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

 

GALILEO
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.

DELINEATION
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. 

ENTROPY
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

MOVING TO HIGHER GROUND by Wynton Marsalis


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.
Unfairness?
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). 


Thursday, November 12, 2020

Expressions & Regulations

 


Emily Bazelon reminds us in her piece (Free Speech Will Save Our DemocracyNYT Magazine, October 13, 2020) that President Obama encourages us to allow all speech to occur, no matter how offensive, as we strengthen our speech so that the best ideas emerge as the most credible. Bazelon also reminds us of historically foundational thinkers upon which Obama's assertion rests, including Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who in 1919 said "The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas" and John Stuart Mill who wrote in (On Liberty, 1859) that it is wrong to censor ideas, because knowledge arises from the "clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

In Chapter 2 of The Free Speech Century by Lee Bollinger and Geoffrey Stone (2018), we find an essay titled Every Possible Use of Language? by Frederick Schauer. In it, Schauer cites Holmes as having given us the enduring idea that speech can be restricted on alleged dangerousness only if the danger is "clear and present." Most of us have understood this point by understanding the example he used to make this point, which is that no one is free to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

What makes these traditional tenants of free speech challenging today is 1) the grotesque advances of technology that cause false information to spread like wildfire and 2) modern leaders like Donald Trump whose penchant for totalitarianism cause him to spread outlandish propaganda one day and on another day (when confronted by irrefutable proof of his earlier falsehoods) takes oblique and cynical cover by saying "I was just joking." 

Schauer argues that the First Amendment "cannot have been ... intended to give immunity for every possible use of language." In other words, some language is beyond the grasp of the First Amendment's protections. For example, when Trump's language inspired domestic terrorists earlier this year to devise a plan to kidnap and murder Governor Gretchen Whitmer, it would be hard for the First Amendment to kick in and regulate that speech because in the moment of Trump's language, dangers are likely speculative and likely distant. Not clear enough. Not present enough.

The good faith argument that all speech ought to be allowed in order for the best idea to win (a la Mill, Holmes, and Obama) may need further examination as we confront a modern context where our social media channels fuel the growth of totalitarian leadership-based dangers. Dangers that might not explode in the now but dangers that are dangerously flammable and uncomfortably adjacent to this moment.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

TRUST by Pete Buttigieg

 


TRUST
"Laakum diinukum wa lii diinii" is the Arabic sentence that came out of Pete Buttigieg's mouth in a tense moment when he and another American found themselves in a marketplace, on the streets of Somalia (TRUST, Buttigieg, 2020). The tension began when rather than pretend that he and his friend were Canadians (which many Americans were doing while in the Middle East (in order to avoid receiving the negative attitudes toward Americans)) they declared to the people in the marketplace that they were from the USA. As tensions about politics and religion rose in that moment, Buttigieg (a devout Episcopalian) uttered that sentence which translates in English to: "Your religion for you, and my religion for me." Buttigieg explains that it is "the final sentence of a sura in the Quran about how Muslims are supposed to speak to unbelievers."

FREE WILL
At the heart of most faiths is that God wants me to believe. Not through force, but free will. Makes sense to me because like God, I want to receive love from others—not through force, but free will. Forced faith isn't faith. Forced love isn't love.

BIOREGIONALISM
After a string of blisteringly hot days, I see clouds rolling in as I look out the window from where I write. Much-needed rain will come. An isolationist would want me to believe that the rain that falls on me is MY rain, produced by MY land. America first. To hell with everyone else.

But science teaches that rain happens through a phenomenon called bioregionalism, where atmospheric rivers transport moisture from the tropics to other parts of the world, and that 30-50 percent of California's rain comes through "atmospheric rivers" that originate in places like The Philippines (How to Do Nothing, Odell, 2019).

CLIMATE CHANGE
Yesterday I attended a zoom conference held by The Hammer Museum where speakers were talking about the troubling lack of storytellers telling stories about climate change. One reason is that storytellers can more easily tell stories by looking at something that has happened in the past. Wars. Famines. Disasters. Climate change isn't something that happened in the past. It is happening.

To take action and care not only for what is mine or what I think is mine (e.g., God, rain, etc.) we need to find a way to strengthen trust in experts and institutions who provide not conspiracies based on innuendo and mistrust, but evidence through research, study and good faith. As addiction to conspiracies and misinformation continue to spread, it feels daunting. It feels like a tug of war between isolationism and global cooperation. Between forced faith and faux faith. As much as it feels tempting to give up and let go of that rope, I hold on, and meditate on the final sentence in this book where Buttigieg says: "I trust that we can meet that moment, if only because we must."


Sunday, October 11, 2020

THE ABUNDANCE by Annie Dillard

 

As I was reading Maggie Nelson, I knew that I'd be reading Annie Dillard. Because when a writer I admire admires another writer, I jump to that named writer. The massive pile of books by assorted authors that has been waiting to be read will need to wait longer. I've got time, I think.

