Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Balm for the Soul: Sugar Calling and Becoming

Michelle Obama and Cheryl Strayed
I know I'm not the only one feeling awash in emotion these days.

I veer among being brought to tears by watching a tribute to essential workers, feeling deep fear and sadness, being moved by inspirational words shared on social media or a call from a friend, and feeling infuriated at our nation's horrific response to the pandemic and its seeming disregard for people whose lives are not deemed as valuable. It seems that this pandemic and "Great Pause," as I'm calling it, is resulting in big feelings.

Constantly looking for ways to lift myself up, I'm glad to be able to share two recommendations with you this week:

"Becoming" on Netflix

"Becoming" follows Michelle Obama on her historic book tour last year and delves into her life before and while she was FLOTUS, as the book Becoming does.

I loved Becoming when I read it last year, and Mike and I were extremely fortunate to see Michelle in Portland over a year ago. I cried throughout the event...and the Netflix show.

Never have I encountered a woman with so much grace, wit, elegance, spunk, and intelligence, and each time I read her words or witness her presence, I feel so sad about the situation the country is in right now. She brings hope and warmth wherever she goes.

Heartwarming, moving, and insightful, "Becoming" is totally worth your time and will lift you up even though it might make you feel "verklempt," like it did to me.

"Sugar Calling" Podcast by Cheryl Strayed

"Sugar Calling" is Cheryl Strayed's resurrection of "Dear Sugar," in a format perfect for our times. Cheryl calls an author over 60 years old each week, and they have an intimate conversation similar to the ones Michelle Obama had with her cohost on her book tour events.

She has chosen authors whose books have touched her through her life (and mine!). She begins with her mentor, George Saunders, and proceeds to interview Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan, Pico Iyer, Judy Blume, and Alice Walker. As I was walking my dog listening to her interview with Judy Blume and Cheryl explained how seminal Amy's books were when Cheryl was a teen, I felt she was speaking words in my own head. As she tearfully tells Amy Tan that she read The Kitchen God's Wife with her mom before she died, I cried again.

The Color Purple changed my life, and I read everything Alice Walker wrote for many years. But recently I've become disappointed in her, as I've read about anti-semitic statements she's made and her fondness for a British conspiracy theorist, David Icke. Nylah Burton, a Black-Jewish woman, writes about her own ambivalence and disappointment with Alice Walker in The Intelligencer, delving into Walker's difficult marriage to a Jewish man and the racism she experienced from his family. So I listened to the Alice Walker interview with anticipation, but Cheryl Strayed stuck to easy questions. Of all the interviews, I found it the least satisfying...but still worth a listen.

Most of the writers are less upbeat, outgoing, and optimistic than Cheryl Strayed, but the conversations are warm and intimate.

The new podcast drops on Wednesday, and I'm looking forward to seeing who the next interviewee will be. I cannot recommend this podcast highly enough!

Cheryl Strayed and Michelle Obama are both so good for my soul!

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Coronavirus Viewing: Crash Landing on You and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Crash Landing on You

I found "Crash Landing on You" when surfing for Japanese shows on Netflix, and it's been my obsession in the past few weeks!

It's the story of South Korean heiress and successful businesswoman Yoon Se-Ri, who accidentally parasails right into the demilitarized zone. Discovered in a tree by Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok, she eventually runs right into North Korea trying to escape his clutches.

As someone who's always been fascinated by stories set in other cultures, especially Asia, "Crash Landing on You" appealed to me immediately. When I lived in Japan, I spent just one winter night in Seoul on my way to Thailand. Seoul looked extremely different in 1987 than it does in this show! (as does most of Asia, actually)

"Crash Landing on You" is the second-highest rated drama in Korean history and it's wildly popular throughout Asia. The final episode actually crashed China's streaming platform because so many people were watching it!

