Art Unites Us

We are definitely living in high stress times. And we are more polarized than we have ever been. It’s really distressing to see so many connections being shattered. It’s making me desperately cast about for anything, any little thing at all, that can be labeled a force for unity.

And then I thought: Art. Hold on. I know what you’re about to say. Art can be controversial. And there’s a debate over whether things can be considered art or not or whether they require historical context and education to be displayed. And there’s also an ongoing debate over whether art should be federally funded. I get all that.

But I would argue that all those issues are ancillary to the fact that art exists in every culture, one way or another. Culturally, we all feel the need to express ourselves. We want to put a mark on this earth. We want to add beauty to the world.

I think that creative streak is the thing I love most about humanity. If we lived in dull, grey, blocky, uninspiring spaces, if we had no ability to be unique in any way, this world would be a dull and lifeless place. It is a delight to go somewhere I’ve never been and see unexpected murals or sculptures or whimsical fountains. It is one of the primary reasons I love to travel.

So, yeah. Art can be controversial, but it exists in one form or another within all of us. It may be different from country to country or from artist to artist. Some things might be more my cup of tea than the next person’s.

But the fact that art exists is the thing. So I’ll cling to it for now, for some much-needed sanity, and if you are on Facebook, I encourage you to join my Public Art Lovers Group.

I’ll leave you with some public art from around the world that I received from Pokemon Go friends. Enjoy!

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Bonobo Culture

Bonobos have always fascinated me. They are the hippies of the primate world. Peace, free love, and hairy bodies. And genetically they happen to be our closest relatives, along with chimpanzees, who are much more warlike. Which direction will we go?

Bonobos may be more like us than we thought. According to an article in the Harvard Gazette entitled, “Differing diets of bonobo groups offer insights into how culture is created”, they do, in fact, have a rudimentary culture going on. I’m intrigued.

It seems that scientists studied two bands of bonobos in the Congo for five years. These bands lived and hunted in the same forest. They were genetically identical. They hunted with the same size hunting parties and displayed the same amount of teamwork. And yet the two groups had two different food preferences.

All things being equal, that had to be a learned behavior or, at the very least, different cravings. Which amounts to culture. Isn’t that astounding?

It’s now believed that since bonobos have the beginnings of culture, and we of course do as well, then our earlier, common ancestor must have had it, too. I wonder what their culture was like? I love the idea that someday we might learn the answer to that question. Who knows what archeologists will dig up next?

Science rocks. Just sayin’. And all this talk has me craving Chinese food.

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The Cultural Iceberg

I took the picture below at the Highline Heritage Museum. It’s really a densely packed topic, and I love how they have simplified it in a nice graphic display. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

They prefaced this image by saying that about 10 percent of most icebergs are visible above the surface, and that culture is the same way. There’s a lot of culture that’s hidden beneath the surface. Here are some of the cultural encounters I’ve had.

  • Body Language. In Turkey, raising your eyebrows means no. Once I mastered that, I was able to fend off many aggressive salesmen. But it never came naturally to me.

  • Personal Space. When I lived in Mexico, I never quite got used to how “in your face” people preferred to be. I’m sure I came off as rather distant and cold.

  • Self. I once dated a Maori, and his extended family was continually in his house, for weeks at a time. That would drive me nuts. I need my “me time”. I can’t be myself when I’m surrounded by so many people, but he didn’t feel like himself when he was alone.

  • Time. I’ve long been fascinated by the Aboriginal Australian sense of time, but try as I might, I can’t grasp it.

  • Animals. I’ve had many friends from many cultures who are horrified that I allow my dog in my house.

  • Expectations. A Hindu friend of mine once told me that we Americans expect to be happy, and are constantly disappointed when we aren’t. In other cultures, he said, no one expects to be happy, and they’re therefore pleasantly surprised when they are.

  • More Expectations. A friend from Spain once told me that we Americans always seem to think everything is solved with an “I’m sorry.” He was really surprised by that.

It’s amazing how different we are, deep down, one from another. The picture below really shines a light on that in a beautiful way. There’s more to individuals than the clothes that they wear and the accent they employ. It makes me really want to get to know people beneath the surface.

Cultural Iceberg

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Highline Heritage Museum

I had the opportunity to visit yet another small-town museum, this time in Burien, Washington. The Highline Heritage Museum highlights the Highline region, which comprises the cities of White Center, Burien, Normandy Park, SeaTac, and part of Des Moines, Washington.

I’m always delighted by what I learn in these earnest little museums, but this one was particularly impressive. First of all, the displays were extremely well crafted and kept my interest. They were fun, colorful, and interactive.

They had displays relating to the region’s archeology, indigenous history, war efforts, pioneers, aircraft industry, school histories, and the Highline Times newspaper. And that list barely scratches the surface. I learned so much there that it’s potentially going to generate 4 more blog posts.