Within her book of essays titled THE ABUNDANCE, there is an essay titled The Deer at Providencia. In it, Dillard talks about a newspaper article titled "Man Burned for Second Time" that she has clipped and keeps taped to her mirror. It's about a man named Alan McDonald who as a young person was badly burned in an accident involving flaming gasoline. Dillard explains that severe burn victims have a high suicide rate: "Medicine cannot ease their pain; drugs just leak away, soaking the sheets, because there is no skin to hold them in." The article explains that years after this first burn accident, McDonald is involved in a second accident, causing him to be severely burned a second time. The article quotes McDonald as saying "Why does God hate me?"

I can barely read beyond this essay because I actually start sobbing for McDonald and all other burn victims of the world. And I want him to know that I hear the validity of his question.  

In the following essays, Dillard challenges me to wonder HOW I see by arguing that likely, I see what I expect. She cites author Stewart Edward White who writes about the way of seeing deer: "As soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious, then you will see deer. " In other words, I am one who walks with a camera (from shot to shot) or without one, to allow an internal shutter to open as I see a new way, allowing me to become a true observer.

Dillard takes me with her on her own journey of sometimes seeing the mirage of immortality that gets constructed in between nature's harsh evidence that life is finite. And if I can see the mirage for what it is, I will take her advice when she says: "SPEND the afternoon. You can't take it with you." 

She asks: "What would you do if you had fifteen minutes to live before the bomb went off? Quick: What would you read?"

If I had that newspaper clipping about McDonald, maybe I'd read that. Or the cards my kids have written me over the years. Or nothing at all. And ask indignantly (mainly because I don't know whether I truly hate death), "Why does God hate us?" 


Thursday, September 24, 2020

SOLUTIONS and OTHER PROBLEMS by Allie Brosh

 

That the title of this book explains the absurd nature of "solutions" by correlating it with "other problems" invites me in. 

When my brother took his life in 2013, I was feeling a lot of things and I wanted to say a lot of things. Mostly that nothing makes sense and that everything hurts. And when I tried to say those things, unsolicited advice came my way with "solutions" that I wasn't seeking and advice that I wasn't interested in. Turns out the universe is filled with people wanting to make a person who is feeling bad to either feel bad about feeling bad or to stop feeling bad. Like the only feeling worthy of having is a "good" one, or a brave one, or a choose happy one. Thankfully, my therapist at the time wasn't dispensing solutions or advice. He simply was and was helping me be.

In Chapter 10 of SOLUTIONS and OTHER PROBLEMS by Allie Brosh, we learn that Allie has also experienced heartbreaking loss. Her sister. Through her drawings and words, Brosh explains the sensation of the bad feelings that you want to explain to the world in such a grim situation. She does this in the most brutally untidy and most dignified way I've ever read.

Yesterday, I tuned into a zoom call where Brosh was interviewed by Marc Maron about this new book. It was lovely. When asked about her favorite comedians, she said that Dave Chapelle's optimism is one she can get behind, noting that Chapelle doesn't cover up the pointlessness and hurt to have the audience only notice the balloons and rainbows. She also stated a discomfort in the idea of advising anyone about anything, but prefers to be an "open source" for anyone who wants to observe how she is going through it. I realize that the most significant influencers in my life don't come at me with unsolicited solutions and advice. Rather, they live and open up the way they live, in case I want to observe it. And sometimes, I derive something helpful from the observation if it comes into view.

That's what this book is. It is an open source where I get to observe stories that allow me to strongly identify, that make me feel that Brosh is weird, that I'm weird, that life is weird, and sometimes, there are balloons.

If HYPERBOLE AND A HALF (Brosh's first book) is about coping with depression, SOLUTIONS and OTHER PROBLEMS is about coping with loss. I'm grateful for both.



Monday, September 21, 2020

THE ART OF CRUELTY by Maggie Nelson



The seventh chapter of THE ART OF CRUELTY by Maggie Nelson is titled The Golden Rule. In it, Nelson cites American composer and philosopher John Cage (1912-1992) as follows:

"I think the Golden Rule, which is often thought of as the center, really, of Christianity, is a mistake: 'Do unto others as you would be done by.' I think this is a mistaken thought. We should do unto others as THEY would be done by."

In other words, who is anybody to say that everybody should be treated or behave a certain way based on anybody's preferences? At the grocery store, the water cooler at the office, in front of the television, or at a theater. And of course, in bed. What is the Golden Rule in bed? Slow and gentle? Or rough and tumble?

Earlier in the book, Nelson cites Yoko Ono's performance art from 1964 titled Cut Piece where Ono sits on a stage with a pair of scissors placed next to her, with permission given to the audience to cut her clothing if they want to. Most don't want to. But some do. Nelson describes how after several nervous minutes of silence laced with giggles, a young man comes forth and cuts her bra straps, thus exposing her breasts.

What does Ono want? What does the young man want? Is he being cruel? What does the audience that stays to watch want? Are they being cruel? And who gets to decide that there should only be one want? Is there consent? What if this or something like this were on tv? 

Maybe a reality show. Like Survivor Island. Is it cruel to watch grown adults suffer from dehydration or gag from eating gross things? And what about American Idol auditions, asks Nelson. Is it cruel for us to watch bad singers get humiliated?  