I loved this story of a spunky, independent, and bright young woman of privilege who is transformed through her experience in North Korea. I chuckled a bit at the long, lingering gazes (as opposed to lots of kissing in American love stories), soapy music during any poignant moment, and the constant snow falling at the end of each episode. Even though the show had a spunky female lead and many strong, intelligent women characters (in fact, most of the women were like that), both armies in North and South Korea were exclusively men. At the board meetings of Yoon Se-Ri's and her father's companies, all of the people were men.

Observing this reminded me of two stories from when I visited my sister in China in December 1986. When I arrived in Shanghai by boat from Kobe, Japan, I stayed two nights in Fudan University's dorms. The next morning I caught an extremely crowded bus into downtown in one of the most overwhelming moments in my life...being completely alone in Shanghai, China, the only foreigner in sight. A student found me a seat next to him and proceeded to fill my ears with Chinese propaganda. It was the beginning of the pro-democracy uprisings (hence the overcrowded, delayed buses), and he had quite a story about what was happening, all because of some Americans offending the Chinese, or so he said. He also told me how communism was so much better for women, because women in China have completely equal opportunities to men. Well, we all know that is not true.

Later when I was in Chengdu with my sister, I got into a heated argument with her Korean-American friend Charlie, who thought he was being evolved and feminist by saying that men should have 51% of the power and control in a marriage. He was seriously shocked when I started arguing. He thought I should have been complimenting and thanking him, I guess!
The wonderful supporting characters!
But back to "Crash Landing on You," I highly recommend it! It's a fantastic escape from what's happening in the world right now. It's full of all sorts of competition and cut-throat intrigue, but it's also full of tons of heart. It humanizes North Koreans, while still showing how difficult their lives can be and how brutal the military dictatorship can be.

I was surprised to learn that as with any communist country, Pyongyang has an elite group of people who shop at department stores and eat at fancy restaurants. This seems to run counter to everything North Korea holds dear, so I don't understand it!

I was less enamored of the secondary love story between North Korean rich girl Seo Dan and South Korean con man Alberto Gu, but one of the most endearing things about this show was its supporting cast of North Korean soldiers and housewives in the military village. It's been praised for its realistic portrayal of North Korea (they had a few defectors on the production team), even though some of it is improbable and unrealistic.

Check it out!

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

As a diehard Katharine Hepburn fan (and Sydney Poitier--swoon!), I remember liking this movie when I first saw it as a young Hepburn-obsessed woman. During the shutdown, my family has been watching a lot more movies together. Usually, poor Nick (aged 13) doesn't like the movie choices very much, especially when 17-year-old Kieran chooses them! The other night we watched the dark comedy "The Death of Stalin," which made Mike and Kieran laugh out loud, but Nick was horrified. So I was delighted when the whole family agreed that this was a good choice. Even Nick liked it!

It was the last film Spencer Tracy made, as he died two weeks after filming, and was ailing throughout the production. Yes, it's terribly dated, using the words "Negro" and "colored," but when it came out in 1968 it was groundbreaking and a box office hit, much to the studio's surprise. It also has a stereotypical Black maid who looks down on the interracial romance because she thinks that young Joey (who she'd known since she was a child) is "marrying down." And one scene deeply disturbed me, when Poitier's character accuses his hard-working father of being an Uncle Tom and says that being a man is more important to him than being a Black man. How much more we know now. I imagine Poitier is probably horrified when he thinks back on that scene.

What I loved about this movie--besides Hepburn and Poitier--is that it captures perfectly the problem of the white liberal. It's all well and good for well-meaning white people to talk about equality between the races, but when their daughter comes home with a Black man? It makes them question everything they've ever thought they believed.

Interracial romance and marriage are no longer shocking to most, thank God. But the racist attitudes in the movie are still very much present in our times. Kieran told me that this movie inspired Jordan Peele's "Get Out," which makes a whole lot of sense!

