Sunday, May 29, 2016

Pomposity and Prejudice

The novel Passing, by Nella Larsen, sparked within me a fascination with dual identities. I imagined someone who could assimilate into different communities as being like a ghost who can float through walls. After meeting a woman with curlicue hair and light skin and hearing that she identified as black, I was eager to learn if she ever found herself in the company of racist white people, what would happen when her blackness went undetected: the things they would say and her reactions and feelings. I wondered, Do the scenes from the 1929 novel Passing still play out today? Answer: Yes. Unfortunately.

On a lesser scale, I met a Scottish nationalist with an assimilated English accent and my first question was if he ever found himself in the company of English people making disparaging remarks about Scottish people. I have been in plenty of these situations myself, but maybe because I’m only part Scottish, I merely dismiss these people as . . . well, English and their remarks as plain rude. Then I try to find more important matters to get worked up about.

A few months ago, I went out with a black friend here in Istanbul and felt a wave of hostility from others like I’ve never felt before. At a restaurant, a woman made faces at us and then clapped her hands when we got up to leave. At a perfume store, the clerk yelled, “Don’t smell anything! Don’t touch anything!” We laughed that he was the worst perfume salesman ever, even though we were both deeply shaken. Later, when we returned to our quiet neighborhood, a man yelled at us to get out of his way, although we were not blocking his path. When I told him he had plenty of room to walk by, he violently wagged his finger in our faces and snarled, “You’re just like Americans! Just like all Americans!” I knew since I’d gone out with Americans before and had never experienced such hostility that our nationality had nothing to do with the way we had been treated. The only reason we were mistreated was that my friend was black. Being able to snoop out racism did not feel like some exciting way to gather writing material. It didn’t feel like a super power. It felt like a massive weight bearing down on me and I wanted to cry.

Occasionally, I mingle with sexist men or I stand on the sidelines of crude conversations. I’ve sometimes wondered, “Do they notice there’s a woman here?” They probably do, but they just feel unashamed of their views and entitled to speak and act however they please.

I’m reflecting on prejudice and discrimination tonight and feeling more solemn than usual. Stories I found funny one year ago don’t seem funny anymore, maybe because laughing isn’t the right coping mechanism for me now. When I lived in Qatar, my identity as a feminist ignited a rumor that I was gay. I was told by a well-meaning co-worker that there was a cure and that I could go to Egypt and get my hormones reversed. At the time, I thought that was so funny. Over the weekend, I was mistaken for being gay again, but this time, I didn’t find the confrontation funny at all. A woman I’d recently met told me she couldn’t be my friend because, unlike me, she was not gay. Well, it worked out for the best because I do not want narrow-minded or bigoted people as my friends.

I’m concerned because hatred and bigotry are storms raging through America right now. They are threatening to overshadow love and culture and progress. Our history seems to have been forgotten by many, or just warped into lies that benefit the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Donald Trump said our most genocidal president, Andrew Jackson, “had a great history.” I don’t want a bigot as a friend, and I certainly do not want one as a president. Can we please say no to Trump? While we’re at it, we can say no to ignorance, racism, and hatred, all qualities that have allowed a bigoted bully to get this far.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Good reasons for showing a guest around Istanbul

I highly recommend having guests and showing them around your city. I can offer several reasons from my own experience of hanging out with my friend Ryder for why this is a good idea.
1.) Riding the ferry back to Asia while the sun is setting and feeling a revival of the honeymoon phase I went through when I first visited Istanbul.
2.) Having an excuse to visit Eyup and walk through a hilly cemetery to the Pierre Loti Cafe for Turkish tea and an exquisite view. (Also, learning the bus goes there and is much faster than taking the ferry.)
3.) Facing my fear of trudging up the formidable stairs at Galata Tower, only to go inside and see that an elevator takes visitors practically to the top. We only had to walk up two flights of stairs.
4.) Visiting the Archaeological Museum with someone who knows a lot about history and seeing some magnificent statues. 
5.) Getting lost and finding the ancient walls of Constantinople by accident, walking along the whole peninsula until I was ready to collapse, but happy that I found a nice new jogging route. 
6.) Realizing the skills I've acquired for crossing the street and my unwarranted faith in crazy drivers not to run me over is completely ridiculous, although sort of thrilling. Crossing the street with Ryder made me feel like Patches O'Houlihan in the movie, Dodgeball, saying, "If you can dodge traffic, you can dodge a ball." 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Friend in Town

