Welcome Home

I’ve tried five different countries, and no one will exchange Georgian Lari. I don’t know what these people did to damage their currency so much – possibly the cursive double-u’s that make up their entire alphabet – but I just got home from my American bank who said they had never seen this money before. They called the home office and confirmed what I already suspected – there is no country called Georgia. It was all an elaborate scam.

Now I use my three fifty-lari bills as bookmarks in the new paperbacks I picked up at Barnes and Noble my first day home. My Kindle was lifted while I slept in a corner of the international terminal at the Ataturk Airport. I’m not as broken up about the theft of the Kindle – it had served its purpose, and I have many other things they could’ve stolen (ex. my soul) – but I think what hurts the most is that in the immediate future I won’t finish 1776. I had one chapter to go; George Washington had just finished making a triology of bad decisions and left me asking, “How is Colonial MacGuyver going to get out of this one?”

The journey from Van, Turkey, to Fayetteville, AR, took 56 hours. They discontinued direct flights after no one from Fayetteville ever came to Van. After watching a few episodes of Farscape, I slept Sunday night on a row of padded airport chairs with my ninth-grade basketball hoodie pulled over my face. Every few hours another group of Germans would arrive, singing and tap dancing and slapping me awake with their joy of finaling making it to safety Istanbul. By the time my alarm went off at four in the morning and I made my way to the Delta check-in desk, sanitation workers were moving my luggage to wax the floor underneath where I laid.

Monday night, after my flight out of Detroit was canceled due to lazy storms, I held back exhaustion tears on a free airport shuttle filled with old people (I was by far the youngest person on my final plane home). As they talked about the Northwest Arkansas Craft Fair we arrived at La Quinta Inn, where half an hour later I fell asleep in a large box of mix fried rice.

Early Tuesday morning as the passengers from my plane gathered in the La Quinta lobby for the shuttle back to our replacement flight, a elderly couple from Joplin talked about the things they lost in the recent tornados. Antique scooters, three of them, though the man originally pieced them together out of spare parts and was confident he could do it again. I sat down on the outside of the circle, preparing to fast forward through the next four hours, when one of the soccer mom passengers said, “You’re the guy from Turkey, right?”

What?

“Yeah,” said another grandmother, “I heard you were in Turkey teaching karate or something.”

“English,” I said. “It’s a more aggressive style than karate.”

“Well, good for you. We talked, and we’re proud that you went over there and had adventures.”

The day before, as we sat on the tarmac for two hours waiting for our pilots’ work day to expire, I told the man sitting next to me what I had done with my last nine months. After that I ran silent all the way to my two queen beds in room 122. I guess the other stranded passengers Breakfast Club-ed together to welcome back to the U.S. And it worked. After we went through security I waited for the other passengers so we could walk to the gate together as the group we had become. Even the old woman from Joplin who, the day before as we waited to board the flight the first time, woke me up as I sat next to her and said, “Take you hair off my shoulder,” like I had put my hand on her naked thigh. Tonight I’m cutting my hair.

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Everything that Happened in My Last Week

For my last conversation class I greedily reserved the topic of “Magic,” eagerly anticipating the wild and fantastic responses the students would give to questions such as, “If this were a magical university, what type of spells would you teach?” and “If you could conjure food and shelter, would you still go to work?” However, I had to spend the first thirty minutes explaining the concept of magic.

“COME ON!” I yelled. “I know you’ve seen Harry Potter!”

We kept getting caught on the idea that magic is more than simply something imaginary. Finally I settled on the simplified question, “If you could say one word and it would happen, what word would it be?” I got answers such as PEACE and FLY until grandfather Ahmed raised his hand and boldly said, “If I was the president of America, I would restructure the economy.”

I finished with the classic Magic Box scenario – faced with a fierce dragon, you can pull one item out of a magic box to defeat it. There were some imaginative answers, such as a red rose or a lady dragon, but the creativity they’d shown before was lacking. All Fissun could do was repeated close and open her dictionary, looking up the same word and triumphantly shouting “GUN!” each time she found it. However, Mustafa, originator of classics such as the dream restaurant and dolphin-bird, innovatively wanted to turn the box into the basket of a hot air balloon and tour the world.

