Notes on America

Ilgaz sent me this great piece written by an American living in Istanbul. She writes on her revaluation of her personal identity through college and her stay in Istanbul. It’s thought provoking!

Unlearning the Myth of American Innocence

Suzy Hansen writes about the first time she understood that identity is created when reading James Baldwin:

“I’d had no idea that we had ever had to define our identities at all, because to me, white Americans were born fully formed, completely detached from any sort of complicated past.”

This rung my bell, as I had a similar experience in college, specifically an American Literature class I took in Wellington while reading The Great Gatsby. The class was entirely Kiwi except for me, and a lot of the lectures and discussions focused on American cultural identity in relation to a Kiwi cultural identity. I was the first time I’d heard anyone discuss American Culture from the outside looking in.

I was used to criticism of American culture. Through high school I was a fan of the Beat writers, American Transcendentalists, Fight Club’s Palahniuk, and Robinson Jeffers. I had a punk rock, Adbusters attitude of cutting through bullshit and focusing on who really benefits from any given cultural form.

These authors offered an alternative to the bland consumerist conformity that forms the background of middle-American life, and I embraced them. My choice to study in New Zealand was an attempt to take “the road less traveled” as the famous poem goes.

The Kiwi professor and TAs approached America as a foreign culture and from the outside they were able to thoughtfully criticize problems with the American dream with a clarity I had never heard before. The arguments were familiar but the perspective was new, and it rattled me.

I had never considered myself a nationalist but I found myself reflexively defending cultural values I didn’t realize I’d internalized.

Goals ARE achievable, “where there is a will, there is a way.” Social mobility IS REAL. People grow up poor and work hard and send their children to college. That happened in MY family so I know it’s true. Cars and driving, road trips, moving across country, these things have a psychological effect, there is freedom in that. I’ve experienced it! These ideas weren’t manufactured in me, they are real!

But looking into American literature from another cultural perspective, I saw that these are not universal truths, they are American ideas local to a place and a part of a system of myth-making, national brand building. From this perspective even rebellious American authors questioning of the status quo became status quo and are absorbed into the brand. A snake biting it’s own tail.

There was some business man in the 80s-90s trying to decide whether to take a job at Apple Computer or at Coca-cola. Steve Jobs asked him, “do you want to put sugar into water or do you want to change the world?” The guy started working for Apple.

But think, he could have changed the world.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

That’s the last bit of The Great Gatsby. The urging, the stretching-out-for, the pretension, reaching toward a goal, but inevitably reaffirming the place they started from. (There are big resonances here in the 20-movements and neutrality work: seeking neutrality of movement we discover the clown.)

So what? Do you give up and quit? Do you cynically sit back, criticizing the efforts of others? Do you say, “Fuck it all! This is who I am now?” These questions were right in the middle of all the texts I was reading back then how couldn’t I have heard them?

Married!

Ilgaz and I are married and weddinged now.
Here is a good place to see a lot of pictures from our wedding in Ulas, Turkey.

Fortune Telling Rabbits

This is a nice little bite of Turkish life from a tourist in Istanbul. Especially nice for me to read because so often I hear Istanbulers talking about how much the city has changed. I can assure you that fortune telling rabbits are still here, 11 years after this was published.

FORTUNE-TELLING RABBITS: ISTANBULby Kevin Dolgin

“Tell the rabbit your name,” he said, which seemed only fair since I already knew theirs. Upon learning my name, Bonçuk wiggled his nose the way rabbits do and then chose among the dozens of folded-up pieces of paper in front of him. He drew one with his little teeth, and Sahan took it and handed it to me.

Bullies, Bullies Everywhere

Well it looks like Gianforte won the special election.

It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it… ― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

I’m no fan of Gianforte. He’s a religious extremist, a rich Californian and worst of all his first action REPRESENTING the state will be bringing Montana into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Namely he won his seat a day after he attacked a journalist with his fists and not, you know, his words.

“At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, “I’m sick and tired of this!” ― Fox News correspondent Alicia Acuna

Gianforte’ thuggish violence was a surprise to me. I would have figured he had more control over himself than that. As shocking as it is, the cynical side of me knows that there are a good number of people who will feel a sense of relief seeing a powerful man snap into righteous violence and clobber a little pipsqueak trying to taking advantage. It’s a part of our humanity to use force when reason fails.

Putting my political disagreement with Gianforte aside I think it’s important to look more into why using violence to win an argument is against my conscious even though in some cases my feelings are for it.

If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg. ― Murakami

This quote lodged itself in my brain when I first read it. It’s a paradoxical position to have because it’s so hard to root for the egg. Rooting for the underdog is a big part of American culture and the American Dream, but it’s as old as David and Goliath. But David is not an egg. David has an individual triumph over Goliath. That little stone he throws smashes through Goliath’s head, tearing him down once and for all. Whereas egg never triumphs when it goes against the wall because the egg is not an underdog. The egg will always lose. It’s the story of the powerful expressing itself on the powerless. My sister gave me a copy of 1984 when I was a freshman in high school. The last sentences are horrifying:

“Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Winning is a great feeling. Go Cubs! But it cannot be what drives us. I looked up the rest of that Murakami quote and was happy to see that there was more context. A way out. We may not avoid the violence of being punched in the face by a US Representative, tortured for peacefully protesting a violently corrupt government, smashed against a wall or having a boot smash our faces but there is a way out of the game.

“Why? Because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg. Each of us is confronting a high wall. The high wall is the system which forces us to do the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals . . . We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us — create who we are. It is we who created the system.” ― Murakami

Can joining together for warmth and strength defeat the wall? No. Not in the way David beat Goliath that’s for sure, there will be no thrill of victory. No sigh of relief, no parades, no win. But we will be there at the foot of the wall together.


UPDATE:

A good article from the Atlantic on this race and the subject of violence: “This is not valor, it is the celebration of violence against those who cannot respond in kind.” — The Lessor Part of Valor

Making A Mask

I was lucky to be present for the final project performances of the fourth graduating class of students of the Fiziksel Tiyatro ve Komedi Okulu in Istanbul, Turkey. My masks are used for training at that school and it was my pleasure that three of the groups made mask performances.
What an honor! I had nothing to do with the creation of the performances, heck, I barely knew the performers. But there were the masks that I know so well embodied and onstage. A divorce, a dark and funny audition scene with some very well integrated circus skills and a sweet scene on the conflict between two neighbors, one old, one young. I loved it so much so that I’m ready to get cracking on another group of masks when I return home.

The Formless Hunch

Detail from The Subway, George Tooker (1950)

“the formless hunch – the basis of everything – that something is pregnant, something is possible, and all the work is to find the complete, convincing but temporary form that suits the moment”

-Peter Brook

 

I’ve been nurturing an unformed hunch about having a good crack at making more masks for a while. With the last few masks I made I started writing notes, reminders to myself to make things easier. Avoid making mistakes twice. That and notes on the masks that I’ve gotten to see up and playing, little things I’d have done differently mostly: awkward transitions, rough edges, weird colors. In time, I collected those notes into a little book and now into a website.

Tapping out all these notes has been clarifying for my process and I suppose has been forming more clearly that unformed hunch to get to making.

As I see it, the next steps are a lot more practical, buying clay, gathering material and setting up a studio. The necessary call of movement to making a mask. Here we go.