Monday, 29 March 2010

The Agony Of The Ecstasy

"Teeeeacher!" Nazli is halfway out of her seat. She's had her hand up for the past minute, but I've been ignoring her. Nazli is a prime time-waster. She can find reasons for not bringing her homework, forgetting her book, wool gathering in class, and just about every other dubious thing you can imagine. I've taken Nazli's mobile phone off her so often it's become the class joke.

"What is it, Nazli?" I say in This had better be good tones.

"We go --" she stops to consult with a classmate "--auditorium?"

"Why should we want to go to the auditorium?"

Another whispered consultation. "Special meeting."

I'm skeptical, but the others nod and echo special meeting. Uzay, as big a time waster as Nazli, nods emphatically. "Very important meeting!"

During the break, I nip downstairs to the coordinators' office and find out that there really is a lecture we're supposed to take our students to, on addiction. I feel like screaming. This class needs English reading and writing, not lectures in Turkish. The last one I had to take them to was on sexually transmitted diseases and it was a real yawner. The doctor who gave it didn't look as if she'd had sex since Woodstock. She talked in an unrelenting monotone and showed slides with squiggly bacteria and hard-to-see viruses.

"I'll take attendance in the auditorium," I announce to the class, to cheers of delight.

I am sorry to say that the lecture is every bit as awful as I imagined it would be. Where do they dig up these speakers? Even back when I was in high school, our school brought in people with real, hands-on drug experience, ex-alcoholics and past users with more than a textbook knowledge of the subject.

Sitting there with my students, a captive audience, I feel irritated and frustrated with this woman who rattles off the names of addictive substances as though they're a long, dry laundry list. We are shown slides of healthy vs diseased liver and lung tissue, slides and statistics. There is no dialogue, no attempt to engage or involve. If she has managed to work in a mention how drugs ruin lives, I can't figure out where.

Barely ten minutes into the lecture, right in the middle of opiates, students start leaving. I see Nazli sneaking down the aisle. The girl next to me gives me a sidelong glance. "Teacher, very boring!" she whispers. "Is this more boring than my classes?" I scrawl on a slip of paper. She scowls at the paper and her face breaks into a big smile. Yes! she writes back.

Whew. It's not just me!

Next, we are treated to a slide that shows morphine being heated in a spoon held over a candle -- always wondered how they did it and now I know -- followed by a snowy white pile of cocaine that stays on the screen for ages. More students get up to leave, including Uzay, who I know to be a chain smoker. The speaker pauses for a good, long time on a display of Ecstasy tablets. I had no idea that Ecstasy came in so many shapes, sizes, and colors, with so many patterns stamped on them, like pats of butter in a fancy restaurant. We are shown slide after slide of Ecstasy tablets, at least a hundred on each one, in endless array, with an accompanying monologue that is far less interesting than the pictures, which are graphically pleasant but not riveting. I am tired of Ecstasy. Bored to death of it. I wish we could move on!

More students leave.

And suddenly there is a great slide, utterly compelling. There is a collective gasp of horror as we all look at before and after photographs of crystal meths users. If these photos don't put off potential crystal meths users, I don't know what will. If she'd shown this slide at the beginning of her talk, nobody would have walked out. This literally puts a human face on addiction. We shake our heads to see how healthy, beautiful people turn into haggard ghouls in just a few years. All too quickly these slides are removed and we're back to piles of confiscated drugs, statistics, drug-related paraphernalia.

Yaaaawn. More students get up to leave and I throw in the towel and follow them, leaving the good, obedient students -- aka the converted -- to be preached to.

On my way out, I practically trip over Uzay who is standing in the entrance with a few pals.

And they all have cigarettes.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Bag Of Heads

It is four o'clock in the morning, but the rooster next door doesn't know it. The rooster next door doesn't understand time. If he sleeps, it can only be in short, fitful bursts. Because he crows all the time, just about every hour, rain or shine.

I know that a lot of roosters do this. And I know that roosters all over the world sound pretty much the same. Whether they're roosters in America, Japan, Northern Europe, or the Mediterranean, they all have the same staccato aah-ooh-ahh-OOOOH. It's almost always the same four syllables with the stress on the last one, there's always the same edge to it, and the cock-a-doodle-doo always vibrates with the same bravado, the same I'm the king of the castle message.

But this rooster is different.

