Thursday, July 4, 2019

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

After teaching painting for three days in Shreveport, Louisiana, I finished reading Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck on the airplane, on my way back home to Santa Ana, California. There were two points when I almost lost it on the plane. 

One was when Steinbeck in 1960 visits William Frantz Elementary school in New Orleans to witness firsthand, The Cheerleaders. Cheerleaders not with cheers but with jeers. Cheerleaders: A group of white mothers of white school children who gathered every day to taunt and bully black children as they were entering or exiting the school. Two nights before, I head heard Kamala Harris talk about a little girl who had been bused to attend a public school as part of a program to end segregation. She explained that that little girl was her.  

Two was when Steinbeck picks up a black hitchhiker and they start to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the non-violent movement he was leading to achieve racial justice. The young black man expresses respect for King and also a restlessness about the movement saying: "It's too slow ... It will take too long."

I entered my recent experience in the Deep South not just as an artist and teacher but as an anthropologist. To ask myself if it's possible to build rapport with people from a red state. Cause isn't it when I can greet a person with face-to-face, skin-to-skin, eye-to-eye ... that something kicks in beyond what usually kicks in on Twitter and Facebook? Super tailored experiences where a table can be set for people from different backgrounds to eat a meal, raise a glass, share a joke, open up, and make the art. That was indeed my experience.

Steinbeck set out to see America firsthand, to meet people in places he had heard about but not visited directly. He saw and heard and touched and tasted it all ... the good, the bad, the heartbreaking, and the nauseating ugly.

The morning before I left, I was having breakfast in the hotel lobby where they had two television sets going. One had Fox News on. The other had CNN on. An effort to be fair, I suppose, but a practice that reflects how we Americans would prefer to remain fractured than to heal.

I witnessed a white family that grabbed a table in the middle of the room. Neither Fox nor CNN. We exchanged smiles. And then I heard the father of the family tell his three adorable young children that Democrats were evil. It caused me to stop smiling at them. But the littlest girl in the high chair kept smiling at me.

At the stopover in Houston, I witnessed a white man in a cowboy hat help an elderly Asian woman who spoke no English get on the skytram. As he and I were getting off at terminal C, I witnessed him say to the lady "You stay. This is C where I get off. You stay until the next stop which is D. You get off at D. Ok? Do you understand?" The woman gave him a knowing nod and grateful smile.

At the airport, I witnessed a white woman telling a darker-skinned woman wearing a hijab that her top pocket of her backpack was open. The woman wearing the hijab zipped up her pocket and thanked the white women.

On the airplane, I saw a young black man help an elderly white man with his luggage. They both treated each other with respect and exchanged several "Yes sirs" to each other.

In Shreveport, I spoke with a white man who told me a story about his youth. As a lover of music, he was wearing a Jimi Hendrix shirt on when he went to visit his grandma. His grandma threw a fit because his grandson was wearing a shirt with a black man on it. I witnessed this man remembering his story and how he ended up taking that shirt off during the visit, to keep the peace.

At an eatery in the airport, I witnessed a Latina woman meekly saying "jamon" to the worker who didn't understand what she was saying. After an awkward pause I witnessed a Korean woman next to the Latina woman telling the worker that "jamon" is "ham" in Spanish. The Korean woman helped the Latina woman order a ham sandwich and Sprite.

That Korean woman was me.

And though I know there is good to see and bad to see, it's when we see firsthand, face-to-face, skin-to-skin, eye-to-eye, that though we may remain philosophically opposed, we can value human rapport and preserve peace.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Weakness and Strength

I'm halfway through the delightful book: TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY by John Steinbeck and can't wait to finish the rest of it this week. When I'm done, I'll do a full review but at this halfway point, it feels right to talk about a sentence by Steinbeck on page 57: "Perhaps this was weak of me, but I wanted to get on with it."

Made me think how "getting on with it" or "moving on" or "moving forward" or "getting over it" are sentiments our world aligns with strength and courage. Such sentiments seem to land when we are in the middle of sorrow or rage ... where either our own voice or the voice of another whispers into our psyches to "buck up and handle it" or "enough of your sobbing" or "choose happy" ... or "it's time to move on."

That kind of voice might have contributed to Chelsea Handler bucking up after her brother's untimely death, causing her not only to move on but to move on frantically and at lighting and unending speed. Maggie Nelson references this kind of phenomenon of society equating moving on with being strong, resulting in people saying to her injured friend who has become a quadriplegic shitty things like "We're only given as much as the heart can endure." Perhaps unintentionally shitty but shitty nonetheless.

I think it's important that Steinbeck references his decision to move on as potential weakness.

