Nothing more final

This post discusses suicide and mental health. If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact the national suicide hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE or visit suicide.org immediately for help.

I try not to talk about suicide very much. People seem sharply divided into two camps: those for whom suicide is an abstract concept and those for whom it is all too real. I can barely get through a conversation about death without getting propelled into an existential panic attack, so as much as possible I try to avoid conversations about suicide with anyone who glamorizes it or, conversely, condemns it out of hand as selfish, stupid, and so on.

At age 34, I already know way too many people who have seriously considered or attempted suicide, several who died from drug overdoses while in a suicidal state of mind, and in 2009 my aunt died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. I still can’t wrap my head around the gruesomeness and finality of her death, but it is her suicide I will talk most about below because it is the one I experienced with the most clarity.

I don’t usually participate in things like World Suicide Prevention Day (this past September 10) because it’s all still too raw seven years later, but in the interest of raising awareness, I think it’s important to stop keeping quiet.


Yesterday I relived some of the emotions around my aunt’s suicide when a purportedly suicidal man stood on top of the Macombs Dam Bridge in my neighborhood for about two hours. I was painting in my studio and heard so many sirens and such loud low-flying helicopters I thought I was in a scene from Boyz n the Hood. I didn’t find any news coverage or police alerts, so I took to Twitter to find out what was going on, where I watched a chilling video of the man, shirtless, on top of the bridge, as police officers approached him.


I responded to a few Tweets that were asking why Metro North had been suspended for so long due to “police activity near Yankee Stadium” to let them know the cause, and like me, most people wished or prayed for his safety and expressed concern. One editor for the NY Times made a tasteless joke, but that’s a story for another day. After a few hours, I saw a transportation alert that bus service had been restored after “an earlier incident on the Macombs Dam Bridge,” and I was cautiously relieved. It wasn’t until nearly 12 hours later that any news coverage showed up, with this local story from CBS including even more terrifying footage of the man climbing up the bridge, removing his shirt, and standing on the edge.

I read a bit about media guidelines for stories about suicide, and I understand and appreciate the minimum of information given and presumably waiting for confirmation from police before releasing any details, as every story that was posted came out within a few minutes of 9pm. I see how it would have been easy to sensationalize such a dramatic stand-off for breaking news ratings. Either a suicide attempt doesn’t count as newsworthy in New York City anymore, or I can be relieved that our local news outlets were responsible and showed restraint in their coverage, focusing on the steps taken by the NYPD to protect and save this man.



In college, I remember several friends repeating an expression we’d all picked up, “Suicide is never about just one person,” implying that it was about the victim and whoever the victim was trying to spite, or perhaps more optimistically, release. This mythology is, of course, a foolish and dangerous misunderstanding of the romanticized suicides of melodramatic love stories and pseudo-heroic fictions. I remember scrambling to change the subject whenever suicide came up in conversation in front of a dear friend whose father had died by suicide, and I will never be able to forget the look in his eyes when he quietly said, “I think he just wanted it all to be over.”

My aunt was not well. It’s not my place to air out all her personal business, but she struggled with mental health issues and an eating disorder for most of her life, and from what I understand, things were getting much worse toward the end. I hadn’t seen her in years after she moved from Hawaii to Nevada, and we were never very close, through a combination of violent episodes that kept us from meeting for most of my childhood and the unshakeable feeling that she basically despised me from about age 10 onwards, once we did meet. The few times I saw her when we visited family, I primarily felt pity and sadness that I struggled to articulate. She seemed so profoundly unhappy, in a way I’d never seen before, but also vaguely understood.




Arthur Dove, Silver Sun, 1929, oil and metallic paint on canvas

I don’t have any photos of my aunt on my computer, and I was never able to find an obituary or more information about her death than what was conveyed through hushed phone calls and sober family discussions. I remember the few conversations I had with her almost word for word because I spent so much time replaying them as a teenager and trying to get a feel for how she became the way she was. I feared the familiarity of some of her thoughts and saw her as a warning for what I might become if I didn’t get my mental health together.

