Saturday, December 28, 2019

THE MERITOCRACY TRAP by Daniel Markovits

The concept of rewarding a person for their effort versus rewarding a person for their familial origins sounds correct. Merit-based scholarships. Merit-based college admissions. Merit-based promotions. Merit-based happiness. Right?

The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits reveals that the effect of a merit-based system that we think is fair is not fair at all. Not for the affluent elite. Nor for the poor. And increasingly not for the middle class.

It's like this. From the time a baby is born, middle class parents who connect the value of getting that baby into a prestigious college in order for that child to have a shot at a comfortable life motivates the parents to hyper-train and hyper-prepare that baby to get into that college. Which means they first need to get that child into the best kindergarten in order to prepare her for the best elementary and middle schools, which will prepare the adolescent to enter the best high school. Expensive tutors and supplementary prep courses are sought to help the student achieve not only a stellar GPA but demonstrate her well-roundedness. And then there's the training for the SAT. And achievement in sports. And in the arts. And in community leadership. And if all that expensive training still feels iffy, even the super affluent will find a way to hedge their bets. Even fraudulently (e.g., Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin).

The parents are stretched to work, work, work, so that they can earn, earn, earn so they can pay, pay, pay for all the hyper training.

Assuming the child graduates and lands a job at a prestigious company, there's never-ending pressure to work a crazy amount of hours to get the next promotion. So they can afford to pay for the hyper-training of their own kids.

Ironically, Markovits shows that this type of miserable lifestyle ... of constantly being busy is what signals to the world that the busy human is part of a rising relevant class. In other words, to say "I'm busy working" is viewed as being more prestigious than saying "I'm relaxing" or "I'm thinking" or as Jenny Odell would point out, "I'm doing nothing."

How all this relates to our current polarized national climate is that meritocracy increases the divide between the middle class and the poor. As the middle class is hanging on with exhaustion to earn their way up, the poor are being left behind:

"Meritocracy makes the whites whom it leaves behind into nativists by allowing them literally no place else to go. A white middle-class voter in Indiana, reflecting on Donal Trump's appeal recently explained that "the whole idea" of white privilege irritates whites outside the elite "because they've never experienced it on a level that they understand. You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity and they don't have it." The meritocratic suggestion that a white man who cannot get ahead must be in some way deficient stokes this anger ... Furthermore, meritocracy naturally produces not just nativism but also populism --a deep and pervasive mistrust of expertise and institutions."

Populism is what led to Trump. It is also what could lead to an extremist "progressive" version of Trump.



Friday, December 20, 2019

THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER by Lidia Yuknavitch




In the beginning, I feel the book (The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavich) is going to corroborate my general argument that life is a bowl of shit and hurt. From birthing a stillborn baby daughter to dealing with hardly a father, Yuknavich pulls me in super close to examine all the shit, all the hurt.

The irony is that the extraordinary way she writes makes even the most awful thing she recounts to be recounted with alarming beauty. The kind that gets me all jealous because I want MY writing to be that beautiful. I want my recounting to be as raw and unfiltered. I wonder, WHEN will that happen to MY writing? Or rather, WHY hasn't that yet happened to my writing? What will it take?!

She doesn't make fake postures or leave out the embarrassments. Like when she was arrested for a DUI and had to (as part of her punishment) become part of a road crew to pick up trash, lift heavy stuff, clean toilets, and other things that I don't associate with what a professor of writing does: "... by day I was out there with my posse while at night I had a fancy visiting writer job teaching budding young MFAS how to make their words more wonderful ... " (page 233).

Reminds me of brilliant standup comedian Jessica Kirson who in an interview explains the work she has done for a project with Robert DeNiro. Rather than stay puffy about that experience and then fake posture about living the life on easy street, she says that one day it's DeNiro, the next day, it's getting booked at a smelly hole in the wall to be heckled by an asshole.

Toward the end of the book, Yuknavich answers the question of what creative writing graduate students should be reading by saying: "Everything. They should read everything they can get their hands on. What they love, what they hate, all of it. You wouldn't jump into an empty pool, would you? Literature is the medium. You have to swim in it" (page 240).

Maybe that's why her writing is superb. Because she experiences everything she can and then writes about everything she has experienced. The parts she loves. The parts she hates. All of it. And maybe that's the secret to being a pool with depth ... to not choose happy or to pretend that that terrible thing didn't happen.