How do we reconcile the paradoxes within the human heart? We love to tout the Ellen DeGeneres "be kind" narrative while simultaneously proving (through not only the classic Milgrim Experiment (1963) but subsequent experiments designed in like fashion over the years; as well as contradictions of workplaces like the DeGeneres studio) that perfectly average people choose (and perhaps enjoy) cruelty. Is reconciliation impossible because we are mysteriously and unpredictably both kind and cruel? 

GENTLE CAUTION: This book of art criticism cites many other works of art containing sexual violence. Though brilliant, it is not for everyone. Read it if YOU want to (or think you want to).

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Tragedy of Imitation

 




AVANT-GARDE
Elaine deKooning made a keen observation about the twentieth-century American abstract expressionist movement that she herself was part of. A movement where artists living in New York were experimenting, taking risks, and pursuing an avant-garde existence in the way they painted, the way they lived.

The observation as cited in NINTH STREET WOMEN by Mary Gabriel is as follows:
"And to those who clung to the notion that only pure abstraction could be avant-garde, Elaine pointed to the legions of imitators who had mastered the style and in so doing reduced the artists' abstract revolution to mere convention ... True art, she said, is that which reflects an individual creator in a particular time and place, and by its very nature must adapt and change" (page 562).
Couple that with messages we hear from the best. The best painters, writers, musicians, activists, thinkers ... that imitation is a valid and solid way to get into it. To move from a state of "I don't know how to begin" to a state of "I'm doing it" as we imitate the best.

There's an article out there somewhere by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King) who shares that the way he got into the flow of writing was to first sit down and transcribe excellent writing. Hill goes onto explain that after transcribing, the writer has to learn how to veer off and start writing his/her own words, with the benefit of having felt how superb sentences feel on the fingertips.

TRAGEDY
In THE ART OF CRUELTY by Maggie Nelson, we learn that Aristotle defines tragedy as an imitation of an action. Such a jolting synthesis by the one who writers and storytellers still turn to, as we pursue how to create compartments that make up the whole of a tragedy.  

I can't help but think that this point by Aristotle is what Elaine deKooning was pointing to when she said that imitation done en masse transforms revolution into convention.

But she was also saying that the tragedy of imitation happens:
  1. When society insists that avant-garde can only be achieved through pure abstraction. Such purity tests persist today—in art and life where know-it-all purists insist that if it's not abstract, it's not art. Or if it's not French cuisine, it's not cuisine. Or if activism isn't free of compromise, it isn't activism. 
  2. When imitators never learn how to stop transcribing and start writing. Where the imitator becomes a replicator, causing that which should inspire change become the opposite.

Friday, September 4, 2020

TOO MUCH and NEVER ENOUGH by Mary Trump

 


THE CRUELTY IS THE POINT
TOO MUCH and NEVER ENOUGH by Mary Trump provides a uniquely intimate look into the Trump family dynamics that helps readers understand the origin of Donald's penchant for grift and cruelty.

Sadly, the origin is Fred, Donald's father. Fred was father to a total of five kids: Maryanne, Freddy, Elizabeth, Donald, and Robert, in that order.

As the daughter of Freddy, Mary witnessed her grandfather dispensing cruelty to Freddy for veering off what was expected of him (to be a ruthless and unethical real estate dealmaker) by becoming an airplane pilot. Donald learned to mimic Fred's cruelty by repeating Fred's opinion to Freddy—that pilot work is glorified bus driver work.  

Imagine being told such a thing by one's parent. And imagine hearing such a thing being repeated by a sibling. So cruel.

THE HUMILITY PRACTICE
A colleague recently told me that it felt great to hear an unexpected compliment from her adult son. She loved hearing it and also she loved the opportunity that the compliment created, for her to practice humility. I hadn't heard anyone frame the humility practice in that way but when I think about it, I think that is how most parents intuitively teach our kids the humility practice—to love and accept compliments and then use those moments to practice humility.

As much as I dread Donald, this book also has me feeling deep sadness for him. Because Fred never taught him about practicing humility. Rather, he was taught that there can never be enough compliments and that anyone who doesn't compliment him is a loser. And that even the highest criminals deserve to be rewarded if they learn to give him compliments.

IT IS WHAT IT IS
I admire that Mary felt the need to write this book to try to help the nation wake up and course-correct. Her book is part of an enormous stack of books that have been written by people who have experienced the same cruelty and corruption. That stack seems to make little difference to his base and enablers, which is the ultimate tragedy.

Decent people on both sides of the aisle have hope that Donald will be defeated in November. But I think we are also bracing for a Donald who will reject the loss and kick and scream to try and hold onto power. I'm not looking forward to that blood bath. And I'm not looking forward to the decades it will take the world to heal from his wretched presidency and the sickness it has flamed.

Monday, August 31, 2020

THE FUTURE IS.

 



I support equality for women. It's in college when I opened my eyes to how deep-rooted and structural sex-based oppression is. It is when I became a radical, structural feminist.

However.

