Oct 8, 2016

Happy Halloween! (Actually a post where I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to tackle the issue of cultural appropriation.)

I have been trying to wrap my head around the idea of cultural appropriation for a few Halloweens now (since that's when the controversy seems to come up the most often). I've read persuasive arguments on both sides, and I've tried to express my thoughts about it in the past, with little success. But here I am, undeterred, trying again. Happy Halloween!

Maybe it's because I don't have a particularly strong sense of my own cultural heritage (beyond really appreciating the German food my dead maternal grandmother used to make - throw a cinnamon stick into your chicken noodle soup the next time you make some), but I think that the idea of maintaining different cultures in our increasingly global society is inherently divisive and ultimately harmful, rather than accepting and inclusive. 

In my utopian vision, interracial relationships have created a world where it is impossible to ask anyone, "What are you?" Races, and therefore cultures, are so diluted that there is no single identifier of someone's background. I believe that when we can't immediately see an "other," we will be able to stop focusing on our differences and instead embrace the things we share as human beings.   

"Cultural appropriation of ceremonies and objects removes and distorts these traditions and things from their original contexts and into gross caricatures that are a slap in the face to the original practitioners of the ceremonies, with complete disregard for the history and present day reality of oppression" (https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/cultural-appreciation-or-cultural-appropriation).

Again, maybe it's because I don't have any particular religious affiliation, but I don't see anything as sacred, especially not physical objects. A symbol or artifact may be sacred to you, but that doesn't mean it has to have the same meaning for me, and for you to insist that it does seems egotistical. I don't think my lack of recognition should have any impact at all on how you view that same thing (your headdress, for example, or your crucifix, or your tattoo). I can respect your beliefs and customs without having to believe in them myself. A belief, by definition, is something in which you have faith or trust - it is not an absolute truth or a tangible thing. I can't take a belief away from you. (I'm not going to piss on a statue in the Vatican, but I'm also not going to bow my head and thank Jesus for his sacrifice.)   

Appropriating something can certainly change its meaning (hello, swastika), but I don't think that change itself is intrinsically negative. I believe in learning from the past, but not in being stuck there. Progress or perish (writes the girl without a cell phone). And, yes, maybe that's easy for me to say because I have not personally experienced cultural discrimination. We can never truly know what it is like to live in another person's skin, but that's what literature is for. I've read too many books with Jewish or black or indigenous protagonists to be able to flippantly say, "Get over it already," but I do think it is important to deal with past trauma and try to move forward in a positive way.   

I can't think of a single example of appropriation where one culture took something from another culture that they didn't find value in, either aesthetically or emotionally or spiritually or practically. Yoga, rap, beaded jewelry, rock and roll, dreadlocks, denim, tea, tapas - none of these things were popularized because other people thought they weren't worthwhile. 

"Once diverse cultural identities are stripped away, the only culture left to identify with is capitalist culture" (https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/cultural-appreciation-or-cultural-appropriation).

I have read arguments like the one above that suggest that it is the commodification of these culturally specific things that is the problem, the idea that the dominant culture is taking these things from the oppressed peoples and trivializing them by making them something to be bought and sold. Unfortunately, that is the world we live in now; materialism is unavoidable. But that doesn't mean that the appropriated things themselves are trivial, it doesn't negate their original (and still culturally important) meaning, and it certainly doesn't negate their worth to either originator or appropriator, even if those values are different. 

I know that oppression still exists in the world, but I also think that there is currently an unfortunate trend to see oppression where it does not exist, to impose a perspective that creates oppression rather than frees us from it, and that this trend is actually preventing us from moving forward as a global community. 

I don't think cultural identities will be "stripped away." I think they will become more diffuse, maybe, integrated, but I don't think that's bad. I think it will help the world in the end. As a united group of Earthlings, I wish we could take the things that are positive and beautiful and beneficial and reject cultural aspects that are violent or oppressive or antiquated. There is no culture that does not have both. 

(Who will decide which is which? Whoever has the biggest guns, I guess.)

So, since my utopian vision is unlikely to be realized anytime soon, in the meantime we should all try to be a little nicer to each other, to respect our differences, to try not to get too worked up when someone doesn't know everything about everything (learning is a process - remember that once you thought it was totally cool to sit in your own feces), and to realize that we're all pretty much the same when you scrape off the skin. 

Ah well, and riot on.    