One scene I found especially poignant: Poitier's Dr. John Prentiss saying to Tracy's Matt Drayton that Joey, his fiancee, believes their children will become president. He laughs at that (imagine! a biracial person becoming president!) and says he'll settle for secretary of state. Of course, Barack Obama was a small child around the time this movie was made. And in "Get Out," the presumably white liberal parents and their friends believe they are not racist because they voted for Obama. Nice circle back, Jordan Peele.

"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is streaming on Amazon Prime. Watch it! I want to go back and watch all the movies of Katharine Hepburn and Sydney Poitier (still alive at 93). And if you haven't seen it, definitely watch the updated version, "Get Out."

Friday, April 17, 2020

East Side Sushi and Mrs. America

I am grateful for streaming services during this coronavirus isolation. We have never had cable, and I rarely watch regular TV. Most of my viewing is online via Netflix or Hulu, and recently I discovered Kanopy, a free streaming service available to anyone with a library card. It has mostly documentaries and independent films, and it's fast becoming my favorite!

East Side Sushi

This week I watched "East Side Sushi" on Kanopy, a movie about Juana, a young Mexican single mom who lives with her dad and young daughter. She is trying to make a living in Oakland, California, operating a streetside fruit cart. She has bigger dreams, though, and finds a job working in a Japanese restaurant, Osaka.

The head sushi chef, Aki, soon discovers that Juana has a real talent in the kitchen. She wants to become a sushi chef, but the owner of the restaurant, Mr. Yoshida, is a traditional Japanese man and refuses to consider it. Juana has two strikes against her as a Mexican woman.

One scene in the movie, when Juana gets into a big argument with Mr. Yoshida, reminded me of when I was 22, living in Japan, and my Japanese boss forbid me from visiting my sister in Chengdu, China, over the Christmas holidays. I had already bought my ferry ticket. The teachers in the junior college where we taught had said they'd cover me for the few days I'd need to take off. It was all about power to him--I hadn't asked his permission. Those first few months in Japan were hard on me, and I was desperate to see my sister.

This man who had recruited me to work as a teacher, Hiroshi, was a rarity in Japan: a dishonest businessman, but that's another story. I told him I was going to go to China anyway. Voices were raised. I'm sure I was the talk of the school office for some time after that!

He didn't fire me. He couldn't risk that. But he never spoke to me again for the rest of the year, which was just fine with me! He had a "kohai" (junior), Robert, who was much more likable...and he dealt with me from there on out.

But back to the movie. I loved Juana's energy and feisty spirit, determined to make a better life for herself, her daughter, and her father. And unwilling to let a traditional, sexist man get in her way!

Mrs. America

Newly on Hulu, Mrs. America is about the fight to pass the ERA in the early 1970s. With an exemplary cast of Cate Blanchett, Uzo Aduba, Tracy Ullman, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Paulson, Rose Byrne, Jeanne Tripplehorn, John Slattery, Margo Martindale, and more, the movie presents the backdrop of the feminist movement and the rise of the Stop ERA resistance led by Phyllis Schlafly, played wonderfully by Cate Blanchett.

My Schlafly moment was when she came to Pacific Lutheran University in 1983 to debate Eleanor Smeal, then president of the National Organization for Women. I wrote about this experience in 2008, when her supporters descended on me after they saw me cheering for Smeal. They tried to convince this 19-year-old that feminists were all lesbians, "promoted" abortion, and hated men. As you might have guessed, they didn't convince me.

I find it scandalous that we still don't have an Equal Rights Amendment, thanks to Schlafly and her desperate housewives. I find it especially interesting that Schlafly herself was highly educated with a master's degree and law degree, and she ran for office a few times as well. She didn't seem to think her traditional views should apply to her own life. She was an extremely bright and capable woman, and Mrs. America seems to suggest that she decided to make opposing the ERA her cause because she wasn't getting enough traction for her hawkish views.

