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. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Fidelity of Friends

Grades are done and now I can finally fill my head with more exciting visions, such as 1920s fashion and the budding plot of a suspense novel. I can’t really merge the two because the novel I’m envisioning is set in present day, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look fabulous while writing it. I have often wished I could transport myself to Paris in the 20s, like in the movie Midnight in Paris. These days, I go for evening strolls around Istanbul and put my mind on a scavenger hunt for ideas, but I’ve never found a portal to a classier and more debonair time.

That’s okay, because although I can’t mingle with the Fitzgeralds or enjoy a private concert by Cole Porter, I have enough amazing people in my life to make me want to stay put.

Last week I found myself trying to dodge landmines of unbelievable stress. (One detonated on Wednesday, but everyone in the vicinity survived) My girlfriends were there for me and I realized how fortunate I am. One friend advised me to work out, and so I was able to channel my stress into something positive. I’m feeling so lucky right now.

A male colleague’s comment about women being catty seems completely ludicrous to me, especially after last week, when the support of great women friends kept my head above water. We’re strong, we cook for each other, we make each other drinks, we listen to each other. Catty? I believe he’s thinking too small. We’re more like lionesses . . . a pride of lionesses.  

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Guest Appearance

I am a guest in this country, a long-term guest, but a guest all the same. I have a residency card and an apartment, but during orientation two years ago, one facilitator informed us that “We are guests in this country,” a message that I interpreted as we are welcome here but we are not welcome to complain or be obnoxious. This implication was lost on some. (Just imagine a loud American wandering the streets of Istanbul, calling out, “Where’s the Trader Joes?!”) But to be fair, I’m not always adept at reading between the lines. I’m still trying to understand the security advice: “Remain vigilant.” Does that mean stay home and eat popcorn and stream movies on my laptop? If that’s so, then the fort is secure. Roger that. Over and out.

Recently, I watched the first six episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, a terrifying cautionary tale which explores the depths of desperation for male supremacy and religious brainwashing. Women are used for breeding only and given patronymics, like “Offred,” which means property of Fred. This show has messed me up. When I talk with friends about the similarities between the show and Trump’s America, it feels like we’re Girl Scouts gathered around a campfire telling ghost stories. I’m the one trembling and jumping with fright at every sound coming from the woods: a crackling of dry leaves, a coyote howling in the distance. But The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just women sharing scary stories. Everything in the show (women being forbidden to drive, be educated, express themselves freely, have money, own property, have ownership of their bodies and reproductive rights) has all happened or is currently happening to women in the world today.

In The Handmaid's Tale, foreign guests visit the land of Gilead, formerly the United States. The leaders and their wives instruct the handmaids to be on their best behavior. Offred, the handmaid at the center of the show, is asked by a guest if she is happy and Offred lies. How could she be happy? A handmaid is never at home. She’s not even a guest. She’s a slave and her own body is meant to be used as a guest rental for a baby that will be yanked away as soon as it’s born.

The word “guest” implies that you are not staying long enough to capture the essence of a place, that you’re not getting the full picture. Your hosts will tidy up the place, be on their best behavior, shield your eyes from any unsightliness (in the case of the show, scrub the blood off the execution wall). They will try to make your stay as pleasant as possible.

The American South, famous for Southern hospitality, is learning how to be a little bit more hospitable to people who may be offended by statues of Confederates who fought to uphold slavery. Those racist monuments are coming down, and perhaps they will be replaced with uplifting statues and monuments, depicting people who have done something honorable. I’m glad. Then maybe guests such as myself can visit the South and truly appreciate Southern hospitality, without feeling uncomfortable.

Turkey is another country famous for its hospitality. But judging by the recent violence in Washington DC, when Erdoğan’s bodyguards attacked peaceful protesters, some Turks need to work on what it means to be a guest.

I’m okay with someone telling me I’m a guest in this country. When I go to America this summer, I will be a guest too. I think I’m a considerate guest. I don’t kick my hosts in the face. I suppose we are all guests on this planet: here today, gone tomorrow. Let’s try to be polite guests, no matter what country we’re in, or however much at home we feel. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Happy Hıdırellez!

