Hidden lessons and “The Giving Tree”

I ended up making an essay-length comment on a friend’s Facebook about “The Giving Tree” and why one should be careful to assume that a story teaches the lessons you intend.  I assure you, dear reader, that I’ve long since dispensed with the “lesson” I learned from “The Giving Tree,” though I do consider my childhood experiences with it to be seminal in my strong desire to not have children.  Shel Silverstein does, however, owe me for my therapy bills.

Ultimately, the challenge in teaching a lesson is ensuring which lesson you teach. This is where “The Giving Tree” has a real issue. The boy, as he ages, gets what he wants without any negotiation or resistance. In fact, he receives some kind of prosperity, gets a house, and gets a boat, and gets a chair, all by just asking and receiving. He shows no remorse for the state of his supposedly beloved companion, so it clearly never hurts him. In fact, at every stage, you are editorially told that “the tree was happy.” So, one lesson baked in here is to be comfortable asking for what you want because those that freely give to you are, regardless of appearances, happy to give.

The tree, as it ages and is razed, is the only party holding any emotional context for the relationship. In fact, we know this, because an editorial voice has to step in and remind us that “the tree was happy.” It gives and gives based almost entirely on the sentiment of the relationship, while the boy receives and receives based almost entirely on the material aspects of the relationship, without affirmation or mirroring of the sentiment of the relationship. But, as we are constantly reminded, the process that ultimately destroyed the tree (unlike actual trees, this tree could not regrow its foliage when pruned), also made the tree happy. The tree wasn’t happy in a way we could see. In fact, the tree’s obvious and outward joy ends early in the story. No. The tree was happy in such a sublimated way that the narrator has to editorialize to us that “the tree was happy.” The problem is that this fiat happiness also speaks to a moral dictum. It really says “the tree was happy, and this is good.” So, this leads to another dangerous lesson in “The Giving Tree,” which is that if you have something beloved, then you should not deny your beloved’s requests, regardless of how this seems to impact you, and you should feel happy.

Okay…well, what if you’re the sort of child who, by the time you encounter “The Giving Tree,” are already establishing a bit of critical thought? Perhaps you look at the boy and don’t see malicious selfishness, except maybe when he wants a boat. I mean, people need things like shelter and warmth and money (apples don’t buy much, so the kid couldn’t have wealth, evidenced by the fact that he also lives in the paltry shelter tree branches provide); they’re not unreasonable human goals. So, another lesson to take away is that, even if your needs seem reasonable, they’re hurting something you once found beloved, even if they say they seem happy. So, you learn from “The Giving Tree” to not ask your beloveds for anything because you must protect them from the hurt you are actually doing.

Or maybe you’re a child who is able to take critical distance from the tree, and you see that it is often sad without its beloved, only becoming briefly happy when it contributes to its own destruction by satisfying the requests of fulfillment for its beloved. But, we are told “the tree was happy” at every repetition of it, and because of the cultural context in which “The Giving Tree” was written, there’s a fair chance that reinforcement of “selfless love” is already going around, and you can easily learn the lesson that you should not trust feelings of quiet inner happiness in relationships because they mask the very obvious harm you’re doing to yourself.

And maybe if you get told in a poorly mediated way that this is about a child and a parent…usually from parents. Then you might learn that you’re destroying your parents, that if you become a parent you will be destroyed in exchange for the rationalization that “you were happy” about it, that selfless love is exploitative, and that you should genuinely fear love and make your own way trying very hard to have as little to do with others as possible.

There are even some other lessons waiting out-of-band. What if your beloved remembers some wonderful time of play and companionship that you never experienced? Should you feel obliged to that disparity to make your beloved happy? If the tree is a parent, but you don’t connect with your own parents, and they don’t understand but feel sad, do you owe them their mental image of their child?

There are so many ways that intelligent adults see this book. They range from the personal to the religious to the economic to the political to the environmental. That’s a testament to its ambiguity. Using it as a lesson, therefore, makes it incumbent on the teacher to not expect the story to teach a lesson but instead to use the story as a tool for teaching a lesson that’s outside the story. The lesson is in the mediation; it speaks to the relationship the storyteller has with the audience. Possibly the most risky thing to do is presume “The Giving Tree” has a single lesson, or that a lesson a child takes from it will be a helpful one. But it can be a bonding moment for someone willing to hold responsibility for the exploration that ensues.

Because, seriously, I took away from it that love is painful and awful and exploitative, and that the adults around me were completely nuts for not seeing it.

How to spot bad motivational advice

There’s a somewhat popular Internet meme known as “drunksperation.”  This juxtaposes the copy from fitness inspiration posters and memes with images of people in the throes of drink.  Of course, there was a time when I used to push myself with these “go harder or you’re faking it” slogans, which is why I think they’re hilarious.

An example from the linked article:

But the implicit humor in drunksperation actually hinges on just how poor the advice actually is at creating and maintaining the mentality that’s conducive to a lifestyle of good fitness and general self-care.  Yes, it is true that you sometimes inspire yourself by pulling on a fantasy of your own goals, but it’s really important to understand that your inspiring fantasy is your tool, and if it’s a tool to diminish personal agency or self-worth…then, at the end of the day, you’re just kicking yourself.

The semiotics of a fitness inspiration image “work” because the picture is always of some athlete in the struggles of training, something culture generally ascribes as “good,” despite the fact that the pursuit of extreme fitness can lead to all sorts of serious physical punishments to one’s body.  By substituting an image which shows a person punishing his/her body in a way assigned as bad, indulgent, and lazy, it becomes easier to see the damaging self-narrative the advice text is trying to instill.

Which is why, when I see pieces of advice, I will imagine them as text on a “drunksperation” meme image and see if I still feel like they’re good advice.  If the advice is encouraging a damaging self-narrative, then the “drunksperation” will read as funny, because few of us really want to advocate for alcoholism.  If the advice doesn’t, then it can actually make a “drunksperation” that encourages drinking in moderation.

The thing is, this can be really, really insidious and indirect, and it’s not necessarily the fault of people who make the statement.  The kind of psychological context for self-damaging narratives hiding as advice comes from broader culture.  We’re all standing in it.

But, for example, take this piece of work/life advice from Cathy Wang.

Working hard for something you don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something you love is called passion.

And now, let’s juxtapose it with a man collapsing after too many drinks:

It’s funny, and parsing out why is something I’ll leave for the reader to consider.  This isn’t to say that the ideas underlying it are bad, or that someone who believes this is bad.  What it does mean, though, is that seeing a friend killing him/herself slowly in the name of “passion” is an incomplete idea that requires a context of self-care.

As a dare to the reader, think about the things you tell yourself to push yourself, and then imagine them in a meme like this.  See if you’d still stand behind them, or if they need attenuation.

And thanks to Jonathan Korman for coining this as “Rhett’s Law.”

Michael Sam, Football, and Privacy

Elsewhere on the Internet, some people were discussing the reaction to queer athlete Michael Sam‘s kiss with his partner upon receiving the news that he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams.  The comparison was made to public mockery of (and NCAA rule changes constraining) the displays of religiosity made by former quarterback Tim Tebow.  The claim, of course, is that everyone’s quick to kick Tebow’s Christianity but the “PC police” will leap on anyone who criticizes Sam behaving like a normal person who has a same-sex partner.

There are so many angles to attack that comparison from, but so many other people have covered the faux-oppression of Christians, differentials of social power in society, etc, etc.  I wanted to capture my contribution to the conversation, which is about how Tebow’s behavior is quite separate from Sam’s.

A football stadium is a place of public accommodation and public performance. So, when you go out on the field and perform your religion there, you are voluntarily dragging a private thing (your religion) into public view (a football game). You are putting yourself up for commentary, and despite people thinking Tebow’s performances deserved a little mockery, the number of people who’ve publicly said that Tebow’s religiosity would be a “distraction” or preclude his ability to play are actually fairly few.

Now, by comparison, your home absolutely is not a place of public accommodation and performance. Football fans and the industry which panders to them, however, have decided it’s really, really important to send camera crews into those private places so that they can capture the emotions and behavior of potential football players on draft day. And let’s be clear about something– that’s voyeurism in its most raw and pure form. It’s not enough to cover the public announcement of the players selected. The raw voyeurism of football fans is so profitable that prospects are expected to surrender their privacy during the draft.

In fact, had Sam not done the expected thing of allowing at least a small TV crew in, then the sporting press would have asked questions about why he didn’t. Was he sure he wouldn’t be drafted? Oh, the gay athlete isn’t all that good, we’re just focusing on him because he’s gay. Maybe he’s hiding something. You never know, because he’s gay and that’s still kinda scandalous or something.

So, he played it straight (no pun intended) and did his job to satisfy the voyeurism of his audiences and let a camera crew in just in case he got a call. And then he did, and they showed him doing what every other athlete does when they get the call — kissing the person he loves.

This isn’t just about bigotry. It’s also about the self-entitled voyeurism of an audience and an industry that knows they can make money off of it. I love sports, and I understand that sports are a chance for fans to feel connected to glory we won’t ourselves experience. But it should still be enough to wake up in the morning and see the draft results in the paper, see a favorite college ball player got picked, and think about how nice it’ll be to see them in the NFL next season. Nobody has a right to players’ private lives, and if you do want to shove a camera in them, well, you surrender all rights to your “just play the game” complaints.

New For 2014

The new year brings with it the tradition of making goals for oneself, and it’s a tradition I uphold.  I actually believe in setting goals for oneself perpetually, but some goals take a little more force to them or are designed to have a serious change to one’s personal narrative, and it often helps to add the boost of tradition to them.

