Side Trip: Turkish Delights Part I

So a couple of big ole gay guys decide that they’ll go on vacation to a country that’s 95% muslim. Sounds fun eh?

Turkey was so much more than fun.

It was thought-provoking, awe-inducing and mouth-watering. It was exotic, quirky, and sometimes warmly familiar.  It was history-laden, futuristic, and filled with reminders to live fully in the present moment.

It is a place that many more able writers than I haven’t begun to do justice. I won’t try. Instead I’ll fall back on the “a picture tells a thousand words” adage  to condense at least a fragment of this adventure into a blog-sized tale.

Tulips

We arrived in late March to an early spring. There are more tulips in Turkey than in The Netherlands.  In fact The Netherlands buys their tulips from Turkey. The streets of Istanbul are lined with miles of elaborate floral displays.

Our guesthouse was just down this tiny cobblestoned street just off bustling Taksim Square. The flags crisscrossing overhead are actually promoting political parties for the election that was held during our stay.  (So much more esthetically pleasing than yard signs.) These have a dark side though. They represent the party of Turkey's creepy current prime minister. He shut down twitter for a bit while we were there to slow the viral spread of recording implicating him in a corruption scandal. Fortunately Turkey is a democracy and the courts overruled him...for now. He's despised by the educated urbanites we met in Istanbul, but draws his support from the rural poor and religious right.  A scenario all too familiar to those of us who live in the South.

Our guesthouse was just down this tiny cobblestoned street, a few blocks off bustling Taksim Square. The flags crisscrossing overhead are actually promoting political parties for the election that was held during our stay. (So much more esthetically pleasing than yard signs.) These have a dark side though. They represent the party of Turkey’s creepy current prime minister. He shut down Twitter for a bit while we were there to slow the viral spread of recordings implicating him in a corruption scandal. Fortunately Turkey is a democracy and the courts overruled him…for now. He’s despised by the educated urbanites we met in Istanbul, but draws his support from the rural poor and religious right. A scenario all too familiar to those of us who live in the South.

The centuries-old streets that radiate from Taksim Square are lined with shops and outdoor cafés that remind me of Paris. We'd just had lunch at one along this particularly pretty street.

The centuries-old streets that radiate from Taksim Square are lined with shops and outdoor cafés that remind me of Paris. We’d just had lunch at one along this particularly pretty street.

 

Today's istanbul is as contemporary as it is ancient.  Innovative high-rise architecture to rival Dubai fills the skyline, and this coffee shop where we hung out a lot illustrates some of the city's great interior design.

Today’s istanbul is as contemporary as it is ancient. Innovative high-rise architecture to rival Dubai fills the skyline, and this coffee shop where we hung out a lot illustrates some of the city’s superb modern interior design.

I found myself wondering how many Turks are diabetic. I think every third shop featured the country's signature sweet, Turkish Delight.  This counter filled with hundreds of variations on the nutty, chewy stuff was at least thirty feet long.

I found myself wondering how many Turks are diabetic. I think every third shop featured the country’s signature sweet, Turkish Delight. This counter filled with dozens of variations on the nutty, chewy stuff was at least thirty feet long.

Vasilis

And it wasn’t just Turkish Delight. Baklava originated with the Ottoman Empire, and a favorite evening activity for locals (one we instantly embraced) is hanging out in “dessert palaces” as I called them—beautifully decorated and often chandeliered restaurants focused on coffee, tea, and myriad combinations of phyllo dough, nuts and honey. Our Greek friend Vasileios shows off his selection.

Istanbul has a vibrant gay scene, and we happened to arrive just in time for a weekend of festivities put on by  the local gay bear community, One of those activities was an afternoon aboard a boat cruising up and down the Bosporus Straight that divides Istanbul between two continents.  We were surprised in a country that we'd perceived to be highly conservative, to see the boat pull up out and proud with a big rainbow flag.  It was a terrific afternoon.

Istanbul has a vibrant gay scene, despite the fact that 95% of Turks identify as Muslim.  Just like many folks who identify as Catholic here in the U.S., they heed the teachings that have meaning in contemporary life and ignore those that don’t. And we happened to arrive just in time for a weekend of festivities put on by the local gay bear community, One of those activities was an afternoon aboard a boat cruising up and down the Bosporus Strait which divides Istanbul between two continents. We were surprised, in a country that we’d perceived to be highly conservative, to see the boat pull up out and proud with a big rainbow flag. It was a terrific afternoon.