Two nights before we found out she had killed herself, I had an incredibly vivid dream about her, which was so unusual I mentioned it to my mother the next day and we had a long talk about my aunt. My mother told me about some of the threats and attempts my aunt had made at suicide in the past, before I was born, about some of the erratic behaviors that were exacerbated by drug use, and we talked in great detail about the impact of her illness and actions on the rest of the family. I said, in almost a whisper, that in her case if she knew she truly wouldn’t get better and didn’t have any joy in her life and felt like she was just burdening everyone who cared about her, maybe I could understand suicide – but I quickly rushed to take that statement back and said I would pray for her to find some peace.

The next morning I was procrastinating heading into the city for thesis research, when my mother got one of those phone calls I immediately knew to be serious. She came into my room with a stricken face and said, “I don’t know what kind of creepy prophet you are, but I need to tell you something.” She told me all the information she had, keeping her composure, then her face crumbled as she said, “I just don’t know how to tell your father.”




Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929, oil on canvas

We only knew my aunt as someone unwell, who was cruel when she lashed out, and seemed irreparably unhappy in life. My father knew her as a joyful little girl with a fantastic wit and fiendish sense of humor. He knew her as a fearless, tough, bold child who stared down the world and grew up into a free-spirited, tenacious adult. But most of all, he knew his baby sister, and knowing that she’d really gone through with it this time absolutely devastated him. I think we all hoped that her death had been an accident with medication, or maybe a cardiac episode, but once we learned that she had shot herself in the chest, there was no doubt that she intended to die. No one knows how long she lay bleeding on her floor or dead – the neighbors called the police when they noticed her dogs had been outside barking for hours, but they couldn’t remember if they’d seen them out the night before. It’s entirely possible that as I was dreaming about her, she was facing the reality of dying, and I don’t want to know what that means.

At the time, my grandmother was experiencing Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Earlier that year, I remember how upsetting it was for my aunt Elise to have to recount another death in the family to her repeatedly, but my grandmother’s mind held fast to the reality of her daughter killing herself. I don’t think the incredulity ever left her voice when she said, “I can’t believe she actually did it,” and I know it broke her heart over and over again for the rest of her life. My father and his sisters were similarly wrecked, and everyone kept going back over it, blaming themselves or wondering what could have been done differently to help her.

When my father came home from the memorial service, he seemed comforted by celebrating her life and remembering who she had been when she was younger, even remarking on her famous tenacity, “Well we always said once she got her mind on something, nothing was going to stop her.” But I watched their family ache, how deeply and sometimes resentfully they hurt, wondering why she had to do it instead of getting help, wondering if maybe she really was trying to spite one of them, and then asking which one. Things were never right with that side of the family since her suicide, and I can see the hurt in my father’s eyes when his childhood comes up because she took that joyful part of his memories away. No one can mention her without saying, “And then she killed herself,” negating every other part of her existence with the finality of her death, as she did with her suicide.




Salvador DalĂ­, Inventions of the Monsters, detail view, 1937, oil on canvas

I have heard many variants of the argument that in certain conditions of terminal illness, suicide is a noble or gentle way to escape suffering or relieve others of the burden of care. I have never known someone who lost a loved one to suicide who would agree with this statement. According to suicide.org, the leading cause of suicide is untreated depression or mental illness. Without getting too detailed, I understand what happens in the depths of depression when the mind is able to convince you that suicide is the best course of action. Facing a lifetime of struggling with mental health issues can feel very much like receiving a terminal diagnosis. I can’t speak for everyone, but the idea of “no one would even miss me” is really the opposite of the thinking – it’s more the sense that you will only ever cause pain and hurt to the people you love, and while your death would upset them, it’s ultimately kinder to them to get it over with and stop dragging them through things. Obviously this is distorted and unhealthy thinking, and it’s absolutely not true. I swore to my family that I would never go the route my aunt did, but I know how that voice sounds and how dark that place is, so I am deeply sympathetic to others who struggle with depression, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts.

I think it is essential to work together to remove the stigma around mental illness, to stop using it as a punchline or a gratuitous plot device, and instead encourage people to get help and treatment way before it comes to standing on a bridge staring down a void. It is especially damaging to children and young people who are increasingly dying by suicide after extended bullying or social media tormenting; in addition to not knowing how to battle the distorted thinking in their own minds, often their brains and ego-permanence literally haven’t developed enough to understand the finality and reality of death yet. We need to help people recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and make it okay to speak up and get help. We need to stop telling new mothers it’s just the blues – adult women know when their mind is not working like usual and they should feel supported and encouraged to get help for postpartum depression. We need to stop telling veterans with earth-shattering PTSD or those who are struggling to reacclimate that they need to toughen up and focus on being productive. We need to stop telling teenagers and young adults they are being melodramatic or ungrateful or attention-seeking, or assume they’re just upset about “school drama” and instead listen and learn to recognize behaviors like cutting, eating disorders, social withdrawal, drug abuse, and other red flags.