Sep 29, 2016

Today is my birthday (2)

Today is my 43rd birthday, and it seems just as impossible to be 43 as it felt to be 42. (One year ago today, I wrote this: http://ahwellandrioton.blogspot.ca/2015/09/today-is-my-birthday_28.html)

I am conscious of the curse of turning 43: shortly after their 43rd birthdays, two of my peers experienced broken bones and the sudden understanding of mortality. Or, if not mortality, then at least the fragility of the aging human body, which ultimately amounts to the same thing. (They were both playing baseball, though, so I figure I'm pretty safe as long as I avoid that particular sport, but you never know with curses.)

As an aside, sometimes while I'm riding my bicycle, helmetless, down the bike lane on a busy street, I imagine myself hitting a rock or a slippery patch of dirt and falling into traffic, my head popping like a grape under the tires of a passing transport truck. I'm not sure why I shared that with you; birthdays make me morbid, I guess.

A few months ago, I came across this quote from Freud, that pervy old rascal: "If youth knew; if age could." Wise words, Sigmund. What a shitty thing it is that we can never possess the wisdom and confidence of age and the indestructibility of youth at the same time. (If we could, I would probably learn to surf. I'm too goddamn old to do it now. I have recently taken up painting, which, as hobbies go, seems infinitely safer. I'm far more unlikely to pull an arm muscle splattering paint onto a canvas in my garage than I am trying to haul my body up onto a board in the ocean. Unless I really get into it. You never know with 43...)

Let's face it: getting older is a drag. Still, I wouldn't trade places with 25-year-old me for anything. I've had some pretty remarkable experiences and met some pretty remarkable people over the years. And I honestly like myself (you should probably like yourself by the time you hit 43). I have learned that comparing ourselves to others is senseless, be it physically, intellectually, financially, socially, or any of the myriad other ways we create meaningless hierarchies in the world. We can only ever be ourselves, and, so long as we don't intentionally harm others, that is a pretty okay way to be.

Nothing really changes with the passing of time. Or maybe everything changes, but so imperceptibly that one hardly notices until all those minor changes add up to one singular calamity: a broken hip or a heart attack, a divorce or a death, either real or symbolic.

Hell, life is a calamity. What a strange thing it is to exist both consciously and physically, to be capable of both uncontrollable emotions and rational thought (and to have to navigate the oft-incompatible waters of the two), to be both fundamentally solitary and yet unavoidably social beings.

I have written myself into a moment of existential angst, so I guess I will end these birthday musings with the philosophy that helps me deal with the paradox that is life (and that is, not coincidentally, the title of this blog). So happy birthday to me, and happy birthday to you, too, whenever it falls. It's astonishing that we're here together at all, so let's make the most of it. Ah well, and riot on. xo


Sep 6, 2016


I assumed it was dead, although the smell was still fresh. (One final fuck you to the world, that stink.) I didn't go over to investigate; I'm not a serial killer in the developmental stage. Plus, what would I have done if it hadn't been? Played the good samaritan and stepped on its head? Put my hands around its smelly throat and suffocated it, looked into its eyes as the breath left its lungs for the last time? Driven over it with my bicycle, its black and white body hemorrhaging beneath my freshly-pumped-up tires? If it wasn't dead already, it almost certainly would be soon without my helping it along, as naps in the middle of the road are not generally conducive to recovery. Not to mention that the blur of fur and flesh had that particularly savage appearance common to deaths from high speed collisions between automobile and beast that are unlikely to result in anything other than someone's phone call to the dead animal removal service.

Sadly, a dead skunk is not a particularly uncommon occurrence (although they're mostly right to trust in their invincibility: nobody wants that funk caught in their grill). What caught my eye was the hawk standing guard over the body. A few feet away in the middle of the road, majestic and lovely, there it stood. As I rode by, it opened its wings slightly as if to fly away, but it must have determined (correctly) that I wasn't a threat. Settling its feathers, it resumed its vigil.

Maybe it was going to go in for a little skunk meat after I had gone, vulture-style. Maybe it had put the word out in Hawksville that there was going to be a party and he was politely waiting for guests. (Why is it a he now? I sometimes realize the extent of my patriarchal indoctrination in these moments of automatic male gender assignment in the absence of any gender indicators. I am not an ornithologist; it could very well have been a she.)

