“Independence Day”

Today is my third anniversary since I quit my corporate job to throw myself into my art career. It’s been more than a year since my business turned its first profit and since I’ve accepted any consulting work outside of the arts. What does that mean? It means doing all the work it takes to make your silly, crazy, childish dreams actually worth taking seriously. (Just think, somebody decided that making animal shapes out of refined flour was a viable product. And they were right.)

OMG look at this mega animal cracker!!!

It means that I’ve worked over 2000 hours between January and August, so in 2/3 of the year I’ve logged as many hours as a 40-hour-per-week employee would log in a whole year. It means 700 of those hours were on creating art, and 1300 on activities that make the business side possible. It means getting to choose my own hours, which often means late nights and weekends. It means a rejection letter folder I keep for shows and clients I don’t get.

It means doing the work that I believe is beautiful and meaningful. It means dozens of interviews to collect community stories for community-focused projects. It means growing pains that are both terrible and wonderful. It means immersing in the work, for worse and for better. It means trying not to cry after listening to a student talk about the fourth shooting they’ve witnessed and wondering how the hell teaching them to sew and quilt is going to fix this. It means finally breaking down and ugly crying after watching a student use those same sewing materials from class to fix his coat, instead of getting into a fight with the student who tore it, and crying again when you’re searching for a solution to keep funding classes. It means using art everyday as a metaphor and a method for creating better patterns in our relationships and in ourselves. It means seeing clients’ faces glow this evening when I showed them their project’s preliminary designs, and knowing that the designs honor their story.

Adding the finishing touches to a mural for Goodman Community Center, which I worked on with artist Emida Roller and the Goodman students through Dane Arts Mural Arts.
Emida projecting a quote from one of the students, which inspired the image.
The finished mural will be installed in Goodman’s new teen center in 2018. The design is based on conversations and collaborations with the teens on the social issues they want adults not to shelter them from and to be included in as a part of the solution.

It means encouragement and discouragement in equal turns. It means learning your worth. It means learning your limits. It means taking criticism, fielding doubts, and accepting the fact that some people may always judge you or wonder how you make a living doing that (Again, animal crackers are a thing. Making pictures is also a thing.) It means working every day to break the starving artist stereotype. It means learning that when you defend your pricing, you defend it on behalf of everyone in your field. It means having unending gratitude for the people who from the beginning believed you were one of the ones who had the tenacity to make it. Three years in already.

It means that I am both extraordinarily lucky and that I repeatedly choose not to waste that luck. It means going back and forth between thinking “OMG I’m doing it” and “OMG everything I’ve worked for is going to explode in my face.” It means constantly wishing that I were a little bit braver each time my comfort zone gets a little bigger. It means forgetting to eat sometimes. It means taking the work seriously, and myself not so seriously, and vice versa, depending upon what the occasion calls for.

Serious snacks for serious artists.

Geometry, Community, and Identity: What do you see?

I had the honor of presenting at TEDx Madison at the end of 2016. My talk is officially online, and I’m excited to finally be able to share it. The talk focuses on the integral and vital role of creativity, to our survival and wellbeing.

For those of you who have seen the talk, you may be wondering about the bit on teaching math and fractals to my art students.

I’m teaching art again in 2017, to two groups of high school students, in preparation for two public art projects we’ll be working on together this summer.

The beauty of teaching hands-on work is that when my students and I work, we talk. We talk about art and art history, of course. We also talk about current events, about their neighborhoods, about their jobs, about the challenges they must face, about the opportunities they must live up to.

My students aren’t sheltered. They’re tough as nails and they’ve been through a lot. Theirs are the kind of stories that would shake a lot of people to the core, for the same reason that these teenagers can tell them frankly and matter-of-factly, unfazed. For them, they’re not stories. They’re realities.

The last few weeks of my curriculum have focused on patterns, as they appear in nature and across human history. Look up close at a snowflake, at a spider’s web, at the sacred geometry of a church’s windows, at the history of quilts across cultures.

What do you see?

One of my students recently coined the term, “community fractal.” I loved that.

To my fellow educators, teaching is hard, and the field of education can be more accurately described as a battlefield. And yet through the uncertainty in which you teach, never forget the gift that you are giving.

Whatever your teaching methods, the most powerful thing you do is help our students make connections that transform knowledge into greater understanding and wisdom.

You are granting them the ability to build the patterns and foundations of who they will become.

Ideas don’t grow in isolation.

Facts don’t live in boxes.

You never teach one thing.

And yet what you teach, unites everything.


The official TEDx Talk online.

Two worlds in tandem: moving from the past to the present

February 8, 2017, would have been my dad’s 66th birthday. He has been gone for nearly 8 years.

I have been thinking a lot lately about things that come in twos.

Things set in opposition that are necessary parts of a whole. Left versus right, male versus female, north versus south, conservative versus liberal.

Things that intersect or prove simultaneous truths. The intersection of two roads. A house on a row, adjacent to two other houses, that is simultaneously both their neighbors. The invention of printing, which is both an art form and a technology. Multiple identities, which we associate with people being multiracial, inter-religious, gender-fluid, bisexual. Or the running joke among people who hate identity politics is “I don’t care if you want to be a purple alien unicorn.” But multiple identities could just mean that being a mother and a wife doesn’t mean you cease to be a daughter. Identities don’t exist in silos.

Things that do not intersect, but inform or create each other. The past and the present. Parallels between different times in history. Correlations in data. Your reflection in a mirror. The reversed image of a stamp, pressed on paper.

A couple students from my woodcut workshop at @madisonbubbler. These guys were awesome. :)

A photo posted by Jenie (@jeniegao) on

Earlier this year, I turned 29, the same age my dad was when he immigrated to the United States. My 29th birthday took place a few days after Martin Luther King Day, the same day as Inauguration Day (1/20), and the day before the historic Women’s March.

As my father’s birthday passes once again, just one day after the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education, I can’t help but think about the significance of my role as an educator amidst political turmoil.

I am thinking about his old stories. He was born shortly after Mao Zedong’s rise to power in China. He was the first generation to be raised by state educators instead of by his parents, so the adults could be dedicated to serving the Communist Party and military. He was of the generation that lost its education to the Cultural Revolution, when the schools shut down and the leaders accused the teachers of instilling radical, elitist ideas upon the youth. My dad had always been a terrible student, had failed grades, and been held back multiple times. The teacher who had succeeded in reaching him and led him to becoming a top-performing student had done so by encouraging his love of literature.

The leaders of the country had incited the youth to turn against their teachers. The schools closed. My dad was among his fellow students the day his former teacher and mentor was condemned as an “educator who was corrupting the youth.” He was among them as they gathered around her, to beat her. And he pretended to beat her, too, though did his best to stay in the middle of that crowd, to stand between her and the blows of his peers.

That was just one of the events that took place the year my dad’s education ended. He was in the seventh grade, and only by a fortuitous and unlikely series of events was he able to study English in his late twenties and come to the United States.

I can’t help but think about what it means for me to be a teacher now, all these years later, at the same age as he was when he finally got to be a student again.

And that continues to be the main difference between the past and the present, that one generation of students will become another generation of studies. History will be the student of what it later needs to teach.

It is bittersweet for me, now, to look at my dad’s manuscript about his life in China, and read the paragraph about him receiving his passport, which read, “To All Countries in the World.” It is bittersweet to imagine how it must have felt for him to read those words as China re-opened to the West. To imagine how it must have felt for him to write that, decades later, knowing that for over two decades, he never did make it to Europe, and never got to live outside of Kansas again.

Drawings of eagles and Canada geese, just some of the many migratory birds I have been studying.

My dad would spend half his life in this country. He would spend many of those years dreaming of becoming a writer, trying to recapture the history and the lessons of his youth, the lessons he learned growing up in a country full of contradictions, the lessons he learned from a Cultural Revolution that built up and destroyed the hopes of his generation within the same uplifted blow. He would spend many of those years frustrated by the limits of a man who was robbed of his early school education and basic foundations of mathematics and science, and yet extremely educated in his mindset and well versed in US and global history, dreaming and wondering what the worth of his story might some day be.

And he, along with my mom, would tell me how lucky I was to be born here. How lucky I was not to speak English with an accent. How much easier I would have it than they did. Especially as a girl. Especially as a girl after China’s one child policy, which was implemented in 1979, the same year my dad moved abroad.

When the world tells you you’re lucky, you can’t help but agree. You also can’t help but overcompensate for that luck, to really want to prove that you deserve to be here.

You have to be better to be equal, the saying goes.

I think, sometimes, when you know you have it easier in some ways, you force yourself to have it harder in other ways. Sometimes, when you’re told you have it easy, you disregard the ways in which you still have it hard. Sometimes, when you see the dreams your parents either did not achieve or did not even begin to dream up, you grow up with a sense of urgency to do what they did not get the chance to do. That applies to both the things they wanted and the things they dreaded.

Because my dad always felt that he had lost so much time, I wanted to be good with mine, and ironically, I always feel like I’m behind. Plus he was always telling me not to let the years get away from me. So I have always wanted to do the things that he could not do and not to waste the opportunities that come my way. But I believe that many of us can agree that it’s hard to reconcile the timelines for what we want with the milestones that others expect of us.

What you do for a living when you get to live out your childhood dream.

At the same time, I wrestle with the discomfort of knowing that while my intention is to be someone my dad would be proud of, my reality might be that I am someone who always aggravated his insecurities. If he were still alive today, would he be proud of me? Would he disapprove of my life choices, to choose the harder but (for me) the more rewarding path of becoming an artist and entrepreneur? Would he be insecure and even passive aggressive about the things that he could or would never do, that I can? Would we still be warring with each other’s contradictions, with both of us being stubborn, and with him still angry that his authoritarian views didn’t work on the daughter he pushed to be independent, observant, and strong?

Would I have made the same life choices if he were still alive? What if certain decisions, realities, and hard-but-very-real-life-and-death-questions hadn’t been pushed upon me at an early age? Would he, as a man who wanted his daughter to be strong, secretly resent all the ways in which his baby girl does not, and maybe never did, need him?

It’s also possible that none of these questions are worth asking, and some may even be draining or damaging. I have a good enough memory to draw connections and correlations between what is happening in our current social and political climate and what was happening when my dad was my age. But it would be a disservice to myself and the potential of the future, to compare my timeline too much with his, with my mother’s, or with anyone else’s, especially if we have each sought different fulfillments and life milestones.

Not to mention, things are already different. At 29, he was pursuing a new education. At 29, I am getting to share mine.

Photo from the Madison Central Library’s Bubbler studio, during one of my public printing workshops.

If I could let my dad know anything, it is that I do all the things I do out of love and respect and a desire to make things better, and that I am trying to do the best I can with what life has given me. History, with all its beauty, pain, trauma, and flaws, has given me only gifts. The qualities he thought were the worst about him have become the best about me. I believe it is our job, as people, to treasure what our parents gave us, and to equally treasure the need and the drive we have to fulfill what they did not give us.

When I look at what I have done thus far, I do not believe that I have done better than what others are capable of. If anything, I might have an above average awareness of the long-term game we each need to play. I know that I have roots and that roots require watering to keep their strength. I know that this is especially a challenge for anyone whose roots have needed to travel far for them to be here.

Each of us is still taking care of the seeds that were planted before us. Each of us must plant, share, and identify new seeds in our communities, to have gratitude for the gifts of history and to cultivate those gifts. Each of us must develop the insight to know the difference between growing a tulip and growing a tree, and the patience needed to address that difference fairly.

Each of us must know to study the past–not always to understand it–but to know that if we don’t understand, it’s because things are already different from the times when people thought “their present”/”our past” made sense. But things have changed. And things will continue to change. That, we must believe.

I hope, that if we are to do that, the trees of the future will bear fruit long after any of us here today are gone.

February Updates

  1. Thank you to the Capital Times in Madison for interviewing me about my artistic practice and project at the Central Library. It’s great to have a chance to share a bit of my creative story. The full Q&A is transcribed here.
  2. I have entered Phase Two of my project, In Unison, for the Bubbler art residency at Madison Central Library, and am asking people to come join us for community sewing days, to help cut and sew patterns and bring these fabric birds to life. Sign up with a friend for one of the group sewing days online!
  3. I have started teaching two classes in Milwaukee, as part of two public art projects to be completed by May and June. I’m going to take this moment to say, I really enjoy teaching. :)
  4. I’ve started an activist book club with a group of people in Madison. Our first book will be The Lifelong Activist, by Hillary Rettig, available for free online or purchasable as a hard copy. Send me a message if you’re interested in joining up with us! We’ll be meeting biweekly.

What does it mean to be In Unison?

It is two days after Martin Luther King Day and two days before the 45th Presidential Inauguration.

We began the week by honoring the memory of a man who emerged from and spoke for the crowd, and who fell, though he spoke of hope. We will end the week by officiating a man chosen by the crowd, and who rises to power, in spite of or maybe because of a toxic campaign that we all fed into, regardless of which side we claim to represent.

What is the responsibility of the everyday person, to rise as an individual, who then represents many?

What is the role of the leader we elect, and the manner in which that leader exercises power and influence over us?

What is the role of the crowd?

The saying goes that united we stand, divided we fall.

And yet unity is not always what it seems. Unity can be used against us.

Lemmings will run off a cliff to their death together. And buffalo. And wildebeest. And the same act of flocking together makes sheep and cattle easy to control and turns birds into marks for hunters and their guns. Wolf packs run together so they can be better killers. United, wolves can kill, and someone from some herd will definitely fall.

Divided, we are guaranteed to fall.

But let’s not kid ourselves. United, we may still fall. For the truth about our unions is that they often inherently require exclusion to make them work, or at least to make them easy for people to understand and latch onto.

Researching different birds’ flight formations.

So the question is, are your words, principles, and beliefs worth the risk of falling? Are the people you stand with worth falling for? Are you truly in control of your actions and reactions, regardless of how well intended your beliefs may be?

Can you be effective? Do you want to be effective? Or are you just running with the crowd?