Each episode centers on a different character...so far Schlafly, Gloria Steinem, and Shirley Chisholm. Uzo Aduba is one of the best things about this show, as is her portrayal of Chisholm. Of course I knew that Shirley Chisholm was the first woman--AND Black--presidential candidate, but rarely have we seen her portrayed on film. Many young people don't even know who this trailblazer was, so I'm glad to see her story told. Seeing Bella Abzug and others try to convince her to step down and make way for George McGovern reminded me of the pressures Elizabeth Warren faced to stop her own campaign. When will women no longer be asked to step aside for men, I wonder? I hope in my lifetime!

The first three episodes are available on Hulu for now, with the next ones available on the next six Wednesdays. Watch it!

Thursday, April 9, 2020

My rainbow baby turned 17!

Seventeen years ago today, we heard a loud healthy squall in the delivery room as Kieran, our rainbow baby, entered the world. A rainbow baby is a healthy baby born after a miscarriage or infant death.

I miscarried four babies before Kieran. One evening over dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant, Mike even suggested that we stop trying to have a second child because of the pain and anguish. But we both come from families of three children, and I wanted Chris to have a sibling. We kept trying, in spite of the losses, and I began seeing a reproductive endocrinologist. He could never figure out why I was miscarrying, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was connected to the difficulty of getting pregnant and birthing my first baby at 24 weeks. When I got pregnant with Kieran, I held my breath.

As many of you know, I've always been drawn to rainbows as a symbol of hope and resilience...so this term is perfect for this boy child of mine...wildly creative, fiercely independent, funny, bright, tough but tender, and loving.

Always dramatic and drawn to expressing himself through artistic and creative play, he spent most of his childhood in costume. Here are just a few examples of the costumes over the first several years!

When I look back through his childhood photos, I realize that much of what our family does has been led by Kieran. He's a born leader and he dreams big. As a preschooler, he had a mad crush on a classmate and wanted to build a "love machine" in the backyard...later it turned into a restaurant in the backyard, and nowadays he's desperate for a sauna. At one point, he loved to go to a park and collect branches to make Harry Potter brooms. If we were ever near a body of water, Kieran would end up in it. One night we had a seance, completely orchestrated by him. Then there were the elaborate birthday parties, complete with costumes and dramatic play. And he's been directing plays with his friends from a very young age.
Directing plays at Holden Village

Kieran became a big brother at age three, just as he was starting preschool. One of our close friends observes that he immediately grew up when Nicholas arrived. From the very beginning, he's been an amazing big brother, leading Nick into all sorts of adventures through the years. As the most independent of our three, he also helps Chris out with driving and other support.

We took him to theater from an early age, starting with the preschool-age Ladybug Theater. By the time he was eight years old, Kieran felt a huge pull to the stage and we did everything we could to nurture it. By the end of that year, after some theater camps, he had landed his first professional role, the child lead in Jane Theater Company's pantomime, "Frankenstein: The Little Monster." Twenty-five shows in five weeks...I still can't believe he survived that. He proved himself to be an exceptionally hard worker and committed to his craft. He does not do things by half.

He's taught himself how to play the ukulele and guitar, completely on his own, by watching YouTube...and he's also got a natural gift for cooking. I've learned many things from him in the kitchen. He's a seeker of knowledge and a multi-passionate renaissance man. He loves Bob Dylan and John Steinbeck.

Soon after enduring and recovering from mono last December (and somehow keeping his grades up), earlier this year he directed his first play..."Gruesome Playground Injuries" with Enso Theater Company, as their student director of the year. He crowdfunded the money needed to produce it, cast the actors and found the crew, and directed the entire heartfelt, emotionally complex production. He tells me that he actually enjoys the process of directing more than acting, which comes as no surprise to me.

I'm sure it was a shock to his system to be so completely independent and directive for several months, and then suddenly (literally a few weeks later) be shut completely down and confined to his house, not able to go off and see his friends and do outside activities. What a horrible shock to the system for a teenage boy.

I'm so proud of the man he is becoming. Tonight we are celebrating with takeout Indian food and watching his choice of movie..."The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"!