Most of all, we need to stop treating mental health issues as a sign of weakness or inferiority or treat people as “damaged” when they are struggling. We need to be better support systems, to listen to each other and take it seriously when someone expresses feelings of hopelessness or despair, not just wait to vent our own day-to-day frustrations. The mind is both the most powerful and the most delicate system we possess, and it needs to be treated respectfully and compassionately. Because once a mind becomes set on its own obliteration, it can be impossible to save people from themselves.

To reiterate, if you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, please contact the national suicide hotline 1-800-SUICIDE or visit suicide.org immediately for help.

Choose your hustle

I recently read a gorgeous book of Hermann Hesse’s poetry, The Seasons of the Soul, and here I’m going to interrupt myself to say seriously, go read this right now. It felt like the first time I read Rumi and wanted to quote every line to everyone I know. Treat yourself to an afternoon with one of the most beautiful minds that’s ever wrapped itself around life on earth, and I promise you will enjoy it.



In this wonderful book, the poems are grouped by themes, with short introductory essays by the translator and Hesse scholar, Ludwig Max Fischer, that include biographical details and passages from Hesse’s other writing to help elucidate the poems. These brilliant little insights were profound and sometimes as striking to me as the poems themselves. After World War I and the publication of Hesse’s novel Demian, he moved to a small, unheated apartment in the Casa Camuzzi in Switzerland, and it turned out he had no money because, “the royalties from Germany were worthless pieces of paper due to the extreme inflation and miserable economic conditions in 1919.” The next line actually took my breath away:

The starving poet foraged for food in the forest: walnuts, chestnuts, and berries helped him survive and, of course, he wrote.

I reread that line so many times, trying to wrap my head around the philosopher and writer who had just successfully published a brilliant Bildungsroman, rendered financially worthless by politics and the economy, choosing to rent an apartment in a palace in Switzerland and staying there, foraging for food in the woods, so that he could have the freedom and safety to write. He later described this time as, “the fullest, most prolific, most industrious and most passionate time of my life.” I stopped reading and looked at my reflection in the train window, aghast. Have I ever worked that hard for anything, let alone the ability to make my art? Is it even possible to forage in the Bronx??



As I mentioned in my last post, September is typically a time of transition for me, the season of my soul where everything goes topsy-turvy. One year ago (give or take a few days) I left the job I’d been at for 3.5 years and had to scramble to figure out how I would put my life back together. In 2014, I was hyperventilating on the balcony of an apartment on La rue de Ponthieu in Paris looking at the Eiffel Tower, that great symbol of industry and optimism, equally exhilarated and terrified at everything I had to do for work and overwhelmed with the possibilities in life. In 2013, I was trying to reconcile my heart with the reality that my beautiful Smokey would probably not make it through the year (he did not), and in 2012, I was trying to accept that I’d had to give up on my chemistry degree and properly make a go of it at my new job, while simultaneously realizing the kind-hearted man I was seriously considering marrying and starting a family with was not truly right for me. And so on. It’s the month of sea change and wake-up calls, of facing harsh realities that necessitate those scary late night real-talk moments with myself, and an existential panic that time is not limitless and whatever I decide, for better or worse, is how my life is passing.

This year is no different, but I’ve managed to slip out of the constraints of time a bit. Talking with a friend the other day, I realized I’d forgotten that it was Labor Day weekend, and he asked if I forgot a lot of holidays now that I am self-employed. I admitted that not only do I forget holidays, but weekends are practically meaningless, as too are the limits of 24-hour days. The lines between things I do for leisure and those I do for inspiration or my career have been blurred past recognition, so it is all a continuum of just living and experiencing and being in each moment as fully as I can. I paint, draw, write, research, and (occasionally) work on the marketing and back-end stuff (least favorite part by far) in long, sometimes multi-day stretches, taking oddly-timed breaks for meals and showers, only wondering once in a while if I should be concerned about my sanity.