My rugged intellectual friend, Ryder, is in town and his beard is turning a lot of heads. He has a booming voice and an unmistakable American accent, even though he’s been living in England for a while. I had expected him to have a little bit of an English accent. People on the street can’t tell if he’s Turkish or American because, according to several people, he looks Turkish.

So far, I’ve taken him to Kadikoy and to Sultan Ahmet: Kadikoy for Iskender, (a dish of thinly sliced beef with bread, yogurt, tomatoes, and melted butter) and Sultan Ahmet for all the main tourist attractions. He’s a medieval history doctoral student, so he appreciates all things historical, the older the better. In the Hagia Sophia, we walked around and gazed at the Christian mosaics and Islamic patterns and calligraphy and he pointed out things I hadn’t noticed: the lines of arches in the walls that looked like they had once been windows, places rude people had carved their names into the marble, and the styles of painting in different parts of the church/mosque/museum, which gave clues about who painted them at which time in history.

Ryder is the first person I’ve shown around and I took a few wrong turns. I don’t go to the European side that often. In the Hagia Sophia gift shop, I found an unusual necklace that looks like a medal. The silver medallion has a squiggly, tangled line as a design and a tassel on the cord, which looks like it was fashioned from a scrunched up silk scarf. I bought the necklace, thinking I should have a gorgeous medal for being an excellent tour guide. The squiggly line represents our route, as I got us lost a few times, and the tassel represents my knowledge of all the places we visited. I’m being facetious, of course, because I often wasn’t able to say anything too interesting or factual. I would have to admit that I never knew if what I was saying was true or if I’d seen something similar in a movie and somehow got it mixed up with the truth. I wouldn’t make a very good historian, but oh well.

Later, it was back to my home in Uskudar, where Ryder gave me a sampling of blues music and we talked and ate wine gums. (I requested he bring these from the UK.) I’ve known Ryder for almost ten years. It’s lovely when my friends wander away from home, just as I did, and we can still meet up in a new place and take up where we left off. Our lives have changed, but we are the same people.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Portland Memorabilia in Rome

I spotted these books lying next to each other in a book vendor's basket on a sidewalk in Travestere back in February. Portland and Katherine were both saying hello. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016


At the boxing gym, there was a thin blonde woman clad all in black from shades to shoes. I was thirteen when I remember meeting her, though in a college recommendation letter she'd write for me years later, she mentioned meeting me at a Christmas party when I was eleven. She was kind to me at a time in my life when I desperately needed kindness. 

Adolescence was a time I kept my guard up. Our boxing coach, Chuck, taught me how to keep my guard up with my fists so I could loosen up emotionally. Once while Chuck was giving me a hard time about my weight, I looked past him to see Katherine without her shades on. Seeing her without sunglasses was a rare occurrence, but this memory stands out for another reason. When I looked at her, we connected, because I knew from the heartfelt look in her eyes that she understood what it was like to be me. 

Once when she lost track, she asked me how old I was. "Fifteen," I said and she gave an outpouring of sympathy, relating how hard it was being fifteen. She joked with me, "The worst child abuse is when adults tell children, 'These are the best years of your life.'" 

One year for Christmas, she gave me a mirror that read, "You Look Fabulous" around the border. She gave me a miniature porcelain sink with no discernible purpose and declared, "Every girl needs her own sink." This quirky gift and strange wisdom meant so much to me.  

When she saw me reading a book, she'd ask to see the cover. I once held up a book of page-long biographies and photos of famous writers. "Whatever happened to Nancy Drew?" she asked. 

