Thursday, April 23, 2020

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Shakespeare's Birthday at Home | Folger Shakespeare Library
I’m superstitious about numbers. I prefer even to odd, unless the numbers match, like 33, or they are sequenced in order, like 456. If the digital clock in my living room reads 2:22 or 4:44, I jump around like I’ve just won something on a game show. Well, today was Shakespeare’s birthday. The bard’s age, 456, warranted a rich abundance of celebratory jumping, not to mention delusions of game show giveaways. (Come on down!) I think I won a green vintage refrigerator full of beer, a set of golf clubs, and a massage chair that looks like a catcher’s mitt. I don’t golf, but I’m sure the set of clubs will find a home. The refrigerator full of beer is right up my alley, and I look forward to being massaged in a baseball glove. All great prizes. Thanks, delusional game show!

Though I meant to cast off my nighted color, I couldn’t be bothered to change out of my black dress. I made chocolate chip pancakes in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday, framed my mind to mirth and merriment, and increased my daily writing goal from 260 words to 400. It seemed luck was in the air. I’m feeling good about my life. I’m happy to be single, even if I did recklessly condemn a few ex-boyfriends to nunneries.

With so much time to sit and ponder, I’ve recognized a pattern of Gertrudes who have come into my life. I’ve been patient with these Gertrudes, although I’m secretly repulsed by their frailty. I am so glad I am not a Gertrude. A Gertrude is a woman who is dependent on men, no matter how horrible they are. All Gertrudes are miserable. How many times have I given advice similar to the advice Hamlet gave his mother? “Refrain tonight. And that shall lend a kind of easiness. To the next abstinence, the next more easy.” I feel empathy for people quarantined with romantic partners who are driving them crazy, but I am done giving advice.

Tonight, my family read our favorite Shakespeare over Zoom. My brother Cory recited Sonnet 34, which is basically Shakespeare calling out someone for giving a false weather report. It rained and Shakespeare went out without his cloak! I’d write an angry sonnet, too, if that happened to me. I read Juliet’s Farewell speech in the voice of Bernie Sanders, and my mom recited “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” followed by “To be or not to be” in Turkish. She switched from a panama hat to a fez because apparently the right headgear was imperative for each performance. My mom figured out how to turn her screen upside down, so for a while we had a wacky, upside down, Turkish-speaking Shakespeare nut. My brother turned his baby, Octavia, upside down, too. Both grandma and baby created a chorus of giggles, and I just smiled, right-side up, appreciating my super weird family.

The whole world is upside down right now, but we can still find plenty to celebrate. Shakespeare lived through the plague and wrote King Lear in quarantine. We should all strive to be a little more like him. Happy birthday, Shakespeare.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Passing the Peace

Women on the cover of a sewing pattern, striking confident poses. That’s the image evoked from Sweet Honey in the Rock strutting out on stage. I imagine variations of the same dress diagrammed on the back of the pattern envelope and a ream of red and black African print. One woman wears a black sash around her waist. Another wears a dress that’s long in the back like a queen’s robe. When I see Sweet Honey in the Rock take their seats and adjust their microphones, I fantasize about fabric shopping, particularly for bold colorful prints, like the ones associated with West Africa. But I’m not a particularly good seamstress. I don’t have money for extravagant fabric shopping and I don’t have time to sew my own garments. But these are trivial matters. As soon as Sweet Honey in the Rock begins singing in harmony, I am swept away to a place where none of these nagging thoughts, inadequacies, and material longings can reach me.

The five women who comprise Sweet Honey in the Rock weave their voices together to form a tapestry of sound. A man with an upright bass strums sparingly for select songs, but the women’s voices do all the heavy lifting. I’m in awe of the vocal gymnastics, the timing, stamina, versatility, and passion required to perform these musical trapeze stunts. Their songs are political and spiritual. “Second Line Blues,” a song featuring names of innocent victims to deadly violence, recalls a slideshow of cell phone, body cam, and news footage. The mournful background vocals consist of the name “Trayvon,” repeated over and over. By the end of the song, my eyes brim with tears. After being in such a solemn mood, the next song startles me like the popping of a champagne cork. From the five women’s lungs resounds a joyous gospel celebration. I can’t transition like some of the audience members who are clapping and dancing in their seats. The sign language interpreter on stage, whose outfit is also cut from the same bold cloth, is both signing and dancing. When one of the songstresses stands up to perform “Feeling Good,” with those iconic lyrics embellished with her own freestyle scatting, I feel calm and contentment, close friends I rarely see, drop in for a visit.