And to do so by not calling oneself brave but to recognize that embedded in between all the hurt are moments of thrill, joy, love, and (as Victor Frankel would say) extreme fulfillment.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Free Speech On Campus by Chemerinsky & Gillman


The fact that this book is compact and can be read quickly doesn't mean that its content is easy to digest. I think it is a must-read not only for students, staff, and faculty on college campuses but all humans engaged with the exchange of ideas.

Catharine MacKinnon, one of my favorite feminist legal scholars and thinkers, is cited two times in the book. The first citation (page 85) is about her argument to prohibit pornography because of the harm the industry commits against women. In my reading of MacKinnon's work, the harm is not only in the products that the industry produces, but also the process of the industry, where women are typically treated as subordinates to men. 

Chemerinsky & Gillman recognize that concepts of removing harm and building protections are high priorities in the minds of modern college students. These students' relationship with the First Amendment isn't necessarily informed by lived historical moments of how and why free speech has protected vulnerable communities. Rather, it's informed by seeing that under the guise of free speech, hate speech and bullying can run rampant, thereby upsetting, triggering, and as Mackinnon would argue, harming them. Which is why it's becoming a popular tendency for students to cancel, cleanse, and silence those who they deem as upsetting.

In the second citation of MacKinnon (page 118), there is an important distinction made between speech and sexual harassment. We learn that under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, harassment is not protected speech. Chemerinsky and Gillman assert that the first type of harassment as defined by quid pro quo is a no-brainer and should not be protected. However, the second type as defined by a "hostile work environment" is less clear cut.

I believe the reason it's less clear cut is because people receive words, glances, hugs, and all other forms of communication differently. In the art world, a nude painting of a woman can be viewed by some feminists as propagating the male gaze; a term (coined by Laura Mulvey) that argues that women are frequently depicted as passive objects in order to please the male active subjects. However, other feminists can view the same nude painting (and some types of pornography (both product and process)) as liberating and desirable.

The fact that MacKinnon is one of my favorite scholars AND that I don't agree with every single line of her legal arguments doesn't mean that I need to cancel or silence her. That her radical point of view has helped establish Title VII to push us into deeper thinking about what constitutes speech and what constitutes harassment is a good thing.

Chemerinsky & Gillman point out early in the book that to SPEAK freely, we need to be able to THINK freely. And as upsetting as it can be to be in the presence of speech that I disagree with, I know deep inside that a culture inclined to silence or cancel what I disagree with can eventually become inclined to silence and cancel me.




Thursday, November 28, 2019

PARASITE by Bong Joon Ho

One of my favorite scenes in Parasite (the movie by the brilliant Bong Joon Ho) is when the poor neighborhood starts getting flooded. It's a massive disaster, the flood. And in the middle of the chaos, the adult daughter from the poor family (played by So-Dam Park) stoops on top of the toilet in her house and starts to smoke a cigarette. Her house is literally being flooded and the water level is rising in the bathroom so she takes a moment to stoop and light up.

The reason I love this scene is because it challenges the double standard our world places on who is allowed to experience comfort and who is not.

When a poor person is seen buying cigarettes or a soda or a beer or a joint, the privileged casts harsh judgement. Like how dare a poor person spend money on anything that might bring them some enjoyment, some escape, or a little buzz.

When a privileged person is seen buying the same, the privileged characterize it as "a well-deserved treat."

This double standard affects the way we participate in charitable giving, too. The privileged prefers to control the "gift" by buying a non-privileged person food or clothes or toys but the idea of just giving a poor person cold hard cash to buy what they want, is decried. "But what if they use it to buy junk food or booze?!"

Parasite unfolds in unbelievable ways for the audience to wrestle with such double standards.

The scenes are funny at times but it is not a comedy.
The scenes are horrific at times but it is not a horror film.

It is a film without a single bad scene. And the sum of the amazing scenes results in a film that I would fervently say is the best of 2019. Perhaps the best I've ever seen.


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

My daughter and I traveled to Seoul, Korea in 2014. While we were there, we took an excursion to Jeju Island (a historically matriarchal community) with my brother and his family. While on Jeju, we saw up close and personal the women divers known as haenyeo. They dive without tanks or special equipment. With each dive, they hold their breaths for more than three minutes and bring back up assorted sea life to eat and sell. That is, unless something goes wrong.