How can you be sure that when you rally with others, that you will rise with your fellow people? How can you be sure that the cause you stand for should be uplifted at all? Whether you stand with a Pro-Life or Pro-Choice campaign, whether you spread the word of your God, whether you fight for the credibility of science, whether you fight for a free market, whether you fight for the underserved, whether you stand in formation with fellow troops on a battlefield, whether you carry signs alongside fellow protestors, your unity for any cause decidedly makes you somebody else’s opposition. The fact that you have to rally–have to protest–have to march–means that you are standing for one thing and against something else. Even if you stand for peace, you have already been indoctrinated as a soldier. You are playing by the laws of war. The feeling that your presence is needed here is a sign that your battle is not yet won.

So what do you stand for? And is it as simple as you think it is, or feel it ought to be?

Our Stories Share the Same Roots: A Community Mural Project

It’s been a really good summer, in many ways. Full of laughter and play. Weekend trips. Camping. Outdoor excursions and inside jokes. Crackling fires. Summer pies.

The Fool's Flotilla in Madison. Madison, you're a goofy city, and I love it.
The Fool’s Flotilla in Madison. Madison, you’re a goofy city, and I love it.

At the same time, it has been an emotionally tumultuous year–for lots of us, I imagine. Maybe election years are always this way, and there’s a lot at stake with this one. There’s a saying, that there are decades where weeks happen, and weeks where decades happen, which seems appropriate for this event-heavy, tragedy-aware year. As an artist, I feel grateful to have a skill and medium through which I can contend with and give a voice to heavy issues–personal, social, political. I’m also admittedly anxious about the responsibility of doing hard topics justice.

It’s been a busy summer, work-wise. I’m excited to share one of the projects I’ve completed in the last couple months, my first mural, a collaborative, public project with the students of Escuela Verde, Artists Working in Education, and fellow artist Gabriela Riveros.

Students priming mural panels.
Students priming mural panels.

To give some background on how this all got started, Escuela Verde is a public charter school in Milwaukee’s neighborhood of Silver City that uses a project-based learning model to emphasize sustainability, student-led learning, and restorative justice. They partnered with the nonprofit, Artists Working in Education, to use public art as a way to activate and enhance a public space and to discuss community concerns.

process-00
Students’ brainstorm of the issues affecting our communities.

The students chose to focus on the topic of immigration. This is a salient topic, for the neighborhood, the students, and our political climate. Silver City is home to multiple immigrant populations, and many of the students also come from immigrant families that are affected by our current policies.

It was at this point that A.W.E. put out a call for artists. I got the chance to interview with the organizers, then with the students, and was selected as the lead artist for this project. (Those of you who attended my talk at DreamBank in the spring may remember this small moment of foreshadowing.)

A.W.E. connected me with the very talented illustrator, Gabriela Riveros, and I couldn’t have asked for somebody better to team up with (seriously, check out her site; she’s got major skill and major drive). We started working together in April, the outset of two months of workshops with the students and staff. At this point, we had a topic, and were ready to visit the space available to us.

mural-site-01
The Superior Salt Building, at 35th and Pierce Street in Milwaukee.

We didn’t have any imagery in mind yet, but we had a vision of what we needed to accomplish, and some of the problems we needed to address. The building owner, Gil, told us about the tagging problems. This part of the block is isolated and doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic or use. The back of the building is isolated, faces the bike path and railroad, and is easy to get to, so the building gets tagged, and the city requires Gil to clean the graffiti up. Community members shared that people often speed through this part of the neighborhood, which is dangerous, since it’s very close to homes and to a school. So how could we use public art to reactivate a neglected space, to deter tagging, to get people to slow down, to engage an important community conversation?

Tagging on the north side of the building.
Tagging on the north side of the building.

In our workshops, we researched and discussed the role and effects of immigration, collected classmates’ and neighbors’ immigration stories, and identified patterns in the migration stories we shared. Because many of our students are Latinx and Hispanic, many of our earlier dialogues focused on the Mexican-US border. But the “aha” moments in the classroom came as we collected and shared one another’s stories. Our students of Irish descent talked about their families being denied at Ellis Island and going instead to Canada, to cross the border into Montana. Some of our students got to attend meetings with the neighborhood association. Neighbors loved our idea for the mural, and also said they hoped to see something that was inclusive of all the different groups that live, work, and run businesses in the area.

Drawing by our student, Marisol, in our study of crops grown in Wisconsin.
Drawing by our student, Marisol, in our study of crops grown in Wisconsin.

The short of it: immigration/migration isn’t new, not for human beings, not for any species. It has played an instrumental role in how we’ve developed, advanced, and exchanged/expanded ideas. In our conversations of local vs global, it’s easy to take for granted how the two are interdependent, how technology has advanced along our trading lines, how language has evolved and literacy has spread, how on one dinner plate we may have chicken that was first domesticated in China, potatoes that were first farmed in Peru, and corn in Mexico.

Different crops and migratory species of butterflies in Wisconsin.
Different crops and migratory species of butterflies in Wisconsin.

So where does the art come in? It was important for us to emphasize a couple things here. First, that art has always been a mirror for the current times, and a leader/indicator for where society will go next. Second, that the imagery needed to come from the students, facilitated by the instructors. The purpose of Escuela Verde’s project-based learning structure is to empower youth in the decision-making process and to build applicable skills. A project of this size would require lots of organization, clear direction, and strong problem-solving.

Doodle wars. We did improv exercises to start off this workshop, ending with a doodle war, where students had to think quickly on their feet and create one-minute drawings in response to others' drawings already on the page.
Doodle wars. We did improv exercises to start off this workshop, ending with a doodle war, where students had to think quickly on their feet and create one-minute drawings in response to others’ drawings already on the page.
Painting day.
Painting day.

Our art workshops included the following: the history of arts and activism, image composition and drawing from observation, typography, games designed to make us think creatively and quickly on our feet, and communicating the ideas and metaphors of a story in images. It was a lot to pack into two months (and we needed the last two weeks for preparing materials and painting), and if there’s anything I could change, it’d be to have more time to explore each of these subjects more in-depth. But in this line of work, we work with what we’ve got, and we do our damnedest with it.

Butterfly by one of our students. All of the buttery and crop imagery for the mural came from the students. Gabi and I collaged them together, for the final composition.
Butterfly by one of our students. All of the butterfly and crop imagery for the mural was drawn by the students. Gabi and I collaged them together, for the final composition.

The butterfly became an important symbol for us, in a number of ways. Socially speaking, the monarch butterfly has already come to be a symbol of many social movements, representing migration and solidarity. Their migration patterns are known to play a role in many earthly phenomenons. The time at which a butterfly flaps its wings can determine whether or not a hurricane happens on the other side of the world, which ties us to our other important symbolism, and the purpose of the arts. One problem we are fighting in our communities is that of compartmentalism. Think about companies whose departments are siloed–unaware and therefore indifferent to how they affect one another. The result is low accountability and high blame in our organizations, and a toxic culture where people feel disconnected and purposeless in their work and livelihoods. Our siloed workplaces reflect our segregated neighborhoods. The health of our ecosystems reflects the health of our economies.

Community painting day. A big thank you to the volunteers from Urban Ecology Center and Young Scientists Club and our friends and neighbors who came and helped!
Community painting day. A big thank you to the volunteers from Urban Ecology Center and Young Scientists Club and our friends and neighbors who came and helped!

And us? We are artists working for and with a cause, who believe that creativity and logic are partners, that our ideals can be used to map our pragmatism and our realities. Our art is not just pretty–it’s smart. Our workshops went beyond aesthetics and embodied an understanding of math, science, and economics. Just as we found patterns in our shared migration stories, we studied fractals and tessellations, to identify the visual patterns in plant roots, butterfly wings, and the circulatory systems of our bodies.

Community painting day.
Community painting day.

So when you visit our mural in Milwaukee, I ask you to do so with an open hand. Look at your palm and the pattern of your veins. Look at how your fingers branch out from your hand and your limbs from your body. Think about the veins of a plant leaf, on a branch, on a tree. Learn to see this pattern, this shared, repeated pattern, that creates all the diversity we see.

I’ve reflected quite a bit in the aftermath of this project. As the second generation in an immigrant family myself, I feel lucky to have a dual perspective, of history, tradition, and my roots, and of the future and hopes for opportunity that drive all of us to move and embrace change. And whether we are the first in our families to grow up in this country or four generations in Wisconsin, all of us share this desire to trace back to where we come from, to understand where we belong, to feel at home where we are, and to find out where we are going.

Want to know more about our mural? You’re in luck. I’m a borderline insane documenter, and you can visit MigrationStory.US to learn about our full backstories, our workshops, the logistics of the painting/installation days, and the costs/pros/cons of the materials we used.

Cutting the ribbon at the opening celebration of our community mural on August 8, 2016.
Cutting the ribbon at the opening celebration of our community mural on August 8, 2016.

What God Looks Like

My mother once told me the story of a cartoon she saw in a newspaper some years ago, which explained God.

In the cartoon, God is a faceless, featureless oval on a table. People come to see and give thanks for all that God has done. They see that God has nothing, no way to see or feel or hear or think. So out of gratitude, the first person gives God a mouth, the next a nose, the next ears, and finally, when God has all the qualities that people have, God dies.

Every once in a while, my mind drifts back to that cartoon whose message I learned secondhand, and the ways one can interpret it.

It implies the same things as the sayings, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” or “No good deed goes unpunished.” It bears the ideas of how we, as people, can often try to fulfill needs that don’t exist, offer unsolicited advice, promote solutions that worked for us but may not work for others, or in general do things that evidence how we need so badly to be needed. All of which I think reveals our generosity more so than our selfishness, is more exemplary of our desire to be valuable and useful than of our ignorance. We want to relate and we want to be relatable. We want to find ourselves in others. And so it is that we may also want to design God–or whatever our beliefs may be–in our own image, not purely out of egotism, but out of some sort of self-validation or even vindication.

Of course, other times, my thinking is a little less…philosophical. Like on this warm, summery day, while I was out for a run, I thought about romance, gender wars, and whether God is more manly or womanly. And I concluded that God must be a woman, because Moses found his faith and calling by tending to the wishes of a flaming bush.

It figures that one of the most powerful women in history who got shit done was a fiery, hot bitch. Chill girls and accommodating women seldom get what they want, or make history, for that matter.

To believe and not believe

I grew up in a non-religious family, though many of my extended family members and hometown community (Kansas, for the record, heart of the Midwest) were very religious. And for that reason, I grew up with both the chance and the motivation to choose, a la carte, the things that made sense for me. I grew up with more questions than set-in-stone facts, because anything and everything that a friend, neighbor, or relative might believe in could be challenged by what another friend, neighbor, or relative valued. I grew up without celebrating holidays, which pushed me to ask myself what I would want out of the kind of gatherings that others felt so obligated to be a part of.

We did not celebrate birthdays in my family, or pray, or “break bread” together, and so I think I came to hunger for the rituals and acts of gathering that happen around those things, but not for the fluff or the stuff. As a result, there are few things I cherish more in my adult life than a meal with friends. And few things sadden me so much as any kind of meet-up, where despite everyone being bright and interesting in their own right, the social energy is somehow amiss or misdirected, and the loneliness/guardedness in our advanced and blessed society is so obvious.

Anyhow, as someone who grew up surrounded by a lot of religion despite not having one, I was asked and therefore made to reflect on whether I believe in God. It’s safe to say that I am in many ways a ritualistic person, and that I’ve pursued a lot of unlikely dreams, which requires faith against the skepticism of the “known” world. My answer to believing in God has changed over the years, and for the majority of the time I’ve probably been agnostic. But I have since concluded that yes, I do believe in God. I believe in the way that I believe in money.

What I understand is this: money exists because people agree that it exists, and what we collectively believe in becomes the truth. Money–like so many of our creations–could be the great equalizer. It gives us an objective measure so we don’t have to question what part of our lives is worth four cattle or ten kilos of tomatoes. It’s part of the agreement of living in a collective, a society with rules and infrastructure. Enough of it buys us freedom and teaches us responsibility. Too much or too little both destroys freedom and incites blame. But when we add distance between ourselves and the true value of the things we exchange and consume–while developing an overly-emotional attachment to this thing called money that by itself means nothing–money becomes evil and we become lost.

Like money and all the things we try to organize ourselves around, I think God has the chance to be a great equalizer. I don’t believe God is capable of existing without people or the living. Even if God were an old, white man in the heavens in the most traditional, Western sense, there wouldn’t be much to lord over without us. Regardless of what or who God is, it’s important for us as people to have something to believe in, some purpose to serve and strive for. “I am who I am,” said God to Moses, because God is not a name but a representation of what we care about, a term around which we can organize our understanding of this connection whose feeling we know but cannot easily explain. “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

“And did you have a better plan for freeing the Hebrews?” said God.
And so it is that we design God in our image. He is a man for all the men who have for generations carried the social pressures of wealth, war, and status, for the men who have not had the public’s permission to be weak. She is a woman for all the women who have been vessels for somebody else’s dreams, who still bears fruit, though we abuse Mother Nature and make a whore out of her for giving us the resources to fuel our vices. They is/are whomever we need to encourage us, to convince us that our aspirations are worthy of admiration that supersedes godly, and therefore humanly, judgment. God is our image of ideal leadership, a leader that does not exist without people to lead, a leader who looks like us, who is us. God is evidence that humankind does not want to be evil; just as people smile when their children take after them and hope they’ll become better versions of themselves, so, too, do people look to their origins, and hope to have inherited the best of their ancestors.

And so it is that we are responsible for creating God in the image of whom we would like to become. We are responsible for being just if we expect justice. We are responsible for choosing the qualities that we value in our leadership. We are responsible for our individual thinking, that fractals out into the design of our collective imagination. We are responsible for a creative and smart God who takes after us, because we take after Them. And we are responsible, too, for a God who embodies that which we lack, for the people we are not, but coexist with. For the people we are not, but wish to be. For the people we are not, but that our children may become.