I'm not comfortable wearing a t-shirt that says "feminist." Or other variations like "the sisterhood" or "love your tribe" or "the force is female" or "the future is female." No thanks.

I'm uncomfortable with the notion that there is some sort of genuine sisterhood among ALL individual women. Some of the most egregious acts of cruelty I've experienced have been by individual women. Many women DON'T help women. Women shame. Women gossip. Women sabotage. Women envy. Women take down. So do men. Not all, but many. That's because women and men are human. And many humans (not all) don't help humans (including myself at times). 

I'm also uncomfortable with "the sisterhood" because as Roxane Gay points out in her book BAD FEMINIST, race remains a big problem within some feminist circles.

Because there are those very special individual women who go out of their way to support misogyny, white supremacy, nationalism and ickiness in general to pursue relevance and celebrity ... like Kellyanne, Sarah, Dana, Ann, Tomi ... and quite frankly the 53% of educated white women who helped put disgraceful Trump in office. And in the deep reaches of my radical feminist heart, I say that there are individual men who are more my sisters than these individual women.

When I (mainly through art) criticize/satirize individual women like Kellyanne, there are some voices who tell me that if I am a TRUE feminist, I shouldn't criticize any individual woman including Kellyanne. And further, that I should (hashtag) believe-all-women. 

To which I say: bull fucking shit.

If I believed all women, I would have believed Carolyn Bryant, whose testimony in 1955 led to the lynching of Emmett Till and who 50 years later recanted her testimony.

I support equality for women. Therefore, I support structures that compensate Kellyanne with the same pay that say a Sean Spicer is compensated. That I support structures to not favor Sean over Kellyanne for the same work does not mean that I condone what Kellyanne says or does. Nor that she has immunity from criticism/satirization because she is biologically female. 

The future isn't female.

The future is.
###

[This essay is a slightly expanded version from an earlier draft published on Instagram in August 22, 2016.]

Saturday, August 29, 2020

FACE IT by Debbie Harry


Reading Debbie Harry's memoir FACE IT didn't make me feel like I was reading. It felt like I was listening to her talking, rambling, and meandering through the memories from her life. The book is definitely not a piece of literary elegance but still, it's endearing and filled with details of her journey for anyone who is a super fan of her work, which I am.

Harry loved experimenting musically, socially, and sexually; as well as being open to satirizing the status quo. And I think that's what makes her downright punk. When she saw that irreverent artistic essence in others, she admired it and became influenced by it. Like with Janis Joplin: "I loved the physicality and the sensuality of her performance-how her whole body was in the song" (page 46). 

Method acting is another thing Harry admired: where actors would deliver performances with a true emotional and intellectual connection rather than mere technical recitations. She applied that concept of method acting into her work as a musician and performer. To move beyond technical and into the emotional. True freedom.  
"I would be onstage and there'd be five thousand people pulsing their desire at me. You could feel the heat of it. The raw, animal physicality. Feel them transmitting this strong sexuality. Picking up on it, then working to turn them on even more. And the frenzied feedback cycle would keep building and building ... This was real. Very real" (page 190).
I think this method of interacting with the audience is also available for painters and poets. Provided that as we invest time in developing technical skills, we eventually find the nerve to exchange those skills for freedom (emotional, political, sexual and intellectual) that comes from the kind of underground sensibility of punk that IS Debbie Harry.


Thursday, August 27, 2020

SELF CARE by Leigh Stein


TRIGGER WARNING: This satirical novel (Self Care by Leigh Stein) takes aim at peddlers of: 

  • self-care
  • radical anything
  • expert branding
  • life coaching, and 
  • all others who seek to monetize a persona of themselves as flawless and virtuous (except for when their flaws are outed and then they have to figure out the perfect selfie and inspirational quote that reflect a combination of brave contrition and namaste), shout into the void with unsolicited advice about how everybody should feel and behave (even though their lives are a hot mess).
I thoroughly enjoyed the belly laughs I had in following the characters through the outrageous plot. Mixed with the laughter was a familiar melancholy about how we women search and search and frequently get bamboozled into boarding the guru bus of cliches, only to realize that the guru is just another bozo on the fucking bus that we can never get off of. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

AFTER DARK by Haruki Murakami

 




(The essay below was first published August 22, 2016 on my former blog. I am republishing it here, my current writing platform.)

There's a story that is told by one of the characters in Haruki Murakami's book: After Dark. I won't be spoiling the essence of the novel by sharing this one story, which concludes with two interesting morals. The story goes like this ...

There are three brothers and each of them are given a boulder. They are told that they need to push their respective boulders up a mountain and where they stop is where they can build their respective homes. They are told that if they can push the boulder up as high as possible, they will be able to see the best view they could possibly ever know.

So the three brothers start pushing. After a while, the first brother stops and decides to build his house where he stops. He tells his other brothers to continue pushing their boulders but that he will be ok where he is at, as he will be able to live off of the fish that swim in the bodies of water near his spot. He accepts his spot and is content with the idea that he will never know the best view.

So the other two brothers continue pushing. After a while, the second brother stops and decides to build his house at a spot higher than where the first brother stopped but not at the top of the mountain. He tells his other brother to go on without him but that he will be ok where he is at, as he will be able to live off the fruit trees near his spot.

