The Church of Market

we kneel at the Church of Market.
our Holy Purpose is to raise the value of our shares.

faithful are those,
who have sacrificed the earth,
the commons,
our humanity,
at the altar of the Divine Profit.

regulations, are an abomination—

limits on righteous work are the work of the depraved.
they must always be demolished
for the good of the Market.

let us praise the blessed Lords Investors—
which has graced us with the strength to fight such villainy
and let our faith flow through the halls of the State.
one-by-one
we will vanquish these restraints.

let us prevail in this O Divine Profit,
let us prevail.

Citizenfour and the Power of Narratives

I saw Citizenfour this week, the new Laura Poitras documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA revelations. It’s a momentous, chilling piece of film making that shines a glaring light on the disturbing folly that’s become of the US in the post-9/11 world. The hours of raw footage that Laura filmed throughout the week she and Glenn Greenwald first met Ed are intimate in a way that makes you, as a viewer, feel like you are part of the history that unfolds on the screen.

And that’s what struck me most about Citizenfour. The historical relevance of the Snowden revelations not only lies with the truth that he chose expose about the government, but also in the way he did it. It was the way he partnered with Glenn and Laura to curate the release of state secrets, and to do it in a way that they could maximize the impact of the truth and trustworthiness of his actions.

But as anyone who follows the work of Glenn and Laura knows, they aren’t ordinary journalists. They are part of a new crop that reject the ideal of objectivity in journalism—a farce, I believe, that only works to hide the inevitable subjectivity, the motives of the presenters and the producer of the news story. And they are overt about their motive: to shed light on the truth and to expose the dangers of unchecked state power in an effort to inspire change.

To Glenn and Laura, it may have first been surprising, but also strategic to help Ed show his face to the world. In the film, they make it seem as though their main motivation for doing this was for his safety. Making him known to the public makes it much more difficult for any powerful entity that felt threatened by him to snuff him out. He was a guy who did this for the sake of the greater good, not out of some egotistical need, some narcissistic urge. By presenting him as the heroic individual that he is, they were able to ensure that the public would stand by him and his action. What they don’t say is that his publicity would, and likely already has, inspire others to follow his lead as a government whistleblower.

The thing about fighting power is that the powerful do an excellent job of hiding their motivations from the public. In the cases where the policies themselves are carried out in secret, talking about the secrecy itself is enough to rile the public and undermine their faith in their government. Secrecy is a major way they’re able to get away with these policies, but it’s also their greatest weakness. When their actions, and especially their objectives, are revealed to the public, their legitimacy shrivels up along with the faith and trust people had in them.

For activists, our strongest ally is the truth. But sadly the truth alone isn’t sexy enough. The truth can be dry, non-compelling, or confusing. Governments, corporations, and other entities of concentrated power invest a huge amount of their energy in the optics of their actions. When it’s a matter of public opinion, they’re adept at hiding even their most heinous acts by using lofty justifications or simply relying on the fact that the mainstream media won’t report it. Too often it’s because these stories are just too tedious to unpack for the viewers. As John Oliver said to describe the net neutrality fight, whether on purpose or by function, those in power have figured that “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.”

Which gets me back to Citizenfour and its potential to add a new wave of energy towards significantly reforming mass surveillance. What the global fight for digital privacy, and really any issue in social justice issue needs, is better storytelling. Stories are what inspire people. Stories are what frame big, complicated, boring issues in a way that humanizes them and makes them tangible for people. No matter how much something warrants newsworthiness because of its impact and relevance for people’s lives, it won’t resonate with them, and they won’t care about it unless they can see the narrative and place themselves within it.