Museums of this kind make a community more vibrant. They allow you to gain a deeper understanding of a region’s culture and history, and that provides you with a stronger sense of place as you walk the streets. I highly encourage you to visit your local museums and support them.

This museum, in particular, is even more remarkable when you consider that the vast majority of it is run by volunteers. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, stop by for a visit. Also purchase something from the gift shop and/or make a donation. Consider it an investment in the region.

Tradewell, 152nd and Ambaum, Burien, 122000-0190
Highline Heritage Museum back when it was Tradewell’s.

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Sápmi

I saw that word for the first time in my life at the Nordic Museum here in Seattle. And there was a beautiful flag underneath. It was in a display, right next to similar displays for Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland. Was this a country I never heard of? How is that even possible?

Upon further investigation, I learned that Sápmi is the land of the Sami people, and it stretches over vast swaths of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. There may be as many as 135,000 Sami people roaming around out there. And they have been around since prehistoric times, inhabiting the area for at least 5,000 years. Again, how had I never heard of them?

Turns out I have. But in elementary school I was taught that they are called Laplanders, or Lapps. Apparently these are actually derogatory terms.

I was taught that they herded reindeer. That fascinated me. But currently only 10 percent of them are doing this, even though, in some regions, they are the only people allowed to do so. They also herd sheep, and are known for fishing and fur trapping as well.

Over the years, they have suffered the same indignities as other indigenous people. Land encroachment. Suppression of their language and culture. Forced relocation and assimilation. Sterilization (which went on until 1975). Children taken far away to missionary schools. The fact that they have their own parliaments, university, anthem and flag tells you much about their ability to resist such outrages.

The Sami people have contributed much to science, exploration, literature, art, music, politics and sports. Theirs is a vibrant culture. Sadly, due to the suppression of their many languages, all their languages are considered in danger of dying out, and that usually is a death knell for a culture. But I genuinely believe that the more of us that learn about and celebrate these fascinating people, the more likely that their culture will continue to survive for future generations.

Don’t you just love learning something new?

Sápmi
The Flag of Sápmi

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Cultural Traditions

Recently I kicked off my holiday season by going to Julefest at the Nordic Heritage Museum here in Seattle, Washington. It’s become one of my favorite traditions since I moved out here, because I’m half Danish, and my mother always shared that cultural heritage with us, particularly around Christmastime. I ate my Æbleskiver and I purchased my Juleneg for my yard. If you don’t know what those things are, you aren’t Danish. That’s okay, though. You can learn.

That’s what I love about cultural celebrations. You don’t have to come from that particular culture to enjoy them, but if you do, it adds another layer of pleasure to the experience. The whole day, I felt as though my grandmother were peeking over my shoulder and smiling. I was transported back to childhood and beyond.

I have never even been to Denmark, but all things Danish seem to speak to me. “Here are your roots. Here, you are home.” It’s a warm, comfortable, welcoming feeling that I get nowhere else. The Danish would call that Hygge.

If you have an opportunity to explore your cultural heritage, I highly recommend that you do so. I don’t know how these vibrations get passed down through the generations, but there’s a good chance that you’ll find that things resonate with you. It’s a wonderful feeling. It tells you more about who you are.

This planet is chock full of heritage. That’s what makes travel so exciting. That’s why I welcome immigrants of every stripe. New experiences give us depth and breadth and they open our minds to new possibilities. They broaden our horizons and give us a diverse palette with which to paint our lives.

Experiencing other cultures is not the same as cultural appropriation. That theft comes with mockery and arrogance. Experiencing, on the other hand, is a way to honor our differences. It says, “I don’t know much about you. Please tell me. I want to learn.” I can’t think of anything more valuable than that mindset. Can you?

Æbleskiver
Æbleskiver! Yum!

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A Telephonic Cultural Shift

When I was little, I went through a period where I’d try to listen in on my big sisters’ conversations on the upstairs telephone. “I can hear you breathing, you little brat! Hang up that phone!”

What can I say? The teen-aged world intrigued me. Not that I learned much from it, if I’m honest.

I have no idea why I was thinking about that today, but from there I remembered how I used to run across the house to pick up the phone when it rang, often shouting “I’m coming! I’m coming!” as if the caller could hear. In those days before cordless phones or answering machines, I never wanted to miss a call, even if it meant twisting my ankle.

Phone calls used to seem so important to me. Now, in this day of cell phones and private messages and all forms of social media, I rarely pick up the phone when it rings. I’m not even sure if my voice mail is set up correctly. And 90 percent of my phone calls are spam. My friends have so many other ways of contacting me that I know that if it’s truly important, they’ll do so.