An unexpected gift from my last visit to Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison! This bonsai is my loveliest new studiomate. :)

Our Relationship with Power: Why It Matters & What We Can Learn

Did you miss my show at Arts + Literature Laboratory? Here’s a recap of why I chose to focus on power and a video of the story I told at the reception.

Jenie Gao | Our Relationship with Power, video by Midwest Story Lab

One of the long-term themes in my artwork is relationships, between people, between nature and the man-made. My drawings capture moments when we connect, collide, and grow with others.

The purpose of this show is to explore how power works. It is to challenge the notion of power as a great force and reveal instead how it builds in small ways, and how our understanding of power will determine whether we will have a healthy relationship with it. It is to show that power must move in cycles, and be fluid and interchangeable in order to have balance. Each artwork illustrates a different relationship between subjects and the sum that their parts create.

Arts + Literature Laboratory is a collaborative space that hosts writing workshops, concerts, and poetry readings. The people who come here believe in speaking for something bigger than themselves, from working for environmental and social causes to leading community classes. When Jolynne Roorda, co-founder of ALL, invited me to show there, I felt it would be right to focus on this understanding of power, as something integral to the collective mindset and creative spirit.

My hope through any of my work is that it gives people a chance to reflect differently on themselves and how the world works, and with that, help each of us rise to the challenges that we all must face. So you can imagine what a gift it was when I learned that the people attending the write-ins were creating poetry in response to the art. ALL hosted a poetry reading with three of Madison’s acclaimed poets, including Oscar Mireles, our city’s poet laureate, alongside Cherene Sherrard and Matthew Guennette, who reflected on the theme of power in choosing what to read. I had the chance to speak with Matthew when he came into the gallery beforehand, to see the art and ask me about the underlying concepts. He said he wanted to read poetry that responded well to the imagery. It was humbling and profound, to feel what it meant to focus collectively on this theme.

On that note, major thanks to Jolynne, as well as everyone else who works hard to run this place (Rita Mae Reese, Simone and Max, I’m looking at you). Head’s up to my artist friends who are looking for a gallery venue. ALL is accepting exhibition proposals. ;)

Thanks also go out to all the wonderful people who came to the reception and those who organized events during the show, and to Midwest Story Lab for recording my talk.

Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao’s artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao’s artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao’s artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
"Beast of Prey," by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“Beast of Prey,” by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
"Beast of Prey" and "The Substance of Your Beauty," on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“Beast of Prey” and “The Substance of Your Beauty,” on view at ALL.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Closeup of “The Substance of Your Beauty,” ink and watercolor drawing
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at ALL.
Pamphlets on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie’s artist’s pamphlets on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
"Attention," woodcut by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“Attention,” woodcut by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
"The Golden Cage," by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“The Golden Cage,” by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
"The Golden Cage," by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“The Golden Cage,” by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
View of the show from the smALL press library at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
View of the show from ALL’s conference room / smALL press library
"There Is No Such Thing As Me" (left) and "What We Repeatedly Say" (right)
“There Is No Such Thing As Me” (left) and “What We Repeatedly Say” (right)
"There Is No Such Thing As Me," ink drawing by Jenie Gao
“There Is No Such Thing As Me,” ink drawing by Jenie Gao
"What We Repeatedly Say," ink drawing by Jenie Gao
“What We Repeatedly Say,” ink drawing by Jenie Gao
"We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants," ink and watercolor
“We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants,” ink and watercolor
"Counter Intuition," ink and watercolor"
“Counter Intuition,” ink and watercolor
Opening page of "The Golden Cage," artist's book by Jenie Gao
Opening page of “The Golden Cage,” artist’s book by Jenie Gao
"The Golden Cage," artist's book by Jenie Gao
“The Golden Cage,” artist’s book by Jenie Gao
"The Golden Cage," artist's book by Jenie Gao
“The Golden Cage,” artist’s book by Jenie Gao

Lessons of departure: the heart and mind of a rural town in a tourists’ economy

Lanesboro Arts Center is beautiful. The space is bright, open, welcoming, and full of activity. They regularly host artists and writers to use the space as a getaway to focus on projects, as well as workshops and seminars for the community. When the directors offered to show my work there, they also kindly took the time to make sure I would have a place to stay.

Jenie Gao at Lanesboro Arts
Jenie Gao at Lanesboro Arts

Having said that, as nice as the reception was, getting to spend time in Lanesboro itself was the real reward. Lanesboro is small, with a population of under 750 people. I stayed with a couple and their two Labrador retrievers in an old Victorian House, who spoiled me rotten, from the food to the stories to the history of their art collection to their library, which could keep me busy for eons.

The couple bought the house to renovate a year ago. They are among several people I met who are newcomers to the town, who all moved there for similar motivations. These are people who either changed jobs or shifted priorities after the economic crash in 2008, when they got laid off, when they realized that their jobs were not so secure, or when city life lost the glamor and glitz that initially drew them there. So they’re moving (back) to towns like Lanesboro, and inevitably invite the locals’ skepticism. It’s just like immigration/migration anywhere…zoom in on the tiniest communities, and it’s the same game as everywhere else, where the only thing that’s different is the scale. The long-term locals are hesitant of the rise of tourism and resulting, changing legislation needed to accommodate it. Lanesboro teems with tens of thousands of tourists in the summer who come for the trails, the river tubing, the respite. While some residents are at odds with this, the reality is that without tourism, small towns like this one are dying. It’s undeniable that those motivated to move to these towns are the ones who can…the ones who have jobs in Rochester or the twin cities, or the ones who can telecommute for their professions.

So these are the questions they face. What does it mean to fund things like education and the arts in rural towns? What responsibility do the new residents have, now that many of them head the committees that will guide the city’s economic growth? What does it mean to justify sustainability with economic needs?

It should come as no surprise that I believe access to the arts and humanities is vital, especially in either secluded or impoverished areas. In a society that measures success by the dollar, short-term thinking will tell us that these kids are better off learning a vocational trade, or focusing on math and science if they are to have any chance of pursuing higher learning. But in the long run, this is exactly what keeps society stratified and makes it harder and harder to achieve a balance in power. This is what makes it hard to have conversations on a local level about the social and political topics that affect us as a nation. Creativity and the humanities become the territory of the privileged class. Even then, in a world that is increasingly commercialized, the worth of creativity depends upon what it is useful for or how sellable it is. We risk losing out on how creativity can challenge us, and on its role in making us capable of being equal partners in a society that we’re all responsible for shaping. We risk losing out on how the arts can not only superficially entertain us, but give depth and richness to our lives.

Someone recently said to me, “I like reading because it helps me empathize with other people.” A mentor of mine recently also said, “I don’t make art because I need to prove anything. I make art because I’m alive.”

adventures-in-science-lanesboro
At a re-sale shop in Lanesboro

In perhaps a perfect parallel with my trip to Lanesboro for the art show, I just recently got accepted to do a public art project with a charter school in Milwaukee. I may have been the interviewee, but the moment that sold me happened while I was waiting for the interviewers. I struck up a conversation with the science teacher who said, “We take the class down by the river to learn about its role in the ecosystem as well as what it means economically for the city. But above that, we emphasize how the river is not only useful, but enjoyable, and that’s not something we should ever overlook.”

In another appropriate parallel, I was listening to an audiobook during my drive between Madison and Lanesboro. The book is called Excellent Sheep, which thankfully isn’t as campaign-y as the title seemed to be. I appreciated how comprehensive the book is. The author addresses the history of how our academic system evolved to reward success over learning, and how this affects people on every social tier. He addresses the social pressure for children with privilege to maintain status or jump through even tougher hoops. He addresses the pressures on underprivileged children who successfully break through their constraints to then maintain the same things that keep the class system alive. He addresses how often in our conversations about increasing diversity in academia and business, we over-focus on race and under-focus on socioeconomic status. If we truly believe in diversity and equal opportunity, then we need to be as diligent about what we do for poor, rural white areas as what we do to address urban areas, immigration, and affirmative action. That is how we begin to reach inclusiveness, rather than perpetuating a mutual ignorance that allows all of us to be leveraged across party lines.

The trouble I noticed in these rural areas is that even when the new residents who don’t have kids still want to fund public education and understand the necessity of it, there just aren’t enough kids or young people moving in who are starting families. It’s hard to bring challenging material to a small community when as few as four families per class have power over what they want the schools to teach. It’s also hard to bring challenging material to a town that depends on tourism to reinvigorate the economy.

Just walking through the house where I stayed sent a chill through me. It was beautiful and I felt spoiled and pampered by my hosts. I also felt sad at moments as I looked around at the space, understanding its history in the passive details. The house has two front entrances that lead to separate rooms, one for distinguished guests and one for…the not so genuinely welcome. The quality of the wood for the doors and trim changes when you move from the family’s to servants’ quarters. It’s uncomfortable to think of design as a thing that segregates rather than integrates. I find myself wondering what it means to preserve and restore history so that we might always learn from it, and yet at the same time not allow ourselves ever to forget it.

A sign in a re-sale shop in Lanesboro
A sign in a re-sale shop in Lanesboro. So what does it mean to lead a beautiful life?

To my surprise, a couple I met in Madison now live in Lanesboro, to be close to family again and help with their family’s farm. They got burned out working at Epic Systems (a software company for healthcare in Madison) and moved back when the “grass on the other side” no longer seemed greener, thanks to windowless offices and high work pressures.

It could be the groups I end up hanging out with, but I almost feel like a stereotype now. I know more and more people who in spite of a bad job market are leaving their jobs. I know more and more people who quit their jobs when they get burnt out, some to travel, others to start their own businesses or to consult. I wonder what it means when at the same time, many people are unemployed, underemployed, in debt, and often extremely critical of those of us who have “taken a leap” from security and what, in many ways, reeks of privilege. I wonder what it means that the “winners” and “losers” in our society are so dissatisfied, and for the shared reason that our success has such a narrow definition. We live in a culture of veiled bribery with the way education is structured, and even those of us who seem to have gotten out become players in a very similar game. I listened to a consultant recently, who flies every week from Miami to Madison, talk about how happy he is to have the flexibility and freedom that consulting gives him…though he usually ends up in Wisconsin, and the work, at least to me, sounded like a drag. I listened to him and thought, “People have such different definitions of what freedom really is. And your ‘freedom’ doesn’t sound like the kind I’m looking for.”

I reflect on this “hunt” that I seem to be on, this unnamed hunger I can never be free of, this “a la carte” lifestyle and education that increasingly defines me or maybe has always defined me. I think about the artwork I’ll get to create outside soon and the students I’ll get to work with; that makes me happy. I think about the answers that don’t come quickly enough and the questions I can never ask enough of.

The students in my interview asked, “Why do you draw so many trees?” I’ve gotten asked that question a lot over the years, so I think by now I’ve got a decent answer.

“Because they’re always growing, even though we can’t perceive it, and they remind me to be patient about the changes I cannot see. Because they don’t need to move or be fast to make a difference. Because even though they can’t move themselves, they give me books and an education, which can take me anywhere. Because they give us air.”

The love affair of art & politics-and the culture they create

love-affair-robes

The chase. The game. Love it or hate it, love it and hate it. Choose to play, choose not to play. There’s no getting away from it. Our existence depends on relationships and our fulfillment on how well we play with others.

Today, I’d like to invite you to play a game of make believe.

Let’s imagine that the artist and the politician are the Mom and Dad of society, two idealists with (big egos and) the dream of creating a life together. The communication and balance of power between them can teach us a lot about what kind of culture they’ll create, either together or in spite of each other.

There’s the charitable relationship of art and politics. Mom throws the best dinner parties and Dad always supports what she’s doing. The family does a lot of charity runs and bake sales. The house is always warm and well decorated and the gratitude aplenty. The Jones are jealous of how good we have it. There are still homeless people outside, but that justifies our charity even more. Dad feels important and Mom feels needed. It’s how things have always been, and as long as things are stable, we have no need to question, critique, or innovate upon a working system, so we go with it.

Of course, eventually the problems are more than the feel good stories can mask. Why? Well, it’s funny. Turns out, it has nothing to do with this Mom and Dad (at first), but with what others either don’t have or maybe don’t even want. People start asking questions. Ahhh, gossip and comparison, the beginning of the death of happiness. It’s funny how you don’t worry about problems until people start pointing them out. Mom begins to ask if she should have done something different with her life. Both parents worry about how to preserve their image. Society at large starts pondering different ways of being.

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This leads to a transactional partnership of art and politics that talks a lot about equality and fairness. It’s a practical marriage, but it always feels a little tense and manipulative. It probably didn’t help that we had to sign and agree to a lot of Terms & Conditions, a liability waiver, and a prenuptial beforehand (but, you know, just in case). It also probably didn’t help that we exchanged “keeping up with the Jones” with tit-for-tat-measure-for-measure. Anyway, we probably didn’t agree to enough policies, because it’s obvious that the politician still wears the pants, even if the artist does the talking. But it’s the best picture of equality we’ve got so far, and who’s going to tell Mom she’s getting used for her ideals when she finally has an identity built on her ambition rather than on raising the kids? Who’s going to tell Dad that he’s not the man he says he is?

The arts become a part of our economic infrastructure via propaganda, advertising, and mass media. Despite what the campaigns say, we know where the walls of this box are and whose sandbox we can’t make comments about, even if our company is new and doesn’t have cubicles or a verbalized hierarchy. We either become brainwashed and complacent with how we’re told to behave or disgustingly adolescent and contradictory to resist control. Your choices as a kid growing up in this generation are between being a sheep and a black sheep.

robe-love-affair-01

Now we’ve got a bigger problem. Things weren’t always easy, but at least they were clear when Mom and Dad had set roles. We knew it would get harder when we challenged the status quo, but it would be more gratifying…right? But now we’ve got unclear roles and ideals that we’ve failed to live up to thus far. We’ve maybe even become a part of the problem. It would be a really good idea to talk things through at this point, but now we’re ___ years in. There are kids and money in the mix and a reputation to maintain. The smallest disruption could send us tailspinning into a catastrophe.