That weekend's activities also included a visit to a traditional Turkish hammam in business since 1445. The traditional experience includes stretching out on a hot marble slab to be scrubbed from head to foot with loofa, then massaged under a cloud of tiny soap bubbles.  It's a very pleasant experience as you can tell from the look on Dave's face.

That weekend’s activities also included a visit to a Turkish hammam in business since 1445. The traditional experience includes stretching out on a hot marble slab to be scrubbed from head to foot with a loofa, then massaged under a cloud of tiny soap bubbles. It’s very pleasant, as you can tell from the look on Dave’s face.

In the next post—Turkish Delights beyond Istanbul.

 

 

I found myself wondering how many Turks are diabetic. I think every third shop featured the country's signature sweet, Turkish Delight.  This counter filled with hundreds of variations on the nutty, chewy stuff was at least thirty feet long.

You Never Know What You’ll Find Down a Country Road

ShrimpJust down the road from our current campground is the tiny Iowa farm town of Oxford—population 821. It hasn’t changed much since I was a kid growing up nearby and we’d come to the rodeo held outside town every year.

With one exception— a few years ago a new restaurant popped up in one of the pretty historic brick buildings along the couple of streets that comprise downtown. A restaurant run by a couple flooded out of New Orleans by Katrina.AugustaSign

And so last night we had a big family gathering at Augusta, ten of us in all, gathered around mismatched tables with pretty table clothes, surrounded by walls covered in a mixture of New Orleans mementos and the work of local artists. I had shrimp and a grit cake on the side as good as any I’ve ever had in New Orleans. Rosemary may not be one of the “holy trinity” of Creole spices, but after these shrimp I’m convinced a “holy quad” is in order. Great gumbo too, and red beans that also departed a bit from the way they’re traditionally spiced, but nonetheless delicious.

In a bit of cross-cultural irony, displayed on the wall was a newspaper article reporting that Augusta’s “tenderloin,” as the iconic Midwestern fried pork sandwich is known, had been voted the best in Iowa by the pork producer’s association.

Dr.-BobThere too, right next to beer taps where it belongs, was one of our old New Orleans neighbor Dr. Bob’s signature “Be Nice or Leave” signs.

Unexpected Ozarks

My story about the part of this last year’s journey we spent in the Ozarks is in  month’s Country Roads Magazine HERE. And here are some additional fave pix that aren’t in the online version:

Every Saturday night in Eureka Springs, the town traffic cop leads the community drum circle.

Every Saturday night in Eureka Springs, the town traffic cop leads the community drum circle.

 

Rosie was my most favorite of many fave pieces at the Crystal Bridges Museum.

Rosie was my most favorite of many fave pieces at the Crystal Bridges Museum.

The Walmart museum housed in what was Sam Walton's first store, has this interesting display of merchandise returned for unusual reasons.

The Walmart museum housed in what was Sam Walton’s first store, has this interesting display of merchandise returned for unusual reasons.

PorkMedallionsWEB

One of the best meals we’ve had on our journey was at a student run restaurant on a mountaintop college campus outside Branson. Everything on this plate was raised on campus.

A personal fave shot of Dave taken at one of Branson's many cheesy but delightful attractions.

A personal fave shot of Dave taken at one of Branson’s many cheesy but delightful attractions.

The Humble Schwa to the Rescue

Our bead throwing buddies Johnny and Robert were sporting some spectacular float finery.

Our bead throwing buddies Johnny and Robert were sporting some spectacular float finery.

This past weekend was all about parades here on our return visit to New Orleans.

I’m not sure why, but it was worth standing in the pouring rain Sunday waiting for the float to pass on which our friends were riding, so that we could be singled out to be thrown those REALLY NICE beads. (I’m special! I’m special!) We so need to feel special.

LeilaYes, I will always treasure my hand-embroidered Princess Leila ornament, caught during a Close Encounter with the Krewe of Chewbacchus Saturday night, one of several new parades to emerge in recent years from our old Marigny-Bywater neighborhood. What could be more fun than a rolling Star Wars convention? (It also brought back memories of an equally fun Star Trek parade earlier in our adventures.)

And then there was the ‘tit Rex parade. Well that’s not really the name anymore. Because now the “e” has been replaced with a schwa.

Thanks to the schwa, this tiny parade continues to roll.

Thanks to the schwa, this tiny parade continues to roll.

