Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Reading Lab: Free Speech & Activism


When we think of the concept of freedom, do we value only the freedom TO?
To speak.
To think.
To act.

Or do we also value the freedom FROM?
Freedom from harassment.
Freedom from intimidation.
Freedom from violence. (The kind that the Asian American community has been experiencing a lot of lately and other moments in history.)

When we think of freedom, is it something that belongs to an individual or also to a community?

When we start to notice harassment and demand that it stop are we cancelling the harasser or is the harasser feigning censorship because they’ve not been kept accountable before?

We will pursue these questions and more in my new online class in collaboration with Professor Lonce Bailey, titled The Reading Lab: Free Speech & Activism. Class begins April 9th. Details and enrollment info can be found here.

Everyone welcome.

Monday, March 1, 2021

THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson


Approximately from 1915 to 1970, the servant class of America took action to leave the southern states of the United States as they embarked on a journey that would land them in northern and western states. About six million Black Americans took this action not by first asking for permission or announcing that they would. This historical truth of The Great Migration comes to life as Isabel Wilkerson, author of THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, focuses on the stories of three specific black Americans who took this action:

  • Ida Mae Brandon Gladney took action to leave Mississippi and settle in Chicago
  • George Swanson Starling took action to leave Florida and settle in New York
  • Robert Joseph Pershing Foster took action to leave Louisiana and settle in Los Angeles. 
The research that Wilkerson conducts in order to present the pushes and the pulls associated with why blacks left the south is epic.

The big push to leave had everything to do with the indignity of living under Jim Crow laws that protected the practices of white people -- from segregation to abusive work environments, to lynchings. Pershing  Foster knew firsthand, about the indignity of living under Jim Crow. A man who would eventually become a medical doctor with a thriving practice in Los Angeles knew before the migration while growing up in Louisiana how he had to swallow his rage in order to survive Jim Crow. The need to do bide his time, and to do whatever it took to survive the oppressive eye of his white bosses ... in the streets, in the fields, in his dreams:

"Sometimes" he said, "you have to stoop to conquer" (page 117).

The big pull of the migration contained the stories of more enlightened northern and western states, where Jim Crow was reputed to be less overt and dignity for blacks reputed to be more attainable. Wilkerson presents fascinating research that documents migrants as having an unparalleled will to survive. Though they didn't cross bodies of water or actual borders separating nations, the hardships they endured by making this move caused them to do whatever it took to survive -- including working longer hours, taking multiple jobs, and taking jobs that others didn't want.

As an immigrant myself, I get that to my bones. 
And I get the value of:
  • delaying gratification
  • swallowing the rage, and yes, 
  • stooping to conquer.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Word for 2021 :: BODY

It's been a brutal year for bodies everywhere. For my partner, the brutality has been related to the ongoing ways in which bile duct cancer survival becomes compounded by new complications, new challenges, new crises. 

"I'll pray for his complete recovery and healing" is spoken to me with good intention but I am left speechless when such words come at me because there is no such thing as complete recovery and healing from this. There is love and support and awareness and care that can be given so that extended survival can be had with as much joy, intelligence and dignity as possible. 

Other words also leave me speechless. And I've learned how to preemptively silence them when I feel them coming my way by explaining to the almost offender that it is my honor. It is my privilege to be his life partner and that I get to help maximize his day-to-day hope and dignity as we take it one day at a time and manage all interventions. It is a role that gives me profound purpose.

As I relish in the purpose of supporting the survival of someone else's body, I find a depth of purpose as I continue caring for mine. Every morning I wake up and exercise (as I have been doing for the last couple of decades) either by myself or with my boxing coaches (Tee and Corey) or my strength/nutrition coach, Victor, who reminds me that the body doesn't care how it looks. It cares about surviving. My ego appreciates that the byproduct of how well I nourish my body with clean foods and how well I train it to be strong is that it ends up looking great. 