So anyway, despite the probability of that poor dead (or dying) skunk being lunch, I like to think that they were pals and that the hawk was protecting her friend as his/her skunk-spirit left his/her skunk-body, that she was mourning another senseless death caused by the human infringement on the animal world. Hawks just seem to have that sort of philosophical nature.

And then I was past them. The hawk was still standing there as I looked back. For all I know, she's standing there still.

Moral #1: One day you'll be dead, and someone will be standing over you, either to eat you or mourn you. Remember that death is imminent, and live your life accordingly.

Moral #2: Look both ways before you cross the street.

Aug 31, 2016

From Silence to Death

When I was young, my mother gave my father a human skull as a gift. With a child's instinct, I knew this was something to fear. Not the thing itself, of course - trapped in its glass case, the skull represented no immediate threat - but there was an undeniable menace there, in the yellowed bone and the empty eye sockets, in the smallness and silence of it. This is what we become.  

I was simultaneously drawn to and repelled by it, as one is of snakes and spiders and maggots and things we know instinctively to be dangerous but wish to understand in spite of the danger. I would sometimes have my afternoon nap on the mattress in my parents' bedroom, the skull looking blindly down at me from its case on the dresser. 

This was a period of nightmares for me. At night, I kept my hands and feet tucked firmly under the covers, I dared not peek under the bed or in the closet, I whispered the prayer my father had taught me to keep the nightmares away (sometimes it worked): 

Four angels round my bed, 
Two at the foot and two at the head, 
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, 
Guard the bed that I lay on. 

(But what about the middle of the bed?)

I had nightmares of fires and zombies and mad dogs and pursuit, and of skulls, naked and grinning and horribly alive. But with the nightmares came partial lucidity: my subconscious came up with a way of dealing with the terrors, and I invented a friendly flying skull that protected me from the monsters. 

Looking back, I realize the symbolic importance of that semi-conscious creation: I had made friends with death. 

And with this uneasy friendship came my interest in horror. Children's authors like John Bellairs and Roald Dahl at first, then the pulp horror of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Anne Rice, and F. Paul Wilson's The Keep, which all served as further nightmare fodder. (With age came unpleasant dreams about my teeth falling out, not being able to find the classroom or forgetting my locker combination, ghosts, vampires, rejection.) The classics followed: Stoker and Shelley and Stevenson and Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson. My guides in facing the specter of death.

(There were movies as well, of course, too many to mention, but there is something inherently more terrifying in creating the images myself from the words on the page than in seeing someone else's nightmare vision come to life - the alien bursting from his chest and grandpa trying to git 'er being notable exceptions.) 

It's harder to scare me these days, and I can usually wake myself up from nightmares before things get too dire, which is a skill I am happy to possess. (The nightmares themselves tend to be more mundane and less fantastical, although no less terrifying.) I don't possess a human skull (other than my own), but I have ceramic skull bookends and art and a framed photograph of a skull illicitly snapped in the catacombs of Paris. I have seen three corpses in their coffins, and I have seen life vanish while looking into my cat's eyes.

When I sat down to write this, I was inspired by a line from a book I recently finished reading, called Outline, by Rachel Cusk: "She had sat there, she said, and thought about her own lifelong habit of explaining herself, and she thought about this power of silence, which put people out of one another's reach." I was thinking about silence, and from silence I went to skulls, and from skulls to death. Which is a natural progression, I guess. When we stop attempting to express ourselves, to communicate what is in our heads and in our hearts, when we close ourselves up and cut ourselves off, that's when we die. 

And as much as I want to face death, make friends with it, I don't want to die. I don't want anything to die. So I'm going to continue this lifelong habit of explaining myself, in the hope that you will explain yourself, too, and together we can share our terrors until all that's left is yellowed bone and silence.   


Aug 22, 2016

All the Lights Go Out Eventually

I recently had the opportunity to visit my 93-year-old paternal grandmother. Earlier this summer, she caught pneumonia and didn't seek medical help because she assumed that she was just dying, which I guess is something you assume when you are 93 years old and start feeling really shitty. She did eventually go to the hospital, where she was diagnosed and successfully treated. So the old girl kicks on.

We hadn't seen each other in many years, and we are not close, but still, there is that familial connection, that blood bond, that made me want to see her before she died, to tell her I love her and that she was a good grandmother.

During our visit, she spoke matter-of-factly about her impending demise, which is an awkward thing to experience, as most of us would rather not address this particular issue until that creepy motherfucker is directly in front of us, holding a dance card with our name printed on it, in bold, undeniable.