I no longer heed the siren song of my phone, especially when I’m driving or napping. I just can’t be bothered, unless the caller ID is someone close. 40 years ago, I’d have considered that unspeakably rude. Now it’s status quo.

Funny how culture shifts over time, isn’t it?

Vintage Rotary Phone

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10 Day Album Challenge #3: Paul Simon, Graceland

If you haven’t been following this series of posts, a friend of mine nominated me to do an album challenge. “The task is to post once per day for the next 10 days about the top ten albums that have an impact on your life, and to pay it forward by nominating someone else each day to do the same.”

Okay, so I’ll play. But I’m changing the rules to suit me. First of all, I’m not writing about this 10 days in a row. I will write about 10 albums, but only on the occasional “Music Monday”. And I refuse to nominate anyone else, because I try to avoid adding stress to the lives of the people I love. Having said that, if you’re reading this, and would like to take up the challenge, go for it!

_______________________

In these days of digital streaming, there’s really no need to physically own albums anymore, but there is one that I like to be able to hold in my hands. If I were organized enough to digitally download all my music, I’d still keep this one CD: Paul Simon’s Graceland.

This was a controversial album from the very start. Many said that Simon shouldn’t have broken the South African cultural boycott until Apartheid was finally abolished. And while I do agree that extreme pressure needed to be applied to that outrageous system, I actually think that waking the world up to this country’s culture did a great deal to humanize it for all of us. It’s much harder to accept atrocities visited upon people whom you admire. So exposing this rich culture to the wider world by way of this amazing album hardly prolonged Apartheid. If anything, doing so made the practice all the more horrifying and unacceptable.

Another thing I love about this album is that Simon collaborated with so many different artists to bring it to life. I absolutely adore collaborations, because when you combine the best of two or more people, what you produce is more than 1 + 1. Somehow, the magical math of it all creates something even bigger and better. And that’s the case here.

If it weren’t for this album, I would have never heard of the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, for example, and I admire their work to this day. I had the great privilege to see them in concert several years ago, and it was an evening I will never forget.

This album has a unique bass line, and brings world music, especially African Rock, to center stage. Whether it’s “Gumboots” or “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” or “Graceland” or “Homeless” or perhaps the most famous “You Can Call Me Al”, this music is a love letter to all the culture and artistry that Paul Simon had the pleasure to be inspired by in the mid ‘80’s. I maintain that this was not cultural appropriation. This was a cultural celebration.

Even after listening to it more than 30 years after it came out, it’s like being serenaded by a wonderfully vital and valuable friend. Check it out. I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.

Graceland

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An Embarrassed Apology for Our #ShitholePresident

Eight years ago, almost to the very day, I met an amazing young lady named Martine. She is a rare gift in my life, one of those instant connections. I knew right away that we would be friends.

The reason I know when we met is that a few days afterward, Haiti experienced its most devastating earthquake, from which it is still struggling to recover. I immediately contacted Martine, because she is Haitian-American. My heart broke for her as I watched her go for weeks not knowing whether her relatives were alive or dead.

She could have chosen to collapse under this pressure and do nothing. But I’ve since learned that that’s not who Martine is. She will always be part of the solution. She decided to raise funds for Haiti, and I am proud to say that I joined her in this effort. It was exhausting for me, so I still can’t imagine how she did it while going to college full time.

Since then, I’ve seen her graduate, and take on jobs of ever-greater responsibility. I’ve seen her prioritize her health, both physical and emotional. I’ve seen her make some pretty hard life choices. Martine is intelligent and strong and beautiful inside and out. She has integrity. She is one of the reasons I have hope for this country’s future.

If America were designed to Donald Trump’s sick, twisted specifications, I would never have met Martine. We wouldn’t have accepted immigrants from “shithole” countries like Haiti. And oh, we’d be much the poorer for it!

According to this article, were it not for Haiti, we would not have been able to make the Louisiana Purchase, and this country would be one third smaller. Haitians have also contributed to our culture through food, music, dance, and art. They’ve even provided us with our Major League baseballs, and what’s more American than baseball?

There’s a Haitian Scientist working at NASA. Haiti has also provided us with untold numbers of doctors, lawyers, and engineers. They fought beside us in our revolutionary war, and we left them to fend for themselves in theirs.

Today, more than ever, I am ashamed of America for allowing our current leader to represent us. I can think of few people that could symbolize this country in a more despicable way. I want to apologize to the entire world, and tell them that this racist, lying, misogynistic, semi-literate, war-mongering ignoramus is not who we are. I want to tell them that most of the American people would never presume to describe any country as a shithole. Most of us would never brag about grabbing pussies. Most of us care about the environment. Most of us care about the health of our fellow human beings.

And believe me, most of us wish this man had never been elected. I hope that some day we will look back at this administration, bow our heads in shