Saturday, December 8, 2012

Girl Interrupted

Christmas time is finally here! It is the season of reflection (come to think of it, when is it not for me?). I have been thinking about my life and a question came to mind: if I were to write my autobiography right now, would there be a grand narrative? Would there be a unified plot, or would there be a whole bunch of disconnected episodes with nothing in common but the lone heroine? Would she even be a unified identity? Would she be the protagonist or the antagonist? A heroine, femme fatale, a knave, or the antichrist? One thing I can say in the affirmative: my life was certainly anything but dull, and I have made special effort to make it as chaotic as it can be. Any time it all starts to make sense, I manage to throw a wrench in it and begin a new chapter (or a new book even) in search of a better narrative. Perhaps, I am drawn to 19th Century literature because there always is a grand narrative, and it is always grand indeed: amazing things happen to amazing people, and they always come out wiser, stronger, happier. My parents have always believed I was meant for big things, great deeds, and significant discoveries. I have been waiting all my life for something amazing to happen to me, for the Jamesian beast to jump out of the jungle. Yet I am 37 years old and nothing has happened, and, I'm afraid, nothing ever will. I have accomplished nothing. Lately the thought has been giving me much trouble, and it is depressing me.

Now, I don't mean it lightheartedly. The time has come to admit that I am prone to depression. I often find myself sucked into the black hole, where I tend to remain for quite some time until something jolts me out of it. The worst of it is that it is never a gradual descent but rather a sudden fall, a snap, a blink of an eye: one minute I am counting my blessings, enjoying the euphoria, my so-called life; and the next, I feel my life is over, I wasted it away, wasted my potential, thrown it all away, burned all the bridges, and there is nothing to live for any longer. Perhaps, there is a progression from my state of happiness to that feeling of desperation, despondency, and alienation, but I am incapable of recognizing when I begin this downward spiral until I'm at the very bottom. In fact, sometimes I mistake depression for euphoria until the bubble finally bursts.

I guess I have always been afflicted. As far as I can remember, starting with grade school, I experienced these dark episodes. Some of the highlights from my memory bank date back to 3rd grade, when I announced to my homeroom teacher I was going to the restroom to hang myself on my shoelaces. Then there was the time in high school when I was "invited" to see the school therapist and ended up telling her I sometimes felt like shooting people. Come on! How can anyone take this kind of questioning seriously? My prank did not end well: they wouldn't let me out of the office without parental supervision. At other times, I would find myself sitting on top of a subway tunnel listening to Nine Inch Nails, brooding, and watching the trains go by until some driver finally stopped the train and chased me off. Then, of course, there were countless nights of uncontrollable weeping and running away, most memorably to Florida. But those were all quite benign.

The bouts of depressing moods were interjected with a search for other extreme affections. I lived for an intensity of emotions, and every experience needed to surpass the previous. I was addicted to feeling life: if I read books or listened to music, the experience had to be profoundly moving; if I took up a sport, it had to be dangerous; if I were angry, I was violent; if I loved, it had to be out of this world; if I made love, it had to be exquisite; if I felt joy, it had to be euphoric;  and if I were sad, I wallowed in misery and despondency.

The problem is that as I grow older and understand myself better, these episodes become more alarming. Before there was no real reason behind this depression: it was more of a pseudo-masochistic self-indulgence--indulgence in extreme emotions, intensification of my rather boring life. Now I find real reasons to be depressed about. I have realized that there are real consequences to making mistakes, that burning bridges is not only a game of defiance, that sometimes there is no going back, that there is a point of no return, that I cannot get away with everything. I am no longer looking for a thrill. Instead, I am looking for some tranquility and balance. I do not want to live on the edge anymore. I do not have visions of grandeur. I am no longer concerned with the beast: if he is in the jungle, I don't care anymore about his looming presence. Now I only look back with fear that I missed something, that I failed, because, in contrast to my younger days, I cannot afford any more screw-ups.

The feeling of failure began to sink in during my years at the University of Colorado. Graduate school took a toll on me. The first two years were nice and easy. I enjoyed supportive faculty, friendly colleagues, and ample intellectual stimulation. My confidence was as high as the Rockies. I applied to the doctoral program to continue my study of Romanticism under Dr. Robinson, got immediately accepted, and successfully completed my coursework. With the sudden announcement of Dr. Robinson's retirement everything changed. I tried to continue studying for my exams, but without encouragement from faculty my motivation and enthusiasm waned. I began to have trouble concentrating on reading. Teaching became increasingly difficult as I watched my confidence plummeting. I was increasingly stressed and found escape in rock climbing. It was my new passion, my new addiction, my new rush.

The time was also rather damaging to my marriage and relationships. After years of feeling estranged from my husband following the birth of our daughter, I finally decided it was time to let go. The final rapture was sudden, immediate, and not without some drama. But it was over. It was better that way. I moved out and lived a few years rather uncomfortably suspended between houses in a basement without much financial means or material possessions. I did, however, find emotional support in my climbing and living partner. The shame of it all, almost broke me. I finally began putting my life back together starting with fixing up the house, moving out of the basement, accepting a teaching position at another college, and finally buying my own house and getting remarried.

At this point, my priorities have already shifted. My daughter had finally a stable home and was attending a new neighborhood school. I was climbing harder and better. But without academic support and much not so subtle resentment from the department, I did not pass my comprehensive exams. I saw the animosity growing, but I still had faith that professionalism and academic integrity would allow the members of my committee to remain objective. It was on one hand the ultimate failure but also a relief: I did not quit on my own; I was forced out.

The next six months were difficult. My episodes of depression were more frequent as my confidence levels fell and anxiety levels rose. As much as I tried to see the blessing in it all, I couldn't shake the feeling of failure and worthlessness. They started with fatigue, difficulty to concentrate, irritability, over-eating, drinking, crying, and, in most desperate cases, suicidal thoughts. I was tired. I could not read anymore. Reading, once one of my favorite occupations, became almost impossible. I could not concentrate and that further led to feelings of incompetence. I lost confidence in my intellectual powers, my intelligence. I found myself boring, dull, inadequate, and socially awkward. I doubted my ability to do anything. My attempts at finding a job in design and marketing, my career before I quit to go back to college were unsuccessful and only further diminished my sense of self-worth of my already fragile ego. I couldn't shake the feeling of inadequacy and shortcomings in character. When I did attend social gatherings, I avoided eye contact. I was irritable. My diet consisted of junk food, and my routine evening occupation became the mindless distraction of watching movies and drinking martinis. I did not want to feel anymore. I just wanted to remain comfortably numb.

I was not certifiable, but it began to dawn on me that it was not normal and that it was time to consider serious changes in my lifestyle and my thinking. All this time I was teaching part-time and working for a small marketing company. Pretenses needed to be kept up. No one really knew what was going through my head, not even my husband, and how difficult it was to keep attending to my daily responsibilities. I was barely hanging on by threads of sanity.

Working two jobs, I was able to improve significantly my financial situation: as my bills were getting paid off, some of the anxiety lifted. My students loved me, and I enjoyed the challenge of teaching a new class. Also,  I started relaxing at my other job and began to once again enjoy designing. Sitting at the computer manipulating images while listening to music was almost therapeutic. I socialized more too: I held conversations, joked around, and laughed more. I finally summoned enough courage to see the only member of my committee who was convinced I should have passed. He was able to put the entire hoax of an exam in perspective: I was not the only one who got the impression that I failed before the exam even began. But it would still take months before I was back, before I could find the courage to write it all down. Because, you know, unless you write it down, unless you verbalize the pain, you cannot begin to heal. Language makes sense of it all, makes it real. And only once it is real, can one deal with it, rationalize it, and find a way to mend.

Finally, recently I started reading books again. I went to the library and borrowed books on depression. I read. I read fast. I read furiously. I could recognize myself in the experiences described. I also started eating healthier, taking vitamins, and running. But my renewed ability to read is what helped me the most.  The books did not only show me that I was not the only one, but they provided me with the language to describe my own experience, my own pain. They provided a narrative, which made sense of it all. I still have ways to go, but I'm slowly getting back on my feet.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sinking Ship

Recently I have given much thought to who I am and how comfortable I am with my life. I realized I've spend a good couple of years blaming myself for things that went wrong. No, not wrong. Just different than I expected. But, as much as I tried to mask the emotions, the shame and the blame were there.

For those of you who know me, I am the last person to admit that I have no control over circumstances: I believe there are no victims, only people who allow themselves to lose. And, of course, I am one of those who never loses. Whatever happens, I have the strength of character to come out victorious because I march to the rhythm of my own heart, and I am an entire army. Incidentally, this exceptional confidence is also the reason I am hard on other people: if I can deal with adversity in my life, so can anyone else. Michael Jackson and Elvis are my favorite targets for abuse: these men had the world at their feet--talent, money, love, popularity, expensive therapists, and all the prescription drugs they could handle (or not)--and they whined and complained because, as my husband says, they were so unhappy and unfortunate...  Really? "Unfortunate"... O, let me tell you about unfortunate! That's how that conversation goes. You can already tell that I am not the best person to turn to when you're feeling blue. My answer is always going to be the same:  stop whining, have a drink, get your s&^%t together, and move on! Hard core? Hell yeah! Confident? Certainly. Pompous? Maybe. But stay a while. I will be faithful.

So the recognition that I do blame myself for things that took a different direction in my life rocked my boat. Keeping in mind that this boat is the Titanic, the epiphany was huge! Now, there is nothing wrong with shame. Those who do not feel shame we call "psychopaths." But too much shame, too much blame in an individual who thinks she is in control of her life all the time can have disastrous consequences. Namely, since she has no one to blame but herself, it inevitably leads to a feeling of unworthiness: I failed because I was not good enough, I was not smart enough, and nobody loves me.

And this is where I slip into the Eeyore coma and wallow in my own pain and misery, while at the same time I build this impregnable wall around me because I don't want anyone else to know that I am feeling unworthy... that there is a reason for me to feel unworthy. Of course, this wall that's protecting me from everybody's judgment, keeping me safe, is also making me seem more obnoxious than I already am. Because one thing that makes us human is being imperfect, letting our tiara slip a little, showing our vulnerability. If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we also allow ourselves to be loved for who we are. But in order to show our vulnerability, we must have courage.

And you know me! The lone warrior! I have no fear. I can be courageous. I can wear my heart on my sleeve. Right? Hell no! I follow Q's motto: "Never let them see you bleed!"

Well, this is a problem.

It turns out that the thing I call "strength of character," the thing I am so proud of that allows me to overcome any obstacle in life, is also the one thing that's keeping me from being me. It obscures who I am. And, most importantly, it alienates me from people because I do not allow anyone to see me for who I actually am. So where do I go from here? One thing is clear: in order to avoid this unfavorable human condition--what D. H. Lawrence terms, "the utter isolation of the human soul"--I must abandon ship and get into a lifeboat.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ways of Water

His grandfather was giving thanks to the water when suddenly my father said to him, "Grandfather, I know that these ways are good and this is well... but if I went around giving thanks to everything that there is all the time, I would never get anything done." The wise old man smiled as he continued and said, "That's right" (Michael T. Garrett in Walking on the Wind: Cherokee Teachings for Harmony and Balance).
How many times have you been asked by someone you just met, "So what do you do?" Perhaps, it doesn't mean anything--it's just a way of making conversation to avoid an awkward silence and to find in another something to relate to. But on a deeper level, what does the question say about us? About our culture? About our priorities?

Mainstream North American or Western culture measures a person's worth according to his/ her accomplishments, potential, and ambition in life. The more a person does, the more worthy he/she is of respect and admiration. Life is all about doing. Since we are born, we are taught that we must reach certain milestones in life--first walking, then talking, riding a bike, reading, graduating from various schools, getting a license, getting a job, getting married, having kids, etc. We live our lives, it seems, from one milestone to another. We wait for things to happen. We are taught that "good things come to those who wait." But while we are waiting to achieve that next rung on the ladder to success--which incidentally has no end because as soon as we reach one goal, we immediately set another--we are not living. By looking too far into the future we forget about the present.

And so time in Western tradition has become a commodity. The forth dimension has taken over our lives: we live according to the clock. Since Newton, time and space are absolute, highly deterministic measures of all motion in the material world. Time moves evenly on a past > present > future continuum that's linear and sequential. We cannot escape time. We consider it a condition or a form, a structure, that allows us to do things but also that limits us, binds us. We always have no time to do things. We wish we had more time. We constantly run out of time. We budget our time. We save time. Sometimes we even kill time. It contributes to our identity because we know who we are through memories: our personalities are shaped by our past experiences. Time gives us a scientific, precise measurement of "success." And when we get old, since we have little time remaining for all the doing, we become worthless to society.

The Native American view of time is quite different. Time is merely a point of reference. It is energy, and the present is where all life happens. The past is important only as far as it helps us be in the present. The future receives no special privilege. If there is no future, there is no waiting. And if we do not wait, we live in the moment. So if the white man's understanding of time is like a river--it flows from the past to the present and into the future--, then the Native American way is to think of time as a lake. The geometric relation is that of a line to a circle. To a Native, past, present, and the future are all part of the same reality; they happen at the same time in the current moment. Linearity and determinism disappear in this view, and life consists of being rather than doing or becoming. The symbol of the circle, the Circle of Life, reflects not only the relationship between all living things but also the progression of life.

Circles are not only revered and honored in Native American tradition, ceremony, and ritual but also in other traditions. They are recognized as the primary, life-giving figure in the natural world. The Native American circle, "the Sacred Hoop" is not much different from the Chinese Yin-Yang. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, "The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end." It is a symbol of interconnectedness of everything in the universe, harmony, balance, and eternity. It is the concept of the Nietzschean "eternal recurrence" and the embracement of amor fati: complete acceptance and love of who you are at this time: "that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity." Because if we accept things as they are and love everything in every moment of our lives, we will be happy.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Designer's Block

Like a good athlete, I like to exercise both sides of my brain. Having been an English major for so long, writing has become a second nature to me. I'm not saying I'm any good at it; I'm just saying that I can do it relatively quickly and efficiently. I hardly ever have a writer's block for two reasons: one, in graduate school, it's not a luxury you can afford to have, and two, most of my writing is interpretative or analytical, not creative. Where writing is the food for the right side of my brain, graphic design indulges the left side. The reason I abandoned the design field--well-paying job, financial security, unlimited coffee breaks, and free corporate lunches--and became a pauper to grunt and sweat in dusty academic halls was because I felt I couldn't do any magnificent thinking at work. My coworkers were not interested in hearing my philosophical theories over a tuna sandwich, and my boss did not much care about color theory. The client wanted it blue, so blue it must be!

Now that I'm all grown up and ready to pick up where I left off, I get frustrated when I can't come up with a nice design on the fly. I sit in front of the screen and stare at a monstrosity I created and wonder what I'm doing there. I have the good sense to recognize that my design is awful, but I can't come up with anything better (it's probably why I make a better art director than a designer, but that's besides the point). I blame my lack of creativity. I blame my client's unreasonable demands. But really it has nothing do with any of that. And after days of tearing my hair out, it finally hits me: I have designer's block. Identification of the disease is the first step to recovery!

What is designer's block, why do we suffer from it, and--most importantly--how do we get rid of it?

Unlike writing, designing is not a linear process. It's not methodical. It requires meandering and day dreaming. But day dreaming is a luxury, and when I'm under pressure I feel I have no time for it. The client expects brilliance right now, in fact, yesterday. I have no time to indulge in meaningless activities. I should do nothing but stare at my Photoshop mockup and work. That's right! Keep that cursor away from Facebook, mister! But this kind of "devotion" to your project is counter-productive. In the end, you have just worked yourself into a corner, into a box, constricted, stressed, where suddenly you cannot see beyond its boundaries. Worst of all, you blame your ineptitude and lack of creativity (You are not only a bad artist. You are no artist at all and should be banned from touching Photoshop ever again!), which once again stifles your imagination because suddenly you don't even have the confidence to come up with anything good. You suck!

So after drowning your sorrows in cheap wine, binging on corn chips and chocolate, wasting an hour and a half of your life watching a bad movie, taking it out on your partner, and spending a sleepless night tossing and turning, you finally realize that your destructive streak must end. The first thing to do is to reassess the situation: it's not you; it's designer's block. It happens to the best of us. So what do you do?

The first thing, step away from the computer screen! Do something else! Read a book. Pick up a magazine. Take a walk. Play Angry Birds. Bake a cake. Anything to remind yourself who you are and that you're awesome. You need to get your endorphins flowing: get into your "happy place." By leaving the project for a moment and focusing on something you enjoy, you are doing a couple of things: regaining confidence, relaxing, and emptying your head.

Once you have relaxed your creative muscles, it's time to surf the web. Look at other people are designer's work. I usually start with Communication Arts to see some excellent work, and then search for design ideas relevant to my project. Eventually you will come upon a design that will inspire you. Speak to you. And you will think that you can do better, cooler. You will challenge yourself. You have new energy. And suddenly you are not staring at a blank canvas; you have a starting point.

Now that you are inspired, give yourself time. You cannot rush a genius! Or, more realistically, you need to give yourself permission to fail a few times before you get it right. Perfection does not exist, but don't settle for bad work because you feel are running out of time and your client is waiting. This kind of thinking will get you right back to where you started: nowhere with a designer's block. Before you show your work to the client, ask yourself, "Do I love it? Would I want to add this design to my portfolio?" Sometimes I forget about this rule, have one great design I love and three mediocre ones. Inevitably, my client picks one of the other options, and I end up hating myself and the entire project.

Well... now I'm going to take the dog for a walk to get those endorphins flowing and burn off those excess calories I consumed last night in anguish, and design something brilliant!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Football and Social Disorder

Euro 2012 games, hosted by Poland and Ukraine, have come to their inevitable end with Spain's overwhelming victory over Italy in the final, continuing its domination in World and European championships since 2008. As a Polish national and a fan of the sport, I was excited to hear UEFA's announcement that Poland will co-host the games--not only for sociopolitical and economic reasons but also as a chance for the country to show its pride, progress, and position as a world-class nation under the spotlight of World soccer and to dispel its reputation for xenophobia and provincialism. To my astonishment and utter disappointment, Poland once again managed to embarrass itself on the world stage as incidents of racism, hooliganism, intolerance, and violence came streaming through the media.

The first incidents were reported in Kraków two days prior to the opening match during a public practice session and only escalated to reach a climax after the Russia-Poland match on June 12. On June 6, when the Dutch team entered Stadion Miejski, the home of Wisła Kraków, for a training session attended by 25,000 spectators, it was greeted with monkey chants targeted at the black players, Nigel de Jong and Gregory van der Wiel. Ironically, the Dutch team had just returned from a tour of the national memorial and museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a former concentration camp located about 65 kilometers from Kraków--the largest Nazi extermination facility, where over one million men, women, and children lost their lives during World War II in Hitler's effort to "cleanse" mankind of "undesirables." "It is a real disgrace especially after getting back from Auschwitz that you are confronted with this," remarked Mark Van Bommel, the captain of the team (1). Only a week later, Italian striker, Mario Balotelli and Czech defender, Theodor Gebre Selassie--of Ghanaian and Ethiopian descent, respectively--were subjected to racial abuse from Polish and Russian fans in Gdańsk and Wrocław (2). Hooliganism, drunkenness, and vandalism reached its peak on June 12 contributing to riots following a match in Warsaw between Russia and Poland that resulted in a tie. Violence began before the game, when over 5,000 Russian fans marched to the National Stadium, in a patriotic gesture to commemorate their national holiday, Russia Day. The riots left 15 people injured, while over 140 were arrested (3). Although the use of the game on the incidental occasion of Russia's national holiday for a patriotic march by the Russian fans was a rather unsavory provocation and an indelicate reminder of historical wounds still fresh from the years of Russian domination during the Cold War, violence towards the visiting team's fans was not an appropriate, acceptable, or justifiable (albeit derivative) response. This list is not exhaustive--sadly only a representative sample of reported cases indicating a much larger problem. It is patently evident that discrimination, racism (that quite often extends to antisemitism), intolerance, and violent behavior exhibited during Euro 2012 by football fans cannot be tolerated and should be abolished, not only in Poland but also at every other sport event in the world.

The Euro 2012 incidents followed a controversial BBC Panorama documentary, "Stadiums of Hate" that aired only 11 days before the opening ceremonies. The film shows not only blatant racism and antisemitism exhibited by the Polish football fans but also complacent attitude of the police and general population as the acts of violence and signs of hate are repeatedly tolerated and ignored. In the movie, Jacek Purski, an expert on racism in Poland, a social activist with Nigdy Wiecej/ Never Again, an organization promoting racial tolerance and equality, who also works with UEFA and FIFA leads a training session for the stewards in preparation for the games.  He cautions the trainees, "If you do not take any action to report a racist incident to your supervisor, action will be taken by a journalist, who will say that in Poland there is no one but racists. Be aware of that" (5). Despite acknowledging the country's efforts to prevent acts of discrimination, the documentary clearly discourages visitors from attending the games. John Godson, Poland's first black parliamentarian, criticized British media for presenting Poles in such a poor light and argued that Poland was a "hospitable and tolerant country." Donald Tusk, the prime minister, also took a defensive stance and maintained that a visiting fan would "definitely not encounter anything unpleasant here" (6). As controversial as this documentary has been in Poland generating critical responses from Tusk and Godson, it proved to be all too true only a few days later.

The Polish government, UEFA, FIFA, and other international organizations were rather muted: although everyone seemed to condemn the behavior as inappropriate and shameful, no one took a definite, strong stance against it publicly.

According to UEFA regulations, individual federations are responsible for the behavior of their fans. First offense often carries financial penalties, and subsequent indiscretions might result in a deduction of points and even expulsion of the team from the World Cup. After reports of the abuse of Dutch players, UEFA had considered taking disciplinary action. The organization had written to Poland's sports minister and mayors in cities hosting matches and training camps urging them to closely monitor training sessions and prosecute offenders. UEFA empowered referees to stop football matches in the event of inappropriate behavior of fans; however, players would receive a yellow card penalty for walking off without official permission. Many argued that the organization was too lenient and nonchalant on the issue (7).

UEFA's precautionary measures were quite a step up from denial, which seems the most common response to racism on Polish stadiums. Polish government was defensive and denied any potential risks before the games began. After the incidents were reported, it remained relatively silent on the issue. Even prior to Euro 2012, the issue so obviously evident was understated and ignored. In November 2011, CNN quoted Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, saying that "there is no racism" in football and that "incidents of racism between players during a match can simply be forgotten afterwards and resolved with a handshake" (8). Polish Former Football Players Association published a statement on its website as a response to BBC's claims about the dangers of attending Euro 2012 in Poland criticizing the documentary for skewed perspective and lack of journalistic professionalism. The association assures that racism on Polish stadiums is "not a widely spread social phenomenon" (9). Even the church does not want to admit any problems. Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, in interviews with Italian and Vatican media, denied any racism or antisemitism existed in Poland or the Ukraine at all; further, he denied any currently existent political or historical tensions between the two nations (10). This marginalization of the issue is counter-productive to the players, the fans, and the entire sporting community.

So far I've been treating racism and hooliganism of football fans as an interrelated phenomenon. It may be beneficial now to look at both separately.

Racism can be defined by a hatred or intolerance towards another race incited by a belief in the superiority of one's own race. Race is, of course, a loosely defined term; however, in the context of racism in Poland, it can be narrowed down to darker colored ethnic groups, especially from African and Middle Eastern descent. The Jewish community is also targeted for racial abuse.

Are the fans even conscious of the wrongness of the messages they are propagating at football games? Purski says that they are and that they consider this behavior trendy and a sign of acceptance among their peers (11). It happens more often at smaller stadiums, or at less monitored games, as fans feel more freedom in expressing their opinions without the fear of being reprimanded, penalized, or arrested. This statistic suggests that the root of the problem is not in the expression of these sentiments but that these sentiments exist at all.

The complexity of racist tendencies in Poland cannot be underestimated, especially in relation to antisemitism. Poland is a country with a population of about 38 million people, of which 96.7% is Polish and 88% Roman Catholic. Xenophobia is easily born in a community of this homogeneity. Other factors contributing to the fear of "the stranger" or "the other" has historical, political, and geographic significance: Poland is a small, sovereign nation, geographically sandwiched between greater powers, yet it managed to retain its independence and identity despite various partitions and persecutions from Russia and Germany, among others. Poland is still recovering emotionally--despite what some would like to believe--from Russia's political control from the end of World War II until the fall of communism in late 1989. As much as these tendencies must still be ingrained in the collective memory of Polish nationals, it is difficult to justify the transference of hatred towards ethnic groups that never threatened the country's freedom or were ever guilty of any wrongdoing against its citizens.

The roots of antisemitic tendencies, however, although not less complex, can be more easily identified. Poland at some point in history was one of the most tolerant countries towards Jewish people in Europe offering shelter from persecution and a home to the largest Jewish community. Antisemitic sentiments gained prominence during the interwar years, where economic and religious factors contributed to increased persecution and hatred of Polish Jews. Polish Jews became the scapegoat for the growing poverty and hardship during the Great Depression, and myths and superstitions (such as blood libel) were spread by the Catholic church. Religion-based antisemitism propagated the idea that Polish Jews were disloyal to the Polish nation. Despite the negative reputation, statistics indicate that less than 0.1% of Poles collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. According to current studies, nearly half of Poles still holds antisemitic views (12). As with any other instance of racism, "the othering" and hatred are not founded in reason but in a false conception of causality engendered by superstition, misinformation, and blind intolerance.

It is difficult to concede that a country with a literacy rate of 99.8% and 17% of people with postsecondary education still holds such unreasonable prejudices. After all, racism and xenophobia in a large part is due to a lack of education. "It is not that people are racist," says Godson, "they simply have not been exposed to other cultures" (13). If education is key to changing a nation's attitude, then we should consider the level of education, especially of Polish football fans and also the pedagogical methods used to present this material to our youth and children: firstly, most of the so called "soccer hooligans" come from working class families, which means that their formal education is limited and their manners coarse; and secondly, it seems that racial attitudes are not learned only in a school classroom.

For generations, most Polish children's understanding of ethnic differences was shaped by a poem, "Murzynek Bambo" or "Bambo the Little Negro" they learned in elementary school. The poem by Julian Tuwim was written in 1924 or 1925. Although undoubtedly written in the best of intentions about a happy little boy from an exotic place, who seems to be equally mischievious as children of all ethnicities, the poem can be easily given a racist interpretation--especially almost a century later, when we have become much more sensitive to racial issues and slurs. Murzynek is a demunitive form of murzyn, a word etymologically related to the English term,  Moor and was used to denote someone from Africa, originally having no negative connotations. The black boy, Bambo, Tuwim writes, lives in Africa, and he is our friend. But in the current state of the world, where demographics have changed, where we have adopted different role models (such as actors and musicians), and where the global community has expanded largely as a result of the growth of the internet, suddenly we come more and more in contact with "Bambo." As long as "Bambo" stayed in Africa, he was our friend, as Stefan Szczepłek, a renowned sports journalist, aptly notes (14). But now that he has infiltrated our streets, stadiums, job market, universities, television, radio, and the internet, we suddenly do not know what attitude to adopt towards the foreigner. And "Bambo," unless categorized, unless located firmly in the social order, has become a threat. Elena Chou in her article, "Euro 2012: Ugly Racism Mars Showcase of the Beautiful Game" cites Benedict Arnold's book, Imagined Communities to explain identity construction of a nation (15). A nation is not a cohesive whole but is imagined as a whole by its individual members. Inclusion or exclusion of certain members in order to imagine this plethora of individuals as one community is necessary for its coherence. If, as Arnold argues, a nation is an "imagined community" and if an individual member of that society cannot be recognized as one of the community, "imagined" as belonging, as contributing to the same social order, he will be rejected by this nation. We do not necessarily need all the black people to be assimilated into the culture; but we need to teach our citizens to recognize that an individual with darker colored skin fits into our social order, not as a lesser citizen but equal.

This kind of education should be sponsored by the government on a large scale and start in schools with a change in curriculum and training of educators and continue with a rigorous social campaign. "In Poland the problem of racism is neither larger nor smaller in comparison to other European nations," Purski says in another interview, "The question is how do we deal with the problem." (16). Andrzej Seremet, attorney general, calls for a serious social campaign because it is evident that education on a local club level is not sufficient. We must teach our citizens to recognize racism and become more sensitive to pejorative remarks rather than providing them with derogatory terminology they will use unknowingly to describe "the other."

Once the public is educated, we need to also take the necessary steps to punish the behavior. First, the crime must be called by its proper name, and then perpetrators should be properly and consistently penalized. Football fans usually act in groups and often the guilty hide behind its numbers. If we individualize the mob, if the mob is not united and every member must answer for himself, he will not feel he can get away with anything.

Blatant expression of racism, especially by mobs of football fans, is not the only crime most often gone unpunished: vandalism and brutal physical violence tend to also accompany football matches. Historically, the game has been associated with violence since its beginning in 13th Century England, but it has reached its peak in 1960s and 1970s. According to statistics, everywhere in Europe fans cause more trouble when supporting their team at the opponent's stadium rather than when rooting for their team at home. "Disorder of some kind appears to be [ ] near-universal and inevitable," according to a 1996 study of football hooliganism (17). Excessive alcohol consumption that concurs with the violence may also contribute to it: alcohol can break down inhibitions, produce a feeling of relaxation, create false confidence, and impair judgment. Although drinking can aggravate violent behavior, most scientists agree that it is not the main cause (18). Many attribute soccer violence in Poland in particular to the country's relative poverty compared with its western neighbors. Despite consistent and reportedly fastest economic growth in the EU, Poland is still the fifth poorest with annual income per capita of less than 10,000 euros (19). Feelings of inferiority of the predominantly male fan groups may find an outlet for their anger and frustration in physical violence, which becomes a validation of strength and power.

Of course, racist behavior extends well beyond Polish borders and seems to accompany every avid football fan club. As much as xenophobia may certainly be linked with feelings of inferiority, soccer violence is not merely an Eastern European phenomenon. Another, perhaps more central contribution to civil misbehavior may be media coverage: many argue that media presence and amplification encourages disorder with many fans positively seeking the attention (20). False perception of importance that may follow a public, televised display of "heroics" can feed the pride of the mob.

Although historically and psychologically valid, xenophobia, racism, and violence do not necessarily  need to be part of the game. Since the 1980s, due to social campaigns and initiatives at football fan clubs incidents of antisocial behavior have decreased. Let's Kick Racism Out of Football established in 1997 promotes equality and inclusion and fights discrimination by raising awareness through educational and community programs. Danish "Roligans" and Scottish "Tartan Army" are peaceful football fan clubs that promote non-violent behaviour during football matches. Roligan is a pun on the Danish word rolig, which means "peace." Both clubs have won awards from various football associations and both enjoy great popularity. The Tartan Army boasts 35,000 members and has, therefore, reached full membership capacity. The popularity of the clubs suggests that football and its fans are not innately violent and that with proper initiative and support the phenomenon of violence and racism could disappear from stadiums.

"Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate," BBC Panorama
"Bigots, Hooligans to Test Polish Image at Euro 2012," Reuters
"Euro 2012: Holland Players Subjected to Racist Abuse at Training Session," The Guardian
"Euro 2012: Ugly racism mars showcase of the beautiful game,"
"Euro 2012 Violence: Russian, Polish Hooligans Clash In Warsaw," Huffington Post 
"Football Hooliganism," Social Issues Research Centre 
"O Rasizmie na Polskich Stadionach w Kontekście Euro 2012," Canal +
"UEFA Steps up Probes into Euro 2012 Racism Claims," Fox News

Monday, July 2, 2012

Squirming Gorgeously

"You squirm gorgeously, my dear, but squirm you do like everybody else," Uncle Cullen.

You know how you live everyday, feeling good, weathering through the storm of life, yet you have a certain awareness that something is not right? That something does not quite add up in your life? It is a subtle feeling, and you have difficulties honing in on it. Most of the time you don't even notice it. It mirrors the experience of hearing a constant noise all the time that after a while you mistake for silence. Like a battered wife whose routine beatings become her companion and anchor to physical existence, while she's living out her days inside her head. But in a single moment, in a sudden, unexpected change of perspective triggered by a rupture in the predictable flow of everyday events, it rises to the surface of your consciousness, and from then on you can never again ignore it. Like a pebble in your shoe, it bothers you, irritates you. It gnaws at your very nature. I wouldn't call it an "epiphany" per se: but suddenly you become acutely aware that something needs to change in order to alleviate the discomfort you feel.

In that moment your entire life seems to collapse, and at first you feel pain and despair: you have hit the bottom. The pit. The structure you have built upon faulty foundation topples to the ground. And it is in that instance when scary thoughts come racing through your mind, of ending it all, of severing forever the current bond you have with this particular reality... You are looking but cannot see beyond your own funnel vision. Egotistically, you cradle the despair in your arms, and embrace the catastrophe of your existence. But when wallowing in your own sorrow comes to an end, when you get up, raise your head, dry your tears, open your puffy eyes, and once again look around, you feel a certain joy that you have been awakened from that nightmare, that you have become aware of your own folly, and now that you can see clearly you have renewed strength to go on. Somewhere along the way you have taken a wrong trail, and you need to back track a bit, which usually takes some effort. It is a challenge. But it's not the end of the world. It has been tough because you have been swimming against the current, but once you change direction, once "you stop squirming against the catastrophe of being alive," you can readjust your entire life, your attitude and fix it. And with renewed confidence--and pride in the strength of your character--you play on and solve another puzzle in the labyrinth of life.

Once in a while, I experience these profound changes in perspective, these awakenings. Some I handle better than others. Usually, I have trouble not overreacting, doing something particularly stupid, and burning all the bridges while marching to the infamous anthem of Mike Curb Congregation. I become a wrecking ball. I run.

Yesterday, however, I managed not to take the house down, and instead of using my pride as a great shield in the fight with the windmills, I learned something about myself. Someone I love in anger said some things that hurt--things I took to heart. And despite the apologies, despite the number of times you hear, "I didn't mean it," you know that that person thought it was true, and that there is always some real basis for his slip.

So in not so many words, paraphrasing into my own language, the pith of the remark was that I suffer from an only-child syndrome, that I am negative, and that people have a hard time tolerating me because I say things too plainly, too bluntly. As much as I wanted to deny the accusations, I could not. So I sat there for a while brooding. The realization that it was all true completely unhinged me--not so much because I knew it was true but because it all is an innate part of my nature, the very essence of my being, things I realized I couldn't change. It is how I was conditioned by my upbringing, my nationality, and my profession: I am an only child, coming from the cold, brutal lands of Eastern Europe, who appreciates and analyzes subtleties of language in literature but doesn't bother to acknowledge them in mundane, everyday conversations with mere mortals. I can't change that. I am who I am. I could be more delicate, more subtle in the expression of my opinion, and shut my mouth about things I find bother me. Spare others. But I wouldn't be me. I would be a fake.

And then I looked at the recent events in retrospect. Suddenly I realized that lately I have been feeling a general dissatisfaction with people, with friends, with my enterprise, with my attitude. Especially, I have had such a hard time handling social situations. I wanted to do wonderful things with friends and have deep, meaningful conversations. I wanted to read good books, and to pursue the things I love. I expected the entire world to live according to my own rules and standards, and when it failed to do so, it frustrated me. What I forgot was that I cannot impose my views, my ideals, my way of life upon others. And that the only reason why I started doing it is because I was demanding the same of myself and falling short. So what I needed was an adjustment of attitude: I cannot expect things from others I cannot live up to myself.