I looked into my grandmother's eyes, the left clouded by cataracts, and we spoke of aging, and the way our bodies rebel against us. We spoke of the weather and my job and places we've traveled to. We also spoke of comparative mathematics, which is a field that she was inspired to investigate by her spirit guides. (Alas, it is doubtful that her binders full of notes will ever make it to textbook-form. Did you know that pi is no longer 3.14159 etc., but the square root of 10? I don't know what she was talking about, either, but her cloudy old eyes lit up when I mentioned it after noticing the labels on the binders.) She told me about the healing powers of placing certain crystals (these were arranged on a TV tray in front of her) on ailing body parts. We ate meringue cookies.

My parents let my grandmother take me to church once and she gave me an orange to eat. I remember the orange but not the sermon. (My grandmother once beat my father with a broom because he refused to go to church one Sunday.) I only went that one time.

My grandmother took me to the zoo and we made a book together afterwards about what we did and what we saw. She drew the pictures and I coloured half of them in before growing bored. (I was never crafty.)

My grandmother dyed her hair bright red, and she took me and my brother to the beach and wore mismatched socks, which I found embarrassing.

My grandparents' apartment was full of crystals and coloured rocks and minerals, and one day I got to polish my own gemstone.

There were always bowls of trail mix and dried fruit on the coffee table, and we went to the Shanghai Restaurant for Chinese food on special occasions. We went there for my Grade 8 graduation.

As a daughter and granddaughter and aunt and niece whose family members are not all within easy driving distance, I have come to realize the importance of those telephone calls about school and the weather, the birthday cards sent in the mail, the occasional emails, the token Christmas gifts. They say to the recipient: I am thinking of you and hoping you are well, and it doesn't matter that I rarely get to see you, because you are my family and my relationship with you has played a role in shaping the person I have become. Because of that (and sometimes in spite of that), I thank you.

I hugged my grandmother goodbye for what is assuredly the last time, and as I left the room, she said, "I'll see you in heaven," and I mumbled some sort of assent. (When the whisper of death is upon someone you love, it's sort of rude to disagree with their version of the afterlife.) Despite the presence of that bleak old specter, our visit was sweet rather than morbid, and when I left I was a little teary and sad, but glad that I had made the effort.

Making the effort is all we can do, really. Make the effort to be kind to others, and make the effort to do the things and spend time with the people that make us happy. It's hard sometimes. It's so much easier to let life slip by. But I promise you that the effort is worth it. Because all the lights go out eventually, and it would be such a shame to live your entire life in the dark.

Jun 28, 2016

Cardboard Boxes and Cheese Knives

I am surrounded by cardboard boxes.

They consist mostly of books and kitchen stuff, which is fairly representative of who I am as a person. (I haven't packed the CDs yet.) One thing I have learned from my recent packing experience is that I officially own more cheese knives than one person could reasonably be expected to use at any given time without being in serious need of some bran.

As an aside, I have rewritten history here for dramatic effect, as I actually came to the too-many-cheese-knives revelation some months ago. I think I might even have already written about it. In truth, I haven't even packed the cheese knives yet. But I have packed many boxes full of kitchen gadgets that only get used a couple times a year, and the cheese knife epiphany of having too much kitchen stuff is applicable. Since we don't actually move for a couple of weeks, I have whittled the cupboards and drawers down to the necessities; some cutlery, some bowls and plates, a few glasses, a couple of pots and pans, a can opener, and a cheese grater are all anyone really needs. (I do really like my lemon zester, though.)

I enjoy moving, the act of packing up one's existence, deciding what must stay and what can go. And I enjoy the act of unpacking later, too, and putting everything in its place. If you come to my home, you will always find exactly what you need in the exact place that you need it. Order brings me peace, and I loathe clutter. (Mostly because I really hate dusting, but also because, generally speaking, objects hold little value for me. I say 'generally' because I tried and failed to get rid of my Strawberry Shortcake dolls not too long ago, so I have obviously developed some emotional attachments to things, despite my best efforts.)

By putting things into cardboard boxes, I am in the process of detaching myself from this place that has been my home for the past 11+ years. Memories were made here, and I will take those with me, like the boxes of books and all those cheese knives. People (and one cat) have come and gone from my life while I lived here, and I am glad for the time spent with them just as I am sad that they are gone.