We especially need stories at a time when things are seriously broken. Democracy is a joke. Corporations make and break the rules they want. And meanwhile the government is doing more and more to persecute and silence journalists and individuals who are fighting to fix the system. What Laura does with Citizenfour is tell Ed’s story, to show why a modest, every-day person would put their life on the line for the public-interest, and how they can, alone, put a giant wrench in a powerful, corrupt, and seemingly unstoppable system.

burning man: re-thinking privilege in a not-so-make-believe world

I wanted to experience it myself. No matter how many things I’d heard and read, I knew I wasn’t getting the whole picture. Wasn’t willing to listen to that little voice of judgment, and honestly, that cowardice that whispered:

“there’s no way you’ll survive out there.
the sun, the dust, the port-a-potties, and no showers for a week.
it’s gonna be seeped in privileged, extravagant, techie bro-ttitude …
it’ll be too much.
all of it will make you feel gross inside and out…”

for the last few years these murmurings stifled the pangs of curiosity I’ve been having about it.
But I didn’t want to care what other people said. I don’t hate on something until I understand what it is, and I only care or feel like I have the place to critique a thing until I do.

the day I was really convinced was when I was getting lunch with an old close friend of mine, Martina. I’m notoriously bad at keeping in touch with people so I didn’t even know that she’d gone. This person, one of my favorite people, was someone I didn’t really expect to go to a huge neo-hippie festival in the middle of the desert. It caught me off guard. As I listened to her talk about it, I kept prodding her with questions. She described things she experienced that seems so otherworldly, so unexpected, like a wacky sci-fi world. It suddenly sounded so fucking cool. If she was into it this much, the odds were I would be too.

When it started to become time to make the commitment, I started dating a guy who’d been going for the past several years. he sealed it for me. how could I not try at this point, when so many people, my people, were into it? I wanted to know if I could do it and survive. I wanted to know what the big deal was.

so, I decided to go to Burning Man.

It starts months and months before. At the time it seems like an ungodly amount of preparation, but looking back at it it’s really part of the experience. for your first time, the thing you need to focus on (and quite honestly, all you can really handle) is to figure out how to go and how to survive. Everyone warns you about the excruciating heat, the suffocating dust storms, and the unforgivingly cold, dark nights. I read almost every discussion board and took every random piece of advice I got from friends and strangers about what I needed for the trip. I hadn’t gone on a real camping trip in ages so I was pretty insecure about my outdoor survival skills.

Then there was the planning you need to do if you’re in a camp. I ended up joining Martina’s, which consisted of friends or friends-of-friends of the people who camped together the previous year. We were 60 people, from around the world, most of whom were complete strangers to one another. The process of organizing everything for this many people across 8+ time zones was a feat in itself. We had to plan our food, water, grey water disposal system, shade structure, seating area, signage, etc. etc. I wanted to do everything I could to contribute and be helpful…but I’ll be totally honest and say that I also did it too because I was worried things wouldn’t get done.

In the end, my camp came together remarkably well. It was satisfying to be able to rely on a bunch of total strangers. Everyone was expected to contribute and work collaboratively to build what became our home for that week. pretty much everyone pulled through where it mattered. I was proud that we all created a way that we could all live together on a square plot of dry hard dust, and that we managed to not be a total mess.

In some ways, I guess I should’ve expected this. Burning Man isn’t a place for people who just talk about doing things. It doesn’t matter what you say or plan to do, all that matters is that you did it. That goes for anything you bring to the Playa, to what you end up doing when you’re there. It’s an opportunity to flex cooperative abilities and your giving abilities. At the same time you’re challenged in your willingness to be creative and open to new opportunities, you need to be socially and environmentally aware.

It’s all held together by some basic, intuitively sensible rules. Leave no trace and pick up any Matter Out Of Place. Respect each other’s boundaries. Give and receive whatever you can. You respect these rules because they’re not arbitrary. They’re designed out of utility for the security and happiness of the people who choose to be there. In this way they’re freeing, not inhibiting. These basic rules reflect the event’s slow evolution. I was told that they were the result of lessons learned from tragic accidents and the inevitable necessity for more structure as the city grew and grew each year.

