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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you see?

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

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

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

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

Ideas don’t grow in isolation.

Facts don’t live in boxes.

You never teach one thing.

And yet what you teach, unites everything.


The official TEDx Talk online.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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 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.