The third brother pushes his boulder to the very top of the mountain. He finally is able to know the best view that can only be seen at the top and indeed, it is magnificent, and it is there he builds his house. For sustenance, what he has available is moss to eat and icicles to suck on.

The person telling this story points out that there are two morals to this story. The first one is that "if you really want to know something, you have to be willing to pay the price." The price for the third brother being moss and icicles in exchange for the best view.

The second moral of the story is that ...

everyone is different.

I think that the second moral is so important. We are all different. Even if the symbolic boulders we push are exactly the same (which they are not), our limitations are different, our goals our different, our priorities are different.

This second moral gets to a point that I've been pointing out for the last few years, which is that I reject messages from the universe that tell me to go to the top of the mountain or to "go big or go home."

Because you just never know. Eating fish on flat land may have its own nirvana that those who suck on icicles at the top don't ever get to enjoy. Big isn't the best. Small isn't the best. Medium isn't the best. Because we are all different. And who says real views are better than imagined ones?

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Build Back Better

 



Yesterday, upon learning that Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris to be his running mate, Donald Trump stated that Harris is a "nasty woman" and that he couldn't understand how Biden could select her after she had "attacked" him on the debate stage during the democratic primaries.

What Trump was referring to was the moment during a debate when Harris called Biden out for having opposed a busing program some decades ago. A program that had been erected as a means of desegregating public American schools. Harris described a little girl who benefited from the busing program during that era and revealed that "that little girl was me."

It was a powerful moment.

The fact that Biden could move from that moment to self-reflect, learn, grow, hold no grudges, and ask Harris to be his running mate tells me a lot. It tells me that he doesn't need his rooms to be filled with yes-people. It tells me that he knows how to compromise, reconcile, and unite.

The fact that Harris could move from that moment to also learn, grown, hold no grudges and accept Biden's invitation tells me that she's able to say important things besides "yes" to Biden and to also compromise, reconcile, and move forward.

The fact that this type of collaboration befuddles Trump tells me that Trump needs all people in a room to say nothing but yes to him. And if there is anyone who veers off of being a yes-person or even looks at him the wrong way, it's not only off with their heads, but it's off with their heads with maximum humiliation. That's not American. That's authoritarian.

I'm proud to be supporting the Biden/Harris 2020 ticket because they are ready to listen, to be challenged by non-yes people, and to restore the soul of our nation. At a time when we are all asking why we are so polarized, I say let's ready our listening ears and steady our voices and join Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as together, we Build Back Better. 

(Art: Gouache and collage on paper.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Reclaiming NOW

 



One of the ways that patriarchy silences women is by wasting our time. In 2017, when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was wasting precious time (per House procedural rules) allotted to US Representative Maxine Waters, Waters kept repeating the phrase for everyone to hear: "Reclaiming my time." In other words, I know I only have a small amount of time to get to the bottom of this matter and Mnuchin is wasting it by evading questions and filling the air with seemingly innocuous but deeply meaningless words that are causing the clock to run while we get farther from the bottom of this matter.

I loved that moment. 

Some weeks ago, a friend told me that after many years of talk-talk-talking about losing weight and getting healthy, she was finally doing it. When she told me this, I wanted to reply without cliches. I didn't want to say:
  • "But you're perfect the way you are." Because I do not feel comfortable saying that any of us are perfect with no need to examine ways to better ourselves.
  • "Whoohoo! You got this." Because I didn't want to say anything that would inadvertently make her think it would be easy and quick.
What I ended up saying is (paraphrased): "You are reclaiming your body. I look forward to celebrating your progress in two months."

Last week, I hosted that friend and other friends to support and celebrate the reclamation of her body. She has so far lost 13.5 pounds. She has more to go and I'm excited to see her doing the almost impossible work of sustaining the discipline that had been lost but now is found. I'm here for her.

At this gathering, we each made a collage to declare what each of us want to reclaim. 

For me, I decided to reclaim NOW. When I read or listen to thinkers like Eckhart Tolle, I feel that I understand how to be present and quiet my ego. It's so simple that it becomes complex. Because as soon as I enter the next moment, I find worry and regret creeping into my head as NOW drifts away from me.  

As I was making the collage, I cut the letter M into a house shape. That made me think about that song by The Beatles that goes like this: "Once there was a way, to get back homeward. Once there was a way to get back home ... "

It is when I can sustain the discipline to fight for NOW that I find my way back home. 

Sleep, pretty darling do not cry. 
And I will sing a lullaby.




Wednesday, August 5, 2020

NINTH STREET WOMEN: ELAINE'S GAZE



I'm about a third of the way through reading Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel. I find the parts about Elaine de Kooning's (1918-1989) irreverence for convention exhilarating. In particular, I like learning about how Elaine sought to turn upside down, the power structure related to sex in art: "Men always painted the opposite sex," she said, "and I wanted to paint men as sex objects." 

The author points out, however, that Elaine's paintings of men were hardly depictions of sex objects. When I survey her body of work and view her male subjects, I agree. They aren't necessarily depicted as sex objects.