And as it grew, it seems that it became more and more like the world people came there to escape.

That ability to escape is really only something privileged people can do. You need to have the money to spend, and the ability to get time off to disconnect from your job and your other responsibilities. But even then, why Burning Man? Why not spend the time and the resources to go on a relaxing vacation? Why not go into the mountains, surround yourself with thick rustling trees or sprawl out next to some cool peaceful beach?

it’s because the challenge of it’s thrilling. It’s novel to be part of something so big and cooperative. There are few places in this world that invite you to participate and engage in the creation of a shared experience. It forces you to push your comfort zones in ways you never would’ve conceived.

but, as nothing really is, it’s not removed from the real world. Or what Burners call the “default world,” and the very real inequalities in power, influence, and money.

You see it all around. there’s the turnkey camps, where people pay others to set up a camp for them, sometimes coming as a package with expensive chefs, butlers, and the like. Apparently, some of them compose their camps so no one can walk through their whole set up. I saw small clans of segways zoom past me. Sometimes I noticed art cars or camps with older white men sitting at a throne or up high, higher than anyone else, flanked by what I can only imagine to be paid models and dancers in coordinated burner-esque outfits.

It’s gross, for sure, but I was also fascinated by how wealth was manifested there. I guess the point of being in one of those enclosed, turnkey camps is that you get to be all cushy and comfortable while experiencing the dense sensory barrage that unfolds in the desert.

but to me what that shows is two different things:
either, these people are just cowards who don’t think they could handle the harsh environment of the Playa like most do, or they’re just unable to be self-sufficient or work with others well enough to do it themselves. A huge part of being out there is what you do for survival, whether you do it by yourself or with a group. if you’re completely unprepared there are some ways for you to rely on others to get by. But the whole deal is that you think about the basic needs you have, and make sure you take them with you. in theory, the rest of it is about giving and sharing.

What those turnkey camps signify is how its inhabitants don’t know how to be self-reliant. If they do, it’s silly that they’re coming to an event in which that is one of its core principles, and instead, choose to be observers, non-participants. What’s gross about it isn’t that it seems unfair that they “get” to have those set ups, it’s that they’re exploiting the cooperative nature of the Burning Man experience and using it as a backdrop for the cushy vacation they could really have anywhere else.

Decommodification
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

In the default world you can never ignore the existence and power that money quantifies and signifies.
one goal out there is to try to suspend its grip on our lives, for just a few days. thousands go to play this game of make believe.

people go to be extravagant in their own way. you can’t ignore the privilege, the wealth, because you can’t go unless the time, the resources, the ability, AND the desire for relentless, expressive, experimental energy that’s all been taken to its absurd extreme. everyone who goes is privileged in this way. the layers of pre-existing, institutionalized power inequities always give certain people access to more things, and out there, to more of those extremes. but to me, it seems like the people who choose to drag their privilege out there with them lose out from actually understanding the point of burning man. i’d imagine it’s hard to experience the raw, unpredictable intimacy of a place where respect and trust comes from being able to be happy to give as much as you are happy to receive. you can’t be as grateful for those surprise gifts if you isolate yourself and bring too much comfort out there with you.

So. I’m glad I got to go and see what it’s like when people are free to question all previous spoken and unspoken rules….how you’re supposed to dress, speak, act, relax, connect, feel, and express to others, it’s all thrown out the window and we’re all dared to rebuild it from scratch. I truly believe it could do more to challenge our default norms, especially our socio-political ones. Since no one in particular is in charge of that, I’m thinking of doing it myself somehow.

burning man: a pilgrimage to transience

I’m back.
I survived.

months and months of anticipation, frustration, and “goddammit this better be fucking worth it”

first morning,
waking up to the melody of Cake.
I crawl out of my yurt into the blinding heat

out there, on the Playa, the Sun is the Star. The main character of that stage, where both its presence and absence is the most blatant fact.