I don't know whether he's old or was born with a deformed voice box or is just plain eccentric, but this rooster has a distinctive cockle-doodle-doo. He will start to crow and then stop as though he's misplaced his notes and is trying to find them. Then, just as you start to think he's forgotten all about crowing, he'll start up again, get half the way through the process, and stop again. I've seen him on my way to catch the bus in the morning. He looks fairly normal: the same curved, iridescent tail feathers, the same Don't-you-try-it-with-me look in his eye, the same proud strut as he patrols the mosque garden where he lives with his harem of frazzled-looking hens.

But in the morning, off he goes. Aahoohahh-- he begins, then his voice suddenly stops and there's a long silence. A silence just long enough to drift back to sleep in.

It usually drives me half wild at this time in the morning. It usually fills me with thoughts of BB guns, slingshots, and water pistols. When it's really bad, I sometimes indulge myself in cruel fantasies. I picture myself getting out of bed, creeping outside in the morning chill through the fig and pomegranate trees, past the sheep pen and hen house, finding the irritating bird and twisting his neck.

This morning, however, I find my earplugs and put them in. Why? Because just recently I saw something that something chilled me to the bone. Something I hope that rooster doesn't know about. Something that makes me think he's got a right to crow as often and as irritatingly as he likes.

It was in the deep frozen section of the supermarket. Normally, I don't go near the frozen foods in winter, but I was in quest of octopus. You'd think that a country surrounded by sea would be full to bursting with fish, but this is sadly not the case. Turks love their meat, and fish is often hard to find here, and expensive. For this reason, I am always on the lookout for things like squid and octopus and they aren't always easy to spot. So when I saw the plain, white plastic bag with its loosely tied string, I peeked.

And I wish I hadn't.

Because it was full to bursting with roosters' heads. If there were any hens' heads in there, I could not see them. Dozens of severed roosters' heads stared up at me, their gimlet eyes blank, but accusing. And never would they cock-a-doodle-doo again.

Aah-ooh--ahh-, the rooster next door begins. I roll over and find my ear plugs and put them in. I can still hear his abbreviated Aaah-hoo-hahh-OOOH, but I can take it. All I'm going to lose is a couple hours of sleep, but I know what's in store for him.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Something To Write About

Monday morning. I walk into the classroom and pull out my blank attendance sheet. Up jump three students who are already there, three minutes early. They carefully place their journals on my desk, one by one, and give me shy smiles.

"Thank you!" I say, smiling back.

The door whips open and four more students come in. Each one of them pulls out a notebook and adds it to the pile on my desk. I blink: three minutes until class begins and I've already got seven journals on my desk. Whoa.

The door opens again and two more students come in. They greet me and add their notebooks to the pile. Nine.

I pull out my roll sheet and the door opens again. More students, with more completed journals. I have to work hard to keep my mouth shut, to keep the foolish smile off my face. Just as the class begins, I have a pile of sixteen journals on my desk. Sixteen! Before the class begins!

This is a huge first for me at this university. So much so that I give up trying to keep the foolish smile off my face and try not to laugh out loud instead. "Thank you," I whisper to the seventeenth student, a shy girl from Kazakhstan, who comes in late and actually apologizes as she places her notebook on the by now towering stack.

I've been teaching this exemplary class now for the past four weeks. Every week, I've had almost seventeen completed journals turned in on Monday. These kids are just unbelievable. They are motivated. They are eager. They are -- I swear it's true -- thirsty for knowledge.

They are fun, too, and international. In one class, I have students from Cyprus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Jordan, Ukraine, Dubai, Japan, and, as always, Turkey. In every single class I've taught before, trying to get the students to do pair or group work in English was like pulling hen's teeth. In this class, getting them to stop is the trick.

This Monday, the class goes swimmingly -- better than any class I've ever taught here. Students happily work together to sort out grammar problems. They compare their answers when I ask them to do it, correct each other in a courteous, cooperative way, and come to see me after class when they don't understand. There is only one niggling problem that lurks in the back of my mind as I move around the class answering questions and monitoring pair work: what in the world am I going to write about now? How am I going to be able to add to my collection of terrible teacher stories? Who wants to read about a class full of paragons who do their homework, come to class on time, and take every opportunity to increase their fund of knowledge?

There is, it turns out, one boy who comes in late and never brings his book, but his presence only reminds me of what I've been through here. When Cem swans through the door without pen, notebook or textbook, I smile indulgently to see the stunned, incredulous looks on his classmates' faces. They don't know it, but I had a whole class full of Cems before. I can handle a stray Cem just fine.