In the first two chapters of Lisa See's historical novel, The Island of Sea Women, I was educated on how shockingly wrong things can go under the sea as told by the amazing haenyeo protagonist, Young-sook.

Though the water-related tragedies that befall Young-sook are shocking, the tragedies that befall her on land are even more so, as she witnesses the suffering that spans all the way from the Japanese colonization of Korea in the '30s and '40s, to WWII, and then the Korean War.

Self determination by its people is not what led to the division of Korea into its North and South in 1945. Rather it was the result of the wills of two determined superpowers: The Soviet Union and the United States. In protest of this division, the people of Jeju had an uprising. And on April 3, 1948, the uprising culminated in the Bukchon massacre that resulted in a bloodbath of hundreds of civilian lives tortured and murdered.

The loss that Young-sook endures at the Bukchon massacre is so immense that it's almost impossible to get through reading the chapter that describes it. Along with the family members she loses, she also loses the trust of her best friend, Mi-ja.

Young-sook's inability to forgive Mi-ja is as strong as her ability to survive. Philosophy teaches her that "To understand everything is to forgive." Young-sook understands the teaching conceptually. But in practice, she is unable. In many ways, I think this is the way Korea's people (both north and south) relate to forgiveness.

There's something culturally and personally familiar to me about viewing forgiveness as a concept. It doesn't lead to warm and cozy reunions. I don't think it's either right or wrong when it doesn't. It just is.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. My daughter is driving in tonight. I'll talk to her about this book. About the haenyoe we saw in 2014. How we are connected to them. And how we hurt. And how we forgive. Conceptually and in practice.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

LOVE

During the most recent Democratic Presidential debate, I finally felt a connection to Cory Booker. I think the main reason his campaign never resonated with me is because his overall message has been "Radical Love" and my relationship with the word "love" is and has always been awkward.

It's not that I don't feel the love for certain humans, I simply don't feel comfortable saying it. 

I was raised in a family and a culture where we hardly ever said it. Linguistically, parents in Korea say things like "You did well" or "I'm proud of you" or "You must be hungry. Eat this soup I made for you." As a kid who grew up in such a context, I interpreted such statements as meaning "I love you." Not explicitly spelled out but profoundly and implicitly understood.

So when Booker came out with "Radical Love" for his campaign, I wanted to run the other way ... similar to how I feel when I see someone wearing a "Love More" t-shirt.

The people I love exist in a very small and tight circle. The larger circle is more about respect, decency, compassion, and other fine words like regard, attraction, and esteem. And then there are folks who I immensely dislike but can muster an ability to tolerate and co-exist with. 

I have a close friend who says "I love you, Jenny Doh" all the time. The first few times she said it to me, I tried to ignore it. But as I truly started feeling it for her, I forced myself to at minimum write it to her via text so she wouldn't feel that I didn't feel it for her. And I have also forced myself to say it to her face a couple of times. But it never feels natural and I don't feel it's me when I'm saying it. When I explained this whole awkwardness that I feel about the word to her, she delighted in hearing the explanation and declared again, "I love you, Jenny Doh." What a friend she is. To not pressure me to say it and not pressure herself to not say it. In other words, to accept our respective cultural, linguistic and familial upbringings. 

During the debate, it's when Booker spoke passionately about the inequities of how America has treated the privileged versus non-privileged in relation to possession, use, and sale of marijuana related products that I felt a connection with him. It didn't sound sappy like love sometimes does. It sounded forcefully and compassionately truthful.

The morning after the debate, I saw a photo of Booker, Klobuchar, and my candidate Buttigieg in a beautiful selfie. Smiling, respectful, and decent. Fierce competitors with different upbringings working to connect with people ... some who love explicitly and others implicitly.



ELEGY for LEONARD COHEN


ELEGY for LEONARD COHEN
(J Doh)

Why couldn't I have written 
words like these
when they tore my blindfold off?

Why couldn't I have written them off,  
seen you off
and built a fire with my pen?

To burn everything with
words like these.
Art like this.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

After plowing through part one of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, I was interrupted. A good interruption requiring me to put the book down and go meet a friend for coffee. I texted my friend before leaving to say "I just finished part one. I think this break will do me good cause I can feel that parts two and three are gonna knock me out."

Part one had developed a protagonist character in Elwood who I started to care too much for. That's always step one of getting knocked out, I think. Caring too much. What I love about the caring I feel when reading Whitehead's work is that it's not developed through hyperbole or melodrama. It's through literary restraint.