On a night that turned suddenly cold, I borrowed a brown suede jacket to wear home. I brushed my hands down the suede material and said, "I feel like a real writer now." She smiled her warm smile. She seemed happy that she could inspire that confidence in me just by lending me a jacket. She was one of the most generous people I've ever met. She gave by existing.  

These are some of my memories of Katherine Dunn. 

I was lucky. I had a friend who championed my love of books and gave me feedback on my earliest writing, who cheered my nickname, "Yay, Hell Kitten!" when I succeeded in doing multiple pullups at the gym. 

Thank you, Katherine, for your kindness and your wisdom. I'm a better teacher and mentor to my students because of the care and support you gave me when I was a teenager. I will always remember your kindness. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mighty Small World

My dreams have become as stagnant as pond water. Before falling asleep, I try to will my subconscious into going on grand adventures, but I’m stuck in a vortex of dreaming about work and hanging around my apartment. The lull in my dream life might be the result of trying to renovate the muddled attic of my mind into a well-organized loft where junk is stored in labeled boxes. Lately I feel like I’ve outsourced creativity and spontaneity and replaced these fun qualities with routine and responsibility. Despite the monotony, I’m sometimes amused by the unfailing, absurd politeness I present in my dreams. Last night in a very boring dream, a man drilled a hole in my bedroom ceiling, letting a disc of plaster ceiling crash close to my bed, all so he could peer down at me lying in my bed and say, “There’s a hole in your ceiling.” My response was to wave idiotically up at him and call out, “Thanks for letting me know!” I actually did this and my own neighborly voice woke me up. The last time I woke myself up in a dream, I was entertaining all of Charles Dickens’ characters at a party and making everybody, including myself, laugh, but sadly, I haven’t had a fun dream like that in a while.

Not only does my dream world seem small at the moment, but the world itself seems very small. I live in Istanbul, yet I feel like I’ve barely strayed past my own backyard. I keep meeting people from Portland who know people I knew in Portland. Today I had lunch with a new Turkish friend, and even though she hasn’t ever been to Portland, our catalog of shared acquaintances was staggering. I’m still in shock. These sorts of coincidences are only supposed to happen in Portland where everybody knows everybody, but likes to pretend they don’t. Last summer, I had drinks with a girlfriend in Portland and it turned out we had both dated the same guy . . . . in Portland. Our minds were blown. But after today, that mutual affiliation with a Portland guy who likes to play the dating game seems like no coincidence at all, more like talking to the person sitting next to you on an airplane and finding out you’re both headed to the same city. Well I’ll be damned.

The school year is nearing its finish and I am excited about reviving my drawing projects and, hopefully, my dream life over the summer. I’m signed up to run a half marathon in Portland, the urban equivalent of the bar on Cheers, where everybody knows your name. The world is small, but I hope my mind expands to hold some more vivid and interesting dreams. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Cherry Juice (A poem by me.) :)

A glass of cherry juice my mom asserts could have saved her sister Sarah
She credits this elixir of life for remembering old dance moves
Like the locomotion
Written by Carole King for her kids’ babysitter, Little Eva
The dance was invented after the song came out
And it became a craze
She fantasizes a happier ending to her sisterly saga
Pouring Sarah a glass of cherry juice in her hospital bed
Swearing by its healing powers
As if the juice company paid her to be their spokesperson
Sarah swinging the covers off, jumping up out of bed
And doing the locomotion in her hospital gown
The cherry juice having worked its wonders
For my great-grandma Louise, who lived to be
One Hundred and Six
the key to longevity wasn’t cherry juice
but oysters
Her long, turbulent life was testament to this endorsement
As for me
If food could spring confidence about glowing vitality
And the promise of a near Biblical lifespan
It would be the red bell pepper
Eaten like a crisp apple
Or roasted and stuffed with rice and ground beef
But no meal of oysters, cherry juice, and stuffed peppers
Could have saved my aunt
Sarah in the Bible lived to be 127
She must have eaten pumpkin seeds every day
and told herself this snack was all she needed
To survive any calamity that came her way.