Wednesday, October 16, 2019

ON EARTH WE'RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong



MIKIMOTOS
Out of the blue, my husband says I should go buy a strand of Mikimotos. But I say it's not my birthday. It's not Christmas. It's not anything. But we don't need an occasion, he says. So I go to Mikimotos. I try on the shortest, most inexpensive strand and I feel gorgeous in them. They cost $6,000 and the lady points out that life is short and that I should get them. I take them off. I don't get them.

CONFUSABLES
Yesterday I get dressed in my faux leather skirt and faux strand of pearls and go to campus to give my lecture. I start with a reminder to college students of the difference between immigrate and emigrate. It's one of those things that can get confusing and why Benjamin Dreyer classifies this pair of words under the "Confusables" section in his book. When no one takes the time to explain the confusables to you, you can go on for an entire lifetime, writing immigrate when you mean emigrate and emigrate when you mean immigrate.

HOT DOGS
Even when we had practically nothing as a family emigrating from Korea and immigrating to America, I knew that mom and dad knew about gorgeous things. Mom sang opera. Dad conducted bands and orchestras. Mom never had Mikimotos but she ached for them. Even though she could sing notes more beautiful than cultured pearls, she wanted them.

In America, music would be a side gig as they wrapped hot dogs. Morning, noon, and night, they wrapped hot dogs. Chili dogs. Mustard dogs. All sorts of dogs. And when eventually tuition bills came in for brother Jim, then brother Jinil, then me, they got paid. In full. Before they were due. With money that immigrant musicians saved not from making music, but from selling hot dogs. Paid in full so that we could just study hard. And have doors open. To rooms with books. And operas. And gorgeous people wearing cultured pearls.

NAILS
In his book, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong writes about the confusables or ironicles of pursuing beauty in the context of war, violence, addiction, love, desire, and inescapable mortality. The confusables of witnessing his mom breathing in toxic fumes and painting the nails of strangers. Repugnant nails. On their fingers. On their toes. Of hearing her say "I'm sorry" instead of "thank you" because "I'm sorry" helps her signal that she knows her place, that she's not gorgeous and that she's worthy of a tip. Please God, let them tip.

STENTS
Perhaps it's because his mortality pounds loudly every three months that he wants me to buy Mikimotos. When I help him undress at the hospital for his routine stent replacements, gorgeous objects look ugly. Expensive objects look cheap. No one cares whether pearls are faux or authentic. No one cares whether the watch is Cartier or Timex. Nothing is gorgeous except the hope that the stent will stick. And that tomorrow will happen. And that in that tomorrow, there will be a syrupy room to enter. And that in that room will be the dogs napping so cute, and the book waiting to be held and read. So Jenny, get the pearls. You don't need an occasion. It doesn't matter. It's not a confusable.

TRAGEDY & BEAUTY
And that's the tragedy and the beauty of it all. Vuong knows that the more we want it, the less it matters. But that doesn't mean that we don't want it, "Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted." We want it. I want it. My mom wanted it. Even for just one stanza ... to be seen, to feel briefly gorgeous.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Only the Lonely



Whenever I'm setting up my art studio (on the upper level of my building) for an event, there are humans who offer to get me a coffee from the downstairs café. Though I would gain convenience by saying yes, I always decline. I prefer to get my own coffee. Mainly because I enjoy the interaction with the barista. Depending on the coffee house, the barista, and my mood, the interaction can be just about the coffee or also about the weather, and occasionally about a book I'm reading, if I happen to be holding a book while I'm ordering.

This type of interaction with the barista helps me feel less lonely. Or maybe a better way to say it is that it helps me sustain a peace with my solitude (the enjoyment of being alone) which I cherish. Same thing with the cashier at the grocery store, the lady who opens up a dressing room at Nordstrom, and the guy at the bookstore information desk who researches a book for me.

And sometimes, the kind of small talk that I have with these strangers is all I need to combat my loneliness ... which is when occasionally and unexplainably, my solitude feels too intense.

There have been times when I've made the mistake of reaching out to acquaintances from my contacts because I feel lonely. Only to find myself in the company of an acquaintance whose company is worse than my loneliness. Misery.

It's taken me decades to realize the formula that works best for me: regular small talk with strangers and occasional dates with humans I enjoy, with a firm commitment to avoid availing myself to people with whom I feel miserable.

In his book titled On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder points out the importance of making eye contact and small talk with strangers when living under a government with tyrannical tendencies. He cites historical moments in history when people living in fear of fascist regimes regarded a smile, a handshake and a word of greeting with positive significance. It is when strangers looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact that fear among its citizenry grew.