Happy Hıdırellez, everybody! I would tell you more about Hıdırellez, but Wikipedia has been banned in Turkey. That didn’t stop me from celebrating it, whatever it is. Tonight, I dined at a Syrian restaurant with a friend and her book club members. I drank potent mint lemonade and sampled several delicious dishes. I met people from America, Scotland, New Guinea, Syria, and Turkey.

When I asked a Syrian man if he liked living in Turkey, he answered, “You can’t drink the whole ocean in a cup.” If I were as dumb as our fake president, I would not have understood this metaphor, as with the metaphor, “The oval office has no corners you can hide in.” Luckily, I’m not so stupid and I understood what he meant.

After dinner, Maureen and I ignored the State Department’s security warnings to avoid crowds and went to a jam-packed party in celebration of Hıdırellez. These days, I don’t usually venture out to the neighborhood Sultan Ahmet, the home of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, but it felt comforting to be back in such a beautiful place on a beautiful night like tonight. The population of Istanbul must have been concentrated in that very densely populated party, because the streets of Sultan Ahmet were oddly vacant. Actually, I don’t know where everybody was. Maybe they were asleep already.

They certainly weren’t out lamp shopping. That job was left up to me. Maureen and I went into a lovely shop and I bought a white mosaic lamp that shines beautifully when lit up. That was my Hıdırellez present to myself. I wish everyone a spectacular Hıdırellez. Good night.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Holding on to Core Values

Years ago, my friend Muhammad told me that his life in America closely resembled his life in Saudi Arabia. He was a strict rule-follower, like someone who waits for the walk signal even when there are no cars for miles. I admired his discipline, but I didn’t know if his loyalty to his Saudi lifestyle came from a strong sense of self or from being so entrenched in traditions his whole life that he simply did not know how to deviate from his conservative status quo. 

He was only twenty when we used to meet at cafes to help each other with our native languages, and although it’s possible for young people to have a strong sense of self, I wondered if “a sense of self” was something to which he aspired. Maybe that was an American notion, as elusive as the book Of Mice and Men, which Muhammad was forced to read for his English class. (Note to EFL teachers: Just because a book is slim does not mean it’s an easy read.) 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but while I was serving as human Cliffs Notes, historical context provider, and old-timey slang interpreter, I was receiving quite an education myself. That’s because no matter how overwhelming that little book seemed, Muhammad never grew frustrated. Years later, I keep his calm steady determination in mind. When I see Americans cutting corners and doing things they might not do in America, I think of Muhammad’s cookie-cutter core principles that would stay the same, no matter if he were in Vegas or Mecca. 

With all my travels and people I meet, I hope to pick up traits and knowledge I didn’t have before. In Turkey, I’m learning to be more generous. Every day, I’m learning to be more patient. However, patience for my fellow Americans needs replenishing somehow. When I see Americans using their privilege to mistreat people or do mediocre work, I feel more disillusioned with my country. My first thought is that this unethical behavior is un-American, but when you think about it, America is run by people who have used their privilege in unethical ways. In spite of some politicians tarnishing the image of what it means to be an American, I’ll try to hold fast to my ideals, no matter how easy it is to break the rules.

To go along with that theme, here's some classic Whitney Houston. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Spring Has Arrived

Behind my apartment there is a wisteria tree that forms a canopy over a picnic table and chairs. This setting is idyllic for reading The Fellowship of the Ring. I am not yet finished with book one in the trilogy and already I’m becoming a Lord of the Rings fanatic, excited about visiting Oxford this summer to channel Tolkien at the pubs he used to frequent as part of his writing group, The Inklings. But when I’m not losing myself in the realm of hobbits and elves and daydreaming about where I will be traveling in the coming months, I am trying to enjoy all that Istanbul has to offer. The sweet fragrance of peonies and lilacs in bloom, as well as the excitement I feel about reading, has given me a burst of energy to explore this city. Like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Istanbul is a land of polarities: East and West, old and new, Europe and Asia, conservative and modern.

Despite the solace of my wisteria tree, I need to flee my conservative neighborhood every once in a while for the restoration of my sanity. Last night, I took a dolmush (a shared taxi) to Kadikoy. This was after I couldn’t find coffee filters anywhere in Uskudar. I thought that in addition to the inhospitable “Damn you, crusader!” glares I’m occasionally subjected to, now I was feeling the shock of a terrible assault on American coffee. Okay, that is a ridiculous thought to run through my mind, but that is what coffee depravation does to me.