Here are some glimpses of Kieran's theater highlights through the years...I can't wait to see what he does next...but we will all be terribly sad, and our house will be so quiet, when he leaves for college next year. Love this 17-year-old!

Top row: theater camp at Maplewood, "Frankenstein: The Little Monster," theater camps
Middle row: head shot, "London is London" (NWCT), theater camp, NWCT show, "Sentimental Season"
Bottom row: Kids Company, Mary Poppins, Shrek (NWCT)

Top row: "Sound of Music," "Godspell," "Annie," "Wizard of Oz" (NWCT)
Middle row: "Robin Hood," "Annie," "Children of Eden"; meeting up with Mary Poppins again
Bottom row: "Leaving Manzanita," "A Short in the Wire," "Mr. Burns" (SW Stageworks); "DNA" (OCT), "Gruesome Playground Injuries"

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Inspiration for resilience during physical isolation

This shit is hard on an extrovert who wears
her heart on her sleeves. 

Either I'm having FOMO (fear of missing out), thinking about all the fun activities and events that have been cancelled...or I'm up in the middle of the night worried about my parents, my immunocompromised loved ones, or my oldest son who is working at a grocery store. 

I fret about how the coronavirus will be stopped while the United States has such a haphazard approach to curbing it, state by state. Some states (like Oregon) are being far more aggressive with stay-at-home orders, and that's paid off.

I worry about what will happen in developing countries, where people live in close quarters with poor sanitation and lack of access to clean water much less soap.

I worry about women or children who are domestic violence victims, forced to self-isolate with their abusers.

I worry about the economy and jobless, and I worry about how we will recover from this months-long closure.

And I struggle with the uncertainty of how long it will last. This was not the 2020 I was hoping for.

But RESILIENCE is the theme of my life. 

I find Maya Angelou's words comforting during this time of fear and unknown. At some point, this will end.

Always drawn to stories about people who have overcome great obstacles and emerged stronger than imagined, that's also been the theme of my pandemic viewing and reading. (Well, I must confess that I have also watched that waste of time "The Tiger King" and other light shows!)

I wanted to share with you three highlights of the last two weeks:

Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker

I wrote about Madam CJ Walker three years ago, during my "I Was a Stranger" Lenten series.

Madam CJ was the wealthiest African-American woman of her time, one of the most successful African-American business owners ever, among the greatest African-American philanthropists in history, and (arguably) the first female self-made millionaire in the United States.

I read this Netflix series was coming when I looked up director Kasi Emmons after I watched the amazing biopic Harriet, which she also directed. ("Harriet" didn't receive rave reviews, but I found it to be immensely moving.)

Octavia Spencer plays Madam CJ, and although they took liberties with some of the history, the result is a compelling historical series about race, resilience, and gumption! Sarah Breedlove (her real name) had a feisty independence and self-awareness that was ahead of her time, and she overcame obstacle after obstacle. As a new entrepreneur, I especially found it to be inspiring. Check it out!


Another Netflix gem, "Unorthodox" is based on the memoir by Deborah Feldman, a woman who grew up in the Hasidic Satmar sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Deeply unhappily married and feeling stifled, she escaped her community to become an independent woman. I read Feldman's gripping memoir back in 2012 and my blog review attracted a number of angry Hasidic Jews, who set out to discredit Feldman. Fortunately, I actually had a respectful conversation with one Hasidic woman who had actually read the book. 
In the Netflix show, much of which is in Yiddish, the main character, Esty, escapes to Berlin because her mother had fled there. Her husband and his slightly wild and off-kilter cousin Moishe come to Berlin to try to convince her to return to the fold. The character of Esty is a compilation of many people who have left the Hasidic community. It's a new story all its own, but inspired by Feldman's book. 

The Hasidic community might not agree, but I felt that the show conveyed deep respect for the Jewish faith as well as the Satmar sect. 