Just in case you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of this symbol used to denote the vague multipurpose vowel sound found in words like “fudge,” “the,” and the last syllable of “sofa” —it looks like an upside-down “e.”   I Googled how to create the schwa symbol using my laptop and here’s what I found:

  • “If you go into system preferences ‘international’ select ‘input menu’ then check both ‘character palette’ and ‘show input menu in menu bar’. Now ( if your default language is English US), you will have an American Flag icon on your menu bar. Click on it and a pull down menu will display “Show Character Palette” highlight and choose this option and a character palette window will open allowing you to insert any of literally hundreds of character options. If you select ‘View-Roman’ you will have the choice of Math, Arrows, Parenthese, Currency Symbols, and Punctuation plus 9 more. ‘Punctuation’ will have what you need.”

Never mind. I’ll just spell it out.

So why you might ask, did they go to the extraordinary typesetting effort to make the substitution? Well who knew that a bunch of artsy hipsters walking through the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood pulling miniature floats behind them would be perceived as a threat by the landed gentry that comprise most of the old-school Krewe of Rex.

But yep, a couple years ago, their lawyers threatened legal action against the then newly formed parade.

To be fair, it was all very genteel. The old Rexters were afraid that if they let one entity use the name unchallenged, there’d be a flood of copycats and they’d lose control of their branding. Sort of like Kleenex I guess. And after a conversation about various options, a solution was chosen.

Schwa to the rescue.

One of my favorites. When I passed by the creator of this float had engaged a young admirer in a fascination discussion about homonyms.

One of my favorites. When I passed by the creator of this float had engaged a young admirer in a fascinating discussion about homonyms.

This parade may rival Krewe du Vieux when it comes to bawdy political satire.

This parade may rival Krewe du Vieux when it comes to bawdy political satire.

 

A favorite new addition to my vocabulary.

A favorite new addition to my vocabulary.

 

How SCOTUS Saved Me $10,000

BCCardWe’re working on our taxes for last year, and while it’s not deductible, I went ahead and totaled up my health insurance costs from 2013.  For about the last decade I’ve been one of the millions of Americans without company sponsored health insurance, so I’ve had an individual Blue Cross policy.

And for the last several years, my premiums have gone up $100 a month. Not a year. A month. With a $2800 deductible. Even my doctor was shocked, given my relatively minor health issues. Last year my premiums totaled $10,185.70. Just for me.

So among the things Dave and I were celebrating when we married back in July, was the fact that, thanks to the Supreme Court, I could then be added to his excellent health plan for retired federal workers. Under which BOTH of us would be covered, without a deductible, for $200 a month.

We filled out the forms, faxed in our marriage certificate and waited. For six months. While the feds tried to figure out just what to do with these newly recognized same-gender couples. (Six more premiums for me—do the math.)

But at long last the card has arrived.  And I handed it over to the pharmacy tech the other day to update my account.

“What’s your relationship to Mr. Johnson?” he asked, noting Dave’s name on the card. And for the first time with a stranger, I smiled and answered, “I’m his spouse.”

Farewell Florida

 

My thought exactly.

My thought exactly.

Tomorrow we suck in our slides, hitch up our wagon and end our visit to the heart of snowbird country. This part of central Florida has become such a Mecca for those escaping the cold that there are easily 50 other RV parks within a twenty-minute drive.  The small community of Zephyrhills just south of us doubles in size from 10,000 to over 20,000 in the winter.  Google’s satellite view of the community is a sea of RVs. It would seem that lots and lots of folks came to the realization long before us, that hauling your home behind you to whatever place offers the best weather at the moment—is a swell idea. That and owning an Arabian horse apparently. Now on to New Orleans, just in time for Mardi Gras.

Our snowbird CHristmas tree, populated with origami cranes and a starfish on top.

Our snowbird CHristmas tree, populated with origami cranes and a starfish on top.

 

Disneyworld vs. Weeki Wachee

WeekiWacheeSo much of how we enjoy an experience is predicated on our expectations. One of the first things we did when Dave and I arrived for our two-month stay in central Florida was head for Disneyworld.  The American Express card whimpered a little when we dumped nearly $200 each on it for two-day passes. I arched an eyebrow as the gate attendant ever so perkily asked me to place my index finger on a scanner so they could gather my fingerprint (To prevent me from sharing my access card.)

There’s still a lot of magic in the Magic Kingdom, and we loved the new “retro-future” look of Tomorrowland, as well as the newish Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor there, where you can text in a joke and if it’s good enough an animated monster will deliver it to the crowd. We stood in back with big grins on our faces at the Enchanted Tales with Belle attraction in Fantasyland, where an animated Lumiere and a lovely young lady portraying Belle, did indeed enchant every child in the room. The Hall of Presidents is still a rousing romp through American history made even more entertaining by an extraordinary a cappella group that performed before the show.