Chelsea Handler came to realize decades later that she needs to stay a while with her grief about her brother. And through therapy, she finds a way to go back and feel the sorrow and anguish of having lot him. And then moving on not by covering all that up but keeping it and her path forward illuminated

The process can't be rushed. And I think it is kind of weak not to be able to face the sorrow/rage and try to get on a fast-track to joy.

It might appear to be strong if I am able to stand back up after a fall but perhaps it's strong to first stay on that ground, to roll around in the dirt, scream out loud, tangled hair, and dirty face. I've seen that when I let all the hurt and rage have center stage when they want it, they eventually don't want it anymore. Which is when the brewing coffee can be smelled. And the steam of a shower can be felt. And the hope of the sunrise understood not because the hurt is gone but because it was not denied.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Subjunctive

PHOTO: Me in my art studio after an inspiring teaching session.

I love watching home video footage of my son Andrew when he was a little tyke, barely learning to talk. In one particular scene, he comes running toward me to say: "Mommy! Andrew! Chocolate!" It was Christmas morning and he saw that his older sister was eating special chocolate that she had found in her stocking. Of course he also had the same chocolate in his stocking. He just didn't know that yet, and he needed to urgently tell me he didn't want to be left out.

The video reminds me that when we are learning a language, we first start by speaking in nouns. Eventually, little tykes become toddlers then adolescents and then adults. And sentences contain not only nouns, but verbs and adjectives, embedded in a variety of tenses. We learn in language acquisition that without context, nouns alone can be interpreted in many ways and often misunderstood when taken out of context.

When I teach painting, I see something similar happen to new painters. With portrait work, I see painters looking for nouns to paint. "Nose! Eyes! Mouth!" After much practice, the painter is able to create the context and the space in which the nouns exist. And eventually with practice, the painter is able to see that even when you don't paint an explicit nose, painting its shadow communicates the noun.

In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell draws a parallel between language acquisition to activism.

It makes sense that at first, activism feels like a field of nouns. "Earth! Feminist! Racism!" As activists connect with a community where space to think can be found, we create strategies to direct our attention rather than having our attentions be directed. And by doing so, creating contexts that inspire awareness and incubate change. 

It is a long-term practice that leads a tyke, a painter, an activist, to eventually be able to acclimate to create the most breathtaking form of nuanced and sophisticated context. I liken it to conjugating a verb into the subjunctive. Where we can express states of current unreality (like a wish or possibility) so clearly that we start building a road to making it reality.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Music Itself: Lang Lang Piano Book

PHOTO: Lang Lang Piano Book

I've been playing many of the pieces contained within Lang Lang Piano Book and enjoying it immensely. It's a collection of 29 pieces that Lang Lang studied when he started learning to play the piano. He refers to this collection as his first love ... "the pieces that made me want to become a musician in the first place."

I love the way the book looks and feels. The pages are creamy, not stark-white. And there's a red ribbon that can be used to mark a particular place in the book.

Several of the pieces in this collection are familiar to me because they had at one time or another been assigned to me by my piano teacher, Mr. Brooks. Mr. Brooks was my piano teacher from my junior high days all throughout high school. His wife, Mrs. Brooks was a violinist and teacher of violin who taught my late brother, Jinil. Our father arranged it so that each week at the agreed upon time, Jinil and I would travel to their home and Jinil would take his violin lesson in one room of the house with Mrs. Brooks and I would take my piano lesson in a different room with Mr. Brooks. 

There were many moments when I wanted to quit. So did Jinil. One reason was because practicing was not fun. I hated it. Jinil hated it. Another reason is because learning a new piece was really hard. But my father was old-school. We weren't allowed to quit for such reasons.

Thirty some years later, as I find myself able to play the beautiful pieces in this collection, I realize that sometimes, short-sighted acts (like quitting something because it's hard) shortchange the beauty of what can emerge in the long-term, by not quitting.

At the end of the book, there are pages from some of his actual practice books where his teacher wrote endearing tips and reminders like: "Don't just play, feel the notes softly come out from your fingers and heart" and "Good pedaling makes real poetry."

Mr. Brooks used to write similar sentiments in my books. I'm grateful to have received such sophisticated and nuanced messages throughout my life from my music teachers (both past and present) and through music itself.  

Monday, June 17, 2019

Silence Speaks

When my kids were entering adolescence, one thing I reminded them was that if they didn’t feel comfortable at a party, a lunch table, or a one-to-one conversation … they always had the right to leave. And more importantly, they didn’t have to explain their decision to leave to anyone if they didn't want to. The last point is important because sometimes it’s hard to verbalize why you feel uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because the party is becoming too aggressive. Maybe it’s because the conversation at the table is starting to turn racist. Maybe it's because the person talking to you is too disrespectfully in-your-face.