But the point I think Elaine was getting at is that she didn't want to paint subjects traditionally associated with what women painters painted. Like flowers, faces of pretty/proper white women, and other don't-rock-the-boat, keep-politics-out-of-it, subjects. 

Prior to Laura Mulvey's coining the phrase "The Male Gaze" in her 1975 essay within the genre of film, the concept of power's embeddedness within the act of gazing was discussed by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), who posited that when a human gazes at another human, the dynamic automatically creates a hierarchy of power because THE GAZER (aka power) creates the frame and the filter upon the one who is being gazed at, with THE GAZED-AT becoming the power's object to objectify.

But what if the GAZED-AT enjoys being gazed at? Isn't that the million dollar question today, where a strand of digital feminism manufactures a disdain for the gaze while we clamor for apps and filters that can attract the gaze?

Perhaps Elaine wanted to be in the driver's seat and exert power to freely paint what she wanted. But I think she wanted to not only freely paint, but to also freely live:
"... people unacquainted with Elaine didn't know what to make of her eagerness and accessibility, her open sexual charm. Once, during a dinner party Elaine attended, the hostess on leaving the room invited the women to join her so the men could stay behind at the table and talk. Elaine remained seated, engaged in conversation with the man next to her. The hostess came up behind her and said, 'Come join us, Elaine.'
     'Oh I'm perfectly happy here,' she replied.
     'You must come,' said the woman, shaking Elaine's chair. 'You can't stay, it just isn't done.'
     'Well, it is done,' Elaine said. 'I'm doing it.'"
Digital feminism has a way of policing women in real life. It makes the "sisterhood" uncomfortable when a woman says no to a roomful of kitschy art and caddy conversation and instead practices open sexual charm in a roomful of male and female energy, not just to attract the gaze but to gaze. 

To grab power. 
To paint with power.

(NOTE: The term "digital feminism" is a term I use to describe a particular modern strand of feminism I observe within this digital age. I do not know if anyone else uses it.)

Sunday, August 2, 2020

CONSTANT GARDENERS




ROSE & THORN
Last week during our zoom discussion for the Summer 2020 online Art & Activism class (Unit 4), we did an "around the table" closing exercise where we talked about what each of our roses of the moment and thorns of the moment are. Some of the responses got us roaring with laughter, while others got us a bit contemplative and teary. 

My contributions were as follows: 
GARDENS
One of the through lines for many of the responses had something to do with people's gardens. From the challenges of keeping pests away, to the glories of harvesting cucumbers and making them into homemade pickles, I realized that keeping a garden requires constant upkeep.

For the last year, Gerardo has started dabbling with a vegetable garden that he grows in small pots. He is growing zucchini, tomatoes, and a few herbs. Every morning I see him go outside to tend to his garden and when he enters the house, he has stories to tell about caterpillars, wasps, worms, the sun, the dirt, water, and weeds. 

PROTESTS
Recently, I made a painting to honor the Wall of Moms who have been out in Portland protecting its protesters. The person who bought the painting is an actual mom from Portland. During our interaction regarding the sale, I learned that she has been protesting for decades since her first protest against the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

Her biography made me think about some of the signs I've seen during protests that I've marched in. The ones held by older humans who have been marching for years as they hold up signs that say something like: "I can't believe I have to explain this shit AGAIN." 

EMPTY GARDEN
All of this made me think about the song Empty Garden by Elton John  (a tribute to John Lennon) which starts off like this:
What happened here
As the New York sunset disappeared
I found an empty garden among the flagstones there

Who lived here
He must have been a gardener that cared a lot
Who weeded out the tears and grew a good crop

And now it all looks strange
It's funny how one insect can damage so much grain

To be an activist is to be a gardener. It's about pulling weeds, controlling pests, and optimizing a social context so that greed and oppression and authoritarianism do not take over. Activism, like gardening, is constant. It's challenging. It's rewarding. It's never-ending. And if we are lucky, when the world looks upon our lifelong dedication to activism, it will recognize that we must have been gardeners that cared a lot. That we weeded out the tears. And we grew a good crop. 

(Art: Gouache and typing on paper)


Saturday, August 1, 2020

THE BLOOD OF EMMETT TILL



(This essay was first published on my IG account August 11, 2018. I am republishing it here, my current writing platform.)

We’ve known about the brutal 1955 lynching of #EmmettTill at the hands of two white men presumably defending the honor of a white woman (Carolyn Bryant) who at the time testified that Till whistled at her and grabbed her wrist to potentially rape her. The murderers were acquitted. And then in 2007 Bryant recanted her testimony. And said “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” 50. Years. Later.

The author Timothy Tyson presents this history of America with a rich context of what it has been like in terms of race relations in America. It’s an essential read especially for anyone who scratches their head about the #blacklivesmatter movement and thinks that “In the beginning there was Black Lives Matter and angry black people.” No. In the beginning there was slavery. And ongoing brutality toward black people (the list is long) at the hands of white people. Efforts to suppress the black vote (which still goes on and why it’s important to get the vote out). Segregation. And round and round it goes.