I was reminded that as a young woman, I loved the movie "Yentl" (based on "Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy" by Isaac Bashevis Singer) because the main character was another woman trapped inside an orthodox Jewish community, unable to study theology like she wanted. She pretended to be a man so she could follow her heart and become educated. 

Both the real Deborah Feldman and Esty in the Netflix series are strong, resilient women who have to go to great lengths to escape every sort of normalcy they knew, leaving behind their whole communities so they could express themselves freely and become the women they were meant to be.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

You might have seen the movie "Just Mercy," released last year. I have been waiting to read Bryan
Stevenson's book before watching the movie. I just finished it this weekend, and it was hard to put down.

Just Mercy will infuriate you when you learn about the scores of black and brown people imprisoned for life or on death row for seemingly insignificant crimes...or children sent to adult prison for life for making stupid decisions. So many of them receive pathetic or no legal advice or support. Many of them already victims of abuse, they continued to be raped and assaulted in prison. 

And Walter McMillian, like so many Black and brown people, ended up on death row because of the racist structures and white supremacy in our society, convicted and sentenced to death as innocent victims.

As a young, idealist attorney, Bryan Stevenson met McMillian on death row early in his career. He soon uncovered the facts: the prosecution had no real case to convict McMillian on murder charges. So they fabricated the evidence and pressured a few men to accuse him.

McMillian lived in Monroeville, home of Harper Lee and setting of To Kill a Mockingbird...but the townspeople cared more about their reputation than the truth of what still happens to Black people, so many years after Scout and Atticus...they could not see they had tried and convicted their own Tom Robinson. Over the years, Stevenson tirelessly worked to overturn the conviction and restore McMillian to freedom.

Stevenson has been likened to the United States' Nelson Mandela. His Equal Justice Initiative (founded over 30 years ago, and now with 150 people on staff) provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. 

Walter McMillian with Bryan Stevenson
Many of the people Stevenson works with have never been listened to, respected, or given a chance to make better choices. And this is where the resilience comes in. In spite of being treated so horribly, and in some cases being on death row and terrified their lives will be ending, so many of them still find hope and the joy in little things...like chocolate milkshakes, or a vist from their kind lawyer. 

Stevenson shares a powerful anecdote, about a Black woman who was waiting for him after one of his trials...because she was called to provide support to others:
“All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they're not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don't care. I don't know, it's a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here [at the court] to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.'
I chuckled when she said it. During the McMillian hearings, a local minister had held a regional church meeting about the case and had asked me to come speak. There were a few people in the African American community whose support of Walter was muted, not because they thought he was guilty but because he had had an extramarital affair and wasn't active in the church. At the church meeting, I spoke mostly about Walter's case, but I also reminded people that when the woman accused of adultery was brought to Jesus, he told the accusers who wanted to stone her to death, 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.' The woman's accusers retreated, and Jesus forgave her and urged her to sin no more. But today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion. I told the congregation that we can't simply watch that happen. I told them we have to be stonecatchers.
When I chuckled at the older woman's invocation of the parable, she laughed, too. 'I heard you in that courtroom today. I've even seen you hear a couple of times before. I know you's a stonecatcher, too.”
I am grateful for people like Bryan Stevenson, the "stone catchers" in our society...who catch the stones aimed at the most vulnerable in our society instead of throwing them. Because “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

I am listening to Glennon Doyle's latest book, Untamed, right now, and I am finding myself inspired to tears. More on that book to come!

I just created a new Facebook group, Shine and Inspire, to share inspiration and resources on how to express ourselves untamed and creative...free to be who we are meant to be. We'll talk about feminism, politics, arts and culture, books, and music...and the purpose will be to inspire and motivate each other. Support, love, and friendship for all! Join us!

For now, I will leave you with this candle, which I made several years ago...as I prayed for a close friend facing breast cancer. "All will be well, and all will be well, and all matter of things will be well." (Julian of Norwich) And "While there is tea, there is hope" (thanks to my mum-in-law Olga for the coaster!).

Stay well. Love to all!