Gratitude is not a Virtue

Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland#Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Germany

It is often said that gratitude is a virtue, and being grateful for what we have is a precondition for happiness. Besides that gratitude is often invoked in moments of preachiness and attempts to exert social control—”be grateful, young lady”—I have been skeptical of gratitude as an idea. I don’t mean the linguistic politeness formula of saying “thank you” in response to courtesy—I mean the idea that one should exist in a constant state of being actively thankful for every little blessing, and that if you are not, you are an “ingrate” and you will not be happy.

For me, I don’t associate being “grateful” with being happy. I associate happiness with the opposite of gratitude—with taking for granted. I am happiest in those moments, or during those periods of life, when the things I love and want and need seem so abundant and secure that I do not have to be actively grateful for them. You know what I’m referring to—the times when you choose not to spend time with a loved one, because you know your loved one will be with you forever. The times when you don’t watch the sunset on the lake, because you know you can watch it any day. The times you don’t eat until you’re stuffed, because you know there will still be enough to eat the next day. Gratitude forces you to think about all the bad things that can happen, but happiness is about forgetting about the bad possibilities—or perhaps happiness is a world where bad things don’t happen as much.

In other words, there is something better than gratitude. There is the feeling of being so secure in what you have that you do not need to be “grateful” for it. There is the feeling that what you want or need is so abundant, or so accessible, or so equitably distributed, that you can afford to take it for granted. There is the feeling of giving to others for its own sake, and not expecting any prescribed attitude in return. There is the possibility of a world where compassion and generosity are so commonplace, mutual, and so freely given, that they would not have to be met with gratitude.

Gratitude, in short, is not a virtue. Gratitude is an adaption to a world of scarcity.

I’m not absolutely against gratitude as a mindset. There are realities that we cannot change—tragedy, death—and gratitude is a tool to inoculate ourselves against those “whips and scorns of time.” It is also an appropriate response to the real charity, generosity, and love that does happen in our world as it currently exists. But why do we valorize and celebrate gratitude so much? Isn’t gratitude just a reflection of the default state of the world and life—unjust and cruel? Wouldn’t it be a better world if it were one where none of us had to be grateful for having our reasonable needs and wants met?

I, for one, live for those moments when I don’t have to be explicitly grateful—and I strive for a world where no one has to be grateful.

Image: Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland

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Routine Life as Adventure

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There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

–Henri Matisse

On a recent weekday, I was feeling too anxious and antsy to work, so I got up from my desk to take a cathartic walk. My walking led me into a secluded, wooded city park. I thought I was alone, but sensed movement. I look backward and spot a small, petite, furry brown creature transversing the trail. Then, another one emerges. The little mammals seem unaware or unperturbed by my presence. They waddle across the path, sniff the air non-committally, and then amble, disappearing, into the brush. Were they groundhogs? Beavers heading to the East River? Wombats escaped from the Bronx Zoo? Were they half-baked Pikachus that got loose while Nintendo was still working out the kinks on PókemonGO? The true identity of the small brown creatures is yet to be conclusively determined.

On a Friday night, I rolled into a party 2 hours late and breathlessly spilled to my date, “I spent all evening following the news of the coup in Turkey and making sure my friends were all alive. When I had had enough of that, I headed to Brooklyn. But when I got to Brooklyn I put the wrong address into Google Maps, so I ended up at a construction site. I wandered around the construction site for 15 minutes until I realized my mistake. Then I made it here.” The party host then handed me a mug with a hot liquid, which was either a revolting drink or a flavorful soup, and it occurred to me that priming and perception have a lot to do with taste.

The Saturday after that, at a beach in South Jersey, I collapsed, again breathless, onto my towel. Where were you? my friends asked. “I was on an adventure,” I announced. I explained that I had swum far away from the shore, away from most of the other swimmers on the clothing-optional beach. Then I floated onto my back and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I didn’t know where I was and didn’t see anyone around–the shore nearest to me was an empty strand. I put it together that I had floated out of the clothing-optional area, into and then past the clothed beach, and into some closed-off section of the beach. In order not to get in trouble–possibly excommunicated?–from the beach, I needed to swim against the current, back into the clothing-optional section, without landing on the clothed beach or being sighted by clothed swimmers. Thus ensued a desperate, existential swim against the inexorable Atlantic tide, with each stroke seeming to send me reeling further away from my destination–my destination being the bright white sign announcing “Beyond This Point You May Encounter Nude Bathers.” But I reached this sign made it back to tell the tale.

