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

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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.

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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

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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.
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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.

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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?”

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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.”

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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?

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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.”

True leaders are teachers

We need to be teachers. Whenever we learn something new, we should immediately ask, “How can we share this?” Our greatest asset as human beings is our ability to actively, purposefully teach one another.  While our chimpanzee friends are wasting time waiting for a chance encounter and observation between one chimp fishing for termites and another chimp that also wants termites, we’re building rocket ships, connecting the knowledge of the past with the innovations of the future.

We need to recognize teaching as the greatest example of leadership. Too often we wait for one exceptionally powerful person to make the decisions that supposedly everyone else is incapable of making. Too often we let an initiative die because we can’t organize without “the power of the throne.” Many pursue a role in leadership to push their own agenda. Even those with the best intentions may fall guilty to “superhero syndrome,” saving the day at the cost of others’ chance to speak up or exercise their own influence. True leadership is not about the person who leads, nor is it about one person getting credit for having good ideas. The fruits of teaching come not from the teacher but from the students’ successes. Anyone who actively teaches another is a leader, for leading enables others to lead themselves.

The best teachers understand what many “leaders” don’t, that real power comes from teaching those you lead to be more powerful than you are.

The best teachers understand that they are also, always, students, and that the strength of their leadership depends on their continual education and self evaluation.

The best teachers know when to set an expectation, and when also, to step back and let someone else take the lead.

The best leaders recognize and respect how difficult and vital teaching is.

**I found this passage in one of my old journals. It’s from 2013, and I wrote it shortly after starting my new position at Western States, and I was asking all sorts of questions of what I wanted out of a career and how to match my work with my values. There was a lot I didn’t know then, and as the saying goes, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. But as frustrated as I was once upon a time when my parents would sound like broken records, I’m glad to see the consistency of principles that has guided my career thus far, both in whom I choose to surround myself with and strive to be for others.

Recent best business advice: Be firm on your principles, flexible in your approach.

***I took the cover photo in Sauk City, Wisconsin, on a day trip with friends to see pop-up art installations in the fields during their Farm/Art DTour. This piece is by Thomas Ferrella, from his series, A Mutual Curiosity. Art has many powers, not least of all, the ability to surprise and to set new visions.

What the seasons teach us about change

Fall.

This is the season when the trees undress and the people cover up. Once again, the seasons teach us how shared conditions lead living things to change in different ways. They illustrate how things being opposites do not equal one positive and one negative, but both necessary and synchronized adjustments.

I have lost a couple friends since the summer. First, Nicole in July, who was the daughter of one of the mother figures in my adult life, and most recently, a friend who died unexpectedly the morning following the lunar eclipse.

He worked hard on himself, to be compassionate, perceptive, and resolute. He lived his life in the service of others’ needs, maybe, sometimes, too much so. He was a friend, a mentor, a builder, and a healer for many of us who knew him, and he was strong for the people he cared about in the way we all must now be strong for him.

He hung himself from a tree, and there is a lesson to be taken here for those of us who are open to it. The trees are beautiful and give us many things. They give us the oxygen we breathe and protection from the sun. They are also strong in a way that is unrelenting, and that which does not relent will bear the weight of what its power can take from others.

The trees are showing us right now how beautiful it is to let things go. They are also showing us that what remains must endure the cold.

IMG_20151010_162812393_HDR

My friend once asserted that in our actions and honoring of people, we should put our community first, then our family, and lastly, ourselves. And as I have grieved and reflected with his partner, one of my longest term friends and mentors, I’ve thought about how my definitions of community and family have developed and blurred into each other over the last decade.

I have a very small nuclear family. I’m an only child, my dad has been dead nearly seven years, I live far from my mom and childhood home, and most of our family is scattered across the nation or back in China and Taiwan. I haven’t even met most of the people I’m related to and haven’t seen or spoken to my paternal grandparents since I was in grade school.

Also, I spent a lot of time by myself as a kid, which has had the long-term effect of making me fiercely independent and uncompromising, for better and sometimes worse.

But my independence has taken a new shape in my adulthood. Because I’ve lived entirely in cities with no familial ties, I’ve had to get good at the things that “independent” people typically suck at, also known as being “dependent” and asking for help. It is well to know that there is no independence without dependence, something we often forget in a country and a culture that praises individualism to our own demise. Thankfully, without the barriers of familiarity, I approach nearly everyone in the same, open way. For me, blood isn’t thicker than water, and I do find teachers, family, and home wherever I go.

Fall in Central Wisconsin
Fall in Central Wisconsin

This hasn’t always been the case, nor has it been obvious along the way. But I know it to be true in both moments of joyous surprise and unexpected tragedy.