Prior to being unjustifiably picked up and placed in a "reform" school in Tallahassee called The Nickel Academy, Elwood's future looked bright. Through the love of his grandmother and the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that he listened to on repeat, dignity became his north star. And once he was at Nickel, he planned to achieve faster than others in order to be quickly released. That was his plan. "That was his resistance (page 62)."

But what The Nickel Boys made me grapple with, given its true nature as a facility that brutally abused and killed its detainees is this: What happens to noble north stars and dignified resistance when undignified people are in charge of systems designed to keep you down?

For Elwood, what happens is that IN ALL THINGS, even in the face of unfairness, the dignified decide to act with hope by continuing to create context. Because isn't it context that MLK Jr created by writing the letter from the Birmingham jail? And isn't the journal that Elwood kept writing at Nickel also an act of creating context in hopes that people who care, people with dignity, will one day understand? As Elwood explains: "One thing gave birth to the other--without the cell, no magnificent call to action (page 193)." A truth that gets to the heart of scripture that says not "FOR all things" but rather "IN all things give thanks (I Thessalonians 5:18)."

I personally toggle back and forth from Elwood's hope and his friend Turner's cynicism. Conceptually from peace to violence. Practically from love to hate. It's so dizzying sometimes that I feel close to being knocked out.

Friday, November 8, 2019

John Pete George Ringo


"I am asking you to picture that first day the sun comes up in this country and Donald Trump is no longer the President of the United States of America ... what comes next? The sun's gonna come up over a country even more divided and torn up by politics than we are today ..." said Pete Buttigieg during his recent speech at the LJ Dinner in Iowa.

It's when I heard these lines that I realized that this grotesque mess we are living in WILL END. There WILL be an actual morning after this shameful presidency that the sun comes up and we have a different leader. And when I was pondering these lines and imagining that morning, I couldn't help but start singing that beautiful song by The Beatles: 

Here comes the sun (doo doo doo)
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun (doo doo doo)
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

A song that we all know how to sing; created for us by John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The Beatles. Four individuals who made unique contributions to create one of the greatest bands of all time. 

Given that my daughter knows that I am a supporter of Pete, she was surprised when I recently told her that yes, my number one is Pete. And my number two is Bernie. 

To me, Bernie is the candidate who has been unafraid of pushing his passion without obfuscation. It is because of Bernie's lifetime of audacious work that our nation is even talking about the issue of health care in meaningful ways. In terms of The Beatles (to borrow an analogy that Jerry Saltz once made between painters and The Beatles), Bernie is John and Pete is Paul.

This pair collaborated to write Here Comes the Sun (among many other songs in their incredible body of work) that got our world to hear and feel lyrics that told unforgettable stories. (EDIT: Here Comes the Sun was not written by Lennon/McCartney. Rather, it was written by George Harrison.)

As much as they needed each other to create their songs, they always had some tension in their relationship. After The Beatles broke up, there is an interview where John referred to Paul's solo songs as "silly love songs," to which Paul replied by writing one of his biggest solo hits: Silly Love Songs.

Like Bernie and John, Pete is also unafraid. But like Paul, Pete is open to allowing a strong melody to harmonize and compromise with other notes and other ideas. He is ok with reading books with heft like Ulysses (by James Joyce) AND playfully snoopy-dancing to the theme from Peanuts ... and singing joyfully along with other "silly love songs" that are diverse, frequently incremental, and always beautifully pragmatic.


Monday, November 4, 2019

The Problem with Everything by Meghan Daum

One of the nuanced points that Meghan Daum makes early in her book, The Problem with Everything is when she points out that our nation's claim about our growing problem with child sex trafficking is often made by "those wanting to see punitive measures taken against adult sex workers" (page 44).

It reminds me of when I find myself in a conversation with someone who says something like "Pornography is bad." And I think to myself: Yeah some of it is bad but some of it isn't. Or when someone says "Fuck the male gaze." And I think to myself: Depends on the male.

But usually when I'm caught in a conversation with an overriding theme of virtue, it's hard to make nuanced delineations because doing so potentially places me into a category that I don't want to be placed in. What is that category? Overly erotic? Unwoke?

I wonder if my discomfort of being placed in such categories reflects on my own fixation about how I want to appear to others. Like that time when I announced that my new word of the year would be "garden" with lots of sentences about how I was going to grow a vegetable garden. The thing is that I never started a garden. Just announced that I would so that I would appear to be a person with a garden.