The women of Sweet Honey in the Rock converse with the audience between songs. One advises us to say hello to strangers on the street. As if we are passing the peace in church, we are told to turn our heads to the people sitting next to us and say hello. Exactly as promised, this brief human contact improves my outlook. I leave the concert, feeling sanguine about the future. Sweet Honey in the Rock is a perfect model for what the world could be if people could learn to live together in harmony.

Walking home from the concert, I prolong the positive wave of energy by listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock’s music on my phone. I reflect on how their music managed to put my whirlwind brain on hold. I was completely entranced, something that doesn’t happen very often. My goal as a writer is to write a book that will cast a similar spell over readers. I want to spin a compelling story that makes readers forget the world around them, forget who they are, and just be present in the plot. I imagine a ream of paper and feel excited about my future as a writer. As opposed to sewing, writing is a skill in which I am confident. I don’t need to go shopping for material because I have loads of material in my head, just waiting to be written. Listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock is a reminder to inject my fiction with emotion, substance, style, and, most importantly, voice.

Saturday, May 4, 2019


Infectious. This word has both a positive and a negative connotation. It can be used as follows: There was no cure for the infectious disease that caused blisters to break out on victims’ faces, oozing effluvial purple puss until the features were unrecognizable. Infectious can complement someone’s character: He possessed an infectious confidence that seemed to cry out that it was his destiny to become leader of the free world, or, The woman’s infectious laughter attracted the admiration of all the party guests, capturing them in a mirthful haze, as if possessing the power to hypnotize. Infectious can praise as well as repulse. I suppose that’s why infectious is a good word to describe my laughter. Some people love my laugh. Some laugh with me. Others recoil.

Recently, at a movie theater, my friend and I were instructed by the usher to please keep our laughter down. A man seated behind my friend and me had marched down the steps to complain midway through the movie. I watched him in the dark theater, his silhouette appearing in the bottom right corner of the screen, flailing his arms in frustration, not knowing that our unrestrained laughter was the source of his irritation. After the usher relayed the man’s complaint, I tried my best not to laugh. I wanted to be a considerate moviegoer. I suppressed my guffaws and giggles, like a dam holding back water. This was especially hard because the film was “Godzilla: Resurgence.” I knew that eventually the dam would collapse and that, just like Godzilla, my laugh would return, stronger than ever.

I had never seen a Godzilla movie before, nor any monster movie, for that matter. Before the movie started, my friend Naomi, a history buff, schooled me about the history of Godzilla. According to her, Godzilla was a metaphor for the atomic bomb. Apparently, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese people could relate to a monster destroying their civilization. This perspective fascinated me. I love deeper meanings and the thought of Godzilla embodying American military aggression assured me that I was going to gain some valuable insight into the Japanese psyche.

What I received was aching cheek muscles from laughing so hard and confusion as to how Japanese people can remain so calm amid a monster attack. It dawned on me early on that the title was misleading. If Godzilla had indeed resurged, then people would have known the drill. But no, they were perplexed, apparently never having seen the zillion Godzilla movies that came before.

After an eruption of blood and water in an otherwise peaceful bay, Godzilla was born. First, he wreaked havoc like a mischievous child yanking on a tablecloth at a wedding. The Japanese would have been smart to eradicate him during his toddler phase. But they didn’t, and not because he was just too darn cute. They were concerned about civilian casualties. A man with an old woman on his back scurried past and the army couldn’t bring themselves to fire at Godzilla because then those two people would be caught in the crosshairs. Meanwhile, Godzilla went on to kill thousands, knocking over buildings like a shopping cart bulldozing into a canned food display.

Godzilla slithered and lurched toward Tokyo. Its gills spurted blood with each metamorphosis, each stage more menacing and difficult to defeat than the last. Sometimes, he appeared to be not moving at all, like a toy in a miniature model village, which I’m sure it was. Japanese people responded to Godzilla’s presence, not by screaming and reciting doomsday prophecies, as Americans would have, but with stoicism that must be rooted in the teachings of Buddhism. Either that, or large doses of Valium.