The displacement of dissatisfaction--no matter how psychologically substantiated it may be--cannot continue or I will make myself miserable and everyone around me. It was time to work on me, to strive to recognize what makes me happy. And if I were lacking deep, meaningful conversations it was not because my friends didn't want to have them or were incapable of following my intricate, profound train of thought (yes, of course, I am being facetious),  but because I denied them the opportunity by not starting them. By denying myself the pleasure of talking about things of import to me, trying somehow to placate everyone by sticking to conversations I find no interest in whatsoever because I believe it's what people want to hear and, therefore, hold boring discussions with negligence and neglect, hurting everyone's feelings in the process, I behave against my better nature. By reading books I find boring, I forget why I read in the first place: for pleasure. "To thy own self be true." It sounds awfully hedonistic and egotistical, but denying pleasure to myself I turn into a monster, a conglomerate of cadavers that's anything but alive. I am my own Dr. Frankenstein. And to suppress the monster from doing any more damage to the people I love, I need to start being me again, doing things I love, talking about the things I want to talk about. And no matter how strange people think it is, it is me. I am comfortable with that.

And so from now on I vow to criticize myself and not others and strive to change things I don't like, things within myself I have complete control over. As to others, everyone has virtues, and I will focus on them, and perhaps others will recognize something good in me.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


The tree-shaded trail wound through the forest. The sun shyly sneaked through the crown of pines, patches of light mingling beneath my boots. Pretty trail, no people. I already walked for a good mile and haven't seen a single representative of my species. Then again, in this pristine forest, I haven't seen an animal either. Besides my dog. Faithful companion. Good. I like it that way. People tend to ruin everything anyway. They do stupid things. So do I, of course. I am not being hypocritical. Like that guy who dropped a canoe at 11,000" in a glacial lake without even knowing how to swim. Pulled to muddy death. Lack of foresight. Epimetheus. His body swollen tangled in vines and algae, nipped at by trout. May never surface, they say. Stupid.

My back is sweaty. A soft breeze rustled the leaves. Indie's ears pricked up. I stopped. Silence. I make so much noise when I walk. Human, the bulldozer of the forest. The elephant in a china shop. Here I go thinking in cliches again. James Joyce didn't. I always say there isn't an original bone in my body. The combination is quite unique though. Right? I wonder what you see when you look at me. The problem of identity: I imagine myself a whole, unified individual because I can connect the dots of my life's temporal line with consistently continuous memories. Some I'd like to erase. Some will nag at my being. Some stroke my identity against the grain. I'd like to forget the last two years at the university. They only confirm that people are not only stupid, but also blatantly arrogant and belligerent. Animals are not. I was not... arrogant and belligerent, that is. Stupid, yes. I let them get away with it. Pity them for they know not what they are doing. Perhaps they do it out of some need to treat others as they were once treated... a perverted attempt to patch up their own wounds with others' pain. The world is cruel, and I finally find myself in a position to add to the cruelty. What is wrong with people? Schopenhauer was right. We breed disease. I'd like to think I learned from the experience. How do they say it: it builds character. Perhaps. I watch the pebbles and roots on the trail. It would not take much to trip and twist my ankle. I look back. No one here. Just the silent forest. My entire world now silent, non-judgmental. I like where I'm at. Just tread carefully.

It's been another mile, I bet. I look around. More trees. I don't seem to have gone anywhere. One part of the trail indistinguishable from another. A tree is a tree is a tree. Just then I realize that I like a view. I like change. I like hiking where I can see the trail leading somewhere. I'm bored. I glance among the trees but cannot see beyond the sea of trunks, branches, foliage. My tormentors do not see me beyond what I allow them to see. They see an inept, incompetent little girl. I didn't hit back, and they just kept beating. For some reason, I did not feel the need to provide a riposte. Am I always this non-confrontational? I remember once, when I was in high school on a volleyball team a girl who barely came up to my chin punched me in the face. I just turned around and walked away. I did not show any anger. I didn't care to. They'll never see me bleed. Besides, they see what they want. Their sight is already distorted. A reflection in a concave glass. At least I know they are wrong about one thing. Keep them ignorant. Am I ever getting out of this forest?

The trail dips. My breathing has been hard, but I haven't noticed. I've gained some altitude, it would seem, but it's all lost on me. No change in view. I check the altimeter: yeah, I've gotten higher. If the trail climbs high enough, I will be above the treeline. I love the sudden change of perspective when reaching the treeline: the entire world opens up to show neighboring mountains and hills. I am not lost in a forest: I can tell where I am. I can orient myself according to visible points of reference. As I descend down the trail, the noise of a stream drowns my thoughts. A bridge. Indie runs to the other side, down to the water, and laps the cool liquid greedily. While he's drinking, I enjoy the change in view watching the glassy water rush over rocks and branches. It dodges obstacles. Flows over or around but keeps to its course. Beautiful cascades of silver ribbons. Rivulets over slippery, iridescent stones. It has a rhythm. I listen to the song. I can ride my bike with no handlebars.... no handlebars... no handlebars... I giggle.

Strange. Everything just flows over. It doesn't tarnish; it doesn't disturb. Just trickles down my spine. My hair spread like weeds afloat in the green pool, mermaid-like. Cleansing. Still no one here. Gnats flickering on the water. I'm rather unmoved by the experience. Surely, it has changed the way I think, who I am. But it didn't beat me. I just know what I want now. I skirt downed trees. Soft litterfall under my feet. Twigs, needles, bark, soft soil, soft steps, soft heart. This trail is not going to climb above the treeline, is it, my Promethean soul? It's going to keep winding through the forest. Beautiful. But it will not give me the satisfaction of seeing beyond the immediate field of vision, beyond the few hundred feet. It's not what I want. I stop. I turn around. The forest nods and accepts with thoughtful silence.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Art of Surfeit

The other day I found out that a rock climbing friend of mine was going to start off her 14er climbing season with an ascent of Quandary Peak via the standard East Ridge route--a good preparation for a venture into the Sawatch range next week. I have climbed Quandary a few years back via West Ridge, and thought it might be a good idea to invite myself on this trip in order to condition my body into hiking to the roof of Colorado without collapsing from lack of oxygen and physical exhaustion.

The weather on the fine day of May 30th was looking relatively good... a bit nippy and breezy... 20-30F and 15 mph winds with gusts up to 40. But I was not worried. After all, the ridge was spacious, and I didn't have to reach the summit. I checked recent trip reports for snow conditions at this time of the year, so I could decide on footwear: mountaineering or hiking boots? Four days before, there was a good snow coverage with some postholing (5/24/2012 trip report): mountaineering boots it must be and a mandatory ice axe. I stuffed my day pack with gaters, heavy gloves, hat, neck warmer, face mask, a thermos of hot tea, and a thermal blanket. All this, on top of the orienteering and survival equipage, such as a compass, altimeter, multiple fire starters, map, and a sizable knife. I knew I wasn't going up Denali, but I figured better over-prepared than under-prepared. Besides it's good for conditioning the body. Thus prepared, clothed in layers, winter jacket, and ski pants, I was even ready for Denali: Quandary--the pipsqueak of a mountain--was nothing! Hubris was far from my attitude, since I've developed tremendous respect for this finicky mountain, but I felt a comfortable confidence.

I met my hiking partners at the trailhead at 4:45am. As soon as I arrived, I realized that all the snow has completely melted and my boots were slightly superfluous. But I did not foresee this little problem, so I did not bother to pack my hiking boots as well. Oh well, I thought to myself, more conditioning. We were off, my dog in the lead and I trailing behind, as usual. By the time we moved 500 yards, I was already overheating... The 30 degree morning temperature at the trailhead felt surprisingly warm. As dawn started breaking, the headlamps very quickly became extraneous as well on this obvious trail through the trees.

The hiking was slow and consistent without too much effort. We quickly reached the treeline and the exposed ridge. The summit became quickly visible, but oh it seemed miles away. The sun started peeking above the mountains and coloring everything with a fine pink glow. Once on the ridge, the cold wind started picking up, and I was thankful for the hat and gloves I lugged on my back.

We followed a good trail up the wide, rocky ridge. The trail became more steep at about 13,000 feet. I started falling behind as my steps became shorter and slower, the heavy, stiff boots weighing me down, adding to the exertion on my flabby, inept leg muscles. To add to the discomfort, I developed some substantial blisters on both heals, and with every step it was more difficult to ignore the pain. We stopped to rest and found an encouraging message scribbled on one of the rocks: "Almost there." I glanced towards the summit: I guess it didn't seem that far away. So with newly restored confidence, we moved on, strong gusts from the East occasionally compromising our balance.

Honestly, the final push to the summit proved quite a feat for me: I was tired, out of breath, slow, in pain, and frankly quite annoyed that I was having so much trouble on this hike. But I pushed on, and at about 8am I found myself on the summit.