I will miss the spider in the insulation that is now buried behind drywall and paint; the new owners will not know he exists. I will also miss Roy, the royal maple tree we planted in the backyard, who has grown tall enough to block the neighbour's window, which was our original intent. He is a fine tree.

I will miss the street name, which is also the name of the childhood doll my father made for me, and address, which means "angel" in Korean and must surely be responsible for some of my success: my last name also means "angel," but in German, and I make my living helping Korean students write essays. If I was the type of person who believes in fate, and I'm not entirely sure that I'm not, I would chalk those auspicious coincidences up to her for sure.

I am caught between a nostalgic melancholy for the old and excitement for the new. There will almost certainly be new people and new parties in the new house, new conflicts and new resolutions. I am looking forward to those people and those experiences and to how they will help me learn about myself and about the world. I am looking forward to nurturing what will one day grow from a skinny sapling into a fine tree.

And I am looking forward to one day using all those cheese knives at once. I hope you can be there to help me use them. Riot on.



Jun 7, 2016

Just call on me, brother, when you need a hand. Or don't. Whatever.

Two mnemonic devices that I remember from grade school spelling class are "the principal is your pal" and "a friend is a friend 'til the end." That first one has nothing to do with this blog; I just can't resist the urge to improve the internet's spelling ability whenever I get the chance. But that last one is both a helpful spelling tip and a truism: friends are your friends until the end, either of time or of the friendship, whichever comes first (usually the latter).

Most friendships, like cartons of milk, have expiry dates. You meet someone at a particular point in both your lives, and the relationship is mutually beneficial for a certain period of time. Then something happens, usually some major life change like graduation or a change in geography or a new job or a new boyfriend or one of you has a baby or the podcast fades or you realize you're an alcoholic and have to stop going to the bar. (Hell, maybe you go to jail. It's got to be hard to maintain friendships from jail.) And you move on, and that friendship just fades away until one day you're looking through old photo albums and you find that you can't even remember the name of the person who was once important enough to you that you developed a photograph of them and put it in an album. (Or maybe that just happens to me. I have a really terrible memory, especially for proper names. As an aside, yes, I still develop photographs and put them in albums like a weirdo.)

Sometimes people are very important in your life and then they just aren't anymore. As a society, we place great emphasis on loyalty, but fuck loyalty, I say. Or rather, be loyal until it isn't worth it anymore. Unlike family, friendships are relationships that you choose. And you can choose to not be in them anymore, too. 

Friendships (like all things in life, really) are all about the balance. If you are the one constantly providing support (or time or money or invitations to hang out or whatever else your friendship is based on) and never receiving any, I'd say it's time to find someone more worthy of your attention. I believe that people are inherently selfish, and that that is as it should be, but we cannot exist on this planet without making some emotional connections, so there has to be some reciprocity in order for a friendship to make it through the (hopefully) long haul that is life. If you were there for someone during their worst moments and they can't even be bothered to give your major life experience a social media 'like', the ultimate in lazy acknowledgement, then you know that friendship has run its course. And, yeah, that can feel pretty shitty, but I try not to look at it as a waste of time. Ever the optimist/realist, I recognize the value that person once added to my life, and I move on.  

As an aside, social media platforms have certainly made the friendship-fade more difficult. Seeing an old friend pop up on a current friend's profile can be disconcerting, not to mention how upset people can get about getting deleted, as if being deleted from someone's social media friends list has any bearing whatsoever on one's value as a human being.   

I try to live my life not expecting anything from anyone. This way it is almost impossible to be disappointed, and I am frequently pleasantly surprised by the kindness of others. And I'd like people to not expect anything of me, either; I can't let you down that way, and I really don't want to let anyone down if I can help it. 

It's not easy, of course. I hold the truly important people in my life to a higher standard than I do the mere acquaintances. There are a great many more acquaintances in my life than friends. (Part defense mechanism, part emotional evolution?) Or rather, because I know a lot of amazing human beings who bring something positive to my life and who definitely qualify under the moniker "friend," a great many more friends than people I would kill for. I would kill for a very select few. The rest of you are on your own.  

So if once upon a time, we were friends and now we aren't, I'd like you to know that I'm glad I knew you, and I hope that you are happy and have at least a few people in your life who you would kill for, because we can't do it all alone, as much as that thought appeals to me. Ah well, and riot on.