For most of my 20s, I have moved to a different city every year, traveling extensively and having the typically adventurous adventures that I have been writing about over the past 6 years: being tear-gassed, fleeing police, sneaking into castles and abandoned hotels, climbing a mountain on the border of Russia and seeing the moon closer and brighter than you’ve ever seen it. Now that I have been living in the same city for almost two years, and I don’t have immediate plans to move abroad, I have begun to worry that my life is going to become routine, quotidian, banal–in short, I will stop having adventures.

Looking back on my past 2 weeks, though, it occurs that adventure might be more of an attitude, or choice, or state of mind, than an external reality.

Age is Not a Number

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“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”

— Sheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

I’ve always suspected that age is a flexible construct.

When I was 12 years old, I knew with certainty I was not a teenager, and did not want to be a teen, yet. Therefore, on what would have been my 13th birthday, I resolved that I was not turning 13. I announced that everyone around me continue to regard me as 12 years old. I didn’t have many friends my age, and the adults around me obliged. I still consider myself as never having been 13.

It’s not just me. Others have this intuition. When I later agreed to turn 14–as I did in the end–I was such a serious, stoical kid that people started saying of me, “She’s 14 going on 40.” There are other related formulations, including “I’m 54 years young,” or “I’m a grandma on the inside.” You can see it in this interview with Maurice Sendak (“I’ll never turn 10”) or this interview with Kanye West (“forever the 5-year-old of something”). We all are in our own ways trying to manipulate, subvert the rules of numerical age, to escape stereotypes of our empirical age group, our generation, or to try to represent some deeper truth of our selves and our personal identities.

But the rule-bending, I suspect, is indicative of a deeper problem: age is not a number. Of course, there are exceptions if, let’s say, you are a medical doctor examining a person’s physiology. But the truths that most of us seek when we ask someone their age, or that we communicate through the construct of our age, cannot be encapsulated in a digit.

Therefore, I believe the whole idea and practice of communicating age has to be deconstructed and redesigned.

What if instead of “I’m 26 years old,” I could say, “I am 23 countries, 3 major heartbreaks, 2 higher educational degrees, 3 emergency room visits, 5 tear-gassings, 1 house explosion, 5 internships, 1 near-death experience, 10 jobs, 3 divorces and 3 step-parents, 20 house moves, 60 students, 3 languages, 9 memorized poems” old? What if our age wasn’t a single, dry number? What if our age were the essence of our experiences and worldview? What if ever time we said our age, it was a story, an oral history, an epic poem, a song, a dance, a word?  What if our age were tied to something else, anything else more idiosyncratic or meaningful than a 1 – 3 digit number that represents a psychologically arbitrary number of planetary orbits around the sun?

If age were not a number–how old would you be?

Top image source here. Bottom image mine, taken in Jodhpur.

In Defense of Not Having Goals

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Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

—Soren Kierkegaard

I always admired my goal-oriented friends. They had 10-year plans outlining their career trajectory; graphs predicting their millionaire status by age 30; real estate purchases and investments charted; and one individual even delivered a “quarterly report” on his vaunted progress toward his inexorable success. It was charismatic, visionary, and I was drawn to it, aspired to it.

But applying their approach to my own life never worked. I could rarely see more than one step ahead of where I was. Trying to determine my destination in advance that way felt inauthentic, ingenuous, a bit self-absorbed, in a way that I couldn’t articulate. I was satisfied with my work and play and life. Yet in the back of my mind, my seeming inability to set and commit to a big goal left me feeling inadequate in relation to my hyper goal-driven friends. I assumed that, despite my contentment, my efforts weren’t as good–because they didn’t obviously add up to an audacious outcome.

In time, I learned to resolve this internal conflict. Now, I can see that I just have my own approach, it just happens to be quite different from the one followed by my goal-oriented friends. I call it a process-oriented approach.

In my approach, I don’t try to define in advance the outcomes of my efforts, and then reflexively prescribe myself the process and practices that will get me to that outcome. I have come to believe that this goal-oriented approach has some major flaws. What if I don’t enjoy the work, the lifestyle, the process of reaching the goal? What if I don’t want to make the world conform to my singular vision of myself? What if I want to serve others rather than make the world serve me? What if I had to ignore other opportunities, neglect curiosities, and delay many a great many gratifications in order to stay on track toward my goal? And worst–the question that always plagued me when setting goals–what if, after everything I’ve invested or sacrificed, the destination isn’t what I thought it would be?