That part is glorious, like a fugue where the only thing that matters is exactly what’s in front of me and my time is entirely my own. It fits my natural sleep and energy cycles, and it feels like precisely how I’ve always wanted my life to be, if I weren’t pinned down by a traditional job, relationships that required my semi-regular appearance, or maintaining some illusion of normalcy. But I also fear this time is fleeting, that I will run out of money and be staring down some tough choices. How willing am I to trade my time and energy for money now? What is my equivalent of foraging for nuts and berries in a Swiss forest, and am I willing to do it, or will I panic and give up?



I have always found the contemporary style of labor fairly distasteful and unnatural. I have had some really amazing part-time and contract jobs, but my experience of traditional 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday corporate, retail, and office jobs has mostly been one of frustration, feeling that I was wasting my life, knowing that I could get everything significant I had to do accomplished in the first hour or two of the day and wishing I could clock out and get on with something more important and fulfilling. I was constantly willing my mind to shut off, but then finding myself too tired and worn out at the end of the day to pursue the things I actually cared about when I got home. I may have been financially comfortable (or at least not destitute) but I was miserable and felt hopeless at a soul level.

I know some people genuinely like their jobs, and even when I thought I was one of them, I see now how inaccurate that was. I have never seen a reason why I was required to be present somewhere for 8-9 hours a day or more, no matter how nice the weather was outside, if it took me substantially less time to get my work done and I had all the meetings I needed to have done. I hate the way some people are treated as fundamentally replaceable and insignificant, and I am disgusted by the power imbalances where it’s somehow acceptable to treat someone as lesser because they are at a different point in their lives or careers, or to put money above absolutely everything else, even ethics and morals. And I’ve mostly had pretty cushy jobs and great employers – the dehumanization is just a by-product of bottom lines and corporate structures. I get that that’s how American capitalism works, but I don’t believe that’s how it should be, and I defy anyone to make a real case for why technology can’t help shorten the workday or why a more enlightened, human approach to management couldn’t improve people’s lives every single day.



I used to fantasize about quitting my jobs somewhat regularly, as I suppose many office workers do, but I would abandon those daydreams when I started to ask myself, “Well then what would you do?” It wasn’t a choice of dropping out and being free, as I was still trapped by having to pay rent and utilities on my apartment, I still had student loan payments the size of some friends’ mortgages, and however much I may wish it to be otherwise, I am still stuck in a capitalist society that wouldn’t even let me forage if I tried. It isn’t just a question of trading comfort for freedom, but exchanging one hamster wheel for another, much more difficult one, with no cushioning if I faltered. I spent more than a decade afraid to even try. I still bought into the misguided notion that because someone paid me, my job gave me worth, instead of recognizing that the only real value I have in the world is what I do creatively, how I treat others, and who I am as a person. It’s been a massive existential project to redefine my worldview to one where art is actually important – essential really – and where my existence is more than a ledger of debts and repayment. Despite all the philosophy and Marxist manifestoes I read in college, it was surprisingly difficult to reverse the materialistic brainwashing that I’d considered “becoming an adult.”

So I have extricated myself from the money-based grind and would like to stay free for as long as I can, if not indefinitely. In exchange, I have to hustle and sacrifice. I am working a lot harder than I ever have before, but it is vastly more rewarding to work for myself and know that my energy and time is adding up to something I believe in and care about. I know that my company and my work reflects my values, that I’m taking care not to harm anyone or the environment in my practices, and that the way I spend my time has meaning to me and, I hope, adds something positive to the world. That means so much more than my paychecks and 401k did, though I still have to ask somewhat regularly and with great trepidation, exactly how sustainable this life is. Because now it would irreparably shatter my heart to give it up.



Hermann Hesse found his way. He may have foraged in Switzerland, but he eventually wrote Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, he took work when he needed money, and he figured out how to spend as much time in nature as possible. He demonstrated such a braveness and boldness of spirit it’s staggering, as every real artist and writer has done. I know that my distaste for 9-to-5s wasn’t just generational malaise or an entitlement complex (despite what some fairly critical friends suggested) but because I knew I could be doing more, better things in the world. If Hermann Hesse had chickened out and taken a low-paying job as a clerk in an accounting firm, the world would not have his extraordinarily inspiring, life-changing writing, and who can say what a lesser place it would be for that? As Hesse reminds me:

Even the hottest, toughest days
end in the evening cool and calm
and quiet, gentle mother night
embraces every one of them.