The class finishes. I tell everyone the homework assignment and there are no groans, sighs, or eye rollings. One girl helps me carry my seventeen notebooks up to the teachers' room. It'll take me hours to sort through this lot, but I'm not complaining.

My next class is God-awful. Four students come in late and haggle with me to mark them present. Only two boys have done their homework. Two girls huddle together over their mobile phones and I have to interrupt the class to confiscate them. Another girl comes in fifteen minutes late without her book, and strikes up a noisy conversation in Turkish with the two girls whose mobile phones I've confiscated. I catch another girl without her book copying another student's homework. Two girls are so far ahead of the rest of the class that they sit there, bored out of their minds, inspecting their fingernails. And I could go on, but you get the picture: it's not quite hell, but it's definitely purgatory.

But I don't mind: this purgatory will be followed by the heaven of that perfect class. And at least I'll have something to write about.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Truth

Thank you, everybody, for obliging me by trying to figure out the one lie in my pack of truths. I'm beginning to realize that I'm a much better liar than I thought I was. Nobody guessed the truth, so here it is:

1) When I was five, my sister and I were run over.

This is absolutely true and one of the weirdest things that ever happened to me. My little sister and I were sitting at the foot of my uncle and aunt's steep driveway, where there was a lot of beautifully fine sand that we enjoyed playing in. We saw the car backing towards us and felt absolutely no fear. My uncle drove right over us. To this day I can remember how it felt, crouching down low, the undercarriage of the car just brushing our bent heads as we were suddenly enveloped in rumbling, sooty darkness -- then the explosion of light as the car passed over us and came to a screeching halt perhaps teen feet away in the middle of the road. There was not a scratch on either of us.

We saw my uncle, still clutching the wheel, staring at us in open-mouthed, white-faced horror. We smiled and waved. To this day I also remember the spanking we got: we couldn't sit down for three days afterwards. We'd been warned dozens of times not to play there, but that sand was compelling. After that spanking, we found other places to play.

2) When I was in graduate school, a friend and I worked as singers and bar girls in a Japanese 'club' in San Francisco.

My friend and I decided to do this to improve our spoken Japanese. We were really just glorified waitresses, but we were hired to help shy businessmen sing and spend more money. The high point of our time there was when our club sponsored a singing contest and Tokyo Television came and filmed us. Tokyo Television's cameramen showed up late because they'd gotten lost in the wrong neighborhood and had a lot of their equipment stolen. Neither of us won.

3) I can do the splits and stand on my head.

This is true too, though I should point out that I can only do the splits all the way if my left leg is forward and I find the headstand easier to do yoga-style nowadays. While I am the world's most uncoordinated human being, I am actually pretty flexible. I can also stand with my feet together and put both hands flat on the ground. What I can't do is look great while I'm doing any of these things.

4) I have read Yukio Mishima's books in the original Japanese.

This one is a lie. I've read a couple of Japanese writers in the original, but never Mishima. I have, however, read almost everything by him that has been translated into English, but even some Japanese people find reading Mishima's Japanese a tough slog; he liked using really old, hard-to-understand characters. His prose was also very dense, and his books tended to be depressing. I like to read the Japanese translations of English books too: I read the first two Harry Potter books in Japanese. They kept me plenty busy, and when I was finished, I wasn't depressed. Win-win.

5) Three times in a row over a couple of weeks I shared an elevator with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, in New York City. We smiled at each other, but did not say anything.

After our third time together in that elevator, Bella and Gloria seemed a lot like old pals. I tried not to stare, but it was tough.

6) For two years, I co-owned and ran a small inn with my husband. Every single day, I baked my own bread, made my own entrees, desserts, and hors d'ouevres, and worked at least fourteen hours.

Our inn was in Scotland. We actually won an award (AA red diamond -- we still have the certificate), met hundreds of interesting people, and made a modest profit, but I have never worked so hard in all my life for so little return. We were more than happy to sell after two years.

7) As an adult, I was deathly ill from the chickenpox. I was so badly afflicted, none of the doctors or nurses in the hospital recognized me when I went back to thank them a week after I got out.

Also true. I was so tormented by the itching I couldn't sleep for four whole days. When I went into the hospital, my eyes were virtually swollen shut and I was one suppurating mess from my elbows to my knees. If you're an adult and haven't yet had a good case of chickenpox, be forewarned -- it isn't fun. And try not to scratch.