Living in Uskudar, I find myself running away more than I did as a teenager. I’m a little more practical when I run away now. Instead of packing ten books in a backpack, thinking I’m going to be gone for several months, I pack one book in my purse, and I think you can guess what book that is.

Today, two friends and I visited the Istanbul Modern to watch a Polish film. I have never liked the Istanbul Modern, and in fact it ranks dead last on my list of museums, but I do like Poland and I also like foreign films. Now I like the Istanbul Modern even less after a woman ordered us not to look at any art as we made our way through the museum to the theater. We joked, “Don’t look at the art! Stare at the floor!” I know admission to the museum wasn’t included in our ticket purchase, but I wish people would lighten up and lose the authoritarian persona. The movie, a disco musical about two man-eating, vampire mermaids who fall in love with a guy who has exceptionally bad hair, was one of the worst films I have ever seen. We snickered at the stupid dialogue as well as any effort to be tender, or shocking, or suspenseful-- basically anything other than utterly ridiculous, which was the only achievement of The Lure, if you can even count that as an achievement. At one point, I looked at the confused and stern expression of my German friend sitting next to me and burst out laughing. After the film, we made our way to the museum restaurant, still not looking at any art, trying to process what we had just seen. My German friend said in her thick accent, “Now we know what Polish people are capable of.” This was such a terrible line, yet it elicited more laughter from me.

After lunch, we walked around Karakoy, a cool artsy neighborhood in Istanbul. We went to a Russian Orthodox Church, an underground mosque, and then took the ferry back to our own neighborhood, which provides a stark contrast to the creative excitement of Karakoy. Despite the terrible film, I’m still glad I went out today. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t have interacted with a sweet boy. He was by himself, selling packets of tissues. I had sat down on a stoop to photograph a golden retriever when this adorable boy appeared. I photographed him with the dog and when he approached me, he smiled and said, “Hello! How are you?” Most children who are wandering the streets alone, begging, and selling packets of tissues, will tug on my clothes, cry, and yell “Abla!” (Big sister.) I smiled back and told him how cute he was, which he didn’t seem to understand. I felt the urge to hug him, but I buried this urge. I gave him some money and he wandered off. I’m still thinking about him, wishing I could adopt him and give him a brighter future than selling tissue packets on the streets of Istanbul. I’m worried about a lot people these days, but unfortunately, I cannot magically help them. When I am helpless to do anything beyond giving a little bit of money, I suppose the only thing left to do is hope for a brighter future

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Surreal Celebration

The streets of Uskudar are quiet now, but up until a few hours ago they were hopping with religious, nationalistic fervor after President Erdoğan’s apparent win of the vote that will essentially make him a modern-day sultan. My friend Maureen and I had spent the afternoon at the Hilton, smoking melon nargile and drinking mocktails. (Alcohol consumption is forbidden on Election Day, for fear people will fight.)

Relaxing on a terrace overlooking the Bosphorus was actually the perfect way to spend the day and I’m glad I felt inclined to be more adventurous than usual today. The alternative--staying in my apartment, checking the news obsessively and tearing at my fingernails--seems a bit insane asylum-ish. Besides, the day was too beautiful and I needed to get out. We reclined on our couches and puffed out smoke like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, making lethargic observations about how relaxed Turkish culture is and how we much prefer relaxing by the Bosphorus to getting mixed up in America’s competitive culture.

I had spent last night eating a lovely Easter dinner with friends who talked of staying holed up in their apartments this weekend to avoid protests and crowds. I told myself I would play it by ear. I felt warm and satisfied after such a perfect home-cooked meal and I slept in till late. Then my thoughtful German neighbor visited me in the morning and gave me an Easter goody bag filled with chocolate bunnies and painted eggs. She came over with her son, who’s visiting from Germany, and he felt vindicated when I shared some of the safety precautions that were running through my mind. His mother is more carefree and wanted to go to church, until her son convinced her not to. Although I visited an Armenian church a couple weeks ago and would like to go back, I thought today would not be the best day to do it. He agreed with me, saying, “If I were a terrorist and I wanted to really annoy people, I would choose Easter.” I find imprecise word choices, such as “annoying” to describe terrorists’ intentions, to be one of the most charming and delightful amusements of engaging in conversation with non-native English speakers.

