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."