I'm passing this on to anyone else who wants to do this because I invariably choose people who are too busy to play. And I promise to use my lying powers for Good alone.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

A Lie

First of all, I got this pretty award from Postman and it's taken me a long time to post it (no pun intended) because I am technically challenged and my daughter has been busy with her studies. But here it is, and doesn't it make you feel like you're drinking a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice out on a balcony, in the sun?

Wish I were.

Postman is a funny, prolific writer with interesting hobbies (flying planes, WWII aircraft identification) and skills (bartending). He is also studying Korean, albeit at a higher level than I am. (I've mastered greetings, asking for water, and food groups.) Visit his blog and prepare to be well entertained.

Then I got this interesting award from two more fine writers, Marcia Hoehne and Anne Spollen, and this one comes with a task: telling a few lies about myself.

The truth is, I'm not a very good liar. When I was a kid, I thought I was pretty good, but years later, I read my mother's journals and discovered that she was on to me all along. Since then, I've lost confidence in my lying skill. Nowadays, I stick to the truth to the extent possible.

Still, I am happy to oblige for the sake of this meme. Like Marcia, I am going to change the rules a little to minimize the trauma of lying. Here are six truths and one lie about me. If you can guess the lie, I'll happily give you a free copy of my very first book to come out. (That's not a lie -- I will! But I'm guessing most of you realize how long you may have to wait.)

1) When I was five, my little sister and I were run over.

2) When I was in graduate school, a friend and I worked as singers and bar girls in a Japanese 'club' in San Francisco.

3) I can do the splits and stand on my head.

4) I have read Yukio Mishima's books in the original Japanese.

5) Three times in a row over a couple of weeks I shared an elevator with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, in New York City. We smiled at each other, but did not say anything.

6) For two years, I co-owned and ran a small inn with my husband. Every single day, I baked my own bread, made my own entrees, desserts, and hors d'ouevres, and worked at least fourteen hours.

7) As an adult, I was deathly ill from the chickenpox. I was so badly afflicted, none of the doctors or nurses in the hospital recognized me when I went back to thank them a week after I got out.

If anyone wants to play along with this, I hope you will join in! I would link to you specifically, but my daughter has left the room.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Perfect Submission

This is a post just for my writing pals who have been trying to get published. If you aren't a writer, this won't make a lick of sense. If you are a writer but haven't been trying to get published, this still won't make sense. I wouldn't have gotten this at all a few years back myself; I had no idea what a long, hard business it was to write, submit, be rejected -- and repeat the whole process ad nauseam, week after week, month after month, year after year.

My writing pals will also know that this really isn't the done thing. Nothing spells total beginner like a long, whiny post about how good you are and what an unfair thing it is that nobody in the publishing world understands your genius. But I figured I could get away with this if I turned it into a verse and didn't name any names.

There is something else I'm doing here too. Although we writers are discouraged from broadcasting our many rejections and failures, for me these are like a badge of honor, the road to eventual success, and referring to them this way is like a murmuring a shibboleth: reading this, other writers will instantly know I've trod the same roads they've trod. Maybe I am making a virtue of a necessity here (who knows if I will ever get a novel published, after all?), but it seems odd to keep quiet about what we do and how we do it when it is so extraordinary. Not the fact that we write or what we write, but the fact that we do it, get serially rejected, and go right back out there and do it again until somebody cracks and takes us on. This isn't whining, it's bragging.

So here you are, my fellow would-be published writers. This may make you smile. And if you're like me, you'll probably need it.

Perfect Submission

I sealed it in an envelope
--pristine, professional,
Times New Roman, SASE enclosed--
addressed to A.
read my work with interest but
did not accept the principal
and sent it back.

Through cyberspace it went to B
did not fall in love
(And yet her love I did not seek—
I yearned for mere acceptance)—still
I sent it out again, this time to C.
passed it all around, she said
and really liked the premise but
somehow it did not click.

So out it went again
to D, E, F, G, H.
I waited days—weeks—months to find
that it intrigued (but not so much);
the middle sagged, the plot confused.
I nipped and tucked and rearranged--
—-and off it went, pasted, attached—
to I, to J, to K – and they
were not compelled, and told me so
(in many different ways).