at night,
the neon lights
pulsating geometric jewels cut across the blackest black horizon

clusters of pulsating bodies released bodies releasing the raw sexual carnal energies that we’re trained to ball up collect suppress hold in default life

the young eager successful warm friendly helpful uptight,
letting go…

seeing the restraints of gender norms and expectations of “norms” dissolve in this environment
a land of shakers makers risk takers
in a suspended reality, everything can be called into question.

flavors, temperatures, feelings
anything but the heat and dryness feeling like a complete sensory miracle.

at night,
crescent moon floating by
scrap octopus spewing flames from its eight

then,
the sweet grapefruit hazy sunrise
a naive response

it’s a constant shiver down your spine.
it’s a vacuum of spirituality but full of new cohesive meaning

it’s just as much about the building, as it is about the destruction.

leaving, your blood is thickened into mud.
by the sun, the inhaled dust.

here, we get to define our fun, our pleasure, and create it if we don’t see it.
the only rules that exist exist because existence of this world relies on it.

/ streamofconsciousness

I have a way longer, more essay-like piece comin’…

state of mind, aug 2014 (stream of consciousness)

A stream of consciousness:

The word I’d use to describe how I’ve been feeling is “overflowing”
in the sense that I’m being affected by so much right now often I can hardly contain the enormity of it all.

First off, shit is hitting the fan. I know that’s been this way, for god knows how long, and whether it’s worst now than before is arguable…but it’s now manifested in such a violent, visible way that it’s become fucking hard to ignore it. Gaza. Ferguson. Obama’s shit show of a “Liberal” presidency and his crackdown on truth and justice. The whole god damn institutional economic societal mess. It’s just too much sometimes. I’ve been following the Ferguson situation, and before that, what was happening in Gaza. It’s all terrifying, it’s incomprehensibly horrible and I hate that I feel like it’s too much to fix.

Maybe the worst part about it is that now we KNOW that things are broken. At least more and more people do. And we’re better at talking about it, sharing stories taking photos and videos of it. But what are we supposed to do? Where do we go from here? It’s almost like the ~powers that be~ aren’t even ashamed or sheepish about the fact that the current whack composition of power in our world, in this country, in our states, and down to our cities are leading to people getting murdered, left to die, and even being oppressed for talking about it.

We’re being targeted for telling the truth. For exposing the lies, money-laundering, murders, torturing, that is done in our name, paid for by us, justified for the ineffectual self-serving purpose of “national security” — which is of course completely undermined by these acts of violence and corruption. These things are what breed insecurity.

Security comes from making people feel healthy and stable in their lives. Trust. Sustainability. Awareness. The right to know what is happening when they trust others with the power to make decisions over their society. The right to have laws that reflect common interests. The right to have access to knowledge and resources that create both autonomy and stable co-dependence…

Soo….

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
― R. Buckminster Fuller

and

“The movement of change is much the builder as the destroyer.”
– Alan Watts

These quotes to me represent what I imagine a revolution to be. Not a violent overthrow, but a slow, coordinated construction that enables and builds security in its very edifice. I have some vague ideas about what this would mean in practice but I’m still gathering information and experience to figure out what and how this could be done in practice. A significant part is the cooperative model. As I’ve said before, I feel that a well-run cooperative is a building block for a better democracy. Cooperatives enables both autonomy and co-dependence from its members/owners/workers (which can all be one in the same).

I need to learn more and experiment more to identify better possible solutions.
It’s too heavy for me to pay too close of attention to what happens sometimes, in the areas outside the bullshit that I’m fighting in my realm. I force myself to it every morning, every day following activists on the ground on twitter and listening to alternative news. I want to feel like I’m doing something. Talking about how awful it is and reporting about it can’t be my role because I’m not fit for it. It’s too exhausting for me.