As it turned out, the more liberal European side was the calmest place to be on Election Day. We walked from the Hilton to the swanky neighborhood of Nişantaşı and immersed ourselves in the cultured, aesthetic appeal of this groove that’s so different from the heavily conservative one we inhabit in Uskudar, on the Asian side. The whole neighborhood seemed sedated. We took a ferry back to Uskudar, where suddenly the mood went from dreary to jubilant. Watching the celebration of Erdoğan supporters gain excitement and momentum with fireworks and revelers chanting “Allahu akbar!” was surreal. I took photos and videos, went to Maureen’s for margaritas, then came back home.

Last night the eve of the election felt like a fun, yet somewhat somber occasion. One of my friends brought up that this was the last night before something transformative happened. I slipped into an English accent, declaring, “Wendy, this is your last night in the nursery!” (You can always count on me to quote a children’s movie.) Replaying the Disney version of Peter Pan in my head, I realized that it was Wendy’s forced transition to adulthood that prompted Peter Pan to teach Wendy and her brothers to fly and take them to Neverland, where they would never have to grow up. I would like Peter Pan to save me and take me to Neverland, but if my luck is anything like Wendy’s, I’ll probably get saddled with being a mother to twenty lost boys, which if you ask me, is kind of a raw deal. Isn’t it strange how men get to stay little boys forever, but girls like Wendy have to grow up and care for them? Sounds a little bit like real life.

This has been a very unusual weekend, as Maureen put it, “a softened Iranian Islamic revolution.” I’m not sure what will happen now, but I hope people in this divided nation can find a way to get along. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Humor War is No Laughing Matter

I smile pretty naturally, usually when making eye contact with people, or performing some minor transaction or while engaging in small talk. What I don’t like is men telling me to smile when I’m not in the mood. Unless a man is a professional photographer directing a paid model, he can’t tell any woman to smile. He has to earn that smile. Crack a joke. Do a funny impersonation, say something stupid to break the ice. I was once at a party, eating from the same gigantic popcorn bowl as a man who asked me, “Was it fate or popcorn that brought us together?” That deserved a laugh.

Although I am a teacher who’s obliged to keep my students’ attention by being engaging and sort of funny, even at my own expense, I’d say I go through life receiving more laughter and enjoyment from others than spreading it myself. Life is a cabaret and all the men and women merely court jesters. Isn’t that what Shakespeare said? Anyway . . .

Christopher Hitchens wrote an article for Vanity Fair titled, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” He defended his position in a video in which he said that women as a gender are not funny. Well, neither are men, in the same way that any group of people is not collectively anything. I love Christopher Hitchens, but demeaning women for allegedly not having a fully evolved funny bone seems unfair.

Women’s historical roots are not all that funny. For most of history we couldn’t vote, receive formal education, marry whom we pleased, divorce, have children if and when we saw fit, wear what we pleased, fend off sexual harassment and other types of violence and intimidation, and pursue a career that gave our lives meaning and satisfaction. To subject women to all this nonsense, to deprive them of basic rights and then say, “You’re not as funny as we are,” seems a bit naïve.

If a man says, “Was it fate or popcorn that brought us together?” or something equally charming and dopey, social tensions are eased and guards are lowered. This innocent humor and silliness lets women know that such a man is not a threat. That letting down of the guard is the “surrender” Christopher Hitchens was referring to.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where men need to pass the humor test to show they are nice guys. We make the world we live in, and right now, with sensitive egos at the top, women who make jokes, especially at the expense of men, are often treading on thin ice. People who attempt to be funny know that sometimes the jokes go terribly wrong and offend people. Well, what if offending people could get you shunned, shamed, yelled at, or beat up by someone bigger and more powerful than you? Men have been able to bounce back more easily after their jokes bombed than women have.

Not only are women not free to be as funny as we could be, but I’ve found even the type of laughter we exhibit and what we choose to find funny is up for disapproval. On a night out, I recently laughed at a man who was trying to dispense deep powerful wisdom. The problem is what he was saying was so hilariously idiotic, demented, ignorant, and delusional. If he could have controlled me like a puppet, I’m sure I would have nodded and smiled appreciatively at being in the presence of a great philosopher. Instead, I laughed with derision and left.