In terms of adult sex workers, I've almost never been able to have honest conversations about the fact that as long as the worker is not forced into it, it's a legitimate career. This last sentence of mine will likely raise eyebrows and create whispers like "How can she support sex for pay? That's immoral and an affront to God!" To which my thought bubble would say "Mind your own garden."

Throughout most of the book my angst and I enjoyed the sense of hopelessness that Daum paints ... about how our current political discourse has become a reduction sauce (e.g., "Porn is bad") with no room for notes of nuance that point to the complicated, conflicted, and paradoxical truths of the human condition. Surprisingly, Daum concludes the book with a kind of hope that my angst doesn't oppose. That hope is about how life is worth living not because it is perfect with everyone understanding everything but because it is flawed, with most everyone seeking to understand. Yes indeed, the problem is the gift.


Saturday, November 2, 2019

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

In Part Five of his book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses "coupling," a concept that links behaviors to specific circumstances and conditions. For example, if a suicidal person finds herself on the Golden Gate Bridge and considers the idea of jumping off that bridge to be more comforting for her temperament than other modes of suicide (e.g., shooting herself with a gun), she might find herself acting on her impulse and jumping. However, if that person wasn't near that bridge but was still suicidal and only had a method that didn't feel comforting to her (e.g., scary gun), she might not act on her impulse. Coupling is when an impulse meets a context or circumstantial method that fits.

The Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937. It has been where more than 1,600 suicides have occurred. Eventually in 2018, a suicide barrier was installed on that bridge, which has led to a spike in suicide deterrence.

For those who argued against the installation of suicide barriers, their thought process is not dissimilar to those who today argue that universal background checks and assault weapon buy-back programs won't reduce gun violence because people determined to kill will kill, no matter what.

Gladwell cites a researcher named Richard Seiden who studied 515 people who had unsuccessfully tried to kill themselves at the Golden Gate Bridge and found that only 25 of those 515 went on to kill themselves with other methods.

Says Gladwell: with some exception, "the people who want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge at a given moment want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge only at that given moment."

For some, the readily available lethal means is a bridge. For others, like Sylvia Plath, it was "town gas" loaded with carbon monoxide. Gladwell explains that more than a decade after Plath's suicide, the dirtiness of town gas evolved into natural gas, containing almost no carbon monoxide. And the rates of gas-related suicides plummeted.

In 2013, my brother committed suicide. It wasn't by jumping, though he told me once that he had considered it. But the bridge wasn't the method that would couple with his impulse. His ultimate method was a painless one and I know that it suited his fears and comfort level the most.

Even though Talking with Strangers begins and ends with the case of Sandra Bland who ultimately took her life in her jail cell, the book isn't about suicide per se. It's about all the ways we get things wrong in the process of talking to strangers. Or maybe it's also about how we get things wrong in the process of talking to people who we think are non-strangers. Our siblings. Our children. Our family members.

And how in the face of tragedy, we survivors try to find solace by blaming people for feeling the depths of darkness rather than erecting interventions that mitigate the darkness.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Stay Fucking Calm

A few months ago as I was tidying the house, I found this GOALS!!! list that my Millennial daughter (Monica) had written down. I found myself laughing out loud and then getting a little teary-eyed.

I laughed because of how her goals shift from the shallow (e.g., "Make tea!") to the deep (e.g., "Take notes for THOTS" [although I'm not sure what THOTS is, I think it has something to do with her creative writing pursuits]), along with specificity about a task (e.g., "Grab a trash bag") that reflects her past frustrations of going to do a task (e.g., "Clean out car") without first gathering a trash bag. The list also contains commentary that helps brace herself for potential disappointment (e.g., "Find headphones (not realistic)"). The pressures to clear shallow work so that she can make time for deep work resonates with me.

I got teary-eyed because she includes "Tweet something" on her list. The sometimes frantic pressure to keep up with things like Twitter also resonates with me ... as I think we all wonder whether keeping up in that regard is REALLY important or just has a faux sheen of importance.

The "Stay fucking calm" bullet point is what gets me the most. As a young woman trying to make her way in the world, I'm sure Monica is frequently visited by EGO, which can lead to doubt, fear, and panic. As her mother, I too find myself saying "Stay fucking calm" especially when I feel my EGO revving up, causing my psyche to compare myself to others, which always results in a hot mess.