I haven't mentioned yet that we hiked all the way up without meeting a single soul on the trail: no one witness to my pathetic effort--bar the mocking pika and the angels. The wind on the summit was cold and substantial. We quickly took a few shots, rested a while, drank some hot tea, had a bite of a granola bar, and started our descent.

The decline in altitude and the momentum were helpful on the descent but my stiff boots countered every advantage: I had to tread carefully in the rocky ridge in order not to loose my balance or twist an ankle. So coming down required more effort than I would have anticipated. At least I could not feel my blisters, since the force shifted to the front of the boot. Having descended about 1000 feet, we met the first hikers going up to the summit. As usual, we passed some ill-prepared victims in shorts and t-shirts. I stood in stark contrast to the miserable, cold girls.

We finally reached the treeline, and as soon as the trail became packed dirt rather than rock and scree, I could move a bit faster. I could feel my legs, my toes, and especially my back. Shedding the layers of clothing as we got to the trees on this beautiful, sunny morning, the extra weight went back to the pack. We reached the car at 10:20am--not exactly record-breaking but a worthy start to the season.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Paying the Piper

In my professional life lately I find myself wearing different hats. My training, education, and experience do not exactly form an ordinary, linear path to success. To use an allegory, if I were to compare my professional life to a literary form, I would say I was a poem or a postmodern novel: my life does not follow some traditional plot line. This ain't Jane Austen, people! It's Ezra Pound, José Eduardo Agualusa! It's a series of simultaneous twinkles and sparkles that vibrate to create an illusion of a whole, but not in its logical movement towards a particular end goal.

I've always been under the conviction that life is too short to do crappy things: no matter how much money you get paid, no matter how proud it makes your mother, no matter how impressive the enterprise is to a common observer, no matter how good it looks on your resume, it's not worth it unless you love every minute of it. Hence, my professional life comprises of various experiences spanning widely different disciplines: I am a student, a college instructor, an art director, a web designer, a copywriter, UI specialist, and a web developer. And for the past couple of years, I've been changing these hats daily--sometimes a couple of times a day, in fact. I find it fascinating how these different disciplines intertwine, work together, and--more importantly--how they create resistance and tension.

For example, I have been recently contracting for a small design firm as a web designer. In other words, it's my job to make things look pretty. This position, as I see it, is quite different from creating a web site for your own client when freelancing. When I agree to create a website, I become the five piece orchestra: I do everything from developing a marketing strategy to producing the product. I am the conductor and the piper, the visionary and the artisan. But when I am contracting as a web designer, I need to put down all those extra instruments. Today I play the pipe. That's it! Sometimes I want to get up and pick up the violin or the drum. I know how to play them. I hear them playing off key, so naturally I'd like to fix this dissonance, but I can't. I'm not in a position to fix it. I'd be out of line. Besides, they don't pay me enough to fix it.

On one hand it's rather liberating to focus only on one job: sometimes "looking pretty" does not mean "selling well" or "feeling good." So I turn off that part of my brain that would like to consider my work from the other perspectives and let others figure it out. It is fascinating watching myself shut up, listen, withhold my judgment, and continue focusing on things looking pretty. Having been an art director, I thought it would be difficult to be the designer: after all, I have reasons for things being pretty, balanced or unbalanced, colorful or bland, for using Helvetica rather than Gill Sans or Futura, for using curves rather not sharp angles, and I can articulate them. As a designer, I can put those considerations aside. I enjoy and play with the visuals and watch them create myriads of different moods. But it's not my place to choose one over the other or to worry about its selling power or risqué factor or target audience.

So today, I happily play the pipe. I follow directions. I don't need to explain anything. I don't need to provide reasons. I don't have to even contrast aesthetic theories or analyze the language. I just blow into my pipe.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Poetry is a Foreign Language

I am a big fan of poetry. Poetry inspires me. It makes me think. It's a hermeneutic orgasm! I also enjoy teaching poetry--not because I know how to do it well, but because I have no idea how to do it. Poetry is personal: it's not a science. Everyone has a different interpretive approach and--for the most part--everyone's approach is correct, as long as he/she employs critical thinking skills. So how do you teach a poem to a class of fresh but different minds with different backgrounds, different philosophies?

Every time I teach poetry, I ask myself "Why do I attempt this impossible feat again?" To teach a poem, as I see it, is not to teach it at all. It's not to talk about the poem but to talk around the poem. It's not to tell the class what it means, but how to read it so it has some kind of a meaning to you--sometimes arbitrary, sometimes illusive, sometimes non-semantic... I walk into the classroom and tremble. I don't want to tell my students what the poem means--if anything at all: I want them to discover for themselves the pleasure of trying to figure it out, the pleasure of the sounds of words, the pleasure of rhythm, of rhyme.

But last night I had a completely different experience. I was teaching my 10-year-old how to read in Polish. She picked out a book of children's poetry and chose a poem of eight lines. She read the poem out loud, and I asked her a series of simple questions pertaining to nothing other than the basic meaning of the words she just read. I needed to know that she understood the language. The simple inquiry about the obvious brought about ideas latent in the text, ideas of deeper import that were possibly too complex for a 10-year-old yet so suggestive.

Perhaps the key to teaching poetry is to teach it as if it were written in a foreign language. Most often, in ordinary speech, we do not pay as much attention to the meaning of words, to word choice: we have neither the time nor the patience to psychologize (although, at the risk of stereotyping, I believe that women are more attuned to nuances than men, especially in emotionally-charged situations). But in a poem every word is on steroids: every word is there for  a reason, and its meaning is placed under a magnifying glass. If we read poetry as if it were written in a foreign language, where every term needs to be defined, we develop hyper-sensitivity to language and perhaps even to our own thinking processes.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Kantian Aesthetics

Upon reflection on my previous post, I realized that it not only posed more questions than answers, whatever answers it provided were rather unsatisfactory, and there were further distinctions of taste that needed to be made. So, of course, I consulted my favorite philosopher, Immanuel Kant, to get some further explanation.

In The Critique of Judgment, Kant distinguishes three (or perhaps four) kinds of reflective judgements of taste, all having pleasure or delight as their end: the agreeable, the beautiful (the sublime), and the good. The agreeable is purely based on sensations: In other words, things that feel good, taste good, smell good, and in general are related to sensory gratification are agreeable and, what's more, they are purely subjective. So properly speaking, when I say, "This steak tastes good," I really mean, "This steak tastes good to me." The good is essentially related to moral judgments possible through the faculty of reason, and, according to Kant, completely objective. For Kant, things are either moral or immoral, in accordance with the categorical imperative. Both of these judgments are coupled with interest: the agreeable is the object of sensation and the good is the object of the will: one is determined by feelings, the other is rationally determined. They both refer to the faculty of desire: the agreeable gratifies and the good provides approval. The beautiful, on the other hand, is disinterested: it simply pleases. It is a delight that is completely free from desire. And, most importantly for Kant, it offers proof that freedom of the will exists after all. Since freedom is a noumenal (rather than phenomenal) concept, it does not have a corresponding empirical existence: it cannot be intuited through the senses.

But to go back to our question of the objectivity or subjectivity of aesthetic judgements, Kant enigmatically says that as the agreeable has only subjective validity and the good has only objective validity, the beautiful is subjectively universal. A what? Stay with me, my patient reader. What he means by that apparent oxymoron is that all judgments of beauty are indeed subjective but universally agreed upon. Even though these aesthetic judgments are singular, they are universally valid. What Kant is doing is redefining the term "beautiful" to have a very particular meaning, which means that under his definition we normally use the term too freely.

So how does Kant's explanation inform our inquiry? Well, it satisfies our conclusive statement that aesthetic judgments are subjective and that beauty is not a necessary quality of a work of art. Jackson Pollock, Grandma Moses, and Bob Ross are certainly artists and their works belong to the category of art, but their paintings are not beautiful because they inspire no universal approval. They are merely agreeable to some, delight only some. By the same token, works of art do not need to be good or morally correct. But some art can be beautiful. Kant supports my idea that some aesthetic judgments have universal validity even though they are purely subjective. It also implicates that relishing in beauty or sublimity of nature brings us farther away from the evil influence of our own will and egotistical desire (which according to later German philosophers, such as Schopenhauer) towards a disinterested and free existence.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Kalymnos Primer

Ahh... back from vacation. Good thing about vacations--no matter how lovely--is that they eventually end, and you return home to your own comfortable bed, your faithful dog, your routine. Now that I've been home for a day or two, I had some time to reflect on the trip.

In retrospect, the trip was a complete success. However, I must add that it was not for the light of heart. We booked our trip a few months in advance choosing April as the ideal month: just a few weeks before climbing high season but warm enough to guarantee good climbing. Our flight took us through Dallas, Texas and Madrid, Spain. With all the gear--rope, shoes, quickdraws--we made some packing decisions: take the gear on the plane as carry-on luggage and check in clothes and such. The logic behind the decision? If they lost our luggage, at least we'd have our gear, which is infinitely more expensive. All was well, until we arrived at the security checkpoint in Madrid. The security guards were not sympathetic to our climbing endeavors and wouldn't allow so much metal to go on the plane, because surely all those quickdraws could become dangerous weapons in the right hands. With little time to spare, we checked the bag in, and continued onto Athens. Luckily, we arrived without any adventures, picked up our luggage and gear and headed for the ferry.