So, long and hard, I sized it up --
revised it till it fairly shone.
And tightened, trimmed, and beta-read,
my darlings lay cold in the ground
when out it went again, this time
to L and M
and N and O
and P and Q until—
—it made me dizzy and
they all read it with interest but
were sorry it was not for them;
they did not fall in love, they said
they felt no passion and
enjoyed it but
they did not feel that it was right
they could not use it and
were forced to pass because
it did not meet their needs
or fit their list
and they were not compelled;
regrettably it did not click
they liked the voice and yet
it did not match their visions.

Oh, I may never reach
perfect submission but
like moth to flame, with stubborn will
Again and yet again
I must submit—I will submit—
to R, S, T, U, V
until the very…

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


"Teacher," Mehmet tells me, a pained look on his face, "I don't drink. Muslim peoples never drink."

This is too much for me. I lean closer. "Every single Muslim doesn't drink?" I ask, raising my eyebrow.

Mehmet is quite dark, but he actually blushes. "Maybe some drink," he admits.

Our class has been discussing health and habits like drinking and smoking. My students, 95% Muslim, are generally very open about drinking. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that at least 80% of them drink, some of them quite heavily. And yet there are always a handful who will come out with this party line about Muslims not drinking which is little more than wishful thinking.

"Do you drink?" I ask Ergun, sitting across from Mehmet.

He flashes me a broad grin. "Yes! I drink every night." Mehmet looks even more pained now and I don't blame him. Drinking every night won't help Ergun get his homework done on time. And I don't even want to think about his liver.

Later, I run into Mehmet outside in the corridor. "Teacher, I never drink," he says. I believe him. He is a shy, hardworking, conservatively dressed boy. If someone had asked me to point out the real teetotalers in the room, he'd have been number 1 on my list.

"My family never drank either," I tell him.

He looks amazed. "Really?"

I nod. "Really."

"But I think all Americans drink."

Bless him: just like I used to think all Muslims didn't drink.

"Not all of us drink," I say. "My parents never touched alcohol."

"But they drink sometimes?" I shake my head, but I can see doubt in his eyes.

I always have a hard time explaining to people just how teetotal my parents were. When it came to non-drinking, we'd have fit right in with the strictest Muslims, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists. It's particularly frustrating to try to explain this to my Muslim students. But all Americans drink! they say. When they think of Americans, they picture the tourists they've seen, people on vacation, whooping it up in bars. And they all watch Hollywood movies and American sitcoms.

Hollywood movies and sitcoms used to bewilder us in our family: all those befuddling references to cocktails. The mention of strange kinds of alcohol: vermouth, gin, grenadine. All those people getting drunk and making fools of themselves! Drinking was as foreign to us as it is to my strictest Muslim students.

"Teacher, do you drink?" Mehmet asks me now.

I nod. "Sometimes. But I don't drink much," I say lamely. Which is true: I've never gotten the hang of it. To quote the Imam Al-Bayhaqi, I am not happy with my mind when it is sound, so why should I corrupt it even further? That's pretty much my attitude: I'm not looking for ways to get rid of grey matter.

Mehmet understandably looks confused. "So your family drinks a little."

No, that's not it. I might have a glass of wine twice a month now. For my family, that was right on the brink of alcoholism. "I drink a little now," I tell him, "but my family never drank." He looks a little doubtful.

I wish I had time to tell Mehmet how shocked I was at age nine to find that my friend's parents had beer in the refrigerator, that her father had a beer every night when he came home from work. Or about my aunt Margaret throwing out vanilla flavoring because she read the fine print and found out --gasp!-- there was alcohol in the ingredients. Or the time we visited San Francisco when I was ten and saw our first drunk people and didn't understand why they were walking that way. Or the first time I flew at age seventeen and brought home the complimentary bottle of wine (because, to tell you the truth, I didn't know what else to do with it; it seemed a shame to throw it out, but it didn't occur to me to drink it). I wish I could tell him how my mother saw it and was close to tears: how did I know that one taste of wine might not tip me right over the brink? In our house, wine wasn't far behind heroin as a dangerously addictive substance.

"My mother HATED alcohol," I tell Mehmet, making a long story short. "She was afraid I would start drinking when I went to university."

"Hojam," he says, his eyes brightening, "my mother afraid too!"

I watch Mehmet hurry to his next class and I smile to think of his mother worrying about such a hardworking, thoughtful boy turning into a dipsomaniac. Somehow I don't think he's the drinking type, though as my mother used to say, You can never tell.

Fingers crossed for Mehmet. If I had more students like him, I'd never drink at all.