonably scared and needed to get a message out more clearly than flashing the seatbelt sign could have accomplished. That flight was an isolated incident. I’m not going to stop flying. I’m not going to stop traveling. I would like to visit some more Muslim countries, such as Jordan, Morocco, Iran, Egypt, and Oman and I would appreciate it if the governments of those countries do not retaliate against our government’s hateful, ignorant measures with hateful, ignorant measures of their own.

We must remind ourselves to learn before we judge and think before we act, otherwise our fears will enshroud us and our judgments will lead to actions that imperil us all.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Living It Up In Thessaloniki

Matt and Lucy by Nicholas Moore. Mixed Media on Linocut. On display at the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki. 
A friend of mine, who is a foreigner like me, said she feels embarrassed talking about her upcoming holidays because it implies financial comfort that others may not have. Since then, the word “embarrassed” has been whirling around in my thoughts. I’m familiar with the kind of embarrassment that comes with not having money, of having to tell friends that I can’t “do brunch” with them, although I have always refused to eat brunch on principle, not just for lack of funds. I have recently been elevated to the middle class, but my feelings on brunch will always stay the same. It’s a hoity-toity mealtime for snobby rich people. Brunch is dumb. End of story.

Embarrassment is still an emotion I associate with being poor, although I need to stop that. I’ve recited throughout my teens and twenties the Benjamin Franklin quote, “Having been poor is no shame, but being ashamed of it, is.” Thanks, Ben, but that’s a little easier said than done. There is still some sensitivity when it comes to class, even though I can now buy perfume and jewelry for myself and generous gifts for other people. I felt embarrassed on an airplane recently when I bumped into a woman whose kids I used to babysit. When I said, “Hello, I used to babysit your kids,” she replied, “You must have really saved your pennies for this trip!” I wonder if she thought babysitting was my career, and not just something I did in high school so I could go buy more Tom Waits albums.

I’m in Thessaloniki, one of my favorite cities. I came here to read, write, walk around, drink coffee, and feel safe. This city is like Neverland, where most people don’t seem to have aged past 25. I love walking along the water and seeing all the packed restaurants and bars full of happy people having a good time. I made a new friend named Libni who lives in the Ivory Coast. I went to a nail salon for a mani-pedi and socialized with nice women who sang along to songs on the radio. I went to a spa for a relaxing facial massage. I shopped at my favorite jewelry store and bought exquisite rings and earrings from a man who looks like Tim Robbins. He also gave me a sparkly pink ring as a present. I’ll cherish it and I’ll always think of him and his wonderful store when I wear it. The opulence doesn’t end there. I also bought dresses at my favorite clothing store in Thessaloniki, a store called Philly. I dined at my favorite restaurants, Mom’s Cooking and Koi Sushi. The waiter at Koi Sushi thinks I keep returning because I’m enamored of him, but really, I just can’t get enough good sushi. 

I’m a creature of habit. When I love a place, I keep coming back. When I was at the nail salon, I told the women that I want to live in Thessaloniki. They said that wasn’t a good idea because life is hard in Greece right now and salaries are low. It’s these kinds of humbling heart-to-hearts with people that help me understand what my friend was talking about. I won’t feel embarrassed about living luxuriously from time to time, but I will feel extremely lucky. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Shrill by Lindy West

At bookstores, I scan every shelf like someone beachcombing for buried treasure. At Goodwill, the price tags allow me to be indiscriminate. I toss a couple dozen paperbacks in my basket and head to the checkout counter, maybe picking up a weird lamp along the way, because if I’m not reading books on a Kindle, I need a lamp, right? Logic. I am one of those people who believe it’s never possible to own too many books, although it’s starting to dawn on me that owning too many lamps might be a sign of lunacy. Anyway, last summer at the Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle, I had to be a bit more selective. (The books are new and pricey.) I chose Shrill, a book by Seattle comedian and enchantress, Lindy West. I had never heard of her before, but it seemed fitting to buy a book by a Seattle author while visiting Seattle.

That was one of the smartest book purchases I ever made. Shrill is a collection of essays about Lindy West's life experiences. I really admire her bravery, first for challenging the status quo and standing up to people on issues she cares about, and then for writing all those stories down to make this book. She is an inspiration and she is funny as hell. 

I now consider myself a Lindy West fan and I will forever associate Lindy West with the great city of Seattle. She is now tied with the opera for the top reason why Seattle is cool, followed by a fountain that plays Beethoven and the fact that Seattle is the most well-read city in America.

Shrill is such an important and hilarious book. I’ve read reviews that state it’s an important book for women, but it’s actually an important book for everyone. It’s important for anyone who loves comedy, anyone who feels sad about the world right now and needs something uplifting to read. It’s important for the high school students I teach. It’s important for reaffirming the belief that we actually shape culture and that we don’t have to accept rape jokes and fat shaming and sexism because that’s just what people find funny and that’s the way the world is. And for people who think that’s just the way the world is, then this book is important for combatting their despondent attitudes and perhaps giving them some ideas on how we can make the world a more hospitable, less discriminatory place for everyone.

Yay Lindy West!