Instead, I order my life the other way around: I start with the process and leave the outcome open-ended. What activities, tasks, and projects do I like doing and being part of? Does the work I’m doing enable me to support myself? Am I interested and challenged and enriched by the work I’m doing and the play I’m engaged in? How often am I bored? How often am I challenged? Does my work and leisure time align with my values and principles? Do I have freedom and autonomy, but also the embrace of a community? Does my work generally support efforts that aim to expand beauty and fairness in the world?

These questions–not “where will I be in 10 years”–are my guiding ones, and they have worked for me so far. In fact, a recent article vindicates my approach. According to one professor, the process-oriented approach not only has the potential to provide more overall happiness in life. It can also get you to outcomes in the end:

…I recommend … an alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.

I’ve become content with my lack of discrete goals and comfortable with the possibility that my existentialism-infused, process-oriented days either may, or may not, add up to the “big goal” that my goal-oriented friends’ will. But I will have lived each and every day in a way that suits my interests, challenges me, captivates my imagination, and aligns with my values. To me, that in itself would be a worthy goal.

Thailand and Surprise

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“The amplitudes of life get smaller as you age. There are less and less things to experience for the first time. And each time you experience something, you don’t get quite as excited. But you don’t get quite as hurt either. I wonder what it will feel like when I’m seventy…”
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In life, the feelings of competence and of surprise are roughly inversely proportional to one another. As a kid I constantly felt like I didn’t quite get how things worked and why things happened the way they did, but I was often surprised. As an adult I know what’s what, and as a result things take me off guard less often. Over the course of life surprise changes–or evolves, or corrodes, depending on your view–into competence.

As with many things in life, one is not better than the other. Surprise and competence are different ways of being appropriate to different developmental stages of our lives. Personally, I prefer a state of competence, because as a competent person I have more to offer others. Surprise on the other hand is more egocentric and consumption-oriented. But surprise is a function of learning, so it is not bad either.

In any case, the fact is that adult life structurally contains less surprise than childhood. That’s why it’s so refreshing to be taken completely by surprise once in a while. During a recent week in northern Thailand, I encountered a lot of surprises. “Wow,” I gasped when I ascended a temple interior designed in the shape of a dragon and entered another temple with a beehive affixed to its threshold. “Are you serious?” I whispered when our hosts served a heaping bowl of fried crickets. “Really?” when our boat ride had to turn around because we reached the Burmese border. “Wow!” when I was playing with two young girls, and they showed me a tiny fern which snapped shut when touched. “Crazy!” when a springtime storm turned to hail. “Amazing!” as I watched an artisan etch exquisite, meticulous detail into metal using just a hammer, a nail, and an old log. “Really?” when our hosts ordered filled the table with food, and then ordered even more food. And when an elephant’s trunk first touched me I was speechless. Of course, as a citizen of America and a resident of Turkey, I was surprised to witness a social context where religion wasn’t a political tool, and watch a Labor Day gathering transpire peacefully and tear-gas-free.

The nice thing is that Thailand (as I experienced it) is a gentle and kind place to be surprised: I experienced no judgmental attitudes, disdain, or exorbitant curiosity; just goodwill and a live-and-let-live attitude. And usually before you’ve even had time to really process the surprising thing, you’ve already been handed something tasty and spicy to eat. The next time I need a retreat from my adultish zone of competence, I will definitely be heading back to Thailand for more pleasant surprises.

Istanbul Day Trips: Kanlıca

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Istanbul is expansive–so expansive that the journey and visit to certain parts can consume an entire day in itself. I will be writing a couple of posts describing these out-of-the-way gems hidden in the vastness of Istanbul. In this post I will talk about Kanlıca. Later I will write about Belgrade Forest, Princes Islands, and Kilyos.

Kanlıca is an old seaside village on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, just past Anadoluhisarı in the Beykoz district and across from Istiniye on the European side. Kanlıca can be reached by taking the Boğaz Turu ferry line which starts in Eminönü, or by taking any of several bus lines from Üsküdar–the latter option affords more flexibility in terms of timing but contains the risk of traffic. Either way, once at the pier, there are several cafe/restaurants replete with couples and groups sitting outside, drinking tea, and eating yogurt out of white plastic cups.