Getting to the port of Piraeus was the easiest and cheapest on a bus that skirted the city and an hour and a half later deposited us at the terminal.  As we were cruising through the streets, we couldn't help noticing all the graffiti, vandalized buildings, and general disarray. Perhaps, it didn't look like a city after an apocalypse, but it was surprisingly unsavory. The dark-skinned peddlers at intersections and at the port did not add glamor to the city. Let's just say that the Greek economic crisis manifested itself in more than one way.

Because of the questionable infrastructure of the ferry booking system(s) in Greece, we chose to purchase the tickets once we got there. We figured there would not be that much traffic and hoped for plenty of availability. Alas, it worked out just fine. Word of advice: they only take cash! We purchased our tickets to Kos, an island neighboring Kalymnos, at the port a few hours before departure. The Blue Star Ferry did not stop at Kalymnos on the day we were traveling. Having killed some time refusing to purchase various nick-knacks from peddlers, avoiding stray dogs, and discussing politics with a disgruntled citizen of the Netherlands, who had his driver's license revoked because he (a.) was driving drunk, (b.) argued with the policewoman who pulled him over, and (c.) failed to convince the judge that women should not enter into police service, we boarded the ship. A lost iPhone, random bomb threat, and pirate boat episode later we finally arrived on Kalymnos.

We stayed at Hotel Plaza, right on the beach. It was a pleasant place, with a beautiful marble-covered lobby, friendly service, free WiFi and breakfast, and a climbing shop with reasonably priced gear inside. The rooms were small but pleasant. The television set was the size of a postage stamp and offered virtually no programming, which did not bother us a bit since we had neither the time nor the inclination to watch the tube anyway. Our little balcony looked over the main street (as if there were any other) and at the rock bar, The Scorpion, that played fantastic music all the time. The owner of the bar had a strange and wondrous fascination with Native Americans and decorated the place accordingly with portraits of Indians, bows and arrows, and peace pipes. At this time of the year, there was plenty of availability of accommodations for climbers--hotels, rooms, and studios--all reasonably priced.

The weather proved to be good although uncharacteristically windy and cool for the time of year. This did not prevent us from having a wonderful time both on the crags and off. The first day, after a rather later breakfast, we headed up to a crag closest to our hotel, White Shark and The Poets, about 30 minutes walking distance. We climbed a few easy 5c routes to get a feel for the rock. The rock, a sharp, porous limestone was super sticky and provided excellent feet. The texture offered divot, finger pockets, little sharp spikes, and cracks. The routes were well protected and most often provided a stationary carabiner for the anchor, which saved us from cleaning.  On the following days, we ended up climbing at the Spartacus, Odyssey, Iliada, Grande Grota, Jurassic Park, Panorama, and Afternoon. As we changed crags, the nature of the rock changed as well: from slab to overhanging, from huge stalactites to hand pockets, from sharp limestone to wet tufa. The variety was delightful.

The food on the island was awesome! We usually ate in tavernas close to our hotel. We especially enjoyed one in particular, The Aegean Tavern--a family owned establishment, where we met all the family members, were always greeted with sincere smiles, and enjoyed fantastic saganaki flambe and a sweet dessert of honey and cinnamon topped donuts, lovingly dubbed, "honey balls." With dinner, we drank mostly red wine and Greek beer, Mythos. Their white wine is nothing to write home about.

The climbing community, wherever we went, was very friendly, respectful, and fun. Everyone seemed to speak at least a bit of English, which made it easy for us to communicate. We made some excellent friends that proved great company throughout our stay on the island and, more impressively, were living proof that there is climbing after having children.

The couple of days went by quickly and soon enough we were looking for a way to get back to Athens to catch our flight back to the US. I was not particularly keen on spending another 12 hours on boats, so we purchased plane tickets. We were to fly out of Kalymnos, change planes on Leros, and finally end up in Athens. We were two out of three passengers flying out of Kalymnos. The airport did not open until about an hour before departure, and the minimal staff--one lady and a security guard--hilariously performed all duties, from ticketing, to baggage check-in, to walking us onto the plane.  Next time, we would probably purchase all plane tickets in advance to ensure best availability, less hassle, and more direct routes.

Our final adventure was spending a few hours in the capital. I wanted to walk the city and  visit some of the historic sites. But to our utter surprise and disappointment, the center of town looked as bad as the outskirts--vandalized, filled with peddlers and the homeless sleeping on the sidewalks, and hooligans occupying spray-painted statues. It was painful to see. I'm glad we could not get an earlier flight out of Kalymnos because I would have been rather upset that I missed a good day of climbing to visit Greek slums.

All in all, we had a wonderful time! Until next time, Kalymnos. Γειά σου!

Monday, April 9, 2012

In Good Taste

Judging by a certain infrequency of blog posts in the last couple of months, I have been busy. Indeed, I have been working on the house, at the art school, web design projects, and on myself--stressing over bills and things. And suddenly it was Easter, the end of the semester, and time to pack for my imminent vacation in Greece.

So let's see... as a way of summarizing the last couple of months it would make sense to pick a common denominator of all the activities I've been involved in that I would have liked to have written about (and will soon). What do the following have in common?
  • Working on the house: spring is here and that means gardening, yard work, and landscape design;
  • Teaching aesthetics: trying to instill in my art students the practical value of the philosophy of art;
  • Web design projects: working with cranky, picky, and utterly tasteless clients;
All of these involve aesthetic judgments. Disputing or--as Oscar Wilde would prefer it "quarreling"--over aesthetics is something I do on a daily basis. Should the stone fire pit be in the center of the back yard or on the patio? Can Bob Ross be considered an artist? Can Jackson Pollock? Does cheesy clip art reminiscent of the 80s really belong on a modern webpage? And, more importantly, can aesthetic judgments ever be objective?

I consider myself a woman of good taste. By the same token, I believe there are people of bad taste in the world and those of mediocre taste. In fact, for the most part I can recognize them, label them, if you will, which inevitably places me in some imaginary elitist club. This notion, of course, reeks of  snobbery, pretension, and arrogance, and it offends me because, after all, I'm a woman of good taste.

If you recognize a certain paradox here, my patient reader, we are surely on a crash course towards circular reasoning. The problem is that as much as I would like to believe that there is no such thing as good or bad taste only individual tastes, I cannot bring myself to shut my eyes to the obvious examples of bad taste. But as soon as I admit that I can recognize bad taste or no taste at all, I am already attempting to make objective aesthetic judgments, which I would like to deny exist.

Are you still with me? So which one is it? Are aesthetic judgments subjective or objective?

Let's pick a starting point. . . something that we know or that would be difficult to dispute: there are certain things that are indisputably in bad taste (for example, showing up to your church wedding in an all too revealing dress, making fun of another who is disabled, challenged, or of a different race, or gaudy, red and gold rooms with velvet walls and furnishings). By "in bad taste" I mean unsuitable, inappropriate for a particular occasion, unrefined, uncouth, exhibiting a lack of or bad judgment.

What does it mean "to have taste"? "To have taste" and "to have good taste" are synonymous, which implies that the faculty of "taste" or judgment must be present among the catalog of your other mental faculties. If it is there, it must be good; in other words, once you possess "taste," it cannot be bad. There does not seem to be any room for a range in "taste." Yet we do say that some people "have bad taste," which implies that even if you have "taste," it can be faulty in its discernment of aesthetic or moral judgments. "Having no taste" can be synonymous with "having bad taste," but it can also mean having no opinion whatsoever--either possessing no faculty to provide the judgment or possessing no inclination to make any judgment. The first suggests an absence of the faculty of "taste" altogether, but the latter its presence but inactivity. So the semantics associated with the word "taste" are confusing and further muddle the issue: do some people simply lack the ability or is everyone equally endowed? If we all have "taste," can some have a better quality or quantity of it? Is it genetically predisposed? Or does your environment condition how well your "taste" develops?

We forget about an important distinction in "taste": it seems some "taste" relates to obeying certain standards accepted by a society and some doesn't. For example, wearing a swimsuit size 6 to a beach by a woman of size 16 signifies "bad taste:" she shows impropriety in exhibiting too much skin breaking standards of decency. This kind of "bad taste" is most often associated with moral judgments. But what about purely aesthetic judgments? Is bad art possible? Or is it merely a matter of personal choice, like ice cream flavors? If that's so, are art critics bogus?

I know that certain art I admire or I find pleasing, and some I consider repulsive and ugly. However, I am also confident that there must be others who will wholeheartedly disagree with me. For example, I find Bob Ross's painting style questionable: his paintings may be pretty, but they are not art because they lack expression. Jackson Pollock's paintings I find pleasant to look at, but I question their artistic quality based on an apparent lack of technique and intention. Grandma Moses may be admired for making a career despite her advanced age and her paintings may be postage stamp material, but in the lack of perspective I see a poor style and little technique. Yet Bob Ross, Jackson Pollock, and Grandma Moses are loved, respected, admired, and prolific artists.

