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.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Well Deserved!

When Moonlight was announced as the true winner of Best Picture, I was pleased--not because I thought Lala Land was bad, or because I had even seen Moonlight (I didn’t and I hadn’t)--but because something told me that Moonlight deserved the world’s attention. I finally watched Moonlight tonight with my friends and my feeling from Oscar night was affirmed. I left the theater feeling contented.

I had expected to feel sad, but I was satisfied that the characters of this film, apart from one nasty character, were portrayed with love, respect, and understanding. Watching them on screen felt less like examining them and more like gently cradling them in my mind until I felt I’d accomplished a fairly deep understanding of who they were.

The film is an account of the life of Chiron, an introverted boy who is bullied by some and rescued by others. The positive people and negative people seemed easy to distinguish until his friend Kevin blurred the line between friend and foe. The original script was a play in three acts. The movie preserved that style of being split into three chapters, one portraying Chiron as a child, one as a teenager, and one as an adult. The continuum of Chiron’s life rolled out smoothly with the actors playing both Chiron and Kevin looking like the same people at different ages.

The music in this film played an important role, setting the mood for scenes. One of my favorite songs, “Cocoroco Paloma” by Caetano Veloso, played and although I associate that song with the film “Talk to Her,” I think it also worked well in this film. The most beautiful scene is when Kevin plays a song for Chiron on the juke box at his work. The two characters aren’t able to express their feelings, even as adults, so music has to do the job. I loved how Chiron still seemed like an awkward and vulnerable teenager toward the end of the film, the gold fronts on his teeth looking like braces in an adolescent mouth.

This is one of the most beautiful films and caring accounts of a life I’ve ever seen. 

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!