The people who do do it deserve all the respect in the world. Brave investigative journalists have one of the hardest jobs imaginable: looking for and staring hard at the ugliest side of humanity. People need to know about the ugly because we’ve become so good at hiding it and ignoring it. Their job is to make us see it and know it.

The question is, for those of us who are willing to acknowledge the brokenness, what we are going to do about it. Being angry, ashamed, and depressed about it won’t get us anywhere.

What the fuck are we gonna do about it.

social justice teachings, part 1

I’ve been spending the last week doing a lot of thinking about activism, social justice, and the need for a fundamental socioeconomic “revolution” given a world that’s become increasingly insecure and violent. Mostly it’s been an exercise in re-evaluating this work: how it can be done more effectively and what I can be doing to improve my approach in the long run.

There are a couple things that I’ve seen and read this week that I’m digesting: two films and an article. I still haven’t come to any conclusions for what they might mean but I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts.

The two movies I watched this week, The Internet’s Own Boy and American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, are documentaries about two very different people from very different eras and backgrounds who both committed their lives to social justice. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to try to briefly describe their varying approaches to addressing social injustice.

==

Aaron Swartz (whom I’ve written about before) was a renaissance man. Incredibly smart and brilliantly driven, he was able to find groundbreaking solutions to old problems and articulate these issues in a way that drove people to take action in an astoundingly effective way. For lack of a better word, I’d call him a “thought leader” of my tech/Internet-seeped generation. As someone who was boundlessly curious and passionate, the Internet gave him the access, the platform, and the opportunities to express this energy. But it also had some major limitations for him.

I can’t say for certain because I didn’t know him personally, but from what I’ve read and heard he was fundamentally disappointed in how people around him spent their energy. Specifically, those who were more interested in making money than work to improve the world. By the end of him life, I think his disappointment in society in general—in our institutions and the rule of law—was what broke him. Again, I don’t know if we can simply attribute his suicide to depression, but we can’t ignore the fact that the broken, shoddy system that he was attempting to fix was exactly what crushed him, deliberately and systematically.

==

Grace Lee Boggs is a 99 year old Chinese woman who was heavily involved in the Black Power Movement with her late husband, James Boggs. As an organizer of racial/economic struggle throughout the 20th Century, she seemed to have committed much of her energy into sparking conversation. She wrote several books with/without her husband about how and why we must bring about a revolution that would fundamentally change the nature and role of labor, work, and community. At least now (maybe she didn’t before), she doesn’t believe it can be violent whatsoever, and instead must be grounded in a revolution of ideas and values. This is likely why she tried to do everything she could to poke at society’s seemingly rigid, capitalist-grounded institutions and ideologies.

I wrote about her before
after I saw her speak with Angela Davis in Berkeley. Her discussion with Angela shook me to the core. Questions about the overarching ideologies of my society, of US society, has begun to creep into me. This talk made me re-think things that I took for granted in a way I never had. I somehow forgot since I wrote that blog post two years ago that they dropped some incredible wisdom that day that I really ought to regularly revisit. There were many parts of their conversation that struck me, but one does a good job of summarizing her approach to social changes:

We can’t think anymore that all we have to do is to act, we have to do a lot of thinking. We have to do a lot of imagining. We have to do a lot of visionary organizing. We have to see every crisis as a both a danger and an opportunity. Its a danger because it does so much danger to our lives, to our institutions, to all that we have expected, but it’s also an opportunity for us to become creative. For us to become the new kind of people that are needed at such a huge period of transition.

==

The third thing that affected me was the transcript of a lecture I read by George Monbiot. It’s pretty long and there’s a lot to unpack (and besides…it’s starting to get a bit late so I can’t go into it too much in this first draft of this blog post), but the jist of it is him critiquing the environmental+sustainability movement for caving to capitalist ideology and adopting its rhetoric to describe the value of our environment. By doing so he says, they are conceding to losing the debate, and therefore, the fight over all.