When two friends in Madison asked me to be witness to their marriage, and the groom asked for my approval to marry one of my best friends. (All of us are transplants.)

When my friend, mentor, and mother figure called from Milwaukee after her partner had died, and I was able to call another friend to watch my apartment and cat in Madison at the last minute, so I could pick up and leave town for the next week.

Both joy and pain can highlight just how damn good you have it and how strong of a safety network you actually have.

I wasn’t nearly so available seven years ago when my dad got sick, when I was overworked, overwhelmed, and incapable of reaching out for fear of burdening others. I thought I was tough back then, when in reality, I was rigid. I shattered under the weight, though it took years to admit that the experience was traumatizing. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes terrible things to happen for us to realize we need a paradigm shift, and then even more time to put that realization into actions and practice.

I recently wrote about how a year has passed since leaving my day job, and I’d be a liar if I claimed not to have days shaded by self-doubt, imposter syndrome, or the realization that I’ve chosen a much harder and less predictable path.

But I also know that I am building a life around my values. I have not given up security. I have changed my definition of it. Where once I was intense and urgent, I have become persistent and patient. Where once I was rigid, I have found true strength in flexibility. Where once I feared failure and loss, I have come to understand that more chances always come, that nothing in this world is new or an isolated experience, and that the missteps of the past are not losses or failures, but lessons in how to do better next time.

I hope, that for these lessons, I am a better daughter, student, partner, and teammate, to my own mother and to the people who have stepped into the parental and mentor roles in my adult life when I have needed them. I hope that what I could not handle alone as a child who thought she was an adult, I am ready to rise and face as an adult who embraces that she will always be a child.

Fall in Central Wisconsin.
Fall in Central Wisconsin.

This is the season when the trees undress and the people cover up. Once again, the seasons teach us about repetition and ritual, about the cycle of activity and rest, about how to fall so that we may continue.

A Response to the Rape on the Madison Bike Path

This is in response to the rape that happened on the Madison bike path, which is now one of four attempted attacks since July.

To my friends in Madison–and those who do not live here but have friends here–SHARE this. Share this. Share this. A smart and informed community has the opportunity to be a proactive, preventative, and restorative one.

WHAT WE KNOW

Monday, August 10, 2015. A man attacked me from behind on Paterson near Willy Street, just as a I passed the bike path. He grabbed the back of my shirt, came in front of me and held a knife to my stomach, and when I screamed, he hit me in the stomach and we broke apart and ran in opposite directions.

Saturday, September 12, 2015. A man attacked a woman on South Livingston by the bike path. He grabbed her from behind, hit her on the back of the head, dragged her off the bike path, brutally raped her, and nearly murdered her.

I have spoken with the detectives at MPD, and yes, there is a high correlation between my attack and the one on Saturday, which can’t be ignored. This is, of course, *only* a correlation until the attacker(s) is/are found. But if it IS the same attacker, then he should be considered highly dangerous. When he attacked me, he came in front of me so I could see his face, and he seemed startled when I screamed. In this second attack, the man was wearing a hoodie, came at her from behind, and hit her in the back of the head before dragging her off. So if it is the same person, then he learned from the previous attack. We can also presume that with all the attention now that he will probably not attack in the same spot.

WHAT WE NEED TO DO

1) Catch this criminal. We need to be vigilantly on the lookout for someone who fits this description.

2) Understand the nature of the crime to get to the root of the problem, so that we can have a long-term solution rather than a band-aid.

I am thankful to live in a community that organizes so readily around a tragedy like this. I want to ask this SAME community to be proactive rather than reactive in how we resolve this. We need to be good communicators. We need to be informed. We need to be purposeful and organized in our actions. Remember that good intentions can be as harmful as bad ones. Remember that our goal is not merely to organize, but to deliver justice and make sure this NEVER happens again.

Share this. Share this. Share this.

WE NEED TO DO OUR RESEARCH

Thursday, July 9, 2015. Cristian Sanchez Vargas attacked a woman on the bike path from behind, hit her in the head, and tried to drag her off the path into the woods. She screamed, alerting passersby. Police caught and detained Vargas, who remains in prison today with a $25,000 bail.

Monday, July 13, 2015. Donovan Stone assaulted a woman on the bike path. He placed her in a “bear hug” and tackled her to the ground. The woman screamed and was able to hit the man with her right elbow before Stone got up and ran from the scene, pulling up his shorts.