Currently, I find myself flailing to try and feel a purpose that is in concert with this season of my life as mother of two adults (who used to be babies). Is it to enjoy life? Is it to show off stuff that I can do? Is it to learn? Is it to teach? Is it to make more money? Is it to spend money?

In terms of my children, I want my purpose mainly to be a black belt listener for them. To provide space so they can share ideas from the shallow to the deep, where I can remind them that the most important work in either end of the pool is to remember to breathe in, breathe out. And by doing so, to stay fucking calm.

PS: Many thanks to Monica for giving me permission to publish her GOALS!!! list.

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.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Dignity of the Dress

There are certain garments, like this little white slip, that makes me feel tingly and beautiful and powerful whenever I put it on. 

In her book titled Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino cites researcher Moira Weigel who describes a phenomenon called "enclothed cognition." Says Tolentino:

"In one experiment, test subjects were given white coats to wear. If they were told it was a lab coat, they became more attentive. If they were told it was a painter's coat, they became less attentive. They felt like the person their clothes said they were."

In other words, the participating subjects not only FELT but BEHAVED like people that the jackets told them they were. 

I would further argue that how a person dresses affects the way OTHERS behave toward them. In the movie Brittany Runs a Marathon, Brittany transforms her life by losing weight through diet and exercise. She points out in one scene that in her new body, men literally start to open doors for her. 

In my experience, not only do men open doors, they also bring you water that you want but don't ask for, and volunteer to walk you to the aisle that has the thing you're looking for at Home Depot. Of course that's the bright side of behavior influenced by external factors. There's a dark side where behavior crosses the line to include groping and assault.

In another book titled The Choice by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, we learn that at the age of 16, Eger and her sisters were sent to Auschwitz by the Nazis. Ever since they were little, Eger's sister Magda had loved dressing beautifully. Eger describes that in the winter, the soldiers issued old coats to the prisoners, just tossing them out without attention to size and fit. Says Eger:

"Magda was lucky. They threw her a thick warm coat, long and heavy, with buttons all the way up to the neck. It was so warm, so coveted. But she traded it instantly. The coat she chose in its place was a flimsy little thing, barely to the knees, showing off plenty of chest. For Magda, wearing something sexy was a better survival tool than staying warm. Feeling attractive gave her something inside, a sense of dignity, more valuable to her than physical comfort."

It's difficult to be honest about our desire for beautiful clothes and body. On the one hand it sounds like a no-brainer. On the other hand, it sounds potentially shallow and exclusionary. Roxane Gay points out in her book titled Hunger how ridiculous it was for her well-meaning friend to say to her "You're not fat" when she was weighing about 500 pounds. Gay's point challenges the popular body inclusivity movement to accept that it's ok for a fat person to try to become unfat. That that pursuit isn't in and of itself exclusionary or shallow.

Brittnay finishes the NYC marathon and ultimately realizes that the key to unlocking true happiness isn't about the weight and the clothes but it isn't NOT about the weight and clothes either. I think they are all inextricably tied. Self worth is tied to what we wear is tied to the body we keep is tied to the amount of debt we carry is tied to how we manage our time. 

In the scene where Brittnay starts the NYC marathon, we hear the emcee who welcomes all the runners, reminding everyone that the marathon is an experience that has no borders, only start lines.

Friday, August 30, 2019

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The long-term low-grade guilt that I'd been carrying around for years ... for not ever having read works by Toni Morrison came to a head recently upon learning of her passing. So I picked up The Bluest Eye in order to finally break that guilt. I imagined and hoped that from the first to the final page, I'd develop an intense love affair with this book. I wanted to. That is what I wanted. That is what I deserved.

And though there were certain passages that struck me throughout, I didn't find myself in love with the book for most of the pages. I wanted it to open up for me but it wasn't opening up. I wanted to adore and defend Pecola Breedlove because I knew she was the one I was supposed to stick up for. But for most of the book I found myself stuck ... wondering WHY.

And then I got to the last several pages. The last three to be exact. Where not the WHY of Pecola but the HOW of Pecola opened up. And with that opening, I started understanding what happens to those like me who want Pecola to do that thing for us.

"We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty ... for we were not strong, only aggressive, we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life."