So, without a ton of ado, here are my new goals for 2014…

  1. Focus on spending good time with my wife.  It’s been easy in 2013 for the two of us to get distracted and focus on work and other things, and I want to help make sure we’re also focusing on us.  Maybe, if I’m lucky, we can find a shared hobby we like.
  2. No more writing about Paganism, at least for 2014.  I haven’t done a ton of it in the past, but my two articles on being a Pagan and an atheist brought me a little bit too close to the fire of the Pagan blogosphere.  This has coincided with watching loved ones of mine stand even closer to that fire and for longer.  It drains them and it drains me, and I’ve seen nothing but unproductive drama come from it, and I thus have some complicated feelings about the Pagan blogosphere in general.  This kinda breaks my heart a bit, because I do receive emails from young Pagans who have been encouraged to be authentic in their atheism and skepticism through my writings, and I’m glad I could offer a missing voice of comfort.  But, ultimately, I can’t live a productive and authentic 2014 if I allow myself to be concerned at all with the empty drama of the Pagan blogosphere, so I have to do it for me.  If one of my writings on tea ends up in there somehow, though, I’ll support it, because of my next resolution…
  3. More writing here in general, though, especially about my tea ceremony studies.  Looking back, I never wrote a post discussing my first experiences switching from the furo (brazier / summer) season to the ro (hearth / winter) season.  There are some practical reasons why, but I’m sad that I missed it, so I should just write here more in general.  Things that deserve a long-form treatment in my life, especially things like my work in tech, my glass art, etc, these things all kinda have fallen through.  For a blog called “Engineer, Athlete, and Atheist Pagan,” I sure short on the “Engineer” and “Athlete” part.
  4. Build better data on my exercise regimen.  I recently acquired a heavy bag for my home gym as a way to get in make-up sessions when I missed time at the boxing gym.  Since then, I’ve been doing more home workouts and fewer gym workouts.  I’m starting to realize that quitting that gym would make my workday better, mean more home gym time with my wife, save money, and possibly leave room in the week for even more activity.  I need to be more flexible in general where my exercise is concerned, but I don’t know what ways my different activities contribute to my overall fitness.  So, I really need to start building better data.  This most likely means getting some sort of body monitor device.
  5. Take a selfie every day.  Yeah, go ahead and snicker, but this resolution actually was motivated by seeing this excellent video by Laci Green.  I’m not going to go over the top about the world-changing potential of selfies.  I will, however, say that I actually struggle a lot with self-image and self-worth issues and I often feel sad that I haven’t documented my life as well as I could.  Taking a selfie every day would probably make for an interesting journey.  And, why not?  This is what personal experimentation is for, and various pundits’ clever grumbling about a “culture of narcissism” don’t sway me much.
  6. Get back in the glass studio.  I’ve seriously slacked off since I finished the main series of classes.  Without a new class to motivate me, I’ve not kept up my skills like I should.  But, there’s a class for an advanced technique called incalmo coming up in the spring, so I need to email my teacher and get myself back in good order.
  7. Go surfing once a month.  I have two great boards, and I suck with both of them because I don’t make the time to go be in the ocean…and I love being in the ocean.  I’m always letting something get in the way, and I think a good step would be to just get myself out even once a month.

Yeah, it’s a pretty frivolous list, but some years just come out that way.  I don’t have a big financial or fitness goal, but I do have some quality of life work to take on.  That’s actually been in response to a very real summation of my 2013, which is that I have become pretty professionally developed, had fitness improvements, and had a healthy bottom line, but my week-by-week life has been grinding and I have put off a lot of “me things” so much that they got put off indefinitely.

And, hey, fun and productivity are connected as far as I’m concerned.

Left-handedness, Tea, and Being a Beginner

An ongoing arc in my tea ceremony lessons is my left-handedness.  Tea ceremony was developed by the right-handed and for the right-handed, and the mechanics essentially cannot be taught correctly in reverse.  Even though one could theoretically invert the room and its layout and the utensils and their layout, refining one’s motions is still a practiced and “oral” tradition, and your sensei is likely to be right-handed.  Your guests are likely to be right-handed, and reversing everything would not benefit your guests, which would defeat the entire point.

Of course, like most southpaws, I have learned to adapt to a right-handed world quite a bit.  In fact, tea is not the only pursuit of mine with a handedness requirement.  Glass blowing carries a similar requirement, for example.  I play guitar right-handed, and I have lost any concept of handedness where some sports are concerned.

What keeps the arc alive is the interest sensei shows in my handedness.  I think that perhaps I may be her first serious student who is left-handed, but I cannot be completely sure.  She has, for example, gone back to the mizuya (the “water room,” where utensils are washed and prepared) and whisked tea with her left hand to experience the awkwardness and have empathy for working with your non-dominant hand.  She often asks what I find challenging in using my right hand and in experiencing a left-handed person’s perspective.  Often, the things she predicts to be challenges are not so bad, but other aspects of the procedures need different attention.  Fast motions like whisking the tea are not so bad, nor are large motions like handling the bowl.  What is the most challenging are things requiring precise finger placement and things which rely on good proprioception of my fingers, and sensei has taken to teaching that kinesthetically, by setting the finger positions right herself and letting me feel what “correct” is.

All of this reminds me of something I do when I instruct people at curling clinics.  It’s a little bit of folklore I picked up from the other instructors.  Before the students join me on the ice, I throw a curling stone using my non-dominant side.  The reason why is because, week after week, I have developed muscle memory for my dominant side so that I can focus my mind on my aim or on getting the velocity just right.  It’s been 18 months since I was awkward, but my students are going to all be awkward and need encouragement while they do this very strange and new thing.  One very easy way to return to that place of being a complete, awkward beginner is to simply use your non-dominant hand or foot for everything.  It brings back those feelings of mild alarm, of nothing feeling correct or in place, of doing something embarrassing.  It also, hopefully, is a reminder of that feeling of optimism, of feeling that you know you can become graceful if you can simply knock some of the rough corners off yourself, of knowing you just need someone to laugh with you and show you that they know what you’re feeling and that what you’re feeling doesn’t have to be scary.  Really, that’s how I see a teacher’s or coach’s first step in reaching a student.  It’s funny how you can do all of that by just switching hands.