It feels a bit like seeing through the Matrix and realizing I have been free all this time, no matter how trapped I’ve felt. No one was ever going to give me permission to be free, but now that I see I am, I need to fight my hardest to stay that way. Just like when I was looking out the window in Paris, my life right now is equally exhilarating and terrifying with what feels like infinite possibilities. But unlike any time before, I am facing it with open eyes because I’ve chosen this, I’ve made it real, and I am free.

Midsummer catch-up

As adverse as I am to routines / wholly unable to manage any kind of consistency in daily life, I find my months and years flow in a personal, seasonal kind of rhythm, as I suspect most people’s do. Maybe it’s a holdover from summer vacations during the school year, or I’m keenly aware of my circadian cycles, or I’m secretly a migratory bird who’s gotten stuck in the northeast after being distracted by an abundance of food one summer. Either way, every July I get restless and spend more time traveling than at home, becoming the proverbial grasshopper fiddling the summer away and flitting from pleasure to pleasure.



And by August, it usually catches up with me and I find myself worn down and sick right when I’d most like to shift into full-time hedonism (fish are jumping, cotton is high etc). Last year I brought some weird food poisoning-typhoid hybrid back from India and spent a few weeks panicking about barfing at work every day. Then I decided it was time to screw up my whole system by adjusting medications, which was necessary, but basically took me out of commission the rest of the summer. The year before that I dragged a summer cold out from June forward, in and out of bronchitis and eventually pneumonia (with extra fun coughing-up-blood-at-work) for a month in Paris in September. So this year I was resolute that, now that I am in control of my schedule and living a much more balanced, healthy life, there was no reason to spend my midsummer miserable and sick.



Of course, hubris got the better of me, and on the very same day I actually bragged to friends about how “I just don’t get sick anymore,” I very foolishly and disgustingly smoked half a cigar, inhaling it deeply enough to burn the hell out of my throat and airway. I’m allergic to tobacco smoke, and as drunk as I was at the time, I knew as I got on the subway and could feel my throat swelling shut that I’d made a huge mistake. I woke up the next day with a terrible case of self-inflicted bronchitis and all the self-loathing I could stand, and as I spent the next week and a half in bed with a fever, a chest full of sludge, wheezing and coughing up every grievance my body has ever had to air, it gave me way, way too much time to think about where I’m at in my life and how I’ve gotten here. I think it’s safe to say that this September’s back-to-school resurgence of energy will include a hefty dose of discipline and self-improvement.

But! Before I felled myself in maybe the grossest way I could think of, I was having a great summer!



On a whim, my mother and I went to the Ananda Ashram in upstate NY for an incredible Homa ceremony performed by Amma Sri Karunamayi, which was truly both spiritually and sensuously beautiful in every way. There is something genuinely magical about breathing the smoke of offering fires while chanting in Sanskrit, catching a glimpse of the wind blowing through the trees, and feeling viscerally connected to the earth and alive. I will have a lot more to say about that experience in another post, but it put me in a tremendously open, say-yes-to-everything sort of mindset.

We reconnected with some of my grandmother’s newly rediscovered first cousins (also will have much more to say about this in another post) and I was utterly delighted to find that not only are they instantly recognizable as family, with some of our same idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, but they are just incredibly lovely people. I stayed for a nice long visit in New Jersey over the Fourth of July, transporting another big pile of paintings and works on paper up to my studio, and trying to get the first round of Boardman Summer Camp in (sailing, beach, time on the deck, cookouts, bicycling, hiking, etc.)



I went to my lovely cousin Michelle’s engagement party (more photos here) and visited with lots more family. I’ve become that weird older cousin who vividly remembers when my younger cousins were born and gets all mushy and sentimental, so I promised Michelle I’d get it all out of the way now and try to be cool at her wedding. (We all know I won’t be cool.)



My brother came into the city to see Radiohead with me at Madison Square Garden, and I’ll pause for a second so you also can wrap your mind around the fact that I somehow won whatever cosmic lottery one has to win to get impossible-to-get Radiohead tickets AND that I got to see my favorite band in the world live AND they played “Karma Police” and everyone sang along and it was honestly everything I’ve always dreamed of in a concert.



It was a phenomenal show, as you can probably surmise from the setlist, but I would also be happy to ramble on at length in person because, holy hell, Thom Yorke.

I then spent the next two days cooking food for the 60th birthday party we threw for my brilliant, beautiful Mom. For once in my life, I cooked a huge spread of vaguely Tuscan food actually worth photographing, but I was so exhausted and frazzled trying to keep the party running so she could visit with her guests that I took exactly four photos at the party and none of the food. I know, I’ve let us all down.

So please try to imagine the following menu, all cooked from scratch with lots of love, using as much local, organic produce as possible:

Hors d’Oeuvres

  • Caprese skewers (fresh mozzarella, basil leaf, half a grape tomato, drizzled with olive oil, sea salt, and fresh cracked pepper)
  • Prosciutto wrapped around cantaloupe
  • Spinach-artichoke dip with pita chips
  • Crab dip (my mom made both dips)
  • Fresh guacamole and pico de gallo with tortilla chips (Mom also made these)
  • Roasted nuts

Mains

  • Italian sausage and peppers
  • Chicken piccata
  • Four-cheese ravioli in a summer squash and sweet corn cream with marjoram and blistered heirloom tomatoes (this is maybe my favorite dish I’ve ever made up)
  • Grilled shrimp skewers (my dad made these)
  • Grilled London broil (my dad also made this, and the less said of it the better)

Sides

  • Herbed orzo
  • Organic herb salad with Bosc pears, bleu cheese, English cucumbers, and toasted walnuts with a lemon vinaigrette
  • Garlic green beans
  • Rosemary focaccia

Desserts

  • Galician almond cake with spiced pears and vanilla cream cheese frosting (I arranged pear slices on top into a dahlia, and I still didn’t take a damn photo!)
  • Coconut tres leches cake
  • Sliced kiwis and strawberries with dried cranberries
  • Cranberry-orange dark chocolate chip cookies
  • Chocolate-covered strawberries
  • Lime bars

A great group of my mom’s friends and family were able to come, including our new/old family that we’d just met, and it seemed like everyone had a good time talking, visiting, and celebrating my lovely mom. When I asked her the next day if she’d had a nice party, she seemed warmly touched when she said absolutely yes.



My mom’s actual birthday came a few days later, so I stayed in NJ getting in more beach time, hiking, sailing, garden and deck time with the dogs, and general relaxed visiting with my family. My nice brother took us all out to barbecue on my mother’s birthday, I briefly reconsidered switching from mostly-vegetarian to fully-carnivore, and I returned to NY with an irrepressible smile and restored sense of who I am, where I came from, and where I want to go.

I even got over my fear of the ocean and swam, gleefully and peacefully, which I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t done in years. And I know I haven’t enjoyed it so much since I was a kid.



This summer I also discovered, to no great surprise, that I am fanatically in love with Bhangra music and dancing, and although I am hopelessly uncoordinated when it comes to the more traditional moves, I’m kind of in the zone when it comes to bhangra-90s hip hop fusion. As soon as my lungs can bear it, I will be back out on the dance floor.

There is a whole lot else going on, some great, some less so, and I will have a lot more to say in the coming weeks as I try to get over the remains of this gross cough, get caught up with work / business stuff, and get going on new and exciting things. I still have a ton of other stuff I want to fit into this summer, and I know it will be way too soon that I start catching the first nips of chill in the evenings and the scent of autumn on the way.

Orange cheese in America

I often come back to the colors of dairy products as a tidy example of human nature. It was observed that when cows ate richer grass higher in carotene in the summer, their milk took on a yellow-orange hue, and when concentrated down, the richest cheeses appeared light orange. This is also why butter from grass-fed cows is usually yellow. Realizing cheese could be colored with annatto, the extract of seeds from the achiote tree, industrious dairy farmers began dyeing cheese year-round to imitate the more nutritious, better-tasting summer cheeses. Naturally they went overboard, past any color found in nature, to the ultra-orange color of Cheddars and American cheese that we see today. In a similar history of margarine, now known to be loaded with trans fats from hydrogenation of vegetable oils, we made a food product that looked like butter, but was stark white until yellow food coloring was added, in increasingly neon saturation, passing it off as the real thing for so long that people believe butter is normally bright yellow.