To Istanbulites, the name “Kanlıca” is synonymous with “yogurt,” because of the village’s famous yogurt, which is natural (no preservatives added), made fresh daily, and eaten with powdered sugar on top. I thought the taste was more pungent and crisp than that of typical yogurt, although the sugar was a bit too sweet for my liking. Still, it was a nice treat while sitting meters from the sparkling Bosphorus and across the way from the neighborhood full of historic wooden Ottoman-era mansions, which I plan to explore more fully next time I’m in the area.

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About a 20 minute walk uphill from the pier is Hidiv Kasrı, or Khedive Mansion. Formerly the summer residence of a Egyptian king with an interesting back story, it is now a municipal park. The mansion itself was designed in an attractive art-noveau/neo-baroque style, with a large tower and a circular pavilion. Inside the mansion is a classy but affordable restaurant and some cafes.

The front grounds are a lovely manicured lawn which was bursting with beds of  multicolored tulips; several sets of newlyweds were taking advantage of the picturesque surroundings to shoot wedding photos. The rest of the sprawling grounds consist of trails winding uphill and downhill through a forest of lovely mature trees. Local families were taking walks while their children rode little bikes and scooters next to them; others were jogging. Through the branches, large birds and other interesting fauna as well as stunning views of the Bosphorus could be glimpsed, especially from the lookout point directly across from the mansion.

Overall, I found Hidiv Kasrı to be a surprisingly wholesome attraction, and even more attractive and pleasant than Gülhane Park. It is now my favorite green place in Istanbul.

Read more about Kanlıca and Hidiv Kasrı here.

Possessions

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On a recent rainy and humid Sunday, I attended a book club organized by Istanbul-based expats. One of the members shared her story of how she ended up in Turkey. In middle age, she made a radical life choice to consolidate her possessions, downsize her life, and relocate to Istanbul. She described how liberating it was, and how much happier she is without so much “stuff.”

Everyone nodded in recognition. It’s a shared experience of every “expat,” including myself. In the past three years, I have lived in three different cities in two countries, and the coming years promise to be almost equally mobile. This kind of itinerant lifestyle has implications for accumulation of material possessions–simply that it does not allow for it.

This is not to say I live frugally or that I own few things–with every move I end up paying annoyingly excessive checked luggage and overweight fees and having sore shoulders for three days from hauling heavy suitcases. But there is always a limit because in the end, my life has to fit into whatever I can drag through an airport, and this has daily implications. Prior to each and every not-alimentary purchase, I ask myself “How will I get this home?” (“Home” being wherever the next destination happens to be.) Many purchases get vetoed on this basis, and many shopping trips simply don’t happen.

When I decide to collect something, it must be something tiny, like earrings, or perishable, like wine bottles. My books are e-books. My household decorations are origami cranes which I gift to local friends. I have two pairs of jeans, one black and one blue. My only material valuables are my laptop, cell phone, and my passport. (A fact which was reinforced last month after a gas explosion on my street. I went into the raw, exposed, glass-littered apartment to recover my valuables–in case of a robber intruding before the windows were repaired–only to realize I had almost nothing that needed saving.) And moving frequently implies regular and frequent culling of “things,” so the “things” never have a chance to proliferate.

I don’t automatically scorn people who choose to accumulate material possessions–only those who accumulate them thoughtlessly. One thing about living itinerantly is that it prevents one from careless, reflexive multiplying of possessions and forces conscious consumer habits like quality over quantity, value over convenience, need over want–all of which are good habits whether one lives abroad or not. A rich life is not about having lots of things, only having those things that you really value.

Photo: Wall mural in the Hacıosman metro station.

The Privilege of Routine

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People need routines. It’s like a theme in music. But it also restricts your thoughts and actions and limits your freedom. It structures your priorities and in some cases distorts your logic.
— Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

It’s now trendy to demonize routine, as if doing the same thing repeatedly is intrinsically negative and life-defeating.

It’s true that if you don’t like your routine, then it can be hellish. There are certainly elements of my daily routine I’m not fond of. My commute from work, when I have to cram into an overcrowded metro car, is unpleasant. Lugging groceries up and down the steep hills of Cihangir is a pain. Cleaning floors is a mind numbing chore.