Sure enough, the marriage of art and politics falls apart in a dazzlingly dramatic spectacle. The couple fights openly and shamelessly in front of the kids and tries to get them to pick sides. The respect in this relationship is dead. Neither party was actually ever fit or ready to be a parent or a leader, but the position at least looked good on paper.

Mom turns to any avenue to protest and blast her voice and cutting criticisms: graffiti, caricatures, satirical papers, poetry slams, the classic breakup song. Her story will not be silenced. Her ex-husband politician used to love her wit. Now, the jokes are a little too close to much more painful truths. He writes policies and launches campaigns trying to censor or shame her. He didn’t used to be a bad guy. His intentions were good and once upon a time, he, too, was living up to someone else’s expectations before trying to set his own on others. But we’ve forgotten that as this affair became a quarrel. Now, both parties waste their time telling the other to change or to justify his or her value. Anxiety runs high. Blame is rampant. Issues become very black and white. One parent fights for anarchy while the other fights for militance. One fights for expressionism while the other for utilitarianism. Side with one, and you’ll automatically reject the other, without considering whether this is truly an either-or situation. Are we striving for peace or staying at war? And are we talking about war or just how to win the next battle? Are we creating something new or just destroying what someone else has made?

If you can’t relate to either parent, you’ll repress or hate where you come from. The irony of harboring hate, of course, is that you’ll for damned sure remember the impression it made on you. And some day, just like how you lacked respect for all the dogmas and actions of your parents, you’ll grow up to face those same ticks and tendencies in yourself that undoubtedly came from your upbringing. You might then become a pessimist or at best finally grow a sense of empathy.

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But before you let your ideals give into harsh reality, there’s a shift that makes it possible for art and politics to work together.

There comes a point when we learn both to acknowledge and accept the baggage and damage done. We need to make peace with the fact that yes, it should be easier than this, but it isn’t, and since we can’t take back the sins of yesterday, we have to start focusing on today.

It doesn’t matter whether we are the powerful or the powerless. We need to understand how empathy works without falling into the trappings of pity. We need to recognize when staying in a bad relationship becomes as much our own choice as someone else’s. We need to let go of pride and shame alike, to know what we can and cannot do on our own, but also what we are willing to learn to do, so that others can truly help us. We need to understand how to be honest and critical without being disrespectful, of ourselves or other people.

We have to stop comparing this relationship with the good and bad of others’ and our own experiences. We have to learn to build for the new, and to know that letting go of the old does not have to be the same as exploiting, disrespecting, or being ignorant of it. And for us to truly live up to the morals we recognize internally, we have to know what our goals are.

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From here, the artist and politician can become equal partners and leaders, and we see the greater effect of the example they set for anyone willing to pay attention. It is about the example we choose to set, in whatever roles we play. Positivity and negativity are equally contagious, though neither are overnight phenomenons.

We see change begin in our willingness to forgive others’ flaws as we address our own. We see it when we can each let go of control of the outcome of things, not because we don’t care, but because we have the building blocks of trust. We see it when we can set standards–without matching them with judgments.

We see change when we stop creating and abusing loopholes in a system of messy policies that were designed to protect us but in the process failed to educate us. We see it when instead we create policies that foster collective responsibility rather than drive oppression and stalemates. We see it when honesty is a gift and a given from the individual instead of the demand of surveillance, of fear in the name of safety.

We see change in how people care for public and private spaces. We see it in when cities that shut us up and shut us down with noise, ads, and sales pitches give way to ones designed with artistry, when our surroundings beckon us to look and listen, to flow and rest in rhythm rather than stop and go in discord. We see it in our culture’s readiness to appreciate beauty, and integrate it into daily life rather than categorize, monetize, and institutionalize it.

We see change in the style of our learning, in how interdisciplinary we are. We see it in how well we understand the relationship (rather than the conflict) of creativity and logic and of intellect and emotion. We see it in our language, in how comfortably and expressively we communicate when we trust one another. We see it in how we playful we are, in how confidence grows when people don’t take themselves so seriously.

We come to understand how passion can be quiet and peace can be vibrant. The crazy thing is, when we look back, we don’t remember the pledges, the campaigns, or even the courtship dance. We just remember having a life.

**I spend a lot of my personal time writing and playing with different ideas and storytelling structures. It’s not hard for me to write a few thousand words and I usually make time to write on most days. Having said that, while it’s a fantastic exercise for me, it’s hard for me to know whether what I write is always productive or worth sharing. This blog post is a byproduct of these writing explorations. Feel free to let me know what works and what doesn’t work. There’s a reason I’ve called this place “Learning to See.” It’s as much a reminder for me to keep learning as it is a way to share what I’ve learned with others.

How to comfort your mother and still be true to yourself

trueselfie

My mom, like most parents, worries about my happiness and wellbeing, which means she spends a lot of time thinking about me being unhappy and unwell. Funny how that works, right?

She worries about me being alone and unfulfilled. It’s one of her favorite topics to analyze and rehash. I appreciate the intent, and when we don’t agree, I can usually find a nugget of either philosophic or comedic gold in what we talk about. My mom is serious as hell, but that’s also what can make some of the stuff she says really funny.

For one thing, my mom thinks that artists are a different species, which as far as I’ve been able to tell, is incorrect. But then it’s pretty common for generations to misunderstand one another (e.g. Google “Millennials” right now), and if you’re not justifying why your job should exist then you’re justifying why you’re the person for the job. People love to have something to prove or disprove.

Jenie Gao portrait
Professional headshot.
trueselfie
Not professional headshot.

I went to Mexico over New Year’s, and in my attempts to be a good daughter, I made sure to call before leaving and after returning.

Her (before the trip): “So I’ve been thinking about why you’re still single, and I’ve come up with some ideas….”

Me: “Umm…can this wait?”

Her (after the trip): “I’ve figured it out! You just haven’t met the right person yet! You know, I’ve been thinking about whether you’re even ready for a relationship and what the purpose of a relationship would be at this time in your life and why you’ve ended things in the past….”

Me: “Jesus Christ!! I was just on an airplane and then a bus. Can I get a ‘How are you? How was Mexico?’ We haven’t talked in over a week. Can’t you start with something lighter or more positive?” I experience a deep moment of self-awareness and embarrassment as I say this. I’ve been known to start discussions on the human condition over Saturday brunch and a hangover. I think I know where I get it from.

trueselfie
Nature and nurture win this round. #selfawareness

My mom keeps going, “Do you think that anyone knows how to love an artist?”

I’m tired, but I give in to the fact that we’re having this conversation and that it might be overdue karma. I say, “No, but I don’t think anyone knows how to love a manager or an accountant, either.”

She asks, “Do you think your ambitions will get in the way of falling in love with someone?”

I say, “Well, I didn’t used to be worried about it…but you and society at large stress like crazy about this stuff, so, yeah, now I do worry about it.”

“Don’t blame other people for your problems.”

“…I wasn’t, but well, okay, then no, I don’t think ambitions should get in the way of love. Sometimes I worry about how my life decisions might have to change for someone else, or how scary it is to ask someone to change his life for me, but then what I’m asking for in life doesn’t seem all that complicated, either. So theoretically, as a competent human being who likes other competent human beings, I should be able to figure this out with someone.”

She asks, “Do you even think you know what you want to do with your life?”

trueselfie
That’s a big question.

I say, “Usually. I have my doubts, but I think I’m pretty good at working through them. I want to do challenging, creative work that I’m proud of with people I respect, in a place I enjoy living. I want to make art. I want to write books worth publishing, and then actually publish them. I want a cat, a dog, and eventually a husband and maybe a goat. I want to spend a lot of time outside and traveling. These all seem like reasonable desires that aren’t terribly restrictive in terms of location or my skill sets. They don’t seem at all like mutually exclusive possibilities.”

She says, “That’s your problem. You don’t worry enough.”

trueselfie
The face of genuine concern.

I respond, “Maybe so, but I think a lot, which surely has the same benefits minus at least a little of the emotional turmoil.”

She says, “I’ve figured out your other problem. You’re cold. Just because you’re not anxious about things doesn’t mean someone else isn’t. Aren’t you worried that you should worry about what other people worry about?”

“No…I mean, I worry about stuff, but then I realize that most of it is unimportant, and I think people in general worry about a lot of unimportant things.”

“I think that’s why you’re still single. You know, men are babies. It’s fine if you don’t care about answering to someone else right now, but you’ve got to learn to be a bit gentler and agreeable one of these days.”

This is my gentle face.
This is my gentle face.

I say, “I disagree. I don’t think I’m cold and I don’t want to date a baby.”

She says, “I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Men are a lot more delicate than you realize. Anyway, it’ll prepare you for motherhood. What about kids? Don’t you feel like having kids will give your life meaning?”

want to say, “Not really. I have a hard enough time figuring out whether I’m making good art or just doing a lot of stuff that society didn’t ask me to do. I have friends who get excited about having kids and that’s great. I like kids. I think I’d make a good aunt. But I’m nowhere near interested enough in parenthood to be able to explain to someone someday, ‘Sorry, kid, I was horny one night and I really didn’t think this one through. So now you get to deal with this ‘meaning of life’ question that after tens of thousands of years of human civilization we’re still agonizing and warring over. I know you didn’t ask for it, but me and this dude decided that the best solution to the world peace problems we couldn’t solve was to delegate, to create someone new to deal with them once we’re gone. In other words, you’re a deadline extension. No pun or dark humor intended. Good luck.'”

But I already know she won’t find that very funny, so instead I say, “Not really. I don’t think having children will resolve any of my current questions.”

Stephen Hawking gets where I’m coming from:

“I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.” – Stephen Hawking

75% of me thinks if I created life, it would be in that image. The most convincing argument for having kids that I’ve received so far has been the movie, Idiocracy, like okay, maybe I should consider adding my two cents to the population pool to avoid dystopia. But I might actually lose motherly points for admitting that.

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My dad used to tell me, “Quite frankly, you’re lucky to be alive because I’m lucky to be alive.” And now I exist to make my mother suffer. :)

My mom says, “I’m not saying you need to have kids right now. I know you have a lot of other ambitions. I know you can do a lot of good. You have options that I didn’t have when I was your age. I’m happy for you, that you can be so independent. I started working in a factory when I was 14. My whole life has been supporting other people. Before I met your dad, I never thought I would get married or have kids. But even though he was a pain and you’re a pain, I think it would be a valuable experience for you. Just don’t be so quick to think you won’t change your mind.”

“Okay, fine, I won’t.”

“Do you ever wonder if you should have been a man instead?”

“No. Society doesn’t require me to wear pants in public and that’s fucking awesome.”

My mom asks, “Well, you know that I love you even if I don’t understand you and even if I think you’re a jerk.”

“Thanks…I appreciate that.”

“I know I’m not good at giving compliments.” As she says this, I make a mental note to work on that myself. “But anyway, I’m not worried about whether you can take care of yourself. I do worry about how much you’re like your dad. He had a lot of big dreams, too, and they hurt him. When he failed, it just crushed him. He worried a lot about other people’s opinion, which came from growing up during a difficult time and having a lot of bad people in his past. People who didn’t want him to succeed. I don’t know why people are so nasty.”

I think and say, “Yeah, it’s true, he had a lot of the wrong people around him. I wish that weren’t the case. I’m never surprised but always amazed and grateful at what a difference that makes.”

She goes, “I just don’t want the world to crush you or for you to lose hope, and I especially don’t want it to happen if you stay alone. If you fail at your dreams and stay single, what will you have?”

I try not to notice how unbelievably depressing that question is and say, “Well, but, Ma, I have a lot. I have great friends. I love where I live. I’ve worked hard and been responsible. I know what I have. I also know what I don’t have that I would like, but I don’t think having limits or conflicting desires should get in the way of being happy.”

She continues, “Your dad got scared of looking stupid as he got older. I do think one reason you do better is you’re not afraid to look foolish…though sometimes I think you would benefit from being a little more worried about that.”

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Not worried enough. This is how to look fat.
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And how to look skinny moments later.

“He could be so depressed sometimes. But then I also always knew when he was in a good mood. He would come inside the house and say, ‘Yuan-yuan, do you know what the most beautiful sound is? The sound of a horse chewing grass. I could spend hours listening to that sound.'”

When she says stuff like that, I miss him. I find myself wishing things could have been different or better for him. So then I think the next best thing is to do what he couldn’t or wouldn’t do. I wish more people loved him, though he grew up in a difficult time period and was pretty out of place in the politeness of the Midwest. He had rough edges and could be cutting and unsympathetic as hell, but to his credit, he never treated me (or anyone) like I couldn’t handle it. And he was hilarious, which made him easy to forgive.

I wish more people loved my mom as well, that she didn’t have to start working at 14. I wish she told her own story as much as she tells his. My dad lucked out to find a heart as good as hers. In the telling of his story, sometimes we both forget to mention that.

Sometimes I think about how moms worry and nag and dads also worry and nag but then tell jokes, and I wonder if the world needs more feminists or funny women. (If anyone tries to argue that we need more feminists for women to feel comfortable being funny, sod off. We’re not root causing this shit right now and you–man or woman–shouldn’t wait for permission or a 501(c)3 to be funny, especially in a developed country.) My mom still wishes I were her little girl, even though I never lived up to her expectations of little girls. As far as my dad was concerned, I was a fighter and a jester made in his image.

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I look just like him in this picture!
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You would have made such a pretty lady, Dad.
Jenie Gao artist portrait
No, seriously. Those are totally your dimples.
But I straight up look exactly like my mom in this one it's not even funny. Maybe it's true all Asian people look alike. (I'm just kidding.)
But I straight up look exactly like my mom in this one it scares me a little. Maybe it’s true all Asian people look alike. (I’m just kidding. Don’t take me too seriously.) But in truth, what I’m saying is my mom makes a pretty lady, too.

She continues, “Do you think you’re hard for someone else to love?”

I think for a moment and say, “I don’t think I’m hard to love, but I can be a lot to take on. I won’t deny that.”

“Are you afraid that you’re too honest?”

“No, I worry about not being honest enough. I’m too much of a ‘silver lining’ person sometimes. I think if anything, more people should worry about how to be more honest. The world can be a bitter pill, and people give it a lot of sugarcoating. But maybe we as people need more practice in tasting and taking our medicine.”