Vivek Murthy (US surgeon general from 2014 to 2017) found that the topic that dominated his time when speaking with Americans in terms of overall health wasn't disease. It was loneliness. Christopher Wylie, the guy who blew the whistle while working for Cambridge Analytica presents in his book titled MINDF*CK that the the reason cyber entities like Cambridge Analytica is able to feed fake news into the psyches of humans is because more and more, humans are becoming isolated, where instead of talking to real people, we peer endlessly into our screens. And when you're isolated, you're lonely. And when you're lonely, you let misery in.

I wrote this piece this weekend when I started to feel my solitude transition into loneliness. Thankfully, I resisted miserable company. Gratefully, I have a lunch date with a human I love coming up in a couple of days. And in the meantime, I've enjoyed making the rounds to my coffee shop, my bookstore, my gym, and my grocery store, exchanging smiles and making glorious small talk with complete strangers.




Saturday, October 12, 2019

THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeannette Walls


Self-determination isn't tidy. Jeannette Walls provides a glimpse of how untidy it can get in her book titled The Glass Castle, as she and her siblings grow up in rural Virginia with a mom and dad who choose concept over reality, superfluous over security, and homelessness over shelter.

In a scene where Jeannette and her brother Brian find a 2-carat diamond ring that could potentially save their family, their mother announces the ring would not be sold so that it could replace her own wedding ring that her husband had pawned years ago. When Jeannette argues that the ring could feed and house the family, her mother says "Thats's true, but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food."

Eventually, Jeannette gets herself to New York to attend college on scholarships and loans. Her parents follow her, with no jobs and no housing. Just free will and self-determination to live in New York. On its streets. 

During a college class discussion about homelessness, Jeannette's professor asks her to choose: Is it the result of drug abuse and misguided entitlement programs OR is it the result of cuts in social-service programs and the failure to create economic opportunity for the poor? When she is called upon to respond, Jeannette says "Sometimes, I think it's neither ... I think that maybe sometimes people get the lives they want."

Because Jeanette's response picks neither side of the polarized argument, she is pressured in the moment to either pick a side or to yield to those who know more about homelessness. She yields.

As untidy as this world is, Walls seems to present how ironically it carries a righteous facade about morality. About how certain types of parents ought to be denounced. How certain types of lifestyles ought to be shamed ... like the lifestyle of Ginnie Sue, the town whore. When Jeannette is invited over by Kathy, Ginnie Sue's daughter, she finds her hungry self at their dinner table to help devour a roasted chicken. As she reflects on this visit, Jeannette says "While I was sitting there talking to Ginnie Sue, I'd even forgotten she was a whore. One thing about whoring: It put a chicken on the table."

Walls has an ability to present the truths of growing up with parents with a distorted sense of free will (at the cost of responsibility). And how such truths are filled at times with true pain and also true love. Neither one or the other. But all of the above.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

ON TYRANNY by Timothy Snyder

Each of the 20 lessons contained in Timothy Snyder's remarkable little book titled On Tyranny wakes me up to the urgency of being awake, even though under the current administration, it is tempting to not be.

The lessons are about how to detect and resist tyrannical tendencies associated with corrupted power. One of the overarching themes from the lessons is the importance of leading a three-dimensional life rather than a two-dimensional one. To avail ourselves to real conversations where we make eye-contact with real humans rather than melding into our chairs and letting the screen feed narratives into our psyches, tricking us into thinking that we've had conversations with people when we haven't had them at all.

Three-dimensional living is similar to the concept of not allowing our bodies to disappear, as explained in How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, where she examines how the modern world pressures bodies to dissolve so that only hours for productivity remain. Hours flatly detached from bodies that have potential value as long as the hours can be commodified.

Lesson 9 is about language:
"Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books."

Being sloppy with language has a way of pulling us away from three-dimensional living. Where everyone repeats cliches, where nothing stands out because everything is a spectacle, and everyone is reading characters rather than lengthy articles. Where the uniqueness of each voice disappears, along with paper ballots, wristwatches, snail mail, and walks taken without the aid of walking-apps.

Where three-dimensional souls are replaced by two-dimensional brands.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

SHE SAID by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey

In reading this book, there were moments when I found myself saying: "Go to print already! What are you waiting for?"

As I read the entire book, I found myself grateful that Kantor and Twohey (and their team at NYT) had the journalistic discipline to wait. To check and double-check their facts and sources in order to ultimately present a bulletproof account of Harvey Weinstein and his mistreatment of women. This story also opened my eyes to the structures of the judicial system (with its ability to buy silence through settlements) and the culture of Hollywood that allowed the horrors to play out.

The authors make an important point about the "Believe Women" hashtag that has become popular in this post-Weinstein age. Regardless of good intent, there's a difference between helping stories be told, and a blanketed believing of every woman and a blanketed not believing of every man. The truth is in the details. And waiting for those details to surface can be an arduous journey.