Comparing men’s and women’s ability to be funny, with equality being a mere concept and not a reality in most of the world, is like comparing plants that are not being cared for equally. One plant sits in the window, is watered daily, and turns a vibrant shade of green. The other wilts in a dark corner, is not watered, and is eventually kicked into a little patch of sunlight and told, “You’re not as stately as that other plant.”

Really? Is that fair? 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

O.J.: Made in America. 45: Making America SAD!

Going from having his number on a football jersey to his number beneath a police mug shot, O.J. Simpson’s rise from ghetto to NFL glory and then his precipitous downfall, is like something out of Shakespeare. I just ended an addictive relationship with the series, O.J.: Made in America. The documentary series is a paradigm of justice prevailing. It’s also a cautionary tale to beware of charming sociopaths, people like our fake president, who despite all their fatal flaws, manipulate people into liking them.

I was twelve when the verdict came out, so I was probably more interested in my hair color at the time than seeing the killer get his comeuppance, but I remember being disappointed in the jury’s decision. Hearing Nicole Brown’s 911 calls and seeing her bruised and battered face on TV had scarred me. Around the time of the O.J. Simpson case, I could hear my neighbor beating his wife at night, his thunderous, incoherent rage and her pleading screams creating the most gut-wrenching dissonance my twelve-year-old eardrums had ever endured. I didn’t know anything at the time about the mental and emotional abuse that came with physical abuse and how all that abuse could warp a woman’s judgment, so I could not figure it out and kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t she leave him?”

O.J. Simpson was a classic sociopath who used people for his own benefit. He cared nothing about the Civil Rights Movement. He didn’t want to be involved or show support to the black community struggling to stay alive and fighting for their rights. He was content with being called a football hero, although in reality, he was no hero in any sense of the word. He cared only about himself. When the mostly black jury went on a completely irrelevant tour of his home, his defense team had already redecorated in an attempt to make O.J. seem blacker and more caring about just causes. Down went all the framed photos of himself and his white friends that had covered the walls. They were replaced with photos O.J. had probably never seen before of him and black people. A Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges went up as well, a deceitful attempt to portray a wolf in sheep’s clothing to a very gullible jury.

One of the photos that had been deemed too white and possibly off-putting to the jury was of O.J. and our fake president. It was taken down and replaced with something that made O.J. seem a little more down-to-earth. When I saw the photo, it struck me just how similar these two reprehensible characters are. Both like to decorate with photos and paintings of themselves. Both are capable of manipulating a large population of people into thinking they care about them. But in reality, they don’t care about them. Just like a child abuser will select the most vulnerable victim, these two were able to sap all the support they could from marginalized communities. In O.J.’s case, it was the black community which had been suffering under systematic racism, and in 45’s case it was lower-, working-class white people who were struggling to make ends meet and watching too much FOX News.

Now we’re seeing how little 45 cares about the American people. People are starting to learn that just because someone badmouths Mexicans and Muslims, doesn’t mean he cares about poor white people either. That group of people is just a means for him to rise to power.

I am already referring to our fake president as a number. That’s because I don’t want to contribute, even in a minuscule way, to him profiting off of his own name brand. Hopefully, as more evidence bubbles to the surface, he will become more impeachable, and perhaps even imprisonable. After watching O.J.: Made in America I have witnessed the fact that this level of hubris doesn’t bode well, even for the most wealthy and charming of sociopaths. God willing, 45 will soon be an inmate number as well. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017


In an attempt to explain the racial subtext of the movie Get Out to a class of Turkish high school students, I gave some American perspective on why it’s such an interesting idea for a film. I mentioned microaggression and gave a couple examples, such as fondling black women’s hair, or squeezing a black man’s muscles in an inappropriate display of flattery. This kind of invasiveness is reminiscent of the days of slavery when white people felt entitled to put their hands on black people and inspect them physically on the auction block. I gave an example of a Turkish woman jokingly telling me she has “black person’s throat” before bursting into gravely song. No matter the good intentions, comments like these reinforce stereotypes that black people sing like Louis Armstrong and Howlin’ Wolf, or that it’s okay to treat black people like physical objects of white people’s fascination.