Epcot isn’t aging so well though. It’s tough to stay ahead of the future. The animatronics used in many of the rides are so last century. Many attractions feature nicely produced films, but the projection quality was often poor by today’s standards.  And several of the rides we were on broke down, albeit briefly.

“Was it worth it?” we wondered aloud at the end of our visit. Just barely, we concluded. There remains a lot to love about Disneyworld, but when you’re paying nearly a $100 a day you expect a flawless experience.

Mermaids train for up to a year for these performances, often accompanied by the original inhabitants of the springs.

Mermaids train for up to a year for these performances, often accompanied by the original inhabitants of the springs.

Flash forward to a warm and sunny Florida day last weekend, just down the road at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. In 2008 he state took over operation of the venerable Florida attraction, which staged its first underwater mermaid show in 1947.

I was expecting the equivalent of a dog-eared vintage postcard: A sweet but faded glimpse into a colorful past.

Merman

Dave agrees to yet another of my silly photo op requests.

What we found was a beautifully maintained state park, where we first boarded a pontoon boat for a float down the crystal clear Weeki Wachee River (fed by the 117 gallons the springs pump out every day). Our half-hour journey took us past a manatee mama and her calf, a gigantic eagle’s nest, a deer wading near the shore, an alligator and several kayakers.

On the other side of the park you can swim in the spring where the water is a constant 74 degrees. We waded in, wishing we’d brought our suits on that 80 degree afternoon.

But we were really here for the mermaid show.  And what a show it was. The underwater ballerinas that perform here, slender air hoses in hand,  train for up to a year. They can hold their breath for two and a half minutes. (Try it.) For half an hour they dived, and twirled, and blew bubbles—to the delight of young and old alike.

MoldmachineBut the fun was not quite over.  For $2 we watched our mermaid souvenir being injection molded before our very eyes, delivering the result into our hands still warm. A delightful afternoon indeed.  All for $13 each.

Phil Robertson and Me

Phil back in his college days..apparently .conforming to a different set of expectations.

Phil back in his college days—apparently .conforming to a different set of expectations.

Phil and I are about the same age. He’s just a couple years older than I am.  But during the course of each of our stays on this planet, we’ve reached very different conclusions about God’s intent for our lives—if what he’s reported to have said turns out to be his true belief.

I spent half my career in television. So I’m well aware that there’s nothing real about reality TV.  And I was already disturbed by how hugely popular these shows are—where (with a few exceptions) producers goad already marginal human beings into really creepy behavior. The corporate sociopath in New York I reported to at one of the television stations where I worked, once told me, “You never lose money by underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

I hate admitting he may be right.

But Duck Dynasty seemed the rare exception. I watched it once at my brother’s house. The family portrayed on the show appeared to genuinely love each other. And didn’t scream obscenities are each other. Then Phil opened his mouth without an editor at the ready to mold him back into a lovable patriarch.

But it’s not really the coarse, idiotic stuff that reportedly came out of Phil’s mouth on multiple occasions that most bothers me. BIgots will always be with us. I struggle instead, with millions of people flocking to the defense of someone who said something hateful. Is it really about free speech? Did those same folks rush to defend the free speech rights of the Dixie Chicks over their comments about President Bush?

Phil is certainly not the first to cherry pick the bible in support of bigotry. We spent the month of November in Augusta, Georgia—which also happens to be where Woodrow Wilson spent much of his childhood. The home the future president lived in it now a museum, and on our tour we learned that Wilson’s father was the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Augusta. And an ardent supporter of the Confederacy. He regularly used his sermons to reassure his congregation that slavery was in full compliance with biblical teaching.

I’m one of those who thinks Phil should be able to say what he wants. But I also think what he said should have evoked a universal collective gasp from society.  Why didn’t it?

Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governeur Jay Dardenne issued a statement supporting Robertson (after all, he’s head of Louisiana’s tourism effort and Duck Dynasty has been huge boon to that industry.) But while he carefully distanced himself from what Phil had a say about happy black folk back in the good ole days—the same was not true for his comments on gay folk.

Jay wants to be Louisiana’s next governor.  And I actually think he’d be a good one. But you don’t get elected governor of Louisiana by supporting equal rights for gay people. Why might that be?

I think I figured out why some years ago when I taught a class in interpersonal communication at a community college. In the midst of a discussion on “finding common ground,” one of my students raised his hand.

“Conservatives don’t believe in that,” he said. “When you’re right, why would you change your position?”

I was speechless. How could anyone be that certain they’re always right?

And therein lies the root of the problem here.

There is a principle in communications studies called “uncertainty reduction theory.”