“Are you afraid that the more you put yourself out there, the more you set yourself up to get hurt or judged?”

“No. If people don’t connect with this story, then it wasn’t for them. If they do, then maybe it’s helped them stop hiding or holding onto something. As for judgment, people are always judging others, no matter what you say or don’t say, so you may as well say and do what suits you. If someone can love me as much as you do without understanding me, I’ll consider myself lucky and think they’re a decent person. And if someone can love me as much as you do and also understand me, I’ll consider myself really lucky and hope they’re only half as fucked up as I am. Not for my sake, of course, but for theirs. Hell, for my sake, I’d love for them to be even more batshit ridiculous than I can even dream of being.”

“Do you ever worry that you’re too transparent?”

“Not at all. Transparency is my favorite color.”

#trueselfie
#trueselfie

**Special note: Yes, my mom reads this blog, and yes, we talk about the posts. After my dad passed away, she asked that we always be honest with each other, because if we can’t be honest with our closest relative, then we can’t be honest with anyone. It sucks sometimes and I struggle with it, but in the long run, I’m glad that she asks this of me and think it makes me more fair with other people, too. Also, I’m pretty sure I have my mom to thank for some serious stamina in interviews and meaning-of-life discussions.

The myth of the starving artist–and what it can teach us about job security

"The Light Within Us We Do Not Use," 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao

“What do you do?”

This is the number one small talk question we ask people, on par with discussing the weather. It’s a question we either don’t care about at all, because most people hate their jobs, or use to size up other people.

Are we on the same tier? Are you also in a dead end job? Can we commiserate? Are you a baller and crushing your career? Can I puff up my chest and impress you? Can I outweigh you? Can I leverage you? Are we in totally different ponds? All right, have a nice life, then.

“I’m an artist,” I tell people.

This generates a whole range of reactions.

“Oh.” Awkward pause. “Like, for a living?”

“Yep.” Full stop. No explanation. Sometimes, I’ll add, “I’m still figuring it out. I quit my corporate job a year ago.”

“It must be nice, getting to live your dream.” This is a good indication that the conversation won’t continue in a meaningful way.

Things can definitely go better than that, and can even go extraordinarily well.

But (yes, there’s a but) here’s the dish. I almost never leave the conversation without looking like a unicorn.

Amiable conversation, but not terribly productive

Asker: “So, how has that been working out?”

Me: “Well, it’s a work-in-progress. I’m still figuring it out, but it’s really no different than any other business or job.”

Less amiable, worth getting out of as quickly as possible

Asker: “So, is that all you do? Can you really make money?”

Me: “Well, I’m a consultant, too.”

Asker: “Ah, gotcha.” People usually don’t care what kind of consultant. But now I’m not a unicorn and can move on with my life.

Amiable, though misguided, but has potential

Asker: “So what were you doing before?”

Me: “I was working in lean manufacturing. I led projects improving efficiency and reducing waste in business operations.”

Asker: “Wow, that’s really different. It’s pretty rare/weird for someone to be creative and logical, right? To be both left and right brained? I mean, it’s cool if you can be both.”

Me (being cheeky): “Well, not really. I was born with two halves of my brain for a reason. Why would I have both if I were only supposed to use one side?”

Asker: “I guess that’s a good point.” It’s obvious that the person isn’t convinced, and here’s where it’d be really easy to let the idealist in me wither and die.

Luckily, I’m not so easy. ;)

And for every well-meaning person who doesn’t know how to react to an artist, this is the burning question that I have to ask.

How is it more logical for me to tell you…

“I make my living telling other people what to do.”

…than to tell you, “I make stuff. And then I sell it.”

Why is that so weird? How is that illogical?

More importantly, how is that not the most straightforward thing I could say in response to, “What do you do?”

How is it any different than any other job you would choose to do or pursue? Chances are, your job has something to do with making stuff or selling it or both. The only difference is layers.

I make my own stuff. I sell my own stuff.

That’s not to say what I do is easy. It’s not. It’s hard. It’s uncertain, and not even just when I’m busy. When you work for a company, you still make a bi-weekly paycheck on the slow days, whether or not you’re productive. On the days when I don’t make a sale or have a client, I’m worth $0 to society. I haven’t made it yet. I will, but I also have to be willing to show up everyday and work without a guarantee. That’s not any different than working for a company that could lay you off or fire you, but back to the layers. I have none, so reality is right in front of me.

That’s worth saying again. Reality is right in front of me. Mind you, I make up imaginary beings for a living. Even so, reality is right in front of every artist. Every maker.

It takes a lot of responsibility, to own up to and believe in your actions, to the marks you make and will on people.

So what does that tell us about the stigma, that making something with your own hands is unrealistic, irresponsible, or impractical?

What does that tell us about our culture, if we’ve branded art as something not all of us are meant to have or understand?

What does that tell us about the resulting, sick joke our economy and job culture have played on us, about what’s realistic and what’s not?

What does that tell us about how our confidence has been manipulated, to rely on things that can’t be shaped with our own hands? To not recognize these hands in all their capacity and capability, to touch and connect with other people?

What does it say about us, that we expect people who do make things with their own hands to fail and to starve?

mis_manos

A mural I saw in Valparaíso, Chile. It reads, "And my hands are the only thing I have, they are my love and my sustenance."
A mural I saw in Valparaíso, Chile. It reads, “And my hands are the only thing I have, they are my love and my sustenance.”

“But art isn’t necessary for survival!!!” Many will say, and you may say it, too.

Canned food wasn’t necessary until we invented it. Smart phones, credit cards, books, envelopes, cars, jewelry….none of these ever had to do with need. A college education isn’t about need, or even want for many people, as much as it is about obligation. Yet the average American student carries $29,000 in debt for that obligation, and this is what many people have collectively agreed is the responsible way to live. And what we collectively agree to believe in, rational or not, beneficial or not, becomes the truth.

Maybe that’s the part we fear the most, that what we do…nobody needs. As long as we don’t talk about it, maybe we can keep pretending and nobody will get hurt.

Is what I do necessary? Nope. It isn’t a question of need to do or even always want to do, and the work guarantees no rewards.

But that doesn’t stop me from knowing why I do it.

I’m willing to do really great work for no promise of success. Creative work. Beautiful work. Work that can light up people’s hearts as easily as it can make them cry. Work that moves people. Work that both exposes human nature and makes it safe to show our scars. Work that can also be play. Work that reminds us why we’re here, why we bother, and why we fall in love in the wake of heartbreak.

Why? Because this is the “impractical” part. I’m doing it for love, which has no guarantee. Getting paid is just a means to an end, and because I know that what I’ve made is worth something.

There’s something else that’s weird to me, though.

That my way is harder, when the model is so much simpler, so much leaner, than the vast majority of jobs and businesses we’re trying to create and protect. And that many of the people who hate their jobs want my job to be the harder one, to be the impossible, impractical one. That mindset is hurting all of us, in the short and long run.

I make stuff. I sell it.

It doesn’t get more “left-brained” than that.

So here’s the big secret.

I’m not living my “childhood dream.” I’m just doing what I innately understood, as a kid, to be common sense, before others convinced me otherwise. I’m doing something with my hands, with what I have. I’m making something to share what’s inside me with other people, which is as old as human existence and expression.

Here’s something else. I really don’t care if you “get” art or not. I just don’t agree that it’s so damn weird or out of line. And I’m sad about how many things it tells us, that the outliers in our culture are the ones who tap the deepest into their own souls.

To call this the road to starvation doesn’t just hurt and limit artists. It cripples anyone in any job who says, “I’m not an artist.” It cripples culture. It destroys connection. It kills change.

If you believe the myth that artists must starve, then of course you would never want to be an artist. Of course you don’t appreciate or value art, or see the artistry in what you do. And I don’t blame you.

But if you can’t see artistry, then you won’t value creativity. You will fear creators rather than strive to be one. You won’t believe you can add true beauty to this world, through whatever your skillset might be. You won’t see magic in the things that you do, or that other people do. You won’t understand value. You won’t understand your own voice. You’ll get played by other people and other companies and never know how to break the cycle. You might think you want security, when really you want security in your position, more so than security that comes from within yourself. If you have a little more confidence than that, then you might want status. You might want power. But you don’t actually want to make anything better, or if you do, you don’t truly believe that you can. And that sucks.

For that, as unapologetically honest as I can be, I am truly, deeply sorry.

But I only have to be sorry for as long as you, as any of us, continues to agree, that this current way must always be the only way.

I invite you to see the ordinariness in what I do, as a way to see how simple the special things we’re all after could really be.

I challenge you to let go of needing validation from the things that hold you back.

 

"The Light Within Us We Do Not Use," 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao
“The Light Within Us We Do Not Use,” 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao, from the series, Self Awareness.

 

How to Catch a Counterfeit (or how to focus on what matters)

"A Circulatory System," Ink and Watercolor Drawing, 10 x 14 inches, by Jenie Gao

Back when I started working in manufacturing, I had a boss who would ask our team:

“How do you catch a counterfeit?”

The answer?

“Study the real.”

There are infinite variables, infinite ways for a person to create a counterfeit. If you try to become an “expert” of the counterfeits, you’re wasting your time. You could know thousands of variations, and all it takes is one person making one exception that you’ve never seen, and you’ll miss it.

But if you study the real, you can focus your expertise on what’s important. Then the one time that something looks different, you’ll notice immediately.

The concept of opposites

On the surface, this story seems to be about how to tell apart the real from the fake, which it is.

But go one level deeper, and it’s a lesson on how to change focus.

It’s being both aware of yourself and of your context.

How can we do the same things differently? How can focusing on the opposite of what we’re after get us to what we want?

Diversity vs Similarity

The motive of our social campaigns for diversity is inherently good. But we have so many campaigns, and people’s attention is already split across a world checkered with ads, categories, and options.

What would happen if in our conversations about diversity, we focused on what makes us all the same?

We already know we’re different. That’s why it’s hard to find common ground.

But if we focus on the common ground, could we indirectly teach people to notice and appreciate the differences in people on their own, by making them stand out on a canvas of shared human qualities? Could we change our words first to unite people, then to think for themselves?

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t talk about diversity. But maybe part of changing the game is knowing when to talk about same versus different. Both are important. Both play a role. And as the saying goes, while knowledge is knowing what to say, wisdom is knowing when to say it.

I vs We

There is no “I” in team…but guess what? There isn’t a “we” either.

The other problem with word plays is it only takes a little cleverness to get another player back.

Case and point: there is no “I” in team, but there is an “I” in leadership, ownership, and three of them in responsibility.

So there.

Moving on, should we focus on the individual or the team?

Self awareness or situational awareness?

Hint: It depends, and it’s not an either-or answer.

To stop or to continue…

Where else does the metaphor of the “counterfeit” apply?

How else can a focus on the opposite lead us to what we’re truly after?

What does it tell us about how to solve the problems and pursue the opportunities in front of us?

It isn’t about knowing the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. It’s about knowing which one is important and when. It’s about knowing how to pay attention.

It is helpful to remind ourselves that in a world where we’re taught that growth means good, full means satisfied, and 100% means perfection, life is forever an act of counterbalance.

It is helpful to know our own tendencies, and understand when to go with and counteract them.

"A Circulatory System," Ink and Watercolor Drawing, 10 x 14 inches, by Jenie Gao
“A Circulatory System,” ink and watercolor on paper, 10 x 14 inches, by Jenie Gao. It is a part of the series, “A Test of Vision.”

The competition for our attention. The fight for our love.

Comparison is a blessing and a curse, depending on how we use it.

Comparisons help us understand context. They give us familiarity, which is vital for connection. The same things can be used to drive disconnection.

But if we are rational beings, then tell me.

Why do we believe that businesses can be scalable, but compassion cannot?

Many have died in massacres. Does the death of many diminish the death of one? How do you have many without the existence of one?

Does the value of one social cause automatically cancel out another? If that is so, then by that same logic, does a woman who becomes a wife cease to be a sister and a daughter, and a husband cease to be a brother and a son? Can you love one family member wholeheartedly, and still love all the others?

It is not because we care too much about small problems that we cannot address the big problems.

It is exactly because we have not practiced care and attention on an intimate level that we then become cynical, abusive, and brutal in much bigger ways.

"The Golden Cage," woodcut on paper, 18 x 24 inches, by Jenie Gao
“The Golden Cage,” woodcut on paper, 18 x 24 inches, by Jenie Gao

Parents, do not shame your children or your neighbors’ children when their needs don’t make sense to you. You do not teach them to be better or more mature than you by judging or trivializing them. You help no one by making him or her feel stupid. Do not try to be right. Try to make things right.

Do not stop at the face value of what others tell you. Don’t condemn ignorance. Show the way out of ignorance.

Children, do not criticize your parents for not understanding or agreeing with your needs. Do not criticize their relationships or their methods. They are showing you a way, not the way. Be grateful that you are different from them. It means that you are learning. It means that life is changing.

Communities, neighbors, do not judge others for what they have or do not have. Do not judge those who are more or less free-spirited, more or less rigid, more or less superficial, more or less sensitive than you are. Your neighbors are either pursuing happiness or escaping pain. Exercise your judgment only as far as you need to know how to use your time. Anything beyond that is fertile ground for hypocrisy.

Offer to teach by example, rather than condemn. And accept that not everyone will choose to learn from you.

Companies, start-ups, for-profits, non-profits, do not focus solely on growth of numbers and members. He who has captured the eyes of many may be watched more broadly, but that is not the same as being loved more deeply. No, you do not need love to have popularity or power. But all of your relationships will be transactions. Those who do not love you will not be loyal. They will invest out of self interest, not in your growth. Nurture those who give you the honor of leading them, rather than trying to leverage or maximize on them.

Employers, employees, coworkers, bosses, teammates, do not envy your competitors. They do not steal your time or profit. If they are exploring things that you cannot, let them. They are using their time in one way, so that yours may be free to focus on another. Don’t chase what others have before asking what you actually want.

You do not need to have it all to have enough.

To all my loved ones, if other people disagree with you, it is not because they don’t care, but because they have not lost hope. They have not left the conversation yet. To speak up without the promise of acceptance is not threatening or rebellious. It is brave.

To the people who have lost loved ones, who are crying and suffering, the game of life goes on. Other people are having parties, pursuing sex, searching for love, competing for promotions, showing off success, hiding duress, seeking personal security, shopping, playing, accessorizing, and chasing the next shiny thing.

The world does not stop moving for grief. This is not because the world is cold or petty, but because it is not over yet. Not for us. Not for you.

Cover image: “Attention,” woodcut on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, by Jenie Gao.

"Redamancy," woodcut on paper, 38 x 48 inches, by Jenie Gao
“Redamancy,” woodcut on paper, 38 x 48 inches, by Jenie Gao

What a year of “underemployment” looks like

It’s taken me waaaay too long to finally put this information together, but since a lot of people have asked, here’s what one year of “underemployment” looks like since I quit my corporate job, the good, bad, and ugly, followed by what’s happened since.

For those of you who don’t want the details, there’s a section at the end called “Ten Important Lessons” for you.

August 29, 2014-August 29, 2015, roughly in chronological order

  • had an existential crisis
  • felt guilty
  • realized that I’d worked 10 jobs since my teens with very few work days under 10 hours in the past several years (the worst was probably working multiple jobs both day and night shifts), that I’d been a diligent saver despite major, unexpected setbacks early on, and that I needed to be less of an asshole to myself
  • also realized that I wrote a 65-page succession plan complete with visuals and hyperlinks to supporting documentation to my projects, as well as a tiered training curriculum that could easily be used to eliminate my job by teaching everyone else what I know about Lean methods and setting them up for better career advancement. Seriously. Who does that? I know how to quit in style.
  • took two months off
  • went to Iceland, went inside a volcano, hiked on glaciers and volcanic ground, picnicked on a fjord, saw the northern lights, nearly got lost in the mountains, skinny dipped in geothermal pools, began to restore as a human being
  • took a road trip to Cincinnati to see old college roommates and a new baby in the group, visited my Milwaukee peeps a lot, and reflected on family and community vs my own life choices
  • enjoyed fall to the fullest, corn mazes, pumpkin carving, pie baking, and fall hikes galore
  • participated in Maker Faire, got slaughtered on day 1 by way too many children who wanted to learn to print; charged on day 2, dealt with fewer and better children, and made $150
  • rebuilt my website
  • started making art again :)
  • after two months off, consulted in manufacturing and helped a $20 million printing company reduce paper waste alone by $50,000 in the first few weeks and devised a plan with their Senior Process Manager to cut down on $350,000 waste in the upcoming three months; tried all the things I couldn’t with a boss or larger team, including creating my own educational workshops to help people fight their own battles in the workplace; realized I’d make a killer consultant
  • finally told my mom I quit my job and was relieved she wasn’t angry; began investing in and improving our relationship
  • ran a 10k with my former coworkers and boss, because that’s the kind of ex-employee I am; tried to beat my old boss, lost by a minute
  • practiced what I preached; reduced my cost of living, such as switching to a $10/month phone plan, getting rid of my gym membership, and renting my extra space on Airbnb
  • started this blog
  • “started” learning Spanish
  • flew to Buenos Aires and landed on my birthday; experienced having a summer birthday for the first time
  • lived in Buenos Aires for four weeks, largely as a listener and a mute (would you believe it?)
  • actually started learning Spanish
  • absolutely fell in love with Buenos Aires (did you know it’s the world capital of books?), ate a lot of gelato, dulce de leche, and medialunas and started my Spanish book collection
  • spent three of those weeks in Buenos Aires doing my art residency at Proyecto’Ace; was seriously in the zone; conceptualized, storyboarded, carved, and printed an edition of 18 books, all in woodcut, which you can read about here
  • serendipitously reunited with a friend from Milwaukee in Buenos Aires
  • bought a plane ticket and flew to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world and the beginning of my Patagonia journey
  • airport lost my baggage; had first encounter trying to explain my problem in Spanish; luckily, most things work out
  • did my annual polar plunge in Ushuaia immediately after a 36km hike since I missed it in Wisconsin, which drew more attention than I was expecting; got hollered at by various Argentines and tourists
  • realized I didn’t miss the U.S. and debated never coming home
  • learned how to ride a motorcycle on a windy day, on a gravel road, on a hill; got really good at picking the motorcycle up
  • hiked through Patagonia for three weeks, met some of the most amazing people (two of whom I’ve since gotten to see again in Madison!)
  • seriously, though, check out The Pack Track’s Facebook page: they are the best Aussie motorcyclists travelling with dogs that I’ve met, possibly the only Aussie motorcyclists travelling with dogs that I’ve met. I got to see them again in Madison and they’ll be touring the US through Christmas.
  • committed to thinking, reading, and speaking almost entirely in Spanish; came out the other side of Patagonia conversational and with a distinct Argentinian flair to my accent, and slightly worse at English
  • really missed fresh vegetables
  • almost got stranded in the mountains again
  • hiked up to see a receding glacier with a group of Argentinian men who didn’t speak English, found a baby bird who died shortly after; wrestled with my exhausted, English deprived brain; thought about my parents, the mountain I was on, life, and death
  • arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, and knew immediately that I would love living there; mountains, lakes, chocolate, beer; $10 a night at a hostel with a lake view; done
  • went hiking with an Israeli woman who had just finished medical school; she asked to see the book I made in Buenos Aires, so I brought the draft copy I had been carrying to dinner at the hostel that night. As soon as I started telling the story, I realized that half the people listening only spoke Spanish, so I had to tell the story in two languages, back and forth, page by page. I nearly gave myself a migraine, but it was a moment that taught me the power of language both to include and exclude, and I must not have done too poorly translating because one of the Argentines in the group later messaged me saying that story was one of the most profound moments of his trip. Anyway, it was at that table of travelers, surrounded by warmth, good people, and good food, that I knew I needed to go home and not cancel or delay my return flight.
  • arrived in Chile, lost all confidence in my Spanish skills
  • took the ferry to the island of Chiloé, started my second art residency at Museo de Arte Moderno
  • found the best produce ever on that island
  • learned pretty quickly that I don’t like living in isolation on a hill
  • tried to make sense of it all, ended up just writing a lot and producing a bunch of shitty to semi-decent drawings
  • loved my host couple, who took me bird watching; thought about all the strange recurring bird themes on my trip and worried about reading too much into things
  • thought about gentrification and tourism over a cup of Yogi tea
  • thought about money and value
  • left Chiloé by yet another 20 hour bus ride
  • arrived in Santiago, hated it immediately; felt super glad I didn’t move there three years beforehand to follow love; took the next bus to Valparaíso
  • loved Valparaíso for its poetic beauty, hated the pollution and consumerist development; agreed to let a local man take me sightseeing on the basis of his Spanish being clearer than any other Chilean I had met (sorry, Chile). He was super sweet and we had a good day, so I only felt slightly bad.
  • thought about how people use people
  • returned to Buenos Aires, totally missed my flight
  • learned how hard it is to argue/reason in a foreign language with airline employees to help you catch a flight before last departure for the night, especially when they don’t give a shit
  • stayed awake for over 36 hours thinking mean things about American Airlines while waiting for the next afternoon flights
  • debated once again about not going back to the U.S.
  • returned to the U.S. and tasted good cheese again
  • drew a lot
  • finished, finessed, and framed all my new work for a solo show
  • exhibited and sold work
  • started selling and commissioning art pieces on my own
  • studied my art sales history and realized I’m a better salesperson than I’ve given myself credit for
  • also realized I’m underselling myself, spending more than I want to spend, making less than I ought to make, and a terrible negotiator
  • realized I had unresolved feelings for a crush that didn’t want me back and took it more poorly than I’d like to admit
  • decided that after a year of not trying for anything serious, I should force myself to start dating again
  • signed up for online dating with some success; began analyzing these online social experiments of human interactions and realizing I’m mainly on OKCupid for the questionnaire and that little personality chart they generate for you
  • faced my hatred of the dating game and went on a lot of dates, both good and shitty ones; didn’t worry about the end game
  • met someone I liked a lot, deflected my feelings like a cop-out
  • started training for the Tough Mudder
  • began forgetting my Spanish
  • went camping and enjoyed the Wisconsin summer to the fullest
  • went to business workshops, some really good, some genuinely worthless
  • started exploring the startup realm; to those of you who’ve drunken the Kool-Aid, I’m here to say, same shit, different place. It’s all the same highs and lows and problems and opportunities as any other type of work setting. That’s not to discourage anyone, but really, don’t buy the hype wherever you choose to go to make a difference. Just do good things, where you are, with what you have. And find people who are better than you, in different ways.
  • questioned human progress
  • met someone else I liked and dated him for two months; came to the mutual conclusion that we were good on paper, but not really right for each other
  • was happy to have learned more about myself in the dating process, but wondered if I would feel that spark again
  • reassured myself that I would feel that spark again and to be patient
  • got asked to consult for a chemical company, a salon, an artist, other consultants, said no
  • got asked to consult for a health clinic, said maybe
  • got asked to consult for a software company, said yes
  • learned that even though I chose that software company based on its values and vision, it still wasn’t the right fit; changed my yes to a no
  • realized there are shit tons of consultants
  • in general, got a lot better at saying no
  • but also got worse at saying no; accidentally triple-booked myself on one occasion, was reminded of the saying, “If you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one.”
  • wondered if I might be unemployable
  • got in a better habit of calling my mom; realized that she, too, was finally healing after my dad’s passing; saw her true personality come out, the one my dad must have fallen in love with; got to know her better and love her more deeply; began wondering why I have so many more dad stories than mom stories to share and how to change that
  • read a shit ton of books, even for me (one of these days I’ll put together a favorites library)
  • met one of my former bosses for lunch, told him I would have been a better employee had I known what I know now; made him laugh
  • became super skeptical of coworking spaces after being invited to try one out. A phrase I’ve thought of often since quitting my job, per George Orwell, “Freedom is slavery.” Are we free, or are we just entering a different cage? Per Bob Dylan, “Everybody has to serve somebody.”
  • was attacked at knifepoint near the Madison bike path; fortunately got away, but realized pretty quickly that, like most major things, it would go unresolved until something more serious happened

Tough Mudder

Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire
Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire
Jenie Gao Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire
Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire

August 30th-present

  • completed the Tough Mudder, which wasn’t that tough except for maybe a couple obstacles, but still a lot of fun. Do it with an awesome group of friends, don’t hesitate on the high jumps or the big moves, and remember to smile because they are taking your picture, or don’t smile if you know how to make fun of yourself.
  • coming down from my endorphin high from the Tough Mudder, I checked my phone that night and saw an article about a woman who had just been raped on the bike path, a block from my own close call
  • got super disillusioned, by survivor’s guilt, by people only rising to action after a catastrophe, by the media sensationalizing more than informing; decided if I didn’t want to become a part of the problem, I should speak up about it
  • also felt encouraged by how good and responsive the Madison community is; seriously, we have some solid people here
  • got interviewed by Wisconsin State Journal when they caught wind of my blog and Facebook post; thought they did a better job than WKOW
  • still worried (and worry) about becoming part of the problem
  • started trying to figure out how I can use my skill set to drive sustainable social change
  • meanwhile, participated in Maker Faire Milwaukee and drove a steamroller to make giant woodblock prints
  • applied for a grant to do a public art project for City of Madison; got the grant, now I need to figure out how to build two light sculptures as prototypes for something bigger :|
  • also got interviewed by Channel 3000, who did a good job addressing community safety and asking what community members can do about it; also, for pointing out, hey, this guy still hasn’t been caught yet, this isn’t over just ’cause we’ve had some fundraisers
  • since the summertime, went to four weddings and two funerals; thought about love and loss and what I might regret not pursuing; felt happy, felt sad, felt grateful for how many examples of strong relationships I now have in my adult life
  • trying to figure out how to resolve my desire for a relationship with my disinterest in the dating scene
  • rewrote my business plan and goals for the next year
  • strategizing
  • combatting imposter syndrome
  • meeting and getting advice from people who are better at business than I am
  • embracing what Nassim Nicholas Taleb said about a monthly salary being one of the most dangerous addictions
  • wondering if we as a culture can surpass the charity mindset
  • working on becoming a better teacher and making sure that education is always a part of what I do for and through work
  • thinking and writing about paradigm shifts
  • scared like you wouldn’t believe
no time
“No Time,” part of an art installation in Chile

Ten Important Lessons, of Many

  1. It’s hard not to feel pressured to live up to certain expectations. It’s hard not taking your ceiling with you. It’s hard saying no to things you don’t want. It’s hard saying yes to things you do want.
  2. When business is slow, it’s a good thing. Use that time to reflect and improve.
  3. While I’m a great go-getter, I’m a lousy get-it-doner. I make it to 90%, and then my perfectionism kicks in. I worked like mad to get my artist’s book, The Golden Cage, finished in three weeks. But even though it’s a childhood dream of mine to publish, I haven’t done it yet. Why? I’m not happy with the cover. I’m not happy with the text. People I show it to love the story, but I don’t think it’s good enough yet. I need to get over this, or else it’ll never happen.
  4. It’s okay to need other people. It’s okay to ask for help. To love others and let them love you, that’s the bravest you’ll ever be.
  5. It can be a very tit for tat world. Be mindful, not all reciprocity is good or for the right reasons. And sometimes, people reject each other, not because they don’t care, but are scared of what they have to lose, of being the one who cares more. Don’t be scared to be the one who cares more.
  6. The things you care about will hurt you. If you didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt.
  7. You never know what the “by-products” of your actions might be. I quit my job because I knew in my heart, it wasn’t it. Suddenly, I had all this time. So what was a “by-product” I didn’t expect? A better relationship with my mom. I didn’t quit so that I would have time to get to know her, but because I quit, I finally did. If I got nothing else out of this past year, a closer and healthier relationship with my mom would have been enough.
  8. Embrace, acknowledge, and hone your strengths. That’s the only way you can use them for good and prevent them from being used for evil.
  9. Waiting isn’t always a waste. Just like the apple trees need winter to grow apples, learning when and how and on what to wait is important.
  10. Even though I’m a cat person, I have a dog personality. But I love people with cat personalities. Remember to surround yourself with people who are better than you, in different ways.
slow down
Hocking Hills, Ohio

Three words that people keep calling me, and even more so in this past year than previous ones

  • brave, which makes me wonder how people define bravery
  • ballsy, which I hope you find as much humor in as I do
  • unpredictable, despite being reliable

Three critiques I keep getting

  • uncompromising for both better and worse
  • independent to my own demise
  • too nice, too forgiving

Whether you agree or not, it’s important to pay attention to the feedback people give you.