However, when you truly enjoy your routine, it is divine. In the summer months when I first moved to Istanbul, part of my routine at the end of every week was to pack a small bag with a book and a towel, board a ferry to the Princes Islands, then disembark on Burgazada and walk along the coast to a small neighborhood beach. There I would spend hours reading and swimming back and forth in the gentle Bosphorus waves and reading a book on the beach. For exercise I would routinely run circuits along Dolmabahçe Avenue, passing by the late Ottoman palace where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk passed away, or run along the waterfront to Sultanahmet. In the cold months, part of my nightly routine is cutting open a fresh pomegranate, brewing loose leaf green tea, and reading a book recommended to me by my friend or the local book club. On workday mornings, I walk down to the Bosphorus waterfront and watch the sun rise over the edge of the Asian continent, behind the floating Maiden’s Tower while waiting for my bus to roll up.

Routines allow us to do more by making low-level functions of life automatic and quick. We know from psychology and cognitive science that willpower is a limited resource. Because I know I can get home quickly by metro, and I can quickly relax and refresh by cutting open a pomegranate, I don’t have to expend limited mental resources figuring that out. I can spend that cognitive energy in other more valuable areas of life: on my students, on NGO volunteer work, on paintings, on writing blog posts, on meeting with friends. This is not to say that we shouldn’t maintain our adaptability and resiliency outside our comfort zones, or that we shouldn’t be spontaneous, or we shouldn’t seek opportunities to escape our routines through travel or otherwise. But every instance of spontaneity is founded on a basis of a secure routine through which we meet our basic needs and recharge our cognitive reserves of willpower. In this sense, routines are life-sustaining.

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But the value of a routine really becomes apparent when it is interrupted, as happened to mine two weeks ago. I came home from work on the metro as usual but instead of going home and cooking dinner, I found my whole street alarmingly barricaded by police, firemen, ambulances, news vans, and crowds of onlookers while helicopters hovered overhead. A huge gas explosion had wreaked havoc on a building in near proximity to mine. While there were fortunately no fatalities or major injuries, the explosion was immense enough to gut two floors of an apartment building and shatter windows up and down the street, as well as loud enough to be heard in Kadiköy, across the strait on the Asian side.

A compassionate neighbor took me and my roommate into her home, fed us tea and simit until we recovered and made a plan of action. From this point on, I slowly had to rebuild my routine. Change my bus routes, my mealtimes, sanitation habits. Had to be ready at a moment’s call to let helpful but flighty municipal contractors and repairmen into the house. Had to call on generous and concerned friends to host not only myself, but a visitor from Germany. Had to sweep and dig endless shards of glass off the floor, counters and out of furniture, beds.  Had to spend nights desperately trying to stay warm and taking cold sponge baths while waiting for my windows and furnace plumbing to be repaired.

Like all things, this period passed. I regained my routine–but I no longer take it for granted.

Photo, top: Broken windows and damaged furnace in our kitchen after the gas explosion earlier this month. Photo, middle: My origami chain hanging in front of a broken window.

A less threatening world

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I am a pretty ardent runner. Now that I am in Istanbul, when the weather permits I usually go on hour-long runs along the Bosphorus, either west toward Sultanahmet or east toward Ortaköy.

When I do choose to run on the sahıl yolu behind Sultanahmet, I often elicit some noticeable commentary from local street vendors, recreational walkers, fishermen, or homeless. Physical exercise, and the female gender, have different cultural valuations here than in the west. The fact that I am foreign, a woman, alone, outside, often at night, engaging in visibly strenuous physical activity, in public, from time to time elicits colorful and unpleasant remarks. Usually I block out the comments by keeping my eyes straight ahead, my face expressionless, my body moving fast, my senses attuned to other things besides the unsolicited outside commentary. Surely the comments are something chauvinistic or demeaning, that would make me feel threatened, or something derisive about exercise, which would piss me off. But one night I listened.

“Kosarken nefes al, nefes!” one man instructed as I ran past. “Breathe when you’re running, breathe!”

“Helal, helal!” another man cheered from his perch on a boulder. “Breathe, breathe!”

I kept my face flat and composed as usual, but as soon as the audience was behind me, I broke into a small smirk. I hadn’t been breathing properly, in fact. So I breathed.

Sometimes, the world is only as threatening as you go out expecting it to be. Not always–after all, we can’t be naive–but sometimes.