What The Eyes Say

There is a moment in tea ceremony, after all the tools are in their place, for the host to take a moment and mentally center him/herself before proceeding to purify the tools and make tea.  The very first time I practiced temae (the tea procedure), I took what was meant to be a deep, slow breath, but which came across as a loud, nervous sigh, to the laughter of everyone in the room.  Determined to not repeat that at future lessons, at the next lesson, I took the opportunity to ground and center in a way most people of Pagan background would, by closing my eyes and drawing that nervous energy into a calm center.

Sensei stopped me.

“Rhett, please do not close your eyes when you stop to compose yourself.  I know many people do this to bring calm, but when you close your eyes, you’re shutting out the world for a moment.  Shutting out the world means shutting out the room and the guests, when connecting with your guests and showing your care for them is the reason for sharing tea.  Do not separate yourself from your guests by becoming separate from them, even for a moment.”

I have, since then, been acutely aware of the closing of eyes in a ritual environment.  It’s an incredibly common part of many Pagan rituals and a generally accepted part of prayer and even for secular moments of silence.  Yet, what if, in times when people are coming together for ritual or prayer, they are actually instead taking time to shut one another out and be in their own worlds?  How would people differently experience acts of community ritual (of all kinds) if they never, except to blink, closed their eyes?

Welcome, New Readers!

If you’ve stopped by my blog today (March 31, 2013) or shortly thereafter, there’s a good chance you’ve found me via my post at Humanistic Paganism.  Welcome!  I was actually rather surprised by the warm reception that my prior post, “Care and Feeding of Your Atheist Pagan“, received, especially in light of how prior posts about atheism and Paganism hadn’t had the same traction.  I am, however, quite proud to know I’ve contribute meaningfully to the community, and I’m glad to see an emerging tolerance for my sort of perspective.  The post was actually roughly two years in the making, and was based on my own experiences being out as an atheist among my Pagan colleagues.  All of the different points I raised actually came from experiences I’d had, often more than once, with close friends and colleagues.

Many people are really surprised to know that I spent two years editing that article in an “on-again-off-again” fashion, but sometimes it takes a while to find the right way to express yourself.  In fact, a major challenge in editing the piece was to produce something that spent more time speaking for my perspective than criticizing others.  It’s very easy to write a critical blog post, but writing something from the heart that really speaks for your wishes, your perspective, and your side takes a lot of time and effort, and many times, I would edit out one form of criticism only to find I’d criticized something else in the process.

I hope that perhaps you’ll consider adding this blog to your aggregator or visiting somewhat often.  If you look through older posts, you’ll find it to be more of a general “posts about life” format, but I do intend to make this a venue for posting about more personal topics than I have in the past.  In fact, if it weren’t the wee hours of the morning when I write this, I’d be working on a post about tea ceremony (a favorite subject of mine) and what lessons I think it might offer modern Pagans.

Consider that last paragraph a teaser for the post.  Thanks for stopping by.  I hope we can be friends.

Bike Party and the Stupidity of Crowds

Tonight, I had the pleasure of attending the 90s Dance Party Ride, the February ride organized by East Bay Bike Party.  This is the first Bike Party ride I’ve attended since I moved to Oakland, and, to be honest, I wasn’t a frequent rider at its South Bay sister, though South Bay Bike Party did sponsor a number of events that were incredibly helpful to my training in 2009.

There’s so much I want to like about the Bike Party concept.  Large, visible rides…even those that slightly inconvenience automobile traffic…are a critical aspect of bicycle awareness.  Bike Party achieves these rides without resorting to the aggressive “biketivism” that has become associated with Critical Mass.  Rather than being out to change the world, Bike Party is out to have a party.  I think there’s a great demonstration made in a bunch of cyclists (who have a right to the road) getting out, going on a ride like they belong there, and using various public and semi-public places to stage short parties.  I think it not only emboldens cyclists to take the road and to remember that public spaces belong to them, it also sends a message to those who watch Bike Party that you don’t need permission to organize, move, and assemble.  These are noble goals in social consciousness and they center around promoting a mode of transport that more people should adopt.

So, why am I not out there every month?  Well, it’s because somehow Bike Party attracts a kind of stupidity that I can only consider to be a little dangerous, and it always leaves me feeling a bit ambivalent.  Every Bike Party ride I’ve ever attended has seen some good contenders for a Darwin Award.  On one occasion, it was someone showing off his bike’s suspension by seeing how long he could ride in the middle of the Caltrain tracks (answer– 30 yards before flipping).  On another, it was someone trying to grab a lost bike chain off the ground…while in motion…while turning left…in a busy intersection.  On another, it was a fixie rider blowing through a stop sign.  Tonight was a particularly spectacular case because it involved bad ideas from multiple parties.