Iceland, Landmannalaugar
Iceland, Landmannalaugar

I wrote the following passage last year and feel it still holds true; it’s a worthy reminder I’ll need to come back to as I pursue my next set of goals.

“Some people have called me brave for being willing to quit without knowing what’s next, and others most definitely think I’m a reckless idiot. But if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s to trust as much in the counterintuitive as we normally would the obvious or the sensible. To be in control requires a willingness to let go of control. To have stability and security requires that we not need either. To grow, we must always be questioning, always be listening, without needing to find the answers we are searching for.”

Perito Moreno, Glacier Hike
Perito Moreno, Glacier Hike

The challenge of staying bold without being ignorant

"Counter Intuition," by Jenie Gao

It was 1991. I was three years old. My dad was in Seattle and my mom would be alone with me that winter.

The road was covered with ice on her morning drive, and when she parked her car to drop me off at preschool, she was scared to get out and walk with me across the pavement.

When she opened the car door for me, I jumped out immediately, and in alarm, she yelled, “Be careful! Don’t fall!”

To which I responded, “Don’t worry, Mommy! You can hold onto my shoulders. I’ll help you walk across the ice.”


I don’t remember this event, but my mom does, and she remembers the comfort she took in seeing how brave (read: foolhardy) I was, at a time when she felt low, powerless, and lost. All I remember, of course, is how annoyed I was in my early teens, that my mom needed to take my arm in a death grip every winter, whenever there was ice. I complained that she was going to take me down with her. I didn’t know that she was seeking comfort and security in me.

She didn’t tell me this story until yesterday, and who knows, maybe it wouldn’t have had the same gravity (ha) before I reached the age that she was in this story. Whether she intends it or not, through all of her stories, she impresses upon me the understanding that she (and potentially anyone) is paying attention. She’s learning from what I do, and in the process of changing myself, I change her as well. Our unconscious actions are teaching moments, in partnership with the things we say.

When we’re children, we don’t know what our parents don’t know. We don’t know about the size of their fears or failures. We don’t know how much they both cherish and judge us for our ignorance that convention has named innocence. We don’t know that our ignorance is teaching them how to be parents, that we are their test. We don’t know whether they’ll pass this test, whether they’ll choose to protect our “innocence” or feed our curiosity. We don’t know that their compulsion is to keep us safe, but that their job is to teach us how to overcome our ignorance, to be cognizant of our impact, good and bad. We don’t know how difficult of a job that actually is, both to carry out well and then let go of.

And once we do know all of this, we still aren’t necessarily prepared to face the next challenge of growing up, which is to get over the fact that for all our experience we still don’t know, and yet we have to keep going. We have to fight the urge to hide our weaknesses or let them be our limit. We have to fight the urge to be lazy and use arbitrary qualifiers like age to measure our growth.


There is the child who says, “Don’t worry, Mommy! You can hold onto my shoulders. I’ll help you walk across the ice.”

There is the teenager who says, “Don’t hold me. You’re going to take me down with you.”

There is the adult who knows what the teenager knows, the risks and the consequences of being wrong that the child has yet to learn, who then must choose to step up and say, “Don’t worry, you can hold onto me,” and then step down and say, “No, I haven’t been here before. No, I don’t know if we’ll be successful. Yes, I am scared of letting you down. Yes, I’m scared of you letting me down. But yes, I will still help you.”

And be willing to ask, “Will you also help me, and us, cross the ice?”

**Featured image is “Counter Intuition,” part of my series of ink drawings, “A Test of Vision.”

How do we define true human progress?

Trigger Finger, Ink Drawing by Jenie Gao

August 29th was the one-year anniversary of me leaving my corporate job.

I left to pursue my artwork. On a deeper level, I left to make myself better and more purposeful in any of the work that I do, philosophically and values-wise. I didn’t believe that a traditional job could teach me these things as effectively as I was seeking. I left to pursue opportunities that would help me better understand and define value, the purpose of work, the measures of progress, and the resulting merits of ambition.

It’s been, at times, an unnerving year. A hard, uncertain, and thrilling year, but in other ways an easy, freeing, and powerfully happy one. A year heavy with the enlightenment of learning and play. A year of trial, and ultimately a pursuit of answers that has culminated in harder questions than I started out with.

I’m doing a self-evaluation and goal setting, which I’ll publish soon. And in the process, I’m taking the time to think about my actions following up on what I’ve done and transitioning to what I want to do next.

Today, I’m writing about three events I’m involved with this month, how I decided to participate in them, and the harder questions that my involvement opens up.

depART: Laika Boss, Saturday, September 5, 6 pm-midnight

Laika Boss is a space-themed costume party/experience/group art show/fundraiser for Dane County Humane Society and art projects in Madison put on by the coworking/community space, 100state.

This one’s a no-brainer for why I’m participating. I’ve worked with stray animals and rescue cases my whole life. I’m an artist. I have a special place in my heart for shared spaces, and a coworking/startup hub like 100state resonates with me. The organizers of 100arts have been doing an amazing job and I can tell that participating in this event puts me in a league of smart and passionate people.

art by Jenie Gao
“Our Little Freedom,” ink and water color drawing by Jenie Gao, currently on display at 100state

Tough Mudder, Saturday, September 12, 11 am

The Tough Mudder is not a race against others, but a personal and team challenge. What an awesome ideal. The obstacle course is as mental as it is physical. It’s a competition wholly against yourself and a challenge that requires you to help and be helped by others in order to complete the course. I basically signed up to spend my day getting muddy with an added adrenaline kick with a great group of friends.

In addition to the camaraderie, the Tough Mudder has been awesome for setting long-term, physical goals. Seriously, what a great way to combat my inner wuss. I’ve hated running most of my life and am now running a minimum of 20 miles a week. I’ve plateaued at three chin-ups (and occasionally squeak out a pathetic fourth that I only mention in hopes of sounding cool), but hey, I could still be doing between 0 and 1 like I was a year ago. Mostly, though, I love having a goal that sets a bar towards which my abilities–and more importantly habits–must rise to meet.

Finally, since its founding five years ago, Tough Mudder has raised $8.5 million for The Wounded Warrior Project, which you can learn about in the video below. Welcome to the power of the collective.

Maker Faire Milwaukee, Saturday, September 26 – Sunday, September 27

“The Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth.” This is a place where makers of all kinds share what they create and how.

I’ll be helping the UW Milwaukee and MIAD Print Clubs in the Printmaking area. Rumor has it there might be a steamroller for woodblock printing.

You can read a goofy interview of yours truly on the Maker Faire blog series, Meet the Makers, and check out the other features as well. Maker Faire doesn’t fool around when it comes to the people and organizations they bring in. This will be my third year participating in Maker Faire; I love being surrounded by the energy of fellow learners and doers and getting to see the projects borne out of people’s curiosity and passion.

Jenie Gao doing her printmaking thing
Jenie Gao doing her printmaking thing, photo courtesy of Proyecto’Ace in Buenos Aires

Teaching, creating, community, helping out good causes while bonding with conscientious, ambitious people. What’s not to love?

Band-aids vs Solutions

I can cross-check these activities against my values and all of them will pass. I can ask myself if what I’m doing gives me the kind of worthwhile challenge that I will learn and grow from, and the answer will be yes. I can ask if what I’m doing helps somebody else, and the answer will still be yes. But I am far from earning a gold star (and it has nothing to do with being my own worst critic).

Even though these three events do good for our world, to celebrate our good intentions prematurely comes with a heavy cost. Equal to the danger of analysis paralysis is the kind of under-thinking that results in the over-doing that currently permeates our culture. We tend to lose sight of the underlying causes that create the need for these grassroots efforts and therefore the opportunity to ask a causational question that digs deeper to the pains we truly seek to relieve. There’s a lot of pain here, an infectious disease, and instead of a proper diagnosis and treatment, we’re fighting it with band-aids.

The Underbelly of the Pet Industry and Animal Advocacy

Laika was the first living creature to be launched into outer space, an event that transformed her into a celebrated, national icon. But the story of Laika is dark and illustrates the dilemma of human progress well.  She was a stray dog in Soviet Russia, chosen for the mission for her hardiness and even temperament, to prove that we could sustain life in space. In that regard, the mission was a success; but in the “race” to be first, the Soviets cut a lot of corners, and the scientists knew Laika would die on this mission. We also know, now, that the plan to euthanize her peacefully failed, and that she died horribly from extreme overheating. One of the scientists on the project, Oleg Gazenko, later lamented, “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”

When the real story of Laika’s far from painless death was exposed, it unleashed an outcry from animal rights advocates. This is a dog, not a human; a dog can’t consent to dying on a rocket, and commemorating her with a statue and lots of fan art is a weak consolation prize. Laika is today, at best, an icon of the space race, and at worst, a heavy emblem of our moral failure.

Beyond the emotional weight of the story, let’s look at what pets mean to us in the US in terms of dollars (I want to get into what animals mean to us with the debates surrounding the ethics vs economics of animal testing and the meat industry, but that gets pretty harrowing, so for the sake of focus, we’ll keep to the puppies and kitties).

Americans spend $61 billion annually on the pet industry (only $2.2 billion of that is buying the pet). There are 164 million pets in 62% of American households, and it’s estimated that about 30% are adopted from shelters. About 7.6 million pets enter shelters every year. Meanwhile, the Humane Society of the United States has total expenses of $128 million in an effort to promote animal advocacy, but only 1% of it goes to local shelters, which the HSUS doesn’t dispute. Local shelters rely on–you got it–local donors.

The infinitesimally small amount of national funding for shelters makes me wonder where the rest of the $128 million goes, but that’s small fries compared to the billions spent elsewhere. There are lots of conflicting numbers about pet ownership, but it’s curious that pet ownership has doubled in two decades while spending on them has quadrupled. It’s also curious that various sources report that only 30% of pets in homes are from shelters…but of the 164 million pets, that’s 49.2 million animals, which is waaay more than the 6-8 million that enter shelters each year and the 2.7 million that are supposedly healthy and ready for adoption.

The harder question: Why are our communities pushed to continue holding local fundraisers when the money (and industry) to help these animals is so obviously there?

War and Supporting Our Veterans in the Aftermath of Damage

We live in a world where war is considered a necessary evil, and it is an evil. Remember how our friends at the Tough Mudder have raised $8.5 million to help wounded warriors? Collectively as a nation we have spent $818 billion on the Iraq War alone.

By the way, there are currently about 1.4 million active US soldiers and another 850,000 in reserve. According to Tough Mudder’s website, there will be over 2 million participants in its obstacle courses worldwide just for this year.

The harder question: How have we justified pooling the efforts of more people than we have soldiers to raise 0.00001039% of the funds spent on the Iraq War to help wounded veterans recover, after the damage has been done?

A Culture of Makers and the Miracle & Curse of Manufacturing

This one’s a toughie and I’m not entirely certain at which angle I should approach this. It’s no secret that there’s a lot of strife about jobs getting sent overseas and like any industry, manufacturing is sure to argue its worthiness. The National Association of Manufacturers tells us that manufacturing contributed $2.9 trillion to the US economy. 12 million people in the US are directly employed in manufacturing and collectively earn $930 billion (based on an average employees’ salary/benefits earnings of $77,506), or about 32% of that contribution.

Just talking about manufacturing as one, lump thing is amorphous as fuck. $2.9 trillion is a great number, if all you care about is numbers, but how much of what we make is actually necessary is an ongoing battle between the consumerist and minimalist philosophies. Though I’m partial to this sector because of my work history there, I’m far from the biggest fan of what manufacturing has enabled culturally as exemplified on Black Friday. For those who argue that manufacturing is about job creation, well, then I suppose it depends on the problem you’re trying to solve…

Space Needed to Transport 60 People
A portrayal of the space needed to transport 60 people, courtesy of the Cycling Promotion Fund. We could argue that we traded space to save time, but time to get where, to earn what, to get us where else?

What does this all mean??

The harder question for now: isn’t really a question. I’m just noticing that the $930 billion of wages and benefits for the manufacturing sector is only 1.14 times of the $818 billion spent on the Iraq War. For better or worse, we could go on fighting all other wars and still double manufacturing overhead power and while we’re at it maybe save shit tons of puppies.

The Value of Staying in the Conversation

I wrote about the feral dogs of South America during my recent travels, and how we humans are not so different from them. It says something, that scientists chose Laika for her good demeanor, and that her praise could become her exploitation, no less, in the name of progress.

The Catch-22 is, I wouldn’t be able to distribute any of these thoughts online if we didn’t know it was possible to jettison anything into outer space. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have anything to contest about human progress if we didn’t kill a dog on a rocket.

As I move forward in my pursuits, I’m thinking about my values and the dialogues I want to be a part of. There is the “good” that I do in the world, and the “evil” that is inseparable from it. As this Vice article elegantly puts it, “Everything you do is unethical, so shut the fuck up…in spite of your best efforts, you’re still ruining the world.”

While I get this article’s point, I disagree with its approach or the idea that in order to live ethically, we either have “to go off the grid” or kill ourselves. We are social creatures, and so our ethics are rooted in the contexts of our communities. They do not grow in temples of isolation or in labs.

I hate war, but I don’t hate that we have people that will not only run through mud pits and electrical wire but actually pay for the privilege to do so–to pool funds for the sake of empowering those that our warring countries have let down.