It is abnormal to have four attacks, all carried out by strangers, in a span of a few months. If this is a more prevalent problem in our community, then placing a $25,000 bail on one man’s head does not call into question a larger systemic problem that underlies these types of attacks. We can’t be afraid to talk about race and socioeconomic status as a part of this. We do have poverty and racial divides in our culture, and it’s a problem we need to get to the root of and not ignore as a factor in these kinds of events.

WE NEED TO CONSIDER THE ACTIONS TO TAKE NEXT

How do we as a city function, from the effectiveness of our justice system to our media to our community efforts? Many events go unreported if they are “close calls,” where the criminal doesn’t succeed in robbing or hurting someone. Even when people do report these incidents, they do not receive the same media response, same resources, or same sense of urgency as an actual attack. That’s gravely unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because what happens is we only are able to deliver justice AFTER the damage has been done. It’s unfortunate that we do not treat these events with urgency until they are catastrophic. Following my own attack, I realized just how slow and ineffective the process really is, and how unlikely it is to catch a person who runs from the scene, and how the only way we as a city *would* dedicate resources to this would be if this man attacked again. Whether it’s the same attacker or not, it makes me sick to my stomach that it happened this way.

Consider the amount of media coverage this rape is getting, as it rightly should. And be willing to ask, what it will take to be AS adamant about communicating before the stakes are this high.

Consider how the law enforcement is pouring resources into this pursuit, as it rightly should. And be willing to ask, what are the roadblocks that our justice system as facing, and what needs to change?

Consider how passionately our community is responding to this, as it rightly should. And be willing to ask, how do we channel the anger we feel about this, how do we use our organizational power, so that following this symbolic act of our charity, we can have the discourse and actions for solidarity?

There are soooo many things I wish had taken place following the earlier incidents this summer on the bike path. There are so many things I wish, that we had a proactive, preventative, and restorative approach to crime rather than reactive. For now as a community, we need to be proactive in catching the criminal, and then equilibrate and fact-driven in our solutions, so that this NEVER happens again.

Additional relevant information:

I have also shared this write-up as a public Facebook post and as a comment on the recent Take Back the Bike Path event in Madison.

Since writing this, many people have messaged me–either in Facebook comments or personal messages–asking for my description of the attacker and whether it bears resemblance to the recent case, which you can read in the news release. Yes, the man who attacked me was similar to what’s been released to the media. The description I gave to the police working on my case is as follows: a man in his 20s to 30s of Hispanic descent who yelled something in Spanish when he grabbed me, close to my height (5’5″ to 5’7″), medium/compact build, a buzz cut, sharp-looking almond-shaped eyes with angled eyebrows (this is the biggest difference for me compared to the sketch the PD released), high cheekbones, and that night he was wearing a black t-shirt with a white graphic and khaki-colored short pants.

Online Resources Worth Looking At

City Data

Madison Crime Rates & Statistics

Crime Data Map

Rule of Law Index, courtesy of the World Justice Project

A challenge to my community: speak up for what you care about

Antonio Berni

It’s not a loud voice, but it’s an extremely prevalent one in our culture.

I have friends who choose not to talk about things like politics on Facebook or at work, because the wrong person might see, because that coworker or that family member or old friend might disagree. And as someone who’s been there, as someone who cringes at the unnecessary and irrational drama that so often surrounds and overwhelms us, I get it.

I get it. I don’t want to fight with my friends or family either. I don’t want to fight with the people I have to sit next to or potentially report to.

But you know what? That’s exactly the problem. We’re a society that predicates being polite over being respectful. No, you’re not respecting your family or your workplace by being quiet about the things you really care about. Instead you and me and all of us are acting like no one else around us is an adult capable of handling a hard, but meaningful conversation. You don’t want to hurt feelings. You don’t want to create unnecessary pain. You don’t want to lose connection with people whom you truly respect and appreciate. You don’t want to bite the ones who’ve fed you.

But. You are allowing a different pain to grow silently within us. You are perpetuating a culture of self interest rather than community. And you are creating a “safe” community rather than a resilient one.

I challenge you. I challenge you to speak up. Not in a coarse way, but in a meaningful and powerful way.

I challenge you to practice a voice of respect and influence over one of civility. You can still cater to the values of peacekeeping without holding your tongue.

I challenge you to have uncomfortable conversations.

I challenge you to ask questions so that your friends, colleagues, and loved ones might find their own answers, that maybe they wouldn’t have thought of had nobody asked. I challenge you to dig deep into pain rather than rub aloe over it. I challenge you not to look away when the diagnosis and treatment are excruciating to bear.

Most of all, I challenge you to share your experience so that others might learn from your strength and that you might learn from theirs.

The cover image for this post is from an exhibit I saw in Buenos Aires of Argentina’s esteemed artist, Antonio Berni, whose work told the stories of the impoverished, exploited classes and the impact of industrialization.