The first player in this ballet of bad ideas was actually a duo.  Someone had rigged a long-base trailer to his bike, but instead of hauling cargo on it, he was hauling a passenger.  I actually thought it was kinda clever at first…seeing some guy sitting down backwards on a bike trailer.  I hadn’t considered that being physically unprotected only inches from the road might be a bad idea.  Like a chemical reaction screaming for a catalyst, the bike and passenger were themselves perfectly fine and safe on their own.  But, of course, this is Bike Party.  Ask, and you shall receive…

And, in fact, someone came tearing down the oncoming traffic lane on his BMX bike, attempted to pull a tight turn into the moving pack of bikes, and crashed sideways into the bike right at its trailer hitch.  The riders of both bikes took nasty spills, as did the trailer passenger.  The trailer’s frame cracked apart from the stress of the impact.  The instigator of the crash (the guy on the BMX bike) was trying to play this off as “shit happens,” and the guy on the trailer bike was having none of that.  Things were close to coming to blows.  I helped the trailer passenger to the side of the road and tried to find out his condition, but he was strangely slow and confused in his responses.  I don’t suspect a head injury, because I’d yelled to him several times while he was on the bike and was also not responsive.  So, honestly, I suspect he was either very drunk or very high.  I also suspect the BMX rider might not have been wholly sober, but I base that only on reckless behavior and the tendency of many Bike Party riders to have a beer before they hit the road.

This makes me really wonder about the effect of a crowd and a seemingly liberated environment on people.  Part of the group ride experience is the sense that you’re in a pack of bikes large enough that you can feel safe and even feel empowered on the streets.  One bike has to dodge cars.  Twenty bikes is something for the car to deal with instead.  And so, despite the fact that Bike Party posts, and desperately tries to enforce, rules for a safe ride, I see them casually broken.  Bikes filling all the lanes.  Bikes in oncoming lanes.  Bikes running through lights.  Texting while riding.  Drinking while riding.  Riding drunk.  Riding high.  Riding dangerous or with dangerous equipment.  Pulling tricks in traffic or crowds.  I’ve seen all these things, and I’ve been at a total of four Bike Party rides.  The power of festival is that it suspends the rules temporarily, letting people explore an environment from a new, and sometimes forbidden, perspective.  But some of those rules exist so that you don’t break your ribs, and sadly, in these leaderless or semi-leaderless festival spaces, the poor choices of some end up injuring others or breaking property.

Worse than the sense of safety and liberation is likely the “he did it first” mentality.  You see this sort of thing often at red lights.  Rather than wait through a red light, someone plows through it and safely crosses.  This causes some others to try, and since they’re now in the intersection, several more people will believe they’re “running blocking” for them and also go.  Soon, an entire pack is crossing against the light because it becomes less safe to stop in the middle of the pack than to cross against the light.  In this way, bad thinking spreads until a much larger group is now doing it.

What’s unfortunate is that there is no effective solution to this problem.  The “leaders” of a Bike Party can’t really sanction anyone.  They desperately encourage others to be responsible and follow the rules of the road, but they aren’t listened to.  This isn’t a formal group…it’s just a spontaneous gathering of people…and so there’s no way that anyone can do anything about bad behavior other than to take matters in their own hands.  This property of spontaneously arising rather than being organized is simultaneously the group’s biggest strength and its biggest weakness.

And, indeed, this is a metaphor that can be applied to groups with roughly similar structures.  This includes Anonymous and Occupy Oakland.

Let Me Tell You About Oakland

Oakland.  This is my city.  Really.  I own a home here.  I pay my property taxes here.  I have come to see the parts of my life spent in Tampa and South Florida as just “training wheels” for this city.  In a lot of ways, it’s where I’ve been practicing to live.  It is, culturally, my city.  There’s no doubt about it.  In the East Bay, people just do everything harder.  If Detroit and San Francisco had a lovechild, it’d come out like Oakland, and it’d be every bit the angry, ignored punk that Oakland is.

We have, of course, recently made news over our Occupy Oakland commune, which I have gladly supported for a mixture of reasons.  The latest headline is the shooting which happened near a BART station entrance just outside the camp.  The police investigation will, ultimately, get to the how and why of it, and hopefully it will yield a suspect.  I’m not interested in having the speculative back-and-forth about Occupy Oakland’s role in the shooting.  It wouldn’t surprise me if both the shooter and the victim had spent a few nights in the camp, though.  More on that in a second.

What I really want to impress, however, is how this is the sad normalcy for Oakland.  The shooting was homicide #101 for the year.  If you do the math, that’s nearly 10 homicides per month (we’ve fallen behind the average in November).  I had hoped to use a Crimespotting map to show you the year’s homicides, but it looks like their system has a hard time mapping a whole year.  Instead, I’d like to show you the map of homicides, aggravated assaults, and narcotics arrests for September 2011.  I added narcotics not because I have a moral objection to drugs but because, like it or not, the illicit drug trade does tend to provide a geographic anchor for other forms of crime, both as a function of the trade “defending its turf” and as a function of the desperation and out-of-control behavior that drug abuse and addiction bring with them.  Just for the heck of it, I cooked up this map for San Francisco for the same month.  Kindly note that I actually had to add violent robberies to the map just to put enough red dots on the map to show the geographic overlap easy.  The difference in violence between Oakland and San Francisco is enough that I added more crimes to San Francisco’s map just to help show the point.

You might also rightly note that violent crime in Oakland seems to not geographically cluster in Oakland like it does in San Francisco.  You’d be right.  Note that narcotics in Oakland don’t really geographically cluster, either.  Rather, drug crime and violent crime in Oakland are basically kept in check in the Temescal district, the Rockridge district and various affluent areas in the hills outlying.  The rest of Oakland, however, has been, essentially, ceded.  It’s a nice, even distribution of dope and violence, mostly in the slightly denser regions of the city.  East and West Oakland get it worst, but essentially, outside of Temescal, Rockridge and the hills, it’s everywhere.  This is very, very different from San Francisco, where there’s a hub of trouble…the typical “bad part of town.”

This underscores the experience of most Oaklanders I know.  For the record, I live in the San Pablo/Golden Gate district, not quite in “Oakland proper” but not quite in Rockridge or Temescal.  You might consider it a “frontier” zone into the more peaceful and affluent areas.  Since moving here in March, there have been three reported shootings in my immediate neighborhood, including one brutal homicide.  The neighborhood association email list is frequently used for discussion of local gunfire.  Every week, one of us directly sees a violent crime of some form.  Extended conversations have taken place regarding how to take action on our rash of burglary, which the Oakland Police Department are powerless to handle.  We all know which parts of which blocks are the rough ones, and 50 yards is often all that separates your peaceful home from a violent one.  We’ve even considered trying to pay for private security patrols.  There is a single emotional current that underscores the mix of paranoia and dejection I see in my neighbors — deep down, we all sincerely believe that nobody is capable of keeping our streets safe.

Keep in mind that I am describing the experiences of people living in a residential neighborhood in a relatively peaceful part of the city.  I’m not describing life in the more universally working class areas of West and East Oakland.  I’m also getting to enjoy this reportage from the vantage point of being pretty white and pretty privileged.  I recently heard, at a City Council meeting, that young African American men in Oakland have chance of meeting a violent death comparable to a US soldier on tour in Afghanistan.  Any conversation about race in Oakland can’t fit inside a blog post, but I still want to acknowledge the reality and drive home the point that I am, in fact, speaking from a much nicer position than a lot of people in Oakland.

This brings around my ultimate feelings about the recent shooting.  That someone was shot and killed in downtown draws no shock from me.  It’s tragic.  They’re all tragic.  There was a homicide in East Oakland that same week, and that was tragic, too.  The only thing that seems to make it feel noteworthy is that it didn’t happen a little closer to the 19th St BART station, because that’s a bit more of a hotspot for dealing and violence.  And, at that, only a bit.

If the victim and shooter were both found to have made use of the facilities at the Occupy Oakland camp, I also wouldn’t be surprised.  Why?  My experience, having visited the camp several times, is that a strong nucleus of the camp’s community is comprised of the city’s homeless.  Occupy Oakland is offering them something better than the lives they were living…there’s hot food, a bit of a home for yourself, and a chance to participate in a democracy.  So, they cling to it rather than to ongoing homelessness or the city’s taxed shelter system.  With the homeless come the social problems surrounding homelessness, and drug abuse and violence are definitely on that list.  The camp is a permeable community…people come and go from it all the time.  The question of violence among the city’s marginalized, particularly when there’s no strong geographic trends in our violent crime, was just one of time.

At best, you can call this a result of Occupy Oakland and not the fault of Occupy Oakland.  The fact is that this crime would have been considered second-rate news otherwise.  Like I said…few can name the other murder victim from that week.  How about the 100 who died already this year?  But, finally, the background noise of crime in Oakland is happening somewhere where we all have to talk about it.

This, ultimately, is why I continue my support for Occupy Oakland.  I have no illusions that the commune in downtown will somehow cause an important national revolution.  I am not even sure the Occupy movement is a vehicle for action, though it is certainly a vehicle for bringing light to grievances.  I don’t really even know that anything can be done at the city level to address the core complaints of the Occupy movement.  I’m no longer an earnest twenty-something, and I am not going to quickly buy big ideas about changing the world.

Occupy Oakland is doing something important in Oakland anyway.  It’s being a powerful irritant.  Oakland is a city with very long-lived and deep-seated social problems.  We have a city government with no good ideas about how to improve the city, so they instead turn to the old saw of courting industry to move in and “make jobs” (which hostages them to private interests).  We have a mayor who, like many mayors before, can’t pick a direction and take it.  Our redevelopment efforts drank the mid-2000s Kool-Aid and promptly died in the financial crash, making our downtown eerily empty and filled with a background static of crime and homelessness.  We have a police department who have so thoroughly alienated the public that they are seen a necessary evil…like a bully you bribe for protection.  Worst of all, though, is that Oakland carries with it a spirit of desperation…of wanting to hold on and hope…that creates a culture of deferring our real problems.  As long as the homelessness and crime stays scattered enough that it can be put out-of-mind for another day/week/year, then maybe, this time, business as usual will work.

This is where Occupy Oakland has created the biggest irritation.  They have, simply by existing, forced a public conversation about Oakland’s problems, including the institutional tendency to kick the can down the road.  Because of the homeless population in the camp, attempts at dispersing it, unless completely brutal, will only be a temporary measure that will, at best, move the camp to some nearby location.  Occupy Oakland has likewise demonstrated its ability to execute a significant public action if it wants to and thus shows the risks of angering the Oakland public.  This makes brutal police tactics a very costly thing, and I believe this makes the camp incredibly difficult to move.    Because the city chose to lead with a violent police action, Occupy Oakland no longer trusts the city (and why should they), making any potential negotiation nearly impossible.

