What a year. Now firmly ensconced in middle age, I found myself living the life of a 25-year-old, as I traipsed across the continent to start a new life as a graduate student in Fairbanks, Alaska. Many times, both before and during, I doubted my ability to pull it off. But so far, so good.
I’ve seen my writing career grow as publishing credits accumulate. It’s really a humbling sort of thing, to know that people want to read about you and learn from you. It gives me hope as I work through the beginning stages of my thesis, my first earnest attempt at writing a book. Writing gives me meaning in life.
The early forties are an odd time. Some of your peers are having babies while others are becoming grandparents for the first time. It’s always been a great regret that I could never get my life situated so that I could raise children. It was the one thing I wanted most out of life. But writing helps me to pass on what I’ve learnt to others, just as I would if I had children.
Despite the regret, I like my life. Sometimes I don’t feel like I do. Sometimes the conjoined twins of depression and anxiety knock me flat on my feet. Sometimes they do it literally, keeping me bedfast.
But I know I am loved. I know that I have people who care about me. I know that I ended up in the graduate program best suited for me. I know that I’m on a positive trajectory, even if that trajectory has speed bumps and pitfalls along the way.
I’ve learnt not to post anything controversial to Facebook. I’m conflict-averse, like any good native-born Midwesterner, and I also think that the medium of Facebook is inappropriate to debate. It’s not well designed for it. Kittens and puppies, I always say.
But sometimes it seems I can’t help myself. And so today I posted an article about belly-dancing that struck a chord with me. You see, one time I saw a performance as part of a larger event that appalled me. I didn’t know going in that the belly-dancing would be part of the evening’s festivities. And when these white women swiveled out onto the stage, not in haremesque attire associated with the art form, but in kimonos and geisha makeup for a “kabuki-inspired” performance, I raged out of the auditorium. I had fooled myself into thinking that we had somehow got beyond yellowface.
Now, this Japanese take on a minstrel show was beyond the bounds of decency. But it made me think. what about belly-dancing itself? Many performers are not of Middle Eastern descent. Is it okay for them to practice this art?
To answer my question, I just started paying attention to what my friends of Middle Eastern descent had to say on the subject. Not that belly-dancing came up in conversation all the time, and not that I broached the subject with them. But on occasion, a snippet of opinion surfaced, and, over time, I pieced the snippets together.
And the consensus was that it was not okay.
And this is the sort of thing that often has creative types like myself up in arms. An aesthetic can’t be owned by one culture to the exclusion of all others, so the argument goes. If so, we wouldn’t have English-language haiku, or the Asian influences present in Impressionist art. And without the intermingling of European and African influences, we wouldn’t have jazz or rock. So much would be lost, as the argument goes, if we all held to some strict, politically correct standard of artistic segregation. Besides, the artist should be completely free to use whatever methods or aesthetic she wants; creativity is paramount.
I argue that there is something more important than creativity–yes, even for artists. For there is an identity more fundamental than “artist”: human being. And for human beings to survive, let alone thrive, they must be able to live and work together in community. Our social nature, our ability to think in terms greater than the individual, is one of the chief reasons we have evolved to this point, and is key to our continued survival.
Respect is also the key to understanding the concept of appropriation. And the key to respect is listening. Simply put: if the consensus of a group to which you do not belong is that it’s okay for others to make use of an artistic expression originating in or representative of that group, go for it! Have fun.
But if the consensus of that group is that an expression is not okay, knock it off.
To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an upswell of discontent from Japanese people about speakers of other languages using the form of haiku — even as the form is sometimes stripped of its original intent as a meditation upon nature.
The presence of East Asian influences in Impressionist art came out of the larger European movements of Orientalism and Internationalism in the late 19th century, which developed as a direct result of European colonization in East Asia. It’s important in the study of the Impressionist era to bear this troublesome history in mind. However, to the best of my knowledge, there have not been any recent calls from Chinese, Japanese, and other East Asian artists to dismiss Monet’s Water Lilies or Van Gogh’s The Starry Night in the way we now do, say Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer or Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Though we might want to talk about Gaugin’s objectification of Tahitian women in his work.)
With regard to the musical examples I offered above, jazz and rock, it’s important to bear in mind that artistic movements do, indeed, develop organically. Cultural cross-pollination created jazz, rock, and many other movements musical and otherwise. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a consensus from African American (and in the case of jazz, also Jewish) communities that those who do not belong their communities shouldn’t perform these genres — even as the audience for both jazz and rock over the decades grew increasingly white. An academic critique of, for instance, Elvis Presley and his complicated history with African American performers is worthwhile, but there has not been any great advocacy from the African American community that whites should quit listening to his music (though I half-wonder if some younger readers could list five of his songs — even Kings get dethroned eventually.)
To go back to my initial example, one could argue that the performers I saw that night were simply artists practicing a form of artistic syncretism. But the Asian American community has been resolute in its unacceptability of yellowface performance. And a growing number of people of Middle Eastern descent are decrying the appropriation of belly-dancing.