I like that. Leading with a pursuit of survival and allowing my ego to enjoy the byproducts of that main pursuit. 


Friday, December 11, 2020

Art & Activism During Covid

Yesterday I delivered my final lecture to the undergraduates enrolled in my Fall 2020 Art & Activism class at UC Irvine. This was my third year teaching this course at UCI and the first time teaching it at UCI via zoom. Throughout the quarter I have felt immense compassion for this cohort as they have had to accept and utilize work-arounds to continue pursuing their education in spite of the limitations that Covid-19 has caused for the university.

Usually, I like to take a group picture with students all huddled together in the classroom or in Aldrich Park at the end of the quarter but instead, we took a group screen capture via zoom.

After the lecture, the students all lifted up thank you notes that they had secretly planned. I was surprised and deeply moved with their coordinated expression of gratitude, and found myself in tears ... which caused my daughter Monica to come into my office from the other room to see what was going on. She was a fast thinker and reached over to capture the screen in that moment.  

I have also been touched by students' written expressions including one student who shared her appreciation for the structure and requirements of the class. In spite of the challenges, they were required to consistently read, think, and astonish me with their writing. They were also required to be in attendance and participate via discussion and most of all: to be on time. It felt good to hear that the structure was helpful during these uncertain times. 

I am proud of these brilliant young people for figuring it out and making in happen in spite of Covid-19. I predict that with their creativity, critical thinking skills, their heightened awareness of important matters (e.g., practicing virtue instead of signaling it, collaboration, compromise, meeting deadlines, being on time, etc.) they will become creators of important context as they listen deeply to this hurting world and activate the best in humanity. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Nullius in verba


In chapter 3 of FREE SPEECH ON CAMPUS by Chemerinsky & Gillman, we are reminded of Italian astronomer Galileo (1564-1642) who dared challenge the orthodoxy of the church by arguing that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. For saying this, the church accused him of heresy and placed him on house arrest for the remainder of his life. Some 300 years later, on October 31, 1992 the church issued an official apology to Galileo for having reacted to his factual scientific findings the way it had.

We are also reminded that "higher education was not founded on free thought but on indoctrination" as inquiry and discussion were confined to theological orthodoxy. In spite of its origination, higher education has aspired to evolve away from a place of indoctrination to a place of critical inquiry:

"If one starts from an assumption of already knowing the truth—religious, political, or otherwise—then higher education is merely about instructing students to become disciples."

The earth, the sun, the church, the apology, the university ... thinking about all of this makes me want to make a delineation that won't go over well with SOME. That SOME are the ones who take the phrase: Nullius in verba (which in Latin means "take nobody's word for it") not just out of context but into absurd contrarianism. That SOME are the ones who today believe that by taking nobody's word for it means believing in ridiculous ideas like—the world is flat. That SOME align themselves with the genius nature of Galileo—as if just by challenging orthodoxy they are as brilliant as the Italian astronomer.

The freedom to speak doesn't mean the babbling nonsense of the unstudied weighs the same as findings of a studied and practiced person. It simply means that babbling isn't forbidden. This point is made by musician Wynton Marsalis in his book, MOVING TO HIGHER GROUND, where we learn of a time when he taught shy young musicians to start improvising. He did so by encouraging them to make stuff up and just loudly play anything that intuitively came out of them. After getting them to produce a cacophony of painful-to-hear sounds, Marsalis said to the kids: "I told you it was easy. It's only hard if you want it to sound good."

Galileo didn't make stuff up through cliches and intuition. He made sound assertions after years of disciplined study. Marsalis doesn't just go on stage and miraculously make great music. He does so after years of study, practice and collaboration. 

In the book FROM ETERNITY TO HERE by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, we learn how through entropy (disorder), our universe continues to expand. We have more disorder today than yesterday but not as much as tomorrow. That's how the universe has been and will continue to be as it continues to expand ... as trees fall, eggs crack, tears shed. Entropy makes us ponder that a long time ago, there was less entropy and more order, which begs the question ... what is the origin of such order? Isn't order evidence of God? 