We can pretend this history doesn’t exist and that players who kneel like #colinkaepernick deserve to be excluded from the @nfl . Or we can face this history and understand.

TO FIGHT FOR THE NOW





(The essay below was first published July 21, 2018 on my former blog, jennydoh dot typepad dot com. I am republishing it here, my current writing platform.)

There are so many parts of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's book: Coach Wooden and Me have deeply touched me. I want to talk about them all. But maybe I'll talk just about a couple and how they connect to other dots floating in my mind.

Like when Jabbar explains that when he was a young player, he felt a desire to find meaning in the game, and the fact that he was playing this game galled basketball: "I wanted the game to make sense in my life beyond just having a skill set."

Jabbar also explains that practices with Coach Wooden were highly structured because rather than just running familiar drills from a list, Coach spent hours preparing for each practice, making sure he was coaching per the uniqueness of each player: "... he [Coach] realized that a particular player was not the same player one day that he had been the day before ..." Like Heraclitus who said: You can never step in the same river twice.

I think Wooden knew that the player, like the river was always evolving, always becoming and that a good coach needed to be aware of that.

My favorite podcast as of late is ThinkAgain. Every episode is so packed with interesting info that I often listen to it twice. The latest episode is with Jason Heller whose insights really enriched my appreciation for David Bowie ... and how in his quest to be "inauthentic" and arguably disconnected from community ... with startling and almost non-sensical invocation of scifi fantastic into his music ... that his work became authentic and connected. Free jazz.

Heller also wonders if artistic authenticity is even possible, given that the artist (like the basketball player) changes and evolves ... almost immediately after the art is made. After the play is played. Like the river. Always the same. Never the same.

In Celeste Ng's Everything I never Told You, the character Lydia dies. That fact is not a spoiler alert as it's the first thing we learn. How she dies is a spoiler alert so don't read on if you don't want the spoiler.

So Lydia decides to enter the body of water even though she doesn't know how to swim. She is in that moment who she is and she does what she feels is right in the moment.

Having lost my brother to suicide, I often wonder if in the middle of the act he changed his mind but couldn't take it back. That's the one thing that really bothers me. What if in the middle of Lydia's decent into the water she evolves and changes but can't take it back?

It makes me think about the delicate balance of life. To be in the moment and have the courage to step in that water, knowing we will change and the water will change tomorrow.

But isn't that also true with other choices we make? Like to fall in love? To say yes? To walk away? To say no? To fight for the now?

Coach Wooden lived to be ninety nine ... who said about the game, which applies to life and death: "Players with fight never lose a game, they just run out of time."




Saturday, July 11, 2020

THE INVISIBLE, FOUNDATIONAL MUDSILL

MUDSILL
I just learned that the wood beam that gets secured along the foundation of a house is called a mudsill. Onto this mudsill is where additional beams get attached, allowing the entire framework and eventually the entire house to be constructed. Isabel Wilkerson provides this information in her essay (America's Enduring Caste System, NYTimes Magazine, July 1, 2020) to help us understand structural/systemic racism.

CASTE IS
She reviews the traditions of India and its caste system and points out that it is one where people are born and ushered into a hierarchy where their destinies are predetermined by social status and perceived inherited purity. Why the caste system has endured is largely due to the religious/cultural belief that the only way to eventually move up via reincarnation is to adhere to the place in the caste that a person finds herself currently in. In order to one day do jobs other than clean and serve, a person on the lower level of a caste is taught that only by not resisting her lot in life will she eventually move up the system in a future life to perhaps do things other than clean and serve.

Says Wilkerson: "Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin." And because bones live under the skin, the structure of oppression isn't necessarily visible. Rather, it's understood, assumed, and breathed. Caste is.

THE BUSINESSMAN
Wilkerson shares a story about how years ago, she was on assignment as a reporter for The New York Times to do a Chicago-based story. She arrived early to interview a successful Chicago businessman that she had planned to feature in the story. Once the businessman arrived, he refused to believe that Wilkerson, a black woman, was the reporter. No matter how much she explained that she was, he refused. So Wilkerson left without an interview.

RUNGS & ROOTS
To live in the United States caste system means that black people are viewed to exist at the lowest rung and white people at the highest. Asians, Latinos, and other people who aren't black and who aren't white straddle in-between rungs with unease, "as they aspire to a higher rung."

Wilkerson explains that she never named or shamed the businessman from Chicago "because of our cultural tendency to believe that if we just identify the presumed-to-be offending outlier, we will have rooted out the problem. The problem could have happened anyplace, because the problem is, in fact at the root."

In other words, the caste is built into the structure, the mudsill. And like roots, the mudsill isn't visible. It is foundational.




Saturday, July 4, 2020

WOW, NO THANK YOU by SAMANTHA IRBY

Thank you to Jia Tolentino who tweeted out her love of WOW, NO THANK YOU by Samantha Irby. Given that I loved reading TRICK MIRROR by Tolentino, I promptly bought Irby's book without knowing what was in store within the pages. For me, if the source is credible, I sign onto that source's recommendations, sight unseen.