The theory posits that we all wired to be uncomfortable with uncertainty. It’s meant to apply to personal relationships, but I see it in a broader context.

In the old days the most effective method of reducing uncertainty was to acquire new information. But now in the internet age, that paradigm has completely shifted.

Today we’re overwhelmed with information, much of it in direct conflict.  So how do we reduce uncertainty in this environment?

By adopting a narrower view of the world.

I admit I’m a bit jealous of that student and others who’ve managed to make life seem simpler with this strategy. (I came to like and respect this man as the semester progressed. He had an autistic son and a number of other life challenges that threatened to overwhelm him. He once told me how dismayed he was because he couldn’t sort out what to believe.)  I live in a world of grays…and can fully understand how comforting it would be to let Fox News (or MSNBC) tell you what to believe politically. Or to let Pastor Wilson interpret the bible for you.

We’re uncomfortable with what we don’t understand. So we flock to the comfort of the herd’s mentality.  And the whole “gay thing” can be pretty scary. I know it was for me.

I was terrified. Terrified that if I came out, I would be abandoned. Alone.

Today gay teenagers commit suicide at a rate three times higher than other teens. I was long past my teenage years when I came out—and I too would have committed suicide, had it not been for the intervention of some amazing people who love me unconditionally—and from the God of my understanding. Who also loves me unconditionally.

That’s why this fear and ignorance has to stop—now—with our generation. Phil’s and mine.

The Cracker Barrel Confession

DavePuzzleForgive me Father for I have sinned…

Dave and I ate breakfast at Cracker Barrel this morning.  And despite this restaurant chain’s questionable social justice record, I enjoyed my pecan sticky bun French toast every bit as much as Dave enjoyed playing the Golf Tee Game.

I still occasionally give in to a craving for Cracker Barrel even though I haven’t eaten at a Chick-Fil-A since the anti-gay tweets from its faux Christian founder came to light.  After all, who could resist this wide-eyed unicorn in the Cracker Barrel gift shop?Unicorn

 

A BRIEF ASIDE:

Quick multiple choice quiz Dan Cathy:  WWJD?  If Jesus had millions of dollars to give away would he:

A:  Give those dollars to organizations working to keep gay people from marrying the person they love?

B:  Use them to help the sick and the poor?

The confession doesn’t stop there I’m afraid. I also bought Christmas ornaments at Hobby Lobby.  And we regularly go to Walmart. (Every Walmart has an RV section—very handy when you run out of the special toilet paper.)

But while I can’t promise to let go of these bad habits cold turkey, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to step up my efforts to support local businesses and those that pay their employees a fair wage, as well as those businesses who embrace diversity. Those that really do understand the meaning of the question: WWJD?

Beyond American Gothic: Part 2

Dave checks out Grant Wood's tiny studio.

Dave checks out Grant Wood’s tiny studio.

Grant Wood is perhaps my home state of Iowa’s most renowned artist, but until last summer I really knew little more about him than that he painted American Gothic.  That all changed when, on a trip to the small town library near our campground I spotted something quite unexpected: Full frontal nudity.

Okay, that was cheap—but true. The library had an extensive collection of Wood’s lithographs including “Sultry Night” which depicts a naked farmer cooling off at the horse trough.

Wood designed this window for the door of his studio. There is a pointer that can be dialed around to show if he's home—and taking a bath, or having a party.

Wood designed this window for the door of his studio. There is a pointer that can be dialed around to show if he’s home—and taking a bath, or having a party.

I’m just back from a Christmas trip home and had a chance to add to what I learned on that earlier visit (which you can read about HERE) with a tour of the studio in Cedar Rapids where Wood painted many of his most noted works.

The studio was in a converted hayloft above a stable that once housed horses used to pull hearses for the adjoining funeral home.  Once mechanization came along the stable wasn’t needed anymore and as it happened, the funeral home’s owner was one of Wood’s patrons, and offered him the space in 1924. He lived there (for a while along with his mother and sister) for over a decade.

Wood created these collages which he gave to friends using found materials from around his studio located on a back alley—and thus named them "Lilies of the Alley."

Wood created these collages which he gave to friends using found materials from around his studio located on a back alley—and thus named them “Lilies of the Alley.”

Wood designed built-in furniture for the space (he was, I now know, also a noted local interior decorator), and even included a small stage for performances of the local community theater company—which he founded. He was also a sculptor, and designed jewelry—as well a huge stained glass window for a local public building.

He was multi-talented, witty, and reportedly gave great parties.  So not so surprising then that a number researchers have come to the conclusion that he was probably gay.