Photo: The colored stairs in Kabataş.

Hungry cameras

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Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyed camera
eager to eat the world one monument at a time?
— Billy Collins, “Consolation”

When I travel to heavily-touristed places, I always wish I could go back to a time before the invention of cameras. Before cameras, people had to write about their travels, or draw them. Which was wonderful, because people saw sketches of rhinos and thought they were dragons, or read Gulliver’s Travels and thought it was real.

No more inaccurate sketches and ludicrous retellings–it’s all megapixels and memory cards and poses. This means you can’t just stroll around a place and appreciate it–you have to be aware of the trajectory of peoples’ lenses as they make cliche postures against picturesque backgrounds, already dreaming of their new Facebook profile picture. And you can’t go somewhere without an accompanying peer pressure, the feeling that you really should be taking photos too, and not just social pressure from the other tourists but expectations from family and friends (“take photos!” they chorus, not like they will ever look at them or that the photos will be meaningful compared to the essential feeling, the terroir of “being there”).

And frankly, who wants to feel like a fool, lining up behind a hundred other people and snapping shots of the exact same thing, especially things that are so grandiose that they can’t fit into a camera? Cathedrals and mountains and seas weren’t designed to squeeze into a viewfinder. Life wasn’t designed to fit behind a lens.

Cameras: bah humbug.

And yet, for all my complaining and self-righteousness about cameras and touristy snapshots, I usually return from travel and wish I had more photos.

At least whenever I feel ambivalent I can remember that at least Billy Collins, former US poet laureate, agrees with my sentiments.

Mistakes are an art

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Last night while eating dinner I spilled 16 ounces of water and a half a plate of salty chicken stir fry onto my lap, computer, and phone. After staring at the sloppy situation long enough to process it, I just granted myself barely one sigh and cleaned it up hummingly.

On Monday I had the bright idea of showing Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk in class. “The unit topic is education, and this is one of the most popular and influential speeches about the failings of the education system and education reform today. It’ll be perfect!” Wrong. He talks way too fast, and his arguments are very Western-culture-specific, and I showed it during the exhausting final hour of a five-hour-long class, so the students just stared blankly or gave up and cradled their heads in their arms. So my great idea bombed, but I kept the spring in my step after class. Today was a failure, but I learned and tomorrow will be better.

Making mistakes is a fine art. Like most people, I used to get down on myself for failing or making mistakes. It has taken me years of practice dealing with awkwardness and clumsy blunders to be able to refine my attitude toward mistakes and face them tranquilly and stoically. But I think the real turning point in my attitude was last October when I bused into Istanbul, ready to set sail to Georgia. I opened my pack to take out my Istanbul metro card, and realized…my entire wallet was gone. Somewhere between Eskisehir and Istanbul bus station, it was dropped or taken (blessedly, my passport was not in the wallet).

The wallet never turned up, but the process of recovering from the loss showed me how resourceful I really am and how supportive my network is. Because of an emergency 20 lira in my phone case that my best friend gave me months before (thank you MR), I managed to get from the otogar to the airport. Once there, my travel mates fronted me hundreds of lira so I could make it by in Georgia and even enjoy myself for the week and then get back to Turkey. Upon return, I turned to my boss to help me apply for a replacement residency permit; my uncle stood by to loan me money for expenses until I replaced my bank cards; my father brought new copies of my credit card and drivers license during a business trip to Istanbul; and I singlehandedly replaced my other cards–debit card, Muze kart, metro cards. In the end, everything meaningful was replaced. I realized that if I could make it in Istanbul and Georgia totally broke, I was resourceful enough to recover from anything.

This is the case with many mistakes, which seem like mistakes at first but aren’t necessarily so in the long run–mistakes have mysterious consequences. At the end of the week, I met up with my students for drinks. One of my students’ boyfriends showed up. Of course, we had been complaining about the education system. “I watched the RSA talk and I really agreed with it,” he told me. It turned out my student had shared the Ken Robinson talk with her boyfriend and, despite my feeling of failure about showing the video to my students, it had totally hit home with him.

The same is true about mistakes that it is about teachers–you never know where their influence will end.

Photos: Topically unrelated images of Izmir coast in December

The Moon Landing and Human Messiness

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“One of my students said right to my face, cheerfully, that he hates America.. Then, he even said he thinks that the moon landing was a hoax,” I told one of my colleagues while we chatting over çay. “Isn’t that weird? It’s like required doctrine for these communist-inspired kids to believe that America faked the moon landing.”