My last medical faculty class started with an sixty minute wait in the dean’s sitting room with his two-faced secretary Hateje. I usually have to sit twenty minutes before the busy dean welcomes me in, but I sat quietly and read Treasure Island for an hour before he came out like he was right on time. The class ended with a discussion of how each man met his wife. “This is a secret thing,” Bulent said. “We do not usually discuss it.” As it happens, they don’t discuss it because no one has an interesting story – they all had arranged marriages. Except Bulent, who searched for a wife himself. He approached his future father-in-law, who said his daughter must finish college before marrying. Bulent said he couldn’t wait two more years. “Unfortunately, I could find no one else. So I married her two years later.”

Both classes gave me gifts. The regular faculty students gave me a kilim, or special rug. The medical class gave me a linen shirt with a fancy graphic design around the collar, marking it as a shirt I will never wear.

Now I’m preparing to leave. The guest house manager helped. A few nights ago as I Googled myself read the news, one of the receptionists at my hotel approached me. “We need you to move out,” he said. All the suites were full, and they needed one for a VIP guest. Since I’ve only lived here for eight months, they decided I had the least right to stay. A few of the maids helped me push my suitcases down the hall to 101, the room I spent my first month in.

A friend of mine came today and checked in without me. The desk had to call me (“Mr. Cass, sorry for talking”) for confirmation of our friendship. Later, she texted me: “The receptionist just asked me what your job is.” Eight months later, and they still have no idea who I am.

Thu, the friend, and I went to the city center to watch the president of Turkey speak at an election rally, which was well attended despite the political unrest in the area. Later as we walked the crowded, traffic-less streets, a Turk stopped Thu and pointed at the flag she was holding. “You should drop that. Someone might hurt you.” Then a passerby took it out of her hands and stomped on it. Before I knew it, the man was running into a crowd followed closely by surprisingly fast police. It’s illegal to deface a Turkish flag. People came from blocks away to watch – Turks are suckers for a good fight.

After that we sat in a tea house and watched teenagers run through the streets chased by police in heavy white helmets and plastic-looking body armor. It was like watching a colorized Keystone Cops with real violence and terror. Workers ran inside the tea house holding the outdoor chai tables over their heads, piling them in the back so the rioters wouldn’t smash them, or use them to smash something else. Though we were hungry, we couldn’t leave because each time I stepped outside, another group of rock-throwers was running from angry, bouncing white helmets. I usually do a good job of avoiding demonstrations in Van; today I stayed in the city a little too long.

However, when I think about leaving I think about Murat, the herbologist, who on Tuesday during our class tea break sat with a big blue Redhouse Turkish to English dictionary, silently flipping pages. As I talked to another student, he blurted out, “I yearn for you.” Instead of offering a correction, I took him at his word.

The Schmeding Center

I was asked to write an entry about my short story, “The Schmeding Center,” for One Weird Idea, the magazine publishing it. If that’s what it takes to get non-relatives to read my blog stories, then so be it.

I wrote “The Schmeding Center” in my senior year of college. It was different then – it started on a moonbase. Now there is no moon – well, it’s there, you just can’t see it when you look at the story on paper. However, the idea behind the story is the same. It’s about how relationship must change.

In college I lived on the same street that I grew up on. Three blocks down, in a tiny, beautiful brick house with a dying metal railing around the concrete front porch. But I managed to stay separate from my parents, dropping by for meals or cable television (we only had a record player. It sounds hipster but we couldn’t afford anything else). Usually I came when I needed something – often that was as much emotional as anything else. And then there was a day when I couldn’t get what I needed, emotionally. My mom didn’t notice it. Neither did her cat, Gigi, whom she adopted to replace my married sister. Gigi is French; my mom speaks to it in a French accent.