Even as I declared a certain black-and-white rubric regarding what to do and what not to do, notice that I’ve presented my examples with nuance and exceptions. Human beings are by nature complex, their histories, both personal and collective, tortuous and at times torturous. No one’s going to get all of this right 100% of the time, and group consensus also involves those who dissent. But the goal is not perfection, or “correctness,” but respect.
It’s tricky business. And it’s very much involved in what I do with my life. I’m a creative person across a few media. For instance, I designed this ballcap. (Sorry for the shameless plug.) I’ve been interested in sports branding for most of my life, but it wasn’t until I discovered the online sports-concept community (and the existence of graphic-design freeware) about four years ago that I took up my hobby in earnest. And as I engaged with my fellow designers, I discovered a sharp divide within the community regarding the use of Native American imagery in the branding of a team, whether real, (like the baseball team in Cleveland or the NFL team in Washington) or fictional (I imagined my ballcap for a baseball team in Charlotte.) And as some designers like myself decry, for instance, the questionable moves of the Washington NFL ownership, others not only state that the branding is intended to honor Native Americans even as Native Americans claim otherwise — exactly what the ownership maintains — but persist in using such imagery in their own fictional concepts. On which point, I will simply say it doesn’t matter what you believe if that belief is contrary to fact. And the fact is that the consensus of Native Americans — with, yes, a bit of dissent, an issue meriting its own essay — is that such branding is disrespectful, full stop. So, to my fellow designers, I simply want to say: stop.
I also design jewelry. Mostly, I practice what is called assembly, meaning that I put together manufactured pieces in original designs — I don’t smelt metal or melt glass or anything like that. (Another shameless plug for my work is here, though at this exact moment the work is not for sale.) Another popular and lucrative style of jewelry design is bead-stitching, much of which was first developed by Native Americans. It’s a style I’ve thought about doing, though I wonder if I’d have the patience for it. But I’m not going to take it up for the time being, for the simple fact that I presently live in a community with a large Native American population, many of whom practice bead-stitching as a source of livelihood. I have decided that to do so right now would be disrespectful to the Native American community in that I would be using my hobby to undercut their ability to earn a living — in spite of the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the local Native American community has not come out against white people making and selling bead-stitched jewelry.
And, really, that’s what all of this comes down to: personal decisions. But none of us live alone; the personal decisions of all of us over time aggregate to build a culture. And it behooves us all to build a culture that edifies rather than destroys, on a foundation of respect rather than of selfishness.
Just out today, my essay “Philistines” covers how I dealt with being gay during my first year in Bible college. Included: a regrettable haircut.
I belatedly announce the publication of three flash-fiction stories in the latest edition of Jonathan. This set of stories offers my twisted but loving take on motherhood.
It’s raining in Fairbanks today. Maybe some of the rain can help put out a few of the 200 forest fires in Alaska right now. It’s the first time since Monday that the skies don’t look like something out of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. You likely have no idea just how pervasive the smoke is. When I blow my nose, I smell smoke in my mucus even though I haven’t been outside for days.
We had well-below average snowfall in most of Alaska this past year, and the lack of meltoff already increased the threat of forest fires this summer, even before summer began. So it’s not entirely unexpected — though, as this is my first summer in Alaska, and I’ve never lived where forest fires were the norm, it’s a thoroughly unsettling experience. I look out my window and it appears, as my university’s official Facebook account put it, “like Mordor.”
What disturbs me about the fires is that most of them were set by people, not by lightning strikes or what have you. This in spite of an state order not to light fires.
And I wonder what would possess people to start the fires to begin with. We’re under orders, but the orders are difficult to enforce, particularly in a state so sparsely populated. So it falls to each person to be accountable to themselves and to be responsible. And hundreds have failed to do so.
Perhaps it’s Alaska’s characteristic culture, the individualistic frontier spirit, that compels people to flout the law so. But I’m not willing to write it off to the culture, particularly when I see this mindset playing out all over the world. It’s disturbing when a person puts their self-interest so far ahead of everyone else’s. It gives rise to oppression and tyranny, when the needs of the few holds sway over the needs of the many.
As we edge closer to the precipice of major climate disruption and the effects of mass extinction, those who grasp power, who selfishly put their own interests over the needs of our entire species — such people hold the keys to the extinction of our own species.
To preserve one’s own species is one of the primal drives of nature. Can we be such fools as to bring about our own demise?
Whenever the temperature dips below -20 F (-29 C) in Fairbanks, the city gets smothered in a blanket of smog. Part of this is our weird topography — a flat river valley bound on two sides by mountain ranges — which creates what is known as a temperature inversion. Warm air gets trapped beneath denser, cooler air and can’t rise. Thus, all the smoke from the wood-stoves and all the auto exhaust intermingles with the fog that visits us in winter. At its best, the fog creates hoarfrost on the trees (and we have lots of trees,) such that it looks like you’re living inside a Christmas card. But at its worst, it creates an awful smog that drives me to wearing an allergy mask during the dead of winter. The locals euphemize the phenomenon as “ice fog,” and by all accounts they seem to be inured to its effects. The smog is so thick that I assumed it was the sole contributor to the annual average for the air pollution of the city.