The tragedy of Pecola is multi-faceted. Her "enemies" (both imagined and real) don't pack up nicely. And for all the questions of HOW the story assuages, many more questions of WHY linger. Like why does the soil not support all seeds? Like why do we need to feel beautiful, even if we are other important things like smart, talented, and compassionate? Like why do conventional standards of beauty make some and ruin others?

For all these and other questions that Morrison has stirred within me, I am grateful. And more so that I stuck with it until the very end when not just the book opened up, but also my quest to live without the fear of asking myself questions about how and why I pursue and measure beauty.


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Object Subject


If the greatest turn-on for men is to see that the woman is turned on, then the greatest turn-on for women is to feel that she IS the turn-on. So goes the argument that Esther Perel lays out in terms of dynamics related to eroticism between heterosexual men and women. In other words, we women need to feel like the object of desire in order for the erotic to be enjoyable. 

In 1975, Laura Mulvey coined the phrase "The Male Gaze" in her essay titled Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. A piece that posits that in the context of cinema, women are frequently depicted as sexual objects in order to please the heterosexual male. The term "male gaze" has evolved over the years to cover much more than the genre of cinema, to include all visual arts and literature. 

As a painter I notice that when I paint a nude female subject, there are heterosexual men who try to veil their pleasure, so that their expression doesn't get misconstrued as the type unable discern the visual from the behavioral. And therefore overstating academic-based praise and downplaying erotic-based praise. 

We females also veil our praise. On the one hand, we say "She (the painted subject) is beautiful" but are careful not to be overly effusive so as not to build a hierarchy of beauty or condone pleasure by a viewer who might be viewing the subject as the object of beauty. It feels safer to make sure that we pass the litmus test of the trendy strand of feminism that argues every body is calibrated equally and therefore every body should yield the same type of pleasure by the viewer. Our veil also works to keep our praise conceptual instead of practiced, because to agree with Perel's argument that we are turned on when we are the object of desire has the potential to have someone categorize us as anti-feminist. And overly preoccupied with the erotic. 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

BECOMING by Michelle Obama

One of my best memories of summer 2019 will be my having read the book BECOMING by Michelle Obama. It read much like the way I've heard her speak on television. Real. Dignified. Interesting.

I related so much with her story of how she grew up learning to play the piano on a beat-up but loved instrument with imperfectly chipped keys and how when it was her turn to play at a recital on a perfect piano, that she froze. I've had similar feelings. Especially with cars and neighborhoods ... preferring the coziness of beat-up but loved objects over perfectly fancy ones. 

The lessons that Michelle learned through her college roommate Suzanne also hit home for me. That it's ok to sometimes swerve off one's ambitious path and one's list of checkboxes and have some fun. I adored the way President Obama proposed to Michelle. I hadn't heard that story before and I could just imagine exactly how the tension was building up while they were at dinner and how it all released so beautifully with the arrival of dessert. It made me smile and it made me feel like I was right there.

I found intriguing her use of the term America's Gaze in terms of how it felt to manage the way Americans were looking/gazing at her and her family during campaigns and their time in the White House. On page 270, she writes: "I've learned that it's harder to hate up close," which I agree with. That even if we Americans vehemently disagree, we can actually coexist if we dare to move beyond the gaze, move behind the false bravery of 280 characters, and allow for interactions that involve true sharing and true listening.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

LANNY by Max Porter


What I appreciate most about LANNY by Max Porter is that it shows how weirdness becomes suspect whenever the routines of life go off the rail. Like when a young boy goes missing ... the weird parts of his mother's writing makes her a suspect ... and the weird doodles of Pete the art teacher convince us that he is likely guilty of the heinous possibilities that our imaginations quickly construct.

Sadistically, we humans have evolved into creatures who simultaneously cheer for and denounce the heinous. For entertainment. And vindication ... that tidy and upstanding and logical, framed-Renoir-reproduction-hung-in-the-hallway is the proper way to live. Even if we suffocate in the process.

LANNY is a weird book. The way it's written. The way typography is used. The way characters swerve in and out of assorted realities. It takes us into the depths of a forest we don't really understand, and the depths of the human condition to show that in all honesty, people ... even in our effort to be "normal," are weird. And for that honesty, I thank Porter. A book I will not soon forget as I continue to ponder his ultimate question of which is more patient: an idea or a hope?

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: THE CHEERLEADERS
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: THE URGENCY
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."

RAPPORT
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'M A WITNESS
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.