Regardless, I left unfulfilled and generally frustrated for no definable reason. Pondering it in silence (because it cost too much money to turn on the record player), I eventually realized that I was still behaving like I was a dependent. Not the food or the cable – I can get that stuff from my grandmother at Christmas – but the emotional demand I placed on going home. I wanted the same sort of sustenance that I was used to when I’d walk home in my white collared uniform from St. Joesph’s Elementary. Part of becoming a man is letting go of that. At least that’s what I’ve heard from television.

The emotional give and take of going home doesn’t go away, but it does have to evolve. Part of the way I found that out was by writing this story, the first draft of which came a couple of hours after I went home. But it originally took place on a moonbase.

The story itself takes place in a majestic and peaceful storage facility – the Schmeding Center collect and save personalities of dead people. With a monthly subscription, a client can visit the files of his dead relatives. Hijinks ensue, in the form of emotional epiphanies and a deceased mafia don sub-plot that I eventually edited out.

There’s an actual Schmeiding Center (with a well placed ‘i’ in the middle) – it’s a center for the elderly near my hometown in Northwest Arkansas. In the late stages of her Alzeheimer’s, we often took my grandmother there. She was a wonderful wobbling woman with a mental box full of catchphrases that the disease could never take away. She used to sing loudly, “There she is, Ms. America!” when my sister entered the room. In her last few months she’d sing that very thing when my brother brought her soup. She never did it to me; I look too much like my grandfather.

I’ve talked myself into a circle – I wanted to say something about the story I wrote, the first story I sold, but I’ve forgotten what. This is my first acceptance out of eighteen rejections on multiple stories – “The Schmeding Center” changed every time until someone thought I got it right. My sister, who paints, got a side job writing an art article called “Fancy Frugal” in the Central Arkansas lifestyle magazine. It was infuriating at the time, because she beat me to publication. It seems I’ll have the last laugh, because not only will I go to press, but she was long ago replaced in our family by a cat.

The first issue of One Weird Idea can be purchased with 99 cents for e-readers everywhere on May 22nd.

My Students School Me in Imagination

I wrapped up my second to last week of conversation classes with a simple discussion on creativity, because that was the only conversation topic from the Internet TESL Journal that I hadn’t used yet. With deftly crafted questions such as, “How does childhood affect creativity,” “Does Turkey have a creative culture,” and “Is creativity natural or is it learned,” I thought I had enough material to get through the two hour class without really paying attention. But I was wrong.

After my opening question of “What is something you created” dive-bombed like a bird who’s just plain tired of always flying against the wind, I countered with, “What is something you’d like to create?” To give an example of the answers I wanted, I offered two ideas of my own – an instant freezer (like a backwards microwave) and a automatic vacuum cleaner. I realize that the later already exists, but no one in Turkey has heard of a Roomba. Out here, robotic servants are a dream of the West.

Murat, the forty-something herbologist with an intense, unexplainable love for sentence length raised his hand first. He began to describe in great detail the process of photosynthesis and concluded with the idea of incoroporating chloroplast into human skin cells. Of course, he had to repeat himself three times before I understood what he wanted to invent. But as I understood, I slowly nodded and wrote, right beneath my suggestions in blue on the white board, “PHOTOSYNTHETIC HUMANS.”

The other students, taking their cue from far-reaching, hard sci-fi Murat instead of Popular Mechanics Cass, started rattling off answers with the enthusiasm of third-graders naming a class goldfish. In fact, I tried several times to curb the question and move on, but was stopped by one madly waving hand in the back and a sixty-year-old woman yelling, “TIME MACHINE! TIME MACHINE!”

We came up with the following:

Animal translator
Third eye on the tip of the right index finger
Dream recorder
Dream explainer
Dream restaurant
Chi-energy transformer
Teleportation
Nanotech classroom displays
Mind reader
Mind eraser
Immortality

I’ve already written a flash fiction story called, “Dream Restaurant.” I walked home directly from class and pounded it out before I forgot how excited Mustafa was about the idea. He went into great detail about the menus.

We spent the most time on “Mind Eraser;” Gulsen suggested it as a device that would erase selected – bad – memories and leave the client only happier. However, there was a great schism in the classroom as to whether or not a human needed bad memories. Many thought that without memories of mistakes, we’d go on indefinitely committing sins without learning from our past. However, as Gulsen explained, the mind eraser is meant to be used daily.