Yesterday was the longest day of the year (though really we haven’t seen true darkness since late April, thanks to our extra-long dawns and dusks,) and Fairbanks celebrated its Midnight Sun Festival, the largest outdoor event in the state. Our summer-collegiate baseball team, the Alaska Goldpanners, played their annual Midnight Sun Game, considered amongst the unique and original events in sports. It was a glorious first day of summer.
This morning, though, I smelt something odd. At first I thought the motor was burning out on my desk fan. Great, I thought, I have to replace it, but good thing I’m headed to the store. On my way out the building, the same burning smell permeated the building, and I half-wondered if the building was on fire.
Then I set foot outside and realized that this is what forest-fire season looks like in Fairbanks.
There are over 100 forest fires in Alaska at present. The closest is near the town of Nenana, an hour’s drive west of here. I had assumed Fairbanks was safe from the effects of the fires, as long as they kept their distance. But, like I said, Fairbanks is in a river valley bound by mountains, and Nenana is to the west. Which means that all the smoke of the fires is channeled directly to the city.
Visibility is almost as low as it is during the worst of the winter smog, and my breath sears my lungs. It looks like it’s time to break out my allergy mask once again.
And yet, I do enjoy living here.
Why? First off, I lucked into a great program for my degree, where my colleagues have become my friends and my professors have become my lifelong mentors. We have a community here, and that’s what I most wanted out of graduate school. Fairbanks is also a nice place to live, smog aside. The people are warm and friendly and sociable. We have unique cultural opportunities, like the World Ice Art Championships, and the city attracts people from all over the world. And as I’ve aged, I’ve come to prefer living in small towns over big cities. Not that Fairbanks is that small — about 80,000, depending on how you count it — but, compared to some of the places I’ve lived, it’s small, or, I suppose, just right.
The smog still sucks. But one thing I have learnt in life is that there is no perfect place. No matter where you live, there will be things you like and things you don’t like. It’s a matter of what compromises you are willing to make.
And, for a couple more years, wearing an allergy mask on occasion is a suitable compromise.
I have likely expressed some of the following sentiments elsewhere in my blog, but I’m too lazy to go through every post to see if this is the case. Nonetheless, this is what is on my mind and heart today.
Father’s Day is always a hard day for me. Facebook fills up with friends posting photos of their fathers accompanied by loving sentiments. Or they post photos of their husbands whose parenting skills they praise.
To consider my own father is tough enough. I’ve written before about him, a sociopath without a capacity of love or an understanding of empathy. It took me a long time and a lot of therapy to come to terms with his illness, to understand why he was the way he was without okaying his abuse.
But harder still to contemplate that I will never be a father.
I find myself terribly depressed right now. There are a few triggers specifically associated with summer — the lack of structure that school provides, the lack of nighttime in Alaska (which I won’t see for about two more months.) It’s a struggle just to get out of bed, or to shower, or to dress, or to make myself something to eat or drink. I’m trying to be kind to myself, trying to find some way to help me out of this funk. But nothing is working so far. Many days I can only accomplish the tasks that require the least mental work, because even my brain is fatigued. In fact, I’m having to write this relatively short blog post in several sessions because that’s all the brain power I have today. But I couldn’t not write this post, so here I am.
Anyway. My laptop is an easy distraction for my depression. I can run a marathon of some sitcom I’ve seen before on Netflix with little effort of my brain. I can play a simple game of Boggle or Bejeweled. And, perhaps most importantly, Facebook gives me the ability to talk with those most dear to me about what I’m going through.
But Facebook is a double-edged sword Read the rest of this entry
I am presently on vacation in a delightful corner of Pennsylvania, staying with two dear friends, Jason and Allen. Yesterday I joined them at their church, my first Christian service since 2008 and first service of any religion since 2012. I didn’t have to go. I could have stayed home, and my friends wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But my friends are important to me, and I wanted to participate in something that was important to them.
We arrived at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ several minutes before the beginning of the second service, and as we stood about in the foyer, I was hit suddenly with an anxiety attack. Read the rest of this entry
Been awhile since I’ve written here. It’s certainly not because I’m not writing. Indeed, I’m working on essays and stories and the start of my thesis, on top of my schoolwork. This has become, I suppose, the space in which I write when I have something big and timely to say.
I’ve had my head bitten off before for bringing up this subject. I particularly don’t enjoy being figuratively decapitated, but if there’s anything I’m learning about writing, it’s the need to set aside ego in deference to the truth.
And the truth is this: St. Patrick’s Day is kind of sucky.
Let’s take a good, hard look at how St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated. Read the rest of this entry