“Actually, I agree with that,” the colleague responded. “Yeah, most probably the moon landing didn’t happen.”

The gears in my head screeched to a halt.

Like the time another guy here insisted to me that, no, actually, cigarettes are healthy and in fact marijuana is addictive, I was faced with a direct contradiction of a belief I had never seriously questioned before. Of course, I had heard plenty of Turkish people and others deny the moon landing–in Turkey, conspiracy-theorizing is a national sport second only to futbol–but hearing it from this individual still took me off guard and derailed my train of thought.

“Oh, um…really? Why?”

“Yeah, I mean, why not?” He laid out the typical line–if NASA could send a rocket to the moon in the 60s, why couldn’t it do it again with more advanced technology; and the US at the time had strong political incentives to dissimulate such a thing. Not only did his nonchalance surprise me–I believe that the truth always wins out in the end, and to so casually assume that the true story has been dissimulated for half a century seems a depressing thought–but taken off guard, and not familiar with the specific evidence against moon-landing conspiracy theories (never having had to defend it before) I shrugged and changed the topic.

In fact, there is plenty of good evidence to show for the moon landing, most of which, like the average person out there, I don’t understand. For me, personally, the most convincing arguments in support of the moon landing are in the quotidian details and various kinds of human messiness surrounding the affair. For instance, the astronauts of Apollo 11 couldn’t afford life insurance, so they signed thousands of “astronaut covers”–postmarked envelopes with their signatures–to act as an insurance policy for their families in the event they did not return from their landmark journey. Then there’s the Fallen Astronaut statuette and plaque placed on the surface of the moon in honor of passed-away cosmonauts. Notably, a controversy occurred when the sculptor attempted to commodify the piece and, in the opinion of other astronauts, demean its solemnity. It’s such a perfectly human situation–who could make something like that up?

Certainly, someone or some group of masterminds could have prefabricated the moon landing hoax to that level of prosaic detail, even predicting the ways in which avarice and fear and bravery could play out in this context…but most people aren’t storytellers, and politicians, who presumably fabricated the moon landing, certainly aren’t. As my high school art teacher taught me, the human brain is not attuned to produce true, natural randomness–it takes the skill of an artist to replicate the spontaneous, unpredictable messiness of nature and life. Or as we say more colloquially, “You just can’t make that shit up.” Convincing human messiness either comes out of great art, or out of real life, and I’m sure I know which one is more likely in the case of the moon landing.

PS: Futurist Ray Kurzweil reported about a private company that is preparing to fly astronauts to Mars in 2023 and establish a permanent colony there. Amazing times we live in that this is even conceivable.

Photos: Signed astronaut covers, which nowadays can be worth as much as $30,000.

Social pressure

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Note: I wrote this three months ago, prior to teaching my first class, and am just posting it now.

Usually we think of social pressure, or the outside expectations of society, as a negative force: the pressure to conform, change negatively, to be inauthentic, be someone else other than who we are. But, like all forms of power, it can be used for constructive purposes.

Last week, literally shaking with nerves, I approached the classroom where I would be teaching my very first class of students in Turkey. It was my first time teaching this age group (university students, some the exact same age as I), my first time as a solo lead teacher (in the past, I had always co-taught), and my first time teaching Turkish students. More than these first times, though, I was nervous about my the legitimacy of my role of authority over a group of my peers. I’m not a real teacher. How can I possibly run a classroom and be responsible for the education and life chances of thirty individuals? What right do I have to be here, telling other people what is wrong and what is right? I can’t even answer that for myself. What do I have to offer?

Finally, I reached my designated room number, torturously stepped into the classroom, delayed the fatal moment a bit longer by twiddling with the computer and my books, and finally straightened up and faced the students.

They looked back at me for what felt like a long, long moment.

“Hi, hoca!” one of them said. And in that moment, I was a teacher. In their eyes, I was a teacher, so I became one. They expected me to be a teacher, with all the knowledge, confidence, and leadership to offer–so I became one.

“Good morning, class!” I responded back.

We can always choose who we want to be, but sometimes to become better than we are, we need the social pressure and expectations of others to push us forward.

(This is also known as the Pygmalion effect)

Photo: “Identity map” made during one of my early classes