This, ultimately, makes it difficult to just sweep everything on the rug and get back to business as usual.  I have no doubt that the camp is hurting the incomes of a number of businesses downtown, which is pushing them to demand the city council take action against the camp.  The city council has a genie that’s very difficult to put back in its bottle, and while this plays out, everyone in Oakland, from those who blame the camp to those who support the came, has something to complain about.  What they’re all complaining about is, essentially, the same thing– that our city is too weak to deal with the problems that make Occupy Oakland manifest in the first place, and nobody knows how to fix it.  As long as the camps exist, they require that we, as a city, address our real problems.

Ultimately, this is why I have supported Occupy Oakland, mostly through material donations and through volunteering a little bit of my time.  It’s not to advance broad economic justice (though that’s important to me).  It’s because I live in Oakland, I see the problems with Oakland, and I demand that they be considered as real problems and not just something to defer while the city council lures in some jobs with a tax break.  We can’t just consider our unemployment, homelessness, and crime to be things that are fixed by some gentrification downtown (even if this has been the pet project of multiple administrations).  Oakland has a 16% unemployment rate.  Bringing in some commercial real estate deals doesn’t fix that.  It also doesn’t fix the police’s estrangement from the community, the crime problem, or the racial animosities that simmer beneath the surface.

And, for the record, I don’t personally have amazing solutions to this problem.  I live in a representative democracy, where we hire people to solve the problems.  What I want is that my hired officials actually admit the real problem and lead the public process to addressing it.  Occupy Oakland’s existence keeps the chips on the table.  That’s why I want it there.

Police beatdown or peaceful community growth, nobody does it like the East Bay.  All in.

On Creativity

I have a confession to make.  For most of my life, I have really not identified as being a creative person.  This might seem like a funny idea if you know me, because I do tend to generate some rather off-the-wall notions, but I generally haven’t really seen myself as someone who creates new, novel, and beautiful things.  I barely even identify as being inventive, since I feel like I still haven’t really generated the sort of amazing ideas that I might be proud to pitch for a start-up.  In a practical sense, I do make tactical solutions to problems, but I generally haven’t been the sort to solve problems people don’t yet know they have.

What’s particularly funny about this is that I do get praise for things like my cooking.  I do have a distinctive style when I cook and it continues to evolve as I gain more life experience, but I’ve never really considered my cooking a creative process.  Some of this, I suspect has to do with the fact that I’ve been cooking for myself since I was old enough to pull a step stool up to the stove, and so I regard cooking the way I regard reading or programming a computer– I have to strain to find a memory in my life where I didn’t already have these skills.  When you don’t know that you’re applying a skill, it’s hard to appreciate that you’re doing it.

But there’s actually a broader reason why I haven’t identified as creative, and that reason is because I have, for most of my life, bought into a series of cultural myths about what creativity is.  These have actually been heavily reinforced by the artistic skills which I was formally taught.  These are ideas about creativity which pervade modern American culture, which are reinforced by our telling of history, which are at odds with much historical fact, and which most people (myself included) unwittingly reinforce on a daily basis.  I’d like to go over a couple of these.

“Creativity is the process of generating some immaterial inspiration and translating it into a physical artifact which is wholly unique from all others.”  This has got to be the biggest and the most culturally destructive.  I think that this myth is repeated above all others in no small part because it pleases the artists most when they say it.  It also is partially true.  Someone well seasoned in an artistic skill will, once in a while, have some great vision and charge forth on it.  It’s happened to me– I once cooked a multi-course feast because the smell of a lemon gave me a vision of a feast on the coast of Northern Morocco.  Moments like these are incredible “flow” experiences, and so they become cherished and repeated.  But to say that this is the backbone of the creative process is like saying that earning hat tricks is the backbone of playing hockey.  Most athletes get their cherished peak moments on nights when all their lifelong-honed skills converge with a little good luck.  Most artists, I now realize, are the same way.  The difference is that people see the grind of the athletes because they play in public; an artist’s grind is more concealed, found only in archives of their notebooks and home recordings (if ever).

The second part of the myth is the notion of originality.  This is actually the part everyone repeats, and I daresay it enforces the first part of the myth.  Basically, this argues that anything which is a copy is wrong.  In some respects, I think this may be an outgrowth of our cultural feelings about plagiarism, but it is, at some level, overgrown and selective.  If I were, for example, to write a song which heavily borrows riffs from Iron and Wine, someone would tell me I was unoriginal.  If I prepared a dinner that borrowed significantly from Jacques Pepin, I will be praised for presenting a meal that is “faithful to the classics.”  So, of course, I have more cultural room to develop as a chef than I do as a songwriter, because faithfully copying a master is not criticized in cooking.

Copying, however, is essential to all learning, including in one’s artistic skills.  This is why the early and late phases of many artists’ careers look so different.  Consider, for example, The Beatles, whose early career sounded completely indistinguishable from much of the other early rock music.  Great painters like Picasso began within an established artistic milieu and slowly developed outward over time.  Even great inventors didn’t invent in a vacuum; many times they were part of a community that were all collectively attempting to invent a now-famous artifact.  The insistence on complete originality is purely a post facto rationalization generated by an artist or that artist’s representative.  It builds legends, gratifies egos, and enforces some space of the medium as someone’s “turf.”  It also happens to be a very expedient lie.