The main thing that I got out of it was the idea that we need to carve out an alternative language to describe the necessity and value of protecting the environment. By adopting the ideological framework for what is important, advocates fail at addressing the fundamental institutional, and yes, the ideological underpinnings of societal beliefs that lead to us to continue to poison and destroy the planet that we inhabit.

And I think that’s true for all social movements. Despite the enormous problems we still have in enabling women to have secure, sexual and physical autonomy over themselves, I do think the seeds of the movement have already been planted. Namely, the idea that women have the right to control what happens to them and what they can do to it themselves, and that this freedom must be enabled by the law. The other is we must value reproduction above all else, and that human life is (most) sacred even when it is in the womb. Clearly, the debate is between two very different perspectives on how we should live and what must be valued.

==

I don’t yet know how to properly make of these thoughts but I’m still chewing on ’em…

embracing this thing called feminism (AKA: i've been a twit for too long)

I was at a meeting last week in Port Dickson, Malaysia on “Gender, Sexuality, and the Internet.” The goal of this meeting was to come out with principles for a feminist internet, and around 40+ women were flown from around the world, mostly from the global south, to hammer out a starting framework for what that would look like. It was an incredibly honest, productive conversation that took place over 5 days. It was one of the most intellectually demanding AND rewarding conferences I’ve ever been to, and by the end of the week, I had immense love and respect for everyone who was there.

GenderSexInternet Working Group

The thing is…I had a bit of cold feet before the meeting. Mostly, it’s my continued awkwardness around the word “feminism.” For a long time, I’ve carried some significant personal critiques about the name for this movement (which I will go into in another blog post). It was with these criticisms that I was able to justify my lack of engagement or even discussion of gender and sexual inequalities that are found in almost every facet of social relations.

But I realized last week that was a total bullshit cop-out on my part. I realized, after some considerable self-reflection, that I was taking comfort in the privileged upbringing I had not to talk about or even acknowledge sexism as a discernible fact in our institutions and in our day-to-day interactions.

Whether or not I actually did face it, I never felt wronged or disadvantaged because of my sex and gender identity. I continued to live my life from bubble to bubble, in places where there was both an acute awareness of gender, but was occupied by strong role models who were women or identified as GLBT—in my family, my schools, and all the offices where I’ve worked. In those spaces, sexism and heteronormativity didn’t present itself as a glaring injustice.

Whenever I faced a circumstance where I felt threatened by someone, whether in a long-term, not-so-long-term, or random sudden situation, I dealt with it and moved on. Even though I’d heard the statistics, knew that sexual abuse wasn’t just these one-off things, I went on convinced that it was just something wrong with those particular people. When it was my dear friends who were targeted—and too often, the same ones again and again—I was annoyed that they didn’t stand up for themselves, that they would get themselves in these situations in the first place by letting those toxic people in their lives. I even remember saying things like we weren’t alone, that millions of women face horrible sexual abuse every day. But the way I said it, it was almost like I was suggesting it was an unavoidable aspect of our society.

Yes. I was totally. Clueless. And the worst part about it was that I’ve been willfully so. This makes no sense because I fucking politicize everything around me. If I made any effort, I could see power and structural injustice in almost anything. But sex and gender? Ooh, it was just too exhausting to go there.

Another major way I justified disengagement was that I was convinced I was working on “bigger” issues. I wanted to think about our political economy, about how we’re screwing the commons, about why and how democracy is broken and what we can do to fix it. I truly thought sexism wasn’t “my fight” and that having to think about and address those issues was beyond the capacity of my work.

** Please know that I am sincerely ashamed of all of this. **

Attending this conference forced me to face my own ridiculous, lazy, justifications for why I hadn’t confronted the deep horrible fact of institutionalized, socialized forms of sexism. Of course it was uncomfortable for me to come to terms with it, and I had to get over my damn ego to accept it. Hearing the work that the other participants are doing around the world—empowering women’s economic autonomy through the internet, giving various kinds of support to sex workers, providing young queer kids a loving community, and working towards having sexual orientation and gender identity recognized as another variable to human rights abuses in international law…it was this kind of work, this pragmatic, direct form of feminist practice that shook me out of my willful disregard.