The details outlining the monstrous ways in which self-proclaimed feminist lawyer Lisa Bloom used her knowledge to aid Weinstein in further destroying women for financial gain is an example of why blind faith in all women is misguided.

There's a current collective backlash happening where people are pushing back against "cancel culture." I get it. Touching a shoulder isn't the same as an attempted rape. Aside from such distinctions, what's most important I think is our ability as humans to evolve and mature. Do I have the capacity to look back and truly feel sorry and embarrassed for stupid past behavior? Do I have the strength to acknowledge that today, make reparations, and behave better?

I suppose that is what is at the core of evolution and justice—our ability to expose it and own it, versus our instincts to hide it and deny it. And even worse, to perpetuate and profit from it.


Friday, September 13, 2019

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino


There are a total of nine essays contained in this book titled Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. There are details that make each essay unique and in the end, they weave a reading/thinking experience that makes me ponder the following questions:

  • Who am I?
  • On social media, who do I strive to appear to be?
  • In life and on social media, can I ever be who I am without regard for who I appear to be?
I think the best essay is her sixth one, where Tolentino reviews modern day scams. Scams led by icons like Billy McFarland, and Elizabeth Holmes and others led by more abstract entities like Wall Street (and the 2008 housing market crash), and Amazon (as in lickity split we will get that order to you by tomorrow even if we destroy small businesses and force workers to pee in a bottle in the process, dot com). The essay points to none other than the 45th President of the United States as the ultimate scammer. A narcissist who wants to exist only at the top because he sees no value in being anywhere else. A grifter (not unlike McFarland and Holmes) who is so consumed by how he APPEARS TO BE rather than WHO HE IS that he is willing to let everyone and everything unravel, as long as he remains where he wants to be.

Tolentino precisely connects what happens to humans, especially young humans, who exist in a world of uncertainty, straddling debt and temporary side hustles: "Into this realm of uncertainty has come a new idea—that the path to stability might be a personal brand."

"Branding" never sleeps. And neither do people who talk about it and call themselves "THE REAL (insert name)" and address their audience with "You guys!" with periodic teasers like "I have BIG news to announce tomorrow!" And without sleep, you could start doing weird shit. Like selling tickets to a festival without having a clue how to coordinate it. Or claiming to have created a new invention that can (with just a drop of blood) test for all sorts of diseases, without having invented it. Or promising to build a wall financed by Mexico knowing full well that Mexico will do no such thing.

It feels like the whole world is sleep-deprived. Why else do thousands of people actually buy tickets (that they can't afford) to a scam festival? Why else does a circle of educated elite invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a fake blood testing machine? Why else do millions of folk vote for a grifter who previously led a string of scams including the defunct Trump University, where a victim of the scam (cited by Tolentino) says "I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money"?

Perhaps it's sleep. Or something else. But our depravation of it is destroying us.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl


PURPOSE and FREEDOM
It's when I've felt that I have a purpose in life that I've been able to quiet doubts about why I exist in the first place. Even when daily routines of taking care of my daughter and son when they were babies frequently felt like drudgery, there was an undeniable purpose dialed into motherhood. To dutifully protect and raise vulnerable babies, no matter how I felt about the process at any given moment.

Now that my kids are adults, I am surrounded by oceans of freedom, to get up and pursue anything I want. All day, every day. Ironically, the freedom to do anything without a dialed-in purpose sometimes has me flailing. Drowning in freedom, longing for the confines and drudgery of duty.

I don't think freedom is incompatible with purpose. But freedom WITHOUT purpose is hell. So is purpose without freedom.

LOGOTHERAPY
Logotherapy is the therapeutic approach that the late Viktor Frankl explains in the second section of his book: Man's Search for Meaning (1959). It is an approach that beckons me to pursue meaning instead of byproducts of meaning (e.g., happiness, joy, comfort, etc.)

He points to laughter as an example. When someone commands me to laugh, it's almost impossible to will myself to do so. Same thing with commands to love, to choose happy, to orgasm, to have fun, to be authentic, to have faith. Even scripture says strong-armed faith is no faith at all.

The first section of his book is a memoir of his time as a prisoner of Aushwitz. Conceptually, it's hard to imagine a moment in a concentration camp where happiness or laughter could be experienced. Surely the context couldn't allow room for anything besides despair.

Frankl explains that no matter the context of suffering, be it the drudgeries of parenting, existence in a concentration camp, illness, accidents, betrayal, etc., it is possible to live with meaning and therefore possible to experience the byproducts of meaning in ALL circumstances of life.

I search daily to answer the question: What is my purpose?

Sometimes I feel clarity. Other times, ambiguity. Frequently, I find that as long as this search is conducted with a quieted ego, I am able to refrain from editing out neither bursts of tears nor roars of laughter that arrive not through commands, but as byproducts of a life with meaning.