Naomi and I tried to control our laughter, but it was no use. When the credits rolled, we both let out exhausted sighs from laughing so hard. Some people smiled at us as they left the theater and I apologized to them anyway. One man shot us an icy stare, and something told me he wished he could shoot atomic heat beams at us, like Godzilla. At thirty-five years old, I should probably be more mature and considerate of others, but I think people need to lighten up. Laughter prolongs life. We should try to laugh more and I know I am a snob, but if people view Godzilla: Resurgence as a serious film that deserves awed silence, then they need to elevate their taste. Even Akira Kurosawa, a brilliant Japanese filmmaker, incorporated humor into his films. After seeing Godzilla: Resurgence, I was reminded of how important it is to laugh, even if some may consider my laugh infectious in the sickly sense of the word. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A Tribute to Robert Chabon

I met Robert Chabon while working as a concierge at a Pearl District condominium building in Northwest Portland. Robert, his wife Shelly, and their son Andrew are the only tenants I remember fondly and miss. While other tenants were friendly enough -- greeting me by name, or at least trying to (Meredith and Meridawn were two variations I heard) -- and generous, buying me lattes from the Starbucks across the street, my conversations with them had a short shelf life. In contrast, my conversations with Robert could have continued, to my delight, well past the end of my shift.

We talked about literature. I remember we discussed H.L. Mencken, W.G. Sebald, and Patrick White, just to name a few. Whenever he recommended a book, I would jot it down, buy it for my Kindle, or walk over to Powell’s Books and buy a used copy. We talked about many other authors; it’s impossible to recall all of them. Once he asked me what I was reading, and I told him William Maxwell. He commented that most people didn’t know who William Maxwell was. Only “people like us” knew who he was. I felt exhilarated to be put in the same category as him. “People like us,” I repeated to myself, letting my pride swell. Robert Chabon was brilliant. To be like him in any respect, especially to have comparable knowledge of and passion for literature, was a tremendous honor.

I had ample time for writing at that job, especially in the early morning when the condo dwellers were still asleep. In a conversation with Robert it came out that I was an aspiring writer. Robert asked me to share my writing with him, offering his appraisal of my work as naturally as someone might tell a house guest to help themselves to whatever’s in the fridge. I believe he told me to prepare a ten-page sample. So I did. He warned me that he was going to be honest in his critique, staring at me intently before he took my pages to make sure I understood. After I’d braced myself for his brutally honest feedback, he came back to me, saying that I had “a real ability.” He assured me that he wouldn’t lie to me and smiled, as if my writing had given him real pleasure. He lingered at the front desk to tell me again that I had real ability.

To help me better understand how serious he was, he told me a story. He said all his sons had shown him their writing and Michael was the only one he encouraged to pursue a writing career. “My other sons I told to go to law school,” he said. His son, Michael, is the Pulitzer Prize winning writer of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” I couldn’t believe he was now putting me in the same category as his son. I had ability, he said. Like Michael Chabon. I didn’t need to go to law school. Not that I would have anyway. Robert recognized so much potential in me; I was radiant with promise I hadn’t felt since childhood, back when confidence came so easily.

Robert had all sons and no daughters. I had no father. I knew our friendship consisted of book talks at the concierge desk and nothing more, but I secretly envied his sons for having such a wonderful father and I liked to pretend that he was my father too.

I acquired an interest in 1950s racial segregation and the advent of the Civil Rights movement through my conversations with Robert. He told me about a girl named Gloria Lockerman, a contestant on the show, “The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question.” When I told him I wanted to write a young adult novel about her with the historical context being the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, he thought that was a great idea and began asking me, “How’s Gloria doing?” as a way of checking my progress.

Robert talked to me about America in the 50s. He became an ally for his black classmates when his Washington D.C. high school was integrated. A fascination with child prodigies influenced culture back then. When he was a boy, he was featured on a radio show called “Juvenile Jury.” It didn’t surprise me that he was a brilliant child, selected to be on a radio show with other brilliant children. After all, he was a brilliant man, a doctor and a lawyer, passionate about justice, possessing a vast and ever-expanding knowledge of literature.