I now feel dutifully obligated to do more to address this issue in a way that I never have before. I’m completely at a loss for what that entails, and what I can do to personally add to this feminist movement…but that’s okay. I know that’ll take some thinking. In the meantime, I really need to come to terms with what “feminism” even means. As I said before I still have problems with calling myself a feminist, even though by it’s best, most inclusive definition, I should consider myself one big ragin’ one.

The next thing I write about this is gonna tackle that. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated.

my week in haikus.

+++

Instead of writing

a long political rant

here are some haikus

~

hitting up J-town

groceries on the handle bars

mmm I love natto

~

mad disappointed

dwelling is a waste of time

standards staying high

~

rocks between my toes

how the hell did they get there

the sole split in half

~

we were so engrossed

but others turned off by our

blithe poop discussions

~

warm communal thing:

talk show, dancing, n quizzes

while munching on pie

~

fin

Song of the week:

The Dictators – I Got You Babe

+++

Yuji Kawabuchi

photo 2

I’m laying, dazed, in bed at my family’s house in Chiba, Japan, nursing a horrible head ache. Yesterday was my grandpa’s funeral.

It all began the day after I got back from South Africa. It was a 28 hour trip and I was excited to be back home in San Francisco to get some work done before the holidays. Then my sister Hanami IMed me during Staff meeting.

“Gigi’s in a coma. He had a heart attack.”

The rest of the day I was distracted at work. Later that afternoon, I went to a birthday party for Chelsea Manning outside in the Castro to perform with my flash mob a piece we did for the Manning contingent at Pride parade. Right before we performed my sister called to tell me he passed away.

Fujisan and Gigi

We spent almost every summer with him when we’d come to Japan, but I never felt close to him in the normal let’s-share-laughs-and-feelings kind of way. He was tall, stern, practical, and a man of few words—unless that is, you got on his bad side. If you tried to make small talk, he’d ignore you. If you did something he thought was irrational, he’d let you know immediately by giving you one of his lectures about why you’re not making any sense and that you should think about how not to be an idiot. He valued pragmatism over all else, within his own established structure of duties and obligations.

For him, his highest duty was to his family. After spending World War II as an airplane engineer and seeing the horrors of the Tokyo firebombing, he had an arranged marriage to my grandma, a beautiful, tiny girl who escaped her family from the countryside. They had three children, my mom being the oldest. They were poor, really poor, as most families were in post-WWII Japan. He worked crazy hours for years to build a chain of successful pachinko businesses and pulled them out of poverty. He was known to be forthright, but never to be played for a fool.

photo 3

But he showed his love in his own way. When we were little, he always took us to the Chiba zoo and amusement parks. We’d be home watching TV on a hot day, and he’d slowly saunter in and drop a big bag of ice cream bars or rice balls or fireworks on the table in front of us and walk away. We’d scream “Thank you Gigi!!!” in Japanese and he’d just grunt back. Sometimes, he’d come and suddenly announce that he made reservations at a hot springs hotel for a few nights and demand that we were all going. Sometimes we’d already have other plans but there wasn’t any way to argue with him.

Two days after he died, Hanami and I got on a plane to attend the funeral. It was a Buddhist ceremony. Like my grandma’s funeral eight years ago, its rituals didn’t feel gratuitous at all, but each felt meaningful and purposeful. After the monk’s prayers, each person in my family went up to pray and say our farewells to his spirit as we lit incense next to his body. Our whole family filled his coffin with flowers until only his face showed through a mass of white and dark pink petals. I whispered to my sister that he’d probably think this was humiliating.