A student with an unwavering smile offered the paradoxical expression “positive racism” and I couldn’t help but laugh. Amidst all of the awful news reports I hear every time 45 says or tweets something stupid, I’m grateful to those who make me laugh and help me see the bright side of life. Kellyanne Conway coined the expression “alternative facts,” but I found that to be less charming and funny, probably because she doesn’t have the luxury of being fifteen. I’m still reeling from Ben Carson calling slaves immigrants who “worked harder for less” and had a dream that their descendants might pursue prosperity.

Anyway, I believe that when people lose control of big things, they turn their attention to minor things, even on a subconscious level. British people lost their empire and later they turned their efforts to defending the Falkland Islands. Early Americans lost the right to own slaves, so they substituted slaveholding with discrimination and violence and microagrression.

Where big problems loom, but no one knows how to fix them, people turn to petty gossip, micromanaging, and being nitpicky and rude. When the problems of the world seem overwhelming, I think, “So many people need help. How is it possible to help so many people?” Since microaggression is so prominent, I wonder why can’t we have microfriendliness or microempathy? Just give a little here and there.

This idea came to me when my friend mentioned a charity to help someone we know who is going through very hard times. I needed something uplifting, like people helping other people, to lift me out of my microcomplaining mindset. (The grocery store was out of strawberry milk!) I haven’t given my contribution yet, but my resolve to do so has me already feeling better, strawberry milk or no strawberry milk.

A couple of my friends have suggested that I keep a gratitude journal, but I think I might instead keep track of the opportunities I take to help or somehow uplift other people. Even just smiling and displaying a friendly face to people who have had a hard day is an act of microfriendliness.  Although a simple smile or small contribution may not seem like much, it can reverberate like an echo and reach many people in the end. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Walking My Imaginary Dog

A Turkish friend has recently introduced me to an old sport, and when I say, “old sport,” I’m not talking about terms of endearment in The Great Gatsby, although I would much prefer reading The Great Gatsby and relaxing in my recliner to participating in any sports these days. This sport isn’t tennis or discus throwing or anything that requires skill. It’s walking. Just plain old, ordinary walking. I used to love walking in Portland, back when I had a dog, and back when I lived downtown. But these days all I want to do is read. I might as well buy one of those mermaid sleeping bags that keep popping up in online advertisements. Who needs legs anyway? I can be a mermaid who reads all day.

Today I struck a deal with my lazy mermaid self and purchased three new books while I was on my walk. Now I have new books by Julio Cortazar, Margaret Atwood, and Evelyn Waugh. I really don’t need new books, but I figured after so many steps, I had earned them.

My walking buddy sends me photos of the sights she sees on her walks. Sometimes we meet up for our therapeutic walks and appreciate the sights together. We slipped into a very interesting store in Kadikoy that doubled as a woman’s home. She sold everything from action figures to furniture. A surplus of cats had taken over the home/store and the shop keeper greeted us in her pajamas and bathrobe. She apologized for the smell and told us, “I’m also living here.” I enjoy these quirky encounters on our walks.

My friend and I snap pictures of dilapidated Ottoman houses, and ramshackle gates that people have built out of found materials. For some reason, I take interest in things that are literally falling apart and deem them photo-worthy. But when I walk along the Bosporus and take in a gorgeous view of this city I love, I think about principles that are falling apart, trust that is falling apart, standards and ideals that are falling apart. Like America, Turkey has a sturdy foundation and a brave founder to whom people owe everything. Without Ataturk, there would be no Turkey. Without our founding fathers, there would be no America as we know it. I think about the strong foundation and the great minds who helped build our country and then I think about the mad man who is currently running the show. When that thought creeps into my mind, even the most beautiful view becomes clouded with melancholy.

An ex-boyfriend wrote to me yesterday to ask if I had participated in the Women’s March in Washington, DC. No, but I have the pink yarn to make a hat. A Women’s March was going to be held in Istanbul on Women’s Day, which is March 8th, but it was banned by Turkish authorities. No big surprise there. I honestly wouldn’t have participated in the march, for the same reason I don’t go out walking with a bullseye on my chest. My best bet is to take part in my own one-woman marches on a daily basis. I don’t need a lousy Women’s Day as some kind of consolation prize for all the discrimination and crimes against women. Do you want to know how to make this year’s Women’s Day really special? Impeach 45. That would be a good way to start making amends.