When his son Michael visited Portland, Robert gave him my stories to read. He reported back to me that Michael was “enthusiastic about my abilities” and that “he said only good things.” I self-published a small comic book about my experiences living in Qatar and shared it with Robert, along with some drawings of my dreams. Robert told me that Michael asked if he could keep my self-published book. He said he saw Michael pack it in his bag before he left for the airport. When I met Michael, I noticed he had that same smile and personable quality that his father possessed, that ability to make the subject of his attention feel wonderfully interesting. The dream drawings received no comment from either Michael or Robert, so I assume they weren’t as well-received. I knew from reading one of his essays that Michael Chabon hates dreams; my dream comics apparently failed to change his mind. But it was worth a try.

Now I’m taking an online writing class and my work is subject to thorough feedback, which I find both exhausting and gratifying. The feedback is usually positive, but last week, my confidence was shaken. I was scared to submit my work. I reminded myself, “Michael Chabon is a fan of my writing.” Then I thought about Robert and realized it gave me more pleasure to say that Robert Chabon was a fan of my writing. Without Robert’s guidance, I don’t know if Michael Chabon, as the world knows him, would have existed. Robert is the man from whom I felt a kind of parental approval, which boosted my confidence.

I just read that Robert passed away on March 22nd. I wish everyone could have such a wise, supportive mentor in their lives. The short time that I knew him was a gift to me and I am forever grateful. I will do my best to honor him and continue to write well. Otherwise, I may have to go to law school. 

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Susan Sontag

Image result for susan sontag annie leibovitzThe name Susan Sontag has always been synonymous with “Intellectual.” At the university bookstore where I used to work, I regarded the book, Regarding the Pain of Others, but that’s all I did. I just regarded it, the same way the man in the cover illustration is regarding the hanged person, dangling lifelessly. I was too afraid to open it. I knew it probably contained deep infinite wisdom, but it may have also contained disturbing photos and stories of pointless, incurable human suffering. The intensity of that book was intimidating enough closed. To open it might be dangerous. Either the contents would be too much for my delicate sensibilities or so intellectually torturous that it would make me feel totally stupid. I knew she was Annie Leibowitz’s partner and had seen photos of her, taken by Leibowtiz. I assumed Sontag was a brooding intellectual because she looked like one.

Well, I still haven’t read, Regarding the Pain of Others, but I just read an essay by Susan Sontag called “Pilgrimage,” which is about the time she met German novelist Thomas Mann when she was just 14 years old. Her self-congratulatory exclamations over her brilliance made it sound as if she never got over her egocentric adolescence. Either that, or she was just a very confident woman, aware of her intellectual superiority and not shy about expounding upon her own extraordinariness.

I loved the essay. I imagined meeting one of my heroes when I was that young. When I was in elementary school, I thought Mark Twain was God. Really. (You can blame the ending of the movie, The Adventures of Mark Twain, in which Mark Twain’s compassionate face appears in the clouds.) In middle school, I thought Tom Waits was Jesus. Not really, but he was just as worthy of worship if you asked 14-year-old me. I would not have handled a meeting with one of these men with as much grace as Susan Sontag did when she met Thomas Mann. I also wouldn’t have been so critical of one of my idols, especially if he had been as kind and hospitable as Thomas Mann. She called him a god, but she also said he sounded like “The Saturday Evening Post,” when she read the much more high-brow “Partisan Review.” She wrote, “We neither of us were at our best,” but why would Thomas Mann be aiming for his “best” just to please a fourteen-year-old fan? Perhaps he just didn’t sound as intellectual as she had hoped. I will have to read her essay again. Also, I just discovered that one of my new favorite writers, Sigrid Nunez, wrote a memoir about her relationship with Sontag. Apparently, Sontag mentored her. They are both incredible writers. Actually, Sontag was. She passed away in 2004.

Here is an interview with Susan Sontag I found on youtube. I think she’s being rude to the interviewer. I wonder if 14-year-old Sontag would have appreciated her meeting with Thomas Mann more if he had assumed this kind of superior attitude and expressed  this same kind of loathing for her.