The tone of WOW, NO THANK YOU is set by the one-sentence dedication on her dedication page, before the TOC, and before the 18 essays about nothing in particular and every little thing in specific. Says Irby:
This book is dedicated to Wellbutrin
Transparency and honesty are things we love to say we love about writers. What I've observed is that authors who claim they are honest and transparent and vulnerable (yada yada yada) are usually hiding something. It's authors like Irby who doesn't say any of that and instead writes about the time she went on a speed dating event with a diaper on and pooped a little in it during the event. It's not just about a little bit of poop, though. It's about feeling mortified at every turn in terms of dating, writing, friending, sexing, eating, drinking, and plain old getting out of bed and not ending it all, to live another day.

Now that I've finished this book, I think I'll go back and read everything else Irby has ever written. I wanna say it's because I like reading vulnerable and transparent writing. But instead of saying that, I think I'll just read more unaffected writers like Irby.

Monday, June 22, 2020

APOLOGIES & REINFORCEMENTS


When my daughter and son were little and got into fights, I forced the one in the wrong to apologize to the other. It went something like this:
Me: "Monica, apologize to your brother."
Monica:  
Me: "Say 'Andrew, I'm sorry I hit you.'"
Monica: "Andrew ..." 
Me: "Andrew, I'm sorry ..."
Monica: "Andrew, I'm sorry ..." 
Me: "Andrew, I'm sorry I hit you."
Monica: "Andrew, I'm sorry I hit you."

Frequently, after Monica got the full apology out, she burst into tears. I think just having those words come out of her toddler body, even if she didn't feel sincerely sorry in the moment, was soul-draining.  The shame, the guilt, the awareness that she had disappointed me. So much for a little one to handle. After the apology and the tears, I forced them to hug it out and say "I love you" to each other. With stiff bodies, they were nudged toward each other until they did it in front of me.

An outsider enforcing purity tests (likely a virtuous non-parent) might have pointed out that a forced apology, a forced hug, and a forced declaration of love doesn't make anything better because they lack sincerity.

To which I'd respond by saying that I don't care if sincerity isn't present yet. Sometimes, if we wait for sincerity to arrive before action is forced, then behavior has the potential to take root and shape values.

By dinnertime, our kids had been doused with reinforcements like "It's never right to hit another person" and "We all make mistakes sometimes" and "It's your job to learn, and love and forgive and look out for one another." And as our little family reflected collectively on the reinforcements, I could feel sincerity literally enter through the front door and sit with all of us at the dinner table. Shaping our values and inspiring sincere hugs and sincere I love yous.

Right now, there's a lot of forced apologies taking place about the ways in which our society has protected systemic racism. A lot of it is awkward. A lot of it lacks sincerity.

Part of the job of our broad coalition, I think, is to bring in reinforcements. There's not a corner of society that doesn't need them. City governments, school boards, neighborhoods, marriages, friendships, sports, art events, crafty businesses. Reinforcements dispensed to shape values that will govern behaviors for the long-term.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

OARS IN WATER
In college, my favorite professor said to me that if I cared about an issue, I needed to keep my oar in the water. He asked me, are you gonna fight to direct the boat or are you going to let others determine its course? And if not in college, when are you going to practice your strokes? Because it won't get any easier once college is over. In other words, he was asking whether I was going to stay in the discourse during class discussions (especially when it got heated) and use my voice, or give up. Yes, the difficulty.Yes, the exhaustion.

GOLD
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown is a book about the crew of eight from the University of Washington that went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. And against all odds, this crew out-rowed the German crew, the Italian crew, and every other crew to bring home the gold, and in the process discombobulating Hitler's confidence in his boats.

In telling this story, Brown shares the unique qualities that make up this sport. It's not just about a high number of strokes per minute, but also about how strong and steady each stroke can be.

It's not a sport for individuals to show off individuals 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 with one another, causing the boat to attain a rowing nirvana referred to as "swing."

Synchronicity through modifications of individuals doesn't mean every rower is exactly the same. Actually, the diversity of each rower is valued:
Good crews are good blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking (page 179).
When one of the boys in the boat named Joe was having difficulty finding synch with the other boys, he was advised by a mentor who said to him:
If you don't like some fellow in the boat, Joe, you have to learn to like him. It has to matter to you whether he wins the race, not just whether you do (page 235).
BLACK LIVES MATTER
I can't help but extrapolate how these truths about rowing apply to life, especially at this moment where our nation is waking up to what it means when we say "black lives matter." A concept so clear that some people uncomfortable with the power of its clarity manufacture absurd complexities about it on purpose.

Through the video footage of George Floyd's murder, privileged Americans are witnessing visual evidence of what has been conceptually discussed about for years. And the video is finally causing a broad coalition to realize that in order for our crew to succeed, it has to be about more than individualism. It has to be about WE.

REGARDLESS
And if my professor from years ago were still alive, he would be saying to we the coalition to keep our oars in the water. Regardless of the difficulty. Regardless of the exhaustion. Because at what other time than now will we have the chance to row such significant waters?