The elegance of entropy is what reels me back from pure atheism to agnosticism. What doesn't reel me back in is the babbling of that SOME who love to say things like "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" or "If I can stand in line at Walmart, you can stand in line at the voting booth."

It's easier to babble than to study. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020


In chapter 7 of his book Moving to Higher Ground, Wynton Marsalis describes a time when he was teaching improvisation to a group of shy kids by saying to them: "It's so easy. Just make up stuff. Yes, play anything that comes to mind, fingers, or lips. Louder! Wilder! That's it. You're improvising." And after the kids produced a cacophony of free-spirited but painful-to-hear sounds, Marsalis added: "I told you it was easy. It's only hard if you want it to sound good."

Earlier in the book, Marsalis recounts a time when saxophonist Frank Foster called for a blues in B-flat during a street concert with other musicians when a young tenor player began to play "sounds that had no relationship to the harmonic progression or rhythmic setting," causing Foster to stop him:

"What are you doing?"
"Just playing what I feel."
"Well, feel something in B-flat, motherfucker."

Marsalis explains that jazz is about—expressing-accepting, reacting-accepting—on repeat. Like when a trumpeter plays what he/she feels in the moment, followed by say a bassist reacting to what has been played by playing/expressing what he/she feels about it. And on and on. When all members of the band strive for the balance of expression-acceptance-reaction within the company of practiced musicians striving for excellence, jazz enters a nirvana called "swing." In swing, no single player hogs the stage with endless solos. In swing, players give and take, back and forth, without compromising sincerity of the heart and soul.

Swing in jazz reminds me of "swing" in rowing crew as described in The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. Crew is not a sport for individuals to show off solo strengths. Rather, it's a sport where individuals become one unit by making modifications as needed ... where a rower with a shorter reach learns to reach longer, and a rower with a longer reach learns to foreshorten his/her reach so that every rower can be in synch, causing the boat to attain a rowing nirvana called "swing."

Marsalis states that not all musicians respect the swing, which he likens to the state of our democracy: "Balance is required to maintain something as delicate as democracy, a subtle understanding of how your power can be magnified through joining with and sharing the power of another person."

In other words, it's not just about the freedom to belt out whatever the hell one feels.

It's also about belting out what one feels in collaboration and cooperation with others, in the right key and with awareness of context, motherfucker. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

There, There by Tommy Orange


[This original essay was posted on my IG on March 2, 2019. I am reposting it today to encourage anyone who is thirsty to read something to address the tensions that exist in the holiday called Thanksgiving.]

Just finished reading THERE THERE by Tommy Orange. At first I thought it was a collection of short stories. And then after about 50 pages, I realized it isn't a collection of shorts, it's one cohesive novel ... where seemingly unrelated stories and characters intersect, interrelate, inter-tangle. The older I get, the more I realize that everything is connected. I realize that a person from this interaction is related to a person from that interaction and that this word affects that word, and this treatment affects that treatment.

There is righteous rage in this book. The kind of rage I felt a few weeks ago when watching the Glib entitled face of the white teen boy (from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky) donning a MAGA hat while taunting #NathanPhillips (a veteran and member of the Omaha tribe). And then watching prime time give the boy a one-on-one interview to deny his Glib. And a judicial system that allows Glib to claim and cry unfairness. Just like his hero, the grifter-in-chief.
Fuck. I mean, what the fuck.

This life is at once too much and not enough. But hey, let's just make nice and let it go ... cause turkey's in the oven, the cranberries are cooked, guests are coming, and we have so much to be thankful for. So let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for our abundant blessings and all that you continue to bestow upon us, amen. "But there's no time and no good reason most of the time to look back. Leave them alone and memories blur into summary" (Tommy Orange, There There, page 165).