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.

Preview of Solo Show at Ploch Art Gallery

I have been back in the States now for two weeks, and my first bit of business has been preparing for a solo show at Ploch Art Gallery at Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Here is a preview of the show and a few of the new pieces, many from my art residencies at Proyecto’Ace in Buenos Aires and Museo de Arte Moderno in Chiloé.

The show will be up through May 9th. The opening reception is Saturday, April 18th, from 6 to 7:30 pm. I would love to see you there!

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View of a new series, “A Test of Vision,” and to the right, page spreads from my new artist’s book, “The Golden Cage”
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View of a new series, “A Test of Vision”
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(farthest left) “Remember, You Are Human”
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“Angelica” (left) and “We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants” (right)
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“We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants,” ink on paper
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“There is No Such Thing As Me,” ink on paper
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Second hall of the gallery space

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Page spreads from “The Golden Cage”
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Close-up/sneak peek of a new ink drawing, “Counter Intuition”
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Second close-up of “Counter Intuition”
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Close-up of “Our Little Freedom”
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“The Light Within Us We Do Not Use,” ink on paper

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.

What does the existence of 5 Chilean Pesos suggest about wealth?

Contemplate this for a moment:

10,000 Chilean pesos is the equivalent of $16.30 US Dollars.

Over the course of my voyage in Chile, I have acquired many 5 peso coins, or $0.0082. I have heard of the existence of a 1 peso coin as well.

What does it tell us about value, to know that in a world where 1% of the population owns 99% of the wealth, there exists simultaneously the value of 5 Chilean pesos?

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Like the Grown-Ups (v2)

Estoy estancada.

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I’m stuck. I’ve used up most of my paper, but am dissatisfied with my drawings here in Castro, Chiloé. The setting is tranquil. I am restless.

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On the bright side, I’m writing a lot every day, and really loving this seaside city. Each day the beauties and peculiarities of this place seep a little more inside of me.

The design of the city is both logically gridded and haphazardly rough, having to wrap over the rises and drops of the terrain. Much of the architecture uses the wood of this land and has become inseparable from its identity. Cinnamon lumber in the houses/powder on top of beverages.

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Then there are the palafitos, representatives of an amphibious lifestyle dependent on the sea.

The imagery this conjures up is fantastic. We humans are like the frogs, amphibious in nature, if not between land and sea, then between any two perspectives that must be at battle within us. Our loyalty to the water that has long nourished us turns into an attachment that keeps us from evolving and fully experiencing the joys of the land, the freedom of the sky.

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The feeling of Castro, Chiloé hovers between obstinate independence and frail tranquility. It has evolved in both the freedom and imprisonment of its isolation.

But while geographic isolation may have fueled and instilled the identity of a culture developing separately and uniquely from the rest of the world, the patterns of history are undeniably human. This is an immigrant land, both colorful and conflicted with the gifts and scars of its mixing heritages.

This is a city turning on the axis of gentrification. I visited a beautiful cafe yesterday in one the many restored palafitos of Castro, where I read a book about the history of these houses on stilts over a cup of Yogi tea like I mighty have been drinking in my own, hipster, American town.

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Los palafitos. Stilted houses that face the sea. Cages that captured fish from the receding tides. The beginnings of commerce in a new world. The blending of indigenous and Spanish cultures. The trade of goods and patrimonies.

Poor homes on the margins of society. Human refuse in the sea. Neighborhoods in decline. Fire that rapidly consumed closely packed wooden houses, among other man-made catastrophes. The eternal war of tradition vs modernity. The same seeds we sowed for progress have dug deep into the earth with the roots of a cultural identity we cannot escape.

Swap out the fish and lumber industries for General Motors and we might as well be in Detroit. Replace the palafitos with the skyline of an old, European city, a temple in China. Different industries, different architectures. Same questions, same reactions.

The palafitos were considered unsafe and unhygienic and under the constant threat of demolition, by both nature and by government.

Now, the same things that threatened the palafitos’ existence have proven their fortitude. If these houses survived fire, earthquakes, tsunamis, and rich politicians who considered them to be ugly, they must be something worth saving.

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Los palafitos. Boutiques filled with handmade, local goods. Hostels and hotels in shades of pink, green, and blue. Delicious, pricy, restaurants and cafes, that dress up and celebrate what have long been local tastes, so they may be newly discovered by the phenomenon of tourism. Sushi. Jasmine tea. Indie music. Fresh pressed juice. Chia seeds in baked goods.

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And now, the steeply climbing costs of real estate of any place reborn in its success.