Now when cheese or butter are white or a natural creamy color, Americans are more likely to ask why they aren’t the characteristic yellows and oranges we’ve come to expect in dairy products. That is to say, we’ve become so used to the way things have gotten through distortion in the aim of greater profits, that we’ve forgotten how they are supposed to be.

To me, this is the problem with human nature. We take our creativity, intelligence, energy, and industriousness, and instead of using it to help one another, we trick each other for profit, stretching materials further to cut down on costs, manufacturing sensationalistic news rather than report honestly on global events, and trapping healthy, beautiful bodies in soul-sucking jobs because we’ve outsourced all the meaningful work they can do to others overseas who enslave and exploit their workers on our behalf.

What if we used all that ingenuity and cleverness for good? What if egalitarianism were not idealistic, but an expectation? What if we prioritized getting everyone safe, sheltered, fed, healthy, and with a secure future before we dug into nationalism or making profits for billionaires? What if instead of industrial farming, we could go back to a semi-agrarian economy, and all the out-of-work hard-working and good-hearted people living in cities and suburbs could work a plot of land if they’d like and be paid what their time is actually worth? What if housing were actually affordable? What if we didn’t subsidize food corporations, and instead used that money to make real, organic produce affordable? What if we eliminated our dependency on fossil fuels so we could stop destabilizing entire regions of the world to maintain access to oil? What if we spent even a fraction of our military budget on investing in education, paying good teachers what they’re worth and helping students find meaning and joy in learning instead of just a path to a job?



I am aware that magical thinking is one of my greatest indulgences, but there isn’t actually any reason why we should be trapped in this economic and sociopolitical system, except that it’s what we’ve become used to, and we’ve forgotten how things are supposed to be.

A shocking amount of the people I’ve spoken to since the extrajudicial executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last week have sought to justify or excuse the murders of black men, saying a variety of absurd things ranging from, “Well we don’t know all the facts yet” to “I realize more black men are killed than white, but maybe it’s because more black men are committing crimes that cause the police to intervene in the first place.” That’s actually not the worst of it, but I can’t even wrap my head around the others, like labeling Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization. Most heartbreaking is the tone of normalcy I keep encountering, the complicit acceptance of racism and inequality as just a thing that happens, in America, in 2016.

We’ve become so used to institutionalized racism and lethal injustice for black Americans that I fear we are forgetting how things are supposed to be.



Maybe, I think, in the moments where I am ready to sink under the waves of cynicism and give up, the police were only ever around to protect property and the financial interests of our oligarchy. Maybe the military and the whole government isn’t for us at all, and this whole charade is a glorified way to keep rich people secure, with all the rest of us benefitting by happenstance, if we’re in the right place at the right time. Maybe I am deluding myself in the belief that my congressman (or his staff) cares at all what I think or have to say, however frequently or passionately I write to him, because I am not an NRA lobbyist group contributing to a reelection campaign in his party. Maybe corporations are people. Maybe my fellow Americans truly are so absorbed in their own material concerns that they really do care more about saving a few dollars a year in taxes than helping others and the environment. With our attitude of selfishness and tuning out with mass entertainment, maybe this is the America we deserve: fluorescent orange cheese and fake butter.



But I also think that my heart breaking is evidence I still care, and the pain and sorrow we feel in weeks like the past few is proof we are human and capable of love and compassion. It is so tempting to be jaded and cynical and tune out what’s happening to other people in the world as long as our favorite show comes on television that night and isn’t preempted by a special report on the news, but we can do better. We can use our vast resources, talents, and abilities to make real, lasting change that improves the lives of many and not just ourselves in the short term. We can act from our nobler nature, instead of from fear, isolationism, or all the other names we use to justify cowardice and self-interest.

I’ve been having a crisis of conscience over the past few years because I felt I was feeding the machine of materialism and greed, and I’m trying to change my entire life to do better by people, animals, and the earth. I can’t get used to the way things are, and in some primordial instinctive way, I remember how things are supposed to be. I think we all do. This week has shown me once again how urgent and necessary this change has been.

Open for Business!

I’ve completely redesigned and relaunched my art website, and the Shop is now open for business, selling paintings, photos, and prints.

I wrote a post over on my Studio Blog that describes the moment I knew I needed to pursue art full-time, as well as a bit about what this launch means to me. I still have a really, really lot of work to do in the coming days and weeks, but I am so happy to finally share what I’ve been working on and where my heart’s at.

Much more to come!