Entrance

The most haunting and most important part is the cremation process. After the prayers, we all drove to the crematorium. There, we each said our goodbyes for the last time. They then took him into a hall with a line of elevator-like doors, and placed his coffin into one. After about 2 hours they took us into a room where they wheeled in a silver table covered in bones. We were given long silver chopsticks, and in pairs, we lifted his bones into the urn. After we each did so, the cremator guy told us which pile of bones came from which part of his body. As I said before, he was really tall for a Japanese man, so his bones barely fit into the container. We all watched as the he had to struggle to break up the pieces with his silver chopsticks. When he apologized for having to do this, my aunt told him to do what he had to do to fit him in there. A few of us laughed out of the absurd morbidity of the situation.

At the end, the pieces of the skull are placed into the container—so as to recreate the alignment of the body. I don’t think there’s anything at all that reminds you of how ephemeral life is until you’re made to interact with human death in such a direct way.

When I told my friends and colleagues why I was going to Japan, they gave me their condolences. I was sad, am sad, but he was so hard to love. Despite everything he did for the family, his inability to express his feelings, to compromise with others, and to just be able to have a simple conversation about anything in life all made it so hard to be near him. It makes me sad that he had to build his cold exterior as a defense mechanism, and that this was expected of a man in his generation…that this caused so much pain for everyone around him and led to him living alone.

While he never once showed any weakness to anyone, you can see his gentleness in his paintings. He was a landscape painter. It was a skill that, pretty hilariously, he acquired from watching hours of Bob Ross on TV. His works are all of peaceful scenes of the Japanese countryside. I wish I got to know that side of him, to get a chance to talk to him about his painting technique, or at least about his thoughts about art. But that just wasn’t the kind of relationship he had with anyone.*

Pathway

(*) My sister just read this and said, “Oh I painted with him this one summer. He was trying to teach me but he kept yelling at me that I was doing everything wrong. He even corrected my painting after I was done…with oil pastels. He was being such a huge asshole.” So there you go.

givingthanks.

Thanksgiving was fantastic this year. I went down to Pasadena a few days early to speak at a TPP protest in Beverly Hills (RT America covered it here). I worked remotely for the rest of the week until I had to help cook up a serious feast for the 21 guests coming to my parents’ house. We made over 20 dishes including of course, the turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, PLUS 20 grilled quails, green bean casserole, baked carrots, creamed onions, potato gratin, butternut squash, and our family tradition of black-cherry-jello-ring-mold with whipped cream and walnuts. The amount of food we had was bonkers, but it was really fun cooking everything from scratch with my family.

So this is cheesy and I know I’m a few days late now but I still wanted to list a few things for which I’m thankful.

I’m thankful for whistleblowers, journalists, and others who risk their lives to expose the truth about the world. We have massive, glaring issues that need to be addressed, and we can’t even begin to effectively fix them if we don’t actually know what’s going on.

I’m thankful for having the opportunity to live in this crazy place, San Francisco. I enjoy ragging on it: about the Google buses making our rent too damn high, the inefficient public transport system, and the annoying start-up/tech-utopian culture. Sure there’s a lot of apps/platforms/tools being built that’s probably useless in the long run, but it’s nice to be in a place where people are so excited to make things. I think this city is going through a major transition, mostly due to this hot tech economy, in a way that will foreshadow some of the biggest issues of this coming century.

And I’m thankful for having the opportunity to do the work that I do. That it continues to challenge me to pragmatically think about how to make peoples’ lives better. That I get to nerd out on the details and history of the problems of the privatization of culture and knowledge, and examine the resulting backward policies that stifle responsible technological advancement. That I get to meet and interact with brilliant people who work in this space and also do what they do out of dedication to fix our laws and policies…

I hope that doesn’t come off as braggy… but I’m just being honest here and at least that’s better than taking things for granted. I think it’s a good exercise to realize what you have, especially when things aren’t going well overall. I want to always make sure I appreciate what’s working, given that any of it could be lost at any moment.