What surprised me, though, was the actual measure of creativity they employed. As evidenced by the overwhelming lack of response to “What is something you’ve created,” Turkey doesn’t make a whole lot of things. Complicated items like computers or cars are imported; things like brooms and axes are made in the back of hardware stores. There isn’t much invention here. But the students attacked this fantasy project with an abandon that I haven’t seen before. Ahmet actually waved both hands in the air to get my attention, to tell me about his idea for a 130 kilometer gondola…to space.

After forty-five minutes I closed down the discussion with a tea break; one hand refused to go down. “Okay, Selma,” I said. “Last one.”

“We need a machine that stops bad things and makes good things,” she said. I asked what she meant. “Like, someone will do something bad – the machine will stop them. And the machine will make people do good things.”

Unwittingly, Selma described every cinematic robot overlord that I know of. When I watch those movies, as HAL passive-aggressively tries to kill Dave or the Cylons destroy humanity with nuclear weapons, I always wonder, who was it that wanted to give the robot such power and intelligence? That person is Selma.

End of the Year Party Without Government Oversight

After we found out that the American government wouldn’t be paying for an end of the year party, the Fulbrighters in Turkey decided to throw our own. It took about two months for someone to finally say, “Fine! I WILL plan this carouse. With great power comes great resplendence.” Something like that.

We settled on Antalya, the Turkish Riviera; the people who named it thus are the same
who call Erzurum the Paris of the East. Middle class Europeans and rich Russians vacation there because it’s cheaper and not heavily policed, respectively. Our all-inclusive resort, The Sea Life, had a view of a rock beach, a swirly slide, and an open bar. Looking like a Sandcrawler of the Sea, it had everything we needed. In three days I only left to go to the airport. I’ve never stayed in an all inclusive resort before (and probably won’t again – it was like a Little Europe with big iron walls to keep out the Turks), but I’m amazed at how they make any money. We got a group rate, and I made sure to make my money back at the dessert bar during lunch, dinner, and breakfast (chocolate cake keeps well in the minifridge).

Turks aren’t big on shorts or exposing any other part of the body, so no one’s skin was prepared for the sun. Even now I look like someone hit me in the stomach with a water balloon full of red chili powder. We spent most of Saturday standing in a ten person line at the waterpark-style curling slide, misusing it as best we could. After going through every variation of backwards, upside down and handcuffed that we could think of, we started sliding with eight to twelve people at a time. On the penultimate run, I was trapped at the bottom of the pool as other Fulbrighters fell out of the slide on top of me like elementary students dog-piling an outcast. However, it turned out I was in pretty good shape as one girl in the run broke her knee. After she was Jesus carried out of the shallow end, one of the guys said, “Do you think we could do fifteen?” And we did.

I used to run award shows for my fraternity. At the end of the year I put together a Powerpoint with pictures and titles like “Most Resembling a Muppet” or “Most Likely a Robot.” My senior year I was called on to do this in three hours – I bought twenty items from Dollar Tree and worked backwards with awards like, “Member Who Looks Most Like a Square” and “Achievement in Magic Shoes.” Shortly after someone decided to wrestle the logistics in Antalya, I volunteered to give awards. Some of my favorites:

Best Couple
Best Dance Crew
Best Rap Duo
Secretly Engaged
Secretly Canadian
Most Motivational Facebook Statuses
Most Inspirational Bro
Most Valuable Frank
Most Sarahs

The last one went to the four Sarahs who ruined the program by having the same name. They got what they deserved. Runner-up was Sasha Frankel, who was one consonant away from winning. She was also honorable mention for Most Valuable Frank. Better luck next year. Many of the awards came with stories; people emailed these in with superlatives attached, and I got to embarrass different people by revealing their dark secrets. I now know much more about my friends than I wanted.