I’ve left plenty of situations and conversations without explaining anything to anyone. And I've found that silence speaks. It says that Jenny doesn’t want to be here. It says that Jenny is not going to give attention to the aggression, the racism, the disrespect. It says Jenny is going elsewhere. It says all of this without my having to say anything. 

In the final chapters of her book HOW TO DO NOTHING, Jenny Odell points out how the design of social media is such that users are pressured to share thoughts right now. Not only right now, but in front of everyone.  

The power of leaving in silence is that I can make a statement that cannot be taken out of context. It's also powerful because I can find space either by myself or with confidantes to think about the party, the lunch table, and the conversation. And in that space, I can decide how to proceed.

Odell describes how in 2015, the San Clemente Dam was dismantled. It had originally been built by a real estate company to reroute water to a housing development elsewhere in the state. Eventually, the dam became seismically unsafe for humans and endangered ocean life, namely the Steelhead trout. 

Odell points out that "progress" in our short-sighted attention-driven economy is all about erecting new things for immediate profit. It takes time to realize, however, that short-sighted projects have negative consequences that eventually surface. And when those consequences are dire, the truly progressive thing to do is not to preserve the status quo, but to dismantle it: "Our idea of progress is so bound up with the idea of putting something new in the world that it can feel counterintuitive to equate progress with destruction, removal, and remediation ... tearing down the dam is indeed a creative act, one that does put something new in the world, even if it's putting it back."

Leaving a one-on-one conversation dismantles the conversation in an instant. Leaving a lunch table or a party perhaps doesn't dismantle the entire structure but it allows others who also feel uncomfortable to see a way out. Not necessarily to erect new conversations, but to stop the existing ones.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

You Had Me At Thou

PHOTO: Oak tree in Park Santiago: Santa Ana, CA

Earlier this week, I took a photo of this oak tree during my walk in our neighborhood park, Park Santiago. Perhaps it's because I've walked past it countless times during the past 25 years that I feel its distinctive personality. And that we (the tree and I) have a relationship. And I'll even go so far to say that I love this tree.

In Chapter 3 of her book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell cites philosopher Martin Buber who in 1923 published a book titled I and Thou. According to Buber, when we view a person or thing from an "I-IT" point of view, a hierarchy is established where "I" reigns over "IT" and views "IT" as something to use for "I's" gain. When we view a person or thing from an "I-THOU" perspective, there is no hierarchy. There is mutual respect and expectation that "I" will care for "THOU" and vice versa.

The I-IT perspective in terms of a human's relationship with a tree reminds me of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The boy in the story is "I" and the tree is "IT." And though the tree has done nothing to hurt the boy, the boy views the tree not as an entity to care for but an IT to use, abuse, appropriate, and ultimately destroy.

When I'm not walking or running in my park, I'm at one of my gyms to get a good workout. I'm particularly fond of a group exercise class called "Power Pump," where for one hour the participants lift weights to music, facilitated by an instructor. Even though it's a friendly atmosphere, none of us are actual friends. We hardly know each other's names.

We all use barbells that we load up with weighted plates on each side. The plates are secured by bar clips. If the clips are not on properly, it could be dangerous because in the middle of a lift, a plate could drop and injuries could happen.

There was a time during a Power Pump class when I accidentally forgot to put a clip on one side of my bar. Another classmate saw this and immediately came to me with an extra clip and put it on my bar. We weren't friends. None of us were. But we were makeshift neighbors in a makeshift 1-hour community, with an unspoken understanding that we were in this class together and we'd get out of it together.

In Chapter 5 of her book, Odell describes the ecology of such interactions as contingent on two factors. The first factor is proximity. One reason the classmate was able to help me was because she was near me. Says Odell: "... those who help you will likely not be your Twitter followers, they will be your neighbors." The second factor is the desire to care. And in light of Buber's ideas, to care would mean for the classmate to have viewed the stranger (me!) not as IT, but THOU.

Who exactly are my Twitter/Instagram/Facebook followers? And who am I to them? What can we be to one another when we are strangers and we are not neighbors? These are challenging questions as we ponder who we are in our parks, homes, neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, nation, globe, and universe.

As long as I allow my attention to be invested in courting my next Twitter follower, the more my ego keeps me idling in the I-IT lane. A lane where I'm foolishly convinced that I have bigger fish to fry than to get involved with "little" things like caring for a neighbor. A lane with little patience for sentimentality let alone mutual respect for a majestic oak.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

And we danced

PHOTO: Of me and The Mister in in my then new art studio: studio crescendoh

This is a test post. Once I get things organized, I will upload archives of worthy written works from my past and continue to post my new written works here.