I hate that we live in a world where our governments pressure us to advance ever faster and kill dogs in the name of conquering “the unknown” and that nowhere along the way, did one voice among all the brilliant minds, stop to contest it. I’m sorry that we have to promote animal rights only because we wronged them in the first place.

I’m sorry about the state of manufacturing and what it has ridden upon our workforce, our education system, and our values. The irony of becoming creators on a mass scale is that our ultimate production has been a society defined by its consumption. I’m sorry that we rely on grassroots efforts to promote creativity, efforts that become platforms for big name sponsors only once what they’re doing is seen as useful. But I’m not sorry for the underlying philosophies that manufacturing proves, if we are willing to look deeper, and understand our incredible human desires both to create and to congregate.

I’m not sorry to be among people who give their time willingly towards a cause, even though they did not create the problem and are far from being the most financially capable of fixing it. Something in our human nature compels us to empower others, though we ourselves may also be broke, broken, and let down.

There is evidence of something really special here.

It says something, that whether people make $10, $20, or $100 an hour they will use their money to make a statement in a currency and social war they will never win. Our community efforts demonstrate that we are not so afraid of loss as we think we are.

The question is, can we separate sentiment from achievement, and recognize that the work towards the first is the obvious, while the work towards the second is not only harder but a battle we’ve barely begun?

It both amazes and troubles me what we are capable of doing and unwilling to do, with our wealth of resources and poverty of distribution. If we are truly becoming a sharing economy, then I’m curious to what extent we are willing to live up to that. I have a lot of questions and few answers, and I think the only thing I have resolved is that this is a dialogue worth being a part of. Perhaps the worst thing that any of us can do is leave the conversation.

To be rid of the abuse of animal and human, to be rid of war, to be rid of the hunger that drives our consumption. These are not overnight fixes, to put it lightly. But I choose, as I believe my community members do, to be an active person, so that I have the opportunity to be among those who are not only capable of speaking up but also keen on asking the hard questions. I hope that those of us who identify as peacemakers today do so with the vision of becoming peacekeepers tomorrow.

Trigger Finger, Ink Drawing by Jenie Gao
Trigger Finger, Ink Drawing by Jenie Gao

There is a quote I like from Rumi, “Yesterday, I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today, I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

I can’t pretend that anything I do is more than a drop in a bucket in the face of a wildfire. I can’t pretend that my running benefits anybody other than myself or that my money, my art, and my community involvement is anything more than an expression of my values and personal tastes.

But I can be a one-person paradigm. I can prove that with limited resources and a simple structure of habits, I have not only enough to improve my personal wellbeing, but also enough to share.

I can afford to live in a developed, American city and go out for drinks with friends, so of course, I have the equal time and power to run in 5k charities and volunteer for the community. My question now is if, ideologically, I can make the next step, from the 5k charity mindset to the world that doesn’t need charity. I ask also, if I find myself in the company of others equally willing to step up, to do with less as individuals and to sway the power that the established world holds on us.

We are not so afraid of loss as we think we are, and we all have voices and the time and ability to use them. So long as we act and interact within the everyday world, we can make the choice to see and speak to it more clearly.

To my friend who lost her daughter and what you taught me about love

Sunday, July 12th, was a picturesque, idyllic day.

It started with a promising fourth (?) date. We made breakfast in the morning, then walked around Madison’s Art Fair on the Square.

Then I spent the afternoon with friends, picking raspberries, playing with fat farm cats, joking, drinking beer, having dinner, trying not to lose focus on the road in Poynette, Wisconsin, with a passenger whose attention span is as competitively short as my own, and returning home with not only raspberries for myself but enough catnip to keep Charlemagne high for a week.

Sunday was a normal and happy day for me, as it was for you, too.

But while I was driving home that night with a friend who had just discovered a CD of angsty music from my high school days, you were checking on your daughter in the bath, to discover that she must have had a seizure and drowned.

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I have to confess, I didn’t cry right away when I learned about Nicole. I know my concept of loss has changed a lot in the last several years, but I think this event was the first event where I felt the difference in my response to the news of a death so close to my circle. I can’t separate the loss from what Nicole has given you. I can’t see the waste of life by death, because this girl, with her severe autism, was never supposed to speak and yet became the greatest voice for you to be here; she gave you the patience and compassion that you serve so many others with. She did exactly what she needed to do with her life. A lot of other people with a “much higher capacity” never get there in three times the amount of years.

So I couldn’t be sad, not until I saw you at the church, this church that was built specifically to serve families with disabilities, a group of people whose faith is in service of something and not just to honor the faith itself.

I saw you, and then I cried. I saw Nancy, Nicole’s caretaker, place her hat that Nicole always asked if she could have on the altar, and that made me cry, too. I cried because I understood, this was not the life she lost, but the life all of you felt the void of.

I talked with former coworkers, some of whom had been grieving with you all week, and I both empathized and felt the difference and distance that this past year has made between my world and all of yours.

I have never been a religious person, but the priest shared a passage that resonated this day:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.

Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?

I know, and yet I do worry, and I listen and wonder if anyone else is really listening. Maybe, but then it doesn’t take an hour before people are talking about the troubles of life, the long work hours, the failed diets, if it’s not one thing, then it’s another.

I want to believe that I’m not limited by societal expectations, but I am. I haven’t been back in the US for very long, but I feel the pressure to be busy. I don’t want all the same life milestones as other people, or do I? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. I don’t want the same things, but maybe the ideas those things symbolize. I don’t want a safe career, but I do want a meaningful one. I don’t want a big house, but I love shared spaces, and I love having a space to create. I don’t want a fancy car, but I love where modern transportation can take me. I don’t want to belong to a church, but I cherish the meals I share with people–this experience of “breaking bread”–more than anything. I don’t want a wedding, but I do want love.

And I understand that at least for most of us, these things do not come without any sowing or reaping. To discover one’s life’s purpose is a challenging journey. To appreciate the simple pleasures in life usually comes with understanding the difficulty of it. To be in love–to sustain love–requires not only the risk of heartbreak, but the inevitable event of it.

Love takes a shitload of bravery and resilience, a type of bravery I’m not sure I’ve fully developed. It’s easier to dump someone than to be dumped, easier to move on than to let someone else care less than you do. This seems to be the curse of my generation, at least; we have lots of priorities, that give us every excuse and opportunity to treat love (or the attention we associate with it) like an option.

But if we drop it so easily, then it isn’t love.

I came across a quote recently: When there is love, there is no question.

And I thought, “Yeah, okay,” and then, “Fuck….I have so many questions. I always have so many questions.”

It’s always been unquestionable, Dawn, what you would do for your family, and therefore, for love. It had nothing to do with getting enough attention or something in return. It had nothing to do with not having options, either. But there is a dedication in you that many lack. There is an intrinsic happiness in you that many will labor never to find. There is a belief that love begets love, and so for you, it does. And not an ounce of highly sophisticated logic will ever replicate that or be able to overcome the shadow of doubt that always follows reason.

I look at the track I’m on now, and oftentimes think that I can never be heartbroken again. I’ve wisened up too much for that. But damn, that’s cold, if it’s true. I hope it means I’m growing up a little to be able to say, I hope I can be heartbroken again, not devastated again, but open and wholehearted enough to deeply know my loved ones and miss them. And in this age of convenience and objectivity, where the good dates are as easily forgettable as the mediocre ones; where things and people are easily let go, exchanged, and replaced; where understanding that life can and will go on is easier than ever, maybe (the willingness to face) heartbreak is exactly the elixir we need.

To the man who attacked me, here’s how my week went

Painting studies, pain aux raisins, and reading under the trees and a summer breeze.

On Monday, a man with a knife attacked me in my neighborhood.

On Tuesday, I talked details on one of the coolest projects anyone has ever asked me to be a part of.

On Wednesday, I got pain aux raisins over a great peer mentorship conversation with two amazing businesswomen, at the bakery on the street corner where less than 48 hours before I thought I was going to die.

In less than one month, I’m going to be a Tough Mudder.

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To the people of Madison, I’m so grateful to live in a city where 1) I feel safe walking alone and 2) The people nearby responded so proactively. Several people heard me scream, three men went running down the bike path to search for the guy, and the bartender at Willy Street Pub called me inside to give me water and a pen to start writing down the man’s description as I called 911.

Of course, things could have gone better. The K9 could have tracked the guy down, the police could have arrested him. I have no idea if he’ll ever get caught, if he even might be a neighbor that I’ll run into and get startled by one day. To my female friends in Madison especially, take precaution, particularly around the Paterson/Willy Street area. It sucks and it’s not fair, but being a strong, independent woman won’t protect you from getting attacked.

That said, it could have also gone a shit ton worse. Thank goodness my reflex was to scream like hell and run, not freeze. (To anyone who ever criticized me for being “too crazy” or “too loud,” screw you.) Thank goodness he hit me with the hand holding the knife, but not the knife. Thank goodness I have such amazing friends who called as soon as I let them know what happened, and not because I’m weak, but because they love me precisely because I am not weak.

To the guy who attacked me, I’m sorry you consider violence your only option, your greatest option. I’m sorry that your life has made you ignorant enough to be malicious.

The thing is, this could have ruined my week, without him even stabbing me. Just the idea of damage is enough sometimes. But I’m lucky not to be ignorant and to have enough life experience to know that there’s what could have happened, there’s what did happen, and there’s how you respond to both.

And what I’m finding now is this: I can still have dinner near the same corner where I was attacked. I am more anxious about the positive than the negative, about upcoming opportunities, about living up to an expectation (can I really do this?). I still worry about stupid things like dating or whether ice cream for lunch is a good idea (it is). And even when I have doubts, life is always taking turns for the better, and even the bad intention of one person is instant fodder for the good in others.

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False starts

Yesterday evening, towards the end of my run, a homeless woman stopped me to help jumpstart her car. My jumper cables were bad, so I went and got new ones.

She needed gas, so I went and got gas. And when we had done all we could and her car still wouldn’t start, she told me I would have to leave her. I apologized for not being able to do more and she (Deborah) was surprised.

“You’ve done everything you can do! Ain’t no one else who could have done something that would have made this different.”

She then asked if I lived in the neighborhood, said we’d probably see each other around, and said maybe some day she would return the favor and help me with something, but hopefully I would never be in her situation that I would even need the help. I said hopefully when we cross paths again we’d both be in better situations.

I wanted to give back the $4 she had given me for gas, but she didn’t want it back. I understood why. No matter your situation, you don’t want to be low, and you don’t want to be powerless. Giving her money would have been the same as giving her pity, and I was positioned to steal more from her by implicating that she could not take care of herself.

I felt kind of bad, not in a sympathetic way, but actually almost the opposite, like I was somehow unsympathetic and shallow. I had been on a five-mile evening run. I was steps away from home, sweaty, in need of a shower, hungry, and anticipating an evening with friends. I was in a hurry initially, before I met her, and in that moment when I agreed to help, I certainly wasn’t thinking about how much time this was actually going to take. But in the hour or so I spent with Deborah, I couldn’t be concerned about any of those things I was going to do with my evening and have peace of conscience.

By the end of it, I didn’t feel like going out anymore. Though I recognize, at the same time, that I can’t feel bad or undervalue that I have nice things when others don’t. After all, the purpose of another human’s suffering is not to make others suffer with them.

What Feral Dogs Can Teach Us About Humanity

Stray dogs overrun the cities and towns of South America. Their presence is so normal that when I asked a local about them, he answered my question with a question, “Are there not stray dogs in the US?”

“Yes, but we have shelters for them. You almost never see them in the streets.” He was surprised by this.

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Of course, one could argue that we haven’t reached a better solution in the US just yet. We’re likely just better at hiding our problems. It’s no mystery that for all our adoption efforts, there are far too many strays per household to take on. So a stray who does not win the adoption lottery has two possible fates. If he is unlucky, he will be put to sleep. If he is “lucky,” he will grow old in a cage.

Even so, I cannot help but theorize that our compassion and responsibility for the animals mirrors what we feel for people when the evidence is so plainly visible in the everyday, that as long as there is neglect for the wellbeing of any living thing in our shared spaces, there will also be litter in the streets; poverty and homelessness; and cheats, lies, and bribes beneath the shaky value of a country’s currency.

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We people, we are no different from the dogs. We are wholly domesticated to rely on jobs to justify our usefulness to society. So our confidence buckles under the climbing unemployment rate and the invention of bullshit job titles. In the US, we’ve learned to inflate the employment rate by creating more service and part-time jobs and by neglecting to include students in that unemployment percentage. Would you like fries with your PhD?

George Orwell wrote, “Freedom is slavery.”

What is a feral dog in our modern day? Has he reconnected with his long foregone wild roots, is he liberated from society’s expectations, or is he failure after investing thousands of years in permitting us to tame him because he was useful to us once, and we to him?

Would we criticize a dog for not keeping up with us as our technology outdated him? Are we failures now, for not being able to provide the security a caveman once promised him?

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This is Morena, a puppy I met on the island of Chiloé, and my favorite dog from the whole trip. She’s a beautiful girl and good friends with one of the resident dogs, Chicolisto. I didn’t know why they called him Chicolisto (ready boy) until I saw how “ready” he always was. Ah, Morenita, it’s all sweetness and games right now, but be careful when you get a little older. I don’t want you to become another teenage pregnancy statistic.

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Morenita, a black labrador pup who kept me company by the museum
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Morena (back) and Chicolisto (front)

In Valparaíso, I saw an artist drawing La Armada de Chile. A German Shepherd slept nearby and each was unaware of the other, though large tour groups passing by noticed and chatted about both. Like the creeper that I am, I sat nearby to draw them together. Like the voyeurs that they were, over the next hour, several of the tourists took pictures of me making a picture of them.

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The artist eventually left. A tourist in a bird-patterned shirt went to pet the dog, who woke up and wandered over to keep company at my feet.

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Ah, my friend, I had no food, and as a traveler, no shelter to offer you. You have no training, specialty, or purpose. We are of no use to each other. But we are friends nonetheless.