I recognize shortcomings in all three artists and can describe them, but their admirers would beg to differ. In fact, just to play devil's advocate, I am capable of defending their "art" as well and, further, be equally convincing. Bob Ross's paintings create wonderfully peaceful, tranquil natural scenes with little brush movement, which accounts for the paintings' being light and tranquil, rather than emotionally charged and overworked. Jackson Pollock splotches represent a rebellion against traditional definitions of art as being imitations of reality. Instead, they imitate reality but not in the visible spectrum but instead are reflections of the soul, feelings, and emotions--the invisible that is equally, if not more, significant. And Grandma Moses's flat landscapes representing rustic, simple, American lifestyles contrast with the intellectual, highly-refined, fast-paced life in the urban centers; her art accentuates the simple by its lack of perspective by suggesting the depth of the population to be existent in the hearts of the people rather than in their stereotypical roles.

What does it all mean? It seems to point on one hand to the subjectivity of art, but also to the enterprise of the critic (or a woman of good taste) of describing in detail the elements that he/she finds admirable and that he/she finds unpleasant. In other words, the difference between a person of good taste and a person of bad taste is in the fact that the person of good taste can explain why a certain piece of art is good or bad, while the person of bad taste (or no taste) will not be able to provide such an explanation. In other words, it all comes down to educated, literate, eloquent snobbery, and has nothing whatsoever to do with some formal quality of the artwork.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Entering the Tea Room

Those of you who know me, also know that I have a profound respect for Japanese culture. This fascination stems partly I think from my high school experiences. I came to this country when I was about to enter high school. Transplanted from Poland, lost, angry, and rebellious I was thrown into the whirlwind of the most vicious school environment--dog-eat-dog world of public, inner-city high school. And there I met Kaori, my best friend and soul mate.

Kaori was Japanese, and I eagerly learned about the culture through her and through her interpretation of it. She never spoke of the theory behind her lifestyle, ritual, aesthetic, ethic; there was no mention of Zen or Taoism. But I recognized in her a different philosophy of life, different from the Western, American, modern culture we were surrounded by and different from my Eastern European upbringing. There seemed to be a certain tranquility about her, a harmony she seemed to experience that was inaccessible to me. I felt I was fighting the world around me since the day I was born--fighting to survive, fighting to succeed, fighting to be better, to do better. She, on the other hand, just lived and enjoyed everyday for what it was. It was frustrating at times watching her calmly ignore studying for tests or playing Super Mario Brothers when she was supposed to be writing her papers. Not an ambitious bone in her body. I squirmed; she glided. Of course, these observations were inevitably tainted by that "othering" effect: I, an outsider, watched and admired her culture, recreated it in my own mind according to my own paradigms. In the end, my vision, my (mis)representation, was a construct of my own imagination. How close was it to her experience is impossible to tell, and I recognize that fact with humility.

Years later, I am still learning about that culture trying to understand, embrace, and tap into that inexhaustible source of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility that I imagine it to be. This time, however, I am attempting this cultural invasion from a theoretical perspective. As far as I am concerned you are who you imagine yourself to be. Identity is not static, inborn, innate, somehow set in stone but writ in water. And, to a certain extent, we are in control of who we are. I say, "to a certain extent" because honestly there will always be those Occidental demons in me, no matter how much I try to exorcise them. But I live, learn, and cultivate my passion of this other philosophy of life in hope of it eventually permeating my soul, so I could become what I admire, get closer to my ideal.

What is that ideal? As I mentioned, this ideal has no existence outside of my mind. Even though I would like to imagine it is an essence of being Japanese, it is merely my own--most likely incorrect--construction of it based on subjective experiences of such things as the arts, fashions, films, food, customs, and literature. In his 1906 work, The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura describes the Japanese aesthetic through the traditional tea ceremony. According to him, the tea ritual taught the Japanese many values, such as humility, peace of mind, harmony with nature, but most importantly simplicity. The architecture of the tea house alone represents those values. The roji, for instance, was a garden path leading to the room, and it was "intended to break connection with the outside world, and to produce a fresh sensation conducive to the full enjoyment of aestheticism in the tea-room itself." It was a break from the noise of reality. The entrance to the tea house was only three feet high, in order to promote humility as one had to bow down in order to enter. The tea-room is empty with subdued colors. A single aesthetic object is brought in to compliment the mood of the occasion and enhance the beauty. The simplicity of the room creates a sanctuary from the clamor of the outside world. The tea hut is fragile, made of wood and straw.

The entire architecture and design of the tea-house reflects the Buddhist theory of evanescence and its demands for the mastery of spirit over matter. The hut is merely a temporary shelter for the body; likewise, the body is merely a temporary shelter for the soul--a flimsy, ephemeral, organic hut. Just as the tea-house, the body housing the soul should be kept in good condition and should exhibit the same aesthetic values as the soul within, the soul that beautifies and animates it. It should be sheltered from the noise and dirt of the external world (what Wordsworth called "the still, sad music of humanity"), simple, balanced, at peace, in harmony with nature, pure, enlightened, and beautiful. But before one can enter this "Abode of Fancy," one must first show humility and respect.

This kind of philosophy of life--aesthetic and ethic--I would like to embrace. I want to stop squirming already. So I read Kakuzo Okakura, bow down, and enter the tea-house, if only momentarily. Perhaps, if I work at it, I will be able to enjoy that abode for longer periods of time. I'll start with brewing some green tea.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


First of all, I'd like to confess that I am terrible at self-marketing: I have trouble representing myself or my abilities to a prospective employer. I either project cockiness or a lack of confidence. Yes, I know they seem to be two polar opposites. What can I say? I've got talent... sheesh... But the worst part is that I don't believe I'm guilty of either.... at least not when it comes to my art direction and design.

The misrepresentation of Ewa begins with the résumé. I just realized that I haven't really read my résumé recently, and with my change of taste, change of employment, and change of lifestyle I did not bother to consider changing the document. The truth is I feel a serious aversion towards the résumé. Why? I guess it has something to do with my antagonism towards the corporate culture in general. After all, the document is a marketing tool to sell me. Beyond the obvious negative connotations of a person becoming a commodity to be bought and sold in the corporate marketplace, innately the thing must reflect some self-aggrandizement that I am not comfortable with at all. I know I have some skills and plenty of experience, but I am not willing to brag about that.  Can I perform these tasks? Yes, I can. What else is there to say?

So what was wrong with my résumé?

Well, let's start with the visual presentation: being a designer I did not bother to waste my time in promoting me. The way I looked at it, the words on the page should alone speak for me. But the truth is that since my résumé is a reflection of me as an artist, it must also reflect my aesthetic sensibility. So I redesigned (or rather designed) the document from a boring, generic Word template to a pretty .pdf created in InDesign with an abundance of white space to rest the eye.

Now, those words on the page. My most serious offense: I came across as "a doer" not "an achiever," as a few people have pointed out. This kind of comment sends me right over the edge! I don't want to be "an achiever." "Achiever" implies some sick, inner, over-ambitious desire to reach the top without consideration for anyone: it implies a motivation not to be a great partner, to make the team or company awesome but a motivation to be awesome. It's narcissistic. "A doer" on the other hand becomes awesome because he/she does awesome work. But beyond the vocabulary, those people were right: my résumé told the prospective employer what I do or can do rather than what I could do for the company. In other words, it did not specify how the skill that I possess can be a valuable asset to them. My attitude has always been if they see what I can do, they will know how I can be useful to them. I guess that is arrogant. Slightly.

I fixed the wording, inconsistencies, and redundancy in my résumé. I even--for the first time in my miserable career--created a website for me. I never bothered because I had other projects on the table that seemed to be much more important than an ego trip otherwise known as a portfolio website. The final product (it took me three days from concept to completion) comprises a short statement about me, my résumé, and portfolio. It also links to my useful website (Eve Ate Apple) and this blog. It's big. It's bold. It certainly grabs attention.

The question is does the website and the now revised résumé correctly reflect who I am and my abilities? Or do they construct another perversion of me? When you think about it, the résumé and the website are loosely based on reality or my representation of it. I have no objective way of seeing myself, so I resort to constructing an image of myself outside of myself, and based upon that simulacrum, I create another with graphics and language. That already means that this representation I create is twice removed from the truth. The prospective employer translates this vague representation of me once again, so he can construct an image of his prospective employee. That's thrice! How much of the real me is left?

On a more positive note, however, the résumé or the portfolio site as simulacra offer an opportunity for an expression of my ideal self (which, of course, is a gross distortion of reality in itself) but, more importantly, an invitation to challenge that ideal. Since I have effectively redefined myself as what I think I should like to be, others can critique that artificial semblance without offending me. After all, it's not me. It's just one projection of me. And considering that I am much more complex than this two-dimensional model I have created, I can always attempt to highlight another part of my identity that may be more attractive to others.

Nevertheless, this blog reveals that résumés and portfolio websites are poor representations of who we are and our potential value as employees. But what else is there? I guess I'll get back to sending out those résumés.