The lie happens to be a destructive one, too, because it discourages others from getting started.  Remember…when you get started, you basically have to copy.  If you’re learning an artistic skill, and you don’t think you’re copying someone or something else, it’s only because what your copying has been declared by our culture to be part of the “artistic commons.”  Whether it’s drawing a sphere with shading, sculpting a basic human form, knitting in two colors, or making duck confit, odds are you’re copying a technique someone developed long before you, but nobody makes you feel guilty for this because nobody is claiming ownership of the technique and shaming others for using it.  Yet the charge to “be original” is strong.  It is, perhaps, strongest with those who’ve been the greatest aficionados of a medium.  Music fans become musicians; art fans become artists.

And so, the enforcers of the myth now face the challenge of giving up that myth when it runs into the reality that creativity relies on a foundation of mimicking one’s role models.  It’s only after a massive backlog of works that the budding creative builds up the ability to start recombining those influences into something different.  Yet the talented aficionado is a talented critic.  As Ira Glass would say, you get into creative pursuits because you have good taste.  Skilled criticism and “good taste,” however, is the creative pursuit of mythologizing artists and their works; they, sadly, serve as a hindrance to becoming an artist, because it’s only after a lot of mimicry and “being derivative” that you have a vocabulary with which to build something different.

This leads to another part of that big myth, which is something I’ve been encountering since my childhood training in music– the idea that the creative process seamlessly moves from inspiration to execution.  You hear all these stories about famous composers writing music despite being deaf or great painters or artists sitting down to make a masterpiece in one go.  The process of developing the techniques that went into these creations, however, was a fluid and improvisational one.  Often, they come about while trying to recover from a mistake.  This is, in fact, at the core of the creative process, and it’s possibly the most relevant to a budding creative– making a lot of pieces and screwing up a lot until your brain builds a back catalog of techniques for coping with your mistakes.  Giving up the goal of technical precision at all steps leaves room for the result to stop being a function of constrained ideas and become something that arises in the moment.

This is not to say that technical precision isn’t desirable; on the contrary, it is an ultimate goal.  You cannot make something to order without technical precision.  You can’t get started on a creative improvisation without a basis of technical precision, either.  Any artist you think of as “great” has a fairly high degree of technical precision and mastery of tools and techniques.  But technical prowess should not be confused with creativity.  In fact, it is a sort of tool in the creative process, which lets you slide in and out of improvisation…

Technical skill is one of the consolations of the artist, just as grammar and syntax are the writer’s consolation.  It requires no imaginative powers, no creativity; it is just the right way of doing things.  It can provide a formidable rest, allowing one legitimately to postpone or disengage from the uncertain encounter with creative forces. –Roger Lipsey

It’s the fusion between a growing technical skill base and a willingness to engage with mistakes and odd turns in the production process, that ultimately leads to discovery.  This is a realization I only recently came to while working on my glass blowing.  I was attempting to stretch out a glass bubble for a bottle, only to end up making a holy mess of things.  In doing so, though, I challenged myself to find a way to some kind of completed work, and I ultimately ended up making an amazing ornament for my efforts.  Along the way, I learned a lot about making glass ornament caps in larger sizes and developed sculptural techniques I’d put off.

Don’t keep score based on your masterpieces; keep score based on your successful “saves.”

The cult of technical prowess is something I was taught at an early age when I took up the flute.  Most children are taught an instrument through classical training, which emphasizes the ability to read sheet music and perform under the direction of a conductor.  This is perfectly understandable, because classical training fits into a school classroom well and gets the kids playing together as a group.  It does, however, leave huge gaps in one’s musical skill base (which are often not filled in until college, if ever).  More importantly, if my informal chit-chat with other former band geeks is reliable, it leaves a significant deficit in understanding the creative process of music.  Specifically, years of being subservient to a conductor and composer creates the impression that being a creator of music will happen when you’re sufficiently good at your instrument, creating a “I’m not good enough to create” trap.  On the contrary, writing music isn’t about being a good instrumentalist…it’s an orthogonal set of skills and requires that you accept that pieces must be fiddled with until they happen, which playing completed works will never explain.

I was, at one point, getting disillusioned with my glass work because I was starting to develop technical competence but wasn’t “finding my voice,” and this is a direct result of thinking that creativity is just technical skill on overdrive.  I actually considered quitting, since I’d found yet another medium where I couldn’t create.  Since I’ve realized the source of my confusion, though, I’ve put aside time each week to have one piece where I do something absolutely crazy and new and then work to make it come together without breaking.  In so doing, I’ve come into the challenge of putting new skills and tricks into my arsenal, which I end up recombining into new things, and I’ve started to see my pieces get more and more interesting over time.

So, if you’re like me, your “inner critic” isn’t reciting that old saw about not being good enough to be creative.  No, it’s repeating concepts you’ve been using your whole life to mythologize the artists that you love.  While I do believe that a little mythologizing is great for one’s role models, it’s important to realize that these myths also aren’t the whole truth.  Creativity is not a function of being possessed of genius, rather it is an endless process of remixing from things you think are cool and worth copying combined with a willingness to improvise as you go along and see where things end up.

Creativity, ultimately, is process rather than product.  Products just fall out along the way, documenting the history of the process.