Later that night we sang karaoke on an outdoor stage until an employee took away the hard drive because we were rocking too hard. We also spent a good deal of time at a Turkish wedding reception that was happening with thick bass beats in the resort’s built-in disco (they also had an in-house DJ). Finally, a few people wrestled in the lobby and one Fulbrighter peed in a potted plant. I watched this all happen. Somewhere in the weekend, one person made the comment that as Fulbright scholars, we are America’s future. Some of us will go into politics, law, the arts. Several are already headed to Ivy League graduate programs next fall. I think this comment was made after we slithered in a fifteen-person snake down the waterslide. Post-knee-break.

You’re in good hands, America.

It Does Feel Good to be a Gangster

There are a few people in Van outside of the university that I hang out with. Rojda works at a slaughterhouse and wants to be a veterinarian. The old man with the dried apple mustache and perfect circle reading glasses frequents my tea house – we play backgammon together a couple times a month. Farhad’s family is in the Turkish mafia.

That was just a supposition until recently. When we’d get together, Farhad would say things like, “People do not mess with my family,” or “That man owes his life to my father.” He also has an aggressive demeanor during backgammon where he insults me when I lose and gets angry and silent when I win. Sometimes I let him win and endure the abuse. Droids don’t pull people’s arms out of their sockets when they lose. That’s what I learned from the Bible.

Farhad called me last week and wanted to hang; I put it off until yesterday. When he came into the tea house, his head was shaved – he had been called up to military service. He was not happy.

After I lost graciously, we went walking in the streets of Van, arm in arm. Every couple of streets Farhad would stop and talk to a passerby. Often he would pull me into shops. “This is my cousin,” he would start. “If you ever need cellphones/vegetables/ammunition/construction work, you come to him.” These guys would always greet Farhad with a couple of fake punches that looked like they really hurt. Okay, I’d say standing near the entrance. It’s nice to meet you. Memnum oldum.

As we walked Farhad told me that his family has over one million members worldwide – why, just last week a journalist from England was in Van interviewing Farhad on the reasons his family is so fertile. It all leads back to the family head, he said; Farhad’s great grandfather, who lives in a palace (“Like Topkapi,” Farhad said – Topkapi is where the sultans lived); along with him in the palace lives his four wives and several bodyguards. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has been known to travel there to ask for favors.

Like Disneyland with guns

(Later that night, playing cards with some friends, I asked them about Farhad’s family and if there was actually a palace and a million Farhads. They said yes – more of a tribe than a family, but yes.)

As we finished our walk, Farhad took me by the shoulders and said, “Do you remember the shops I brought you to?” Yes, of course. Where else am I going to buy ammunition. “I brought you to those so you’ll know where to go if you’re in trouble. Those people will protect you.” Protect me? From what? “You know, sometimes it’s dangerous here. Well, my cousins can be dangerous too. And you’re on our side now.”

Boo yeah. Part of the mafia.

Mission Accomplishedish

I still have three weeks before I go home (though my students don’t know it – I may a few creditors in town, and I plan on giving them the slip…of paper with my forwarding address). However, when I got to Van and realized how much there really was to do here – look at cats, eat breakfast, remain completely motionless – I set a goal for myself. I wanted to get one short story accepted for publication before I left Turkey.

And look at me now, high school bullies who thought spaceships were a stupid thing to doodle in my American Government notebook.  I finally succeeded.

A story I wrote about storing dead people on hard drives (laughter! romance! intrigue!) is being published in the inaugural issue of One Weird Idea. What are they paying me, you might ask. I have no idea. They don’t either, since it’s the first issue, but I’m less money conscious now that I keep all mine in a sock underneath my mattress. The students who work at the hotel where I live still haven’t found it.

The initial e-mail I got started with, “Ms. Trumbo – ” and went on to say, though the story was great and altogether accepted, the maleness of the narrator was a little unconvincing. While that was a blow to my masculinity, the editor was actually much more helpful than if I just tried to decide what was manly on my own.

Look me in the beard and call me Ms. Trumbo

The magazine is electronic only, and it can be had on e-readers galaxy-wide on May 22nd for 99 cents. That’s the price of four gumballs, two Turkish bus rides, or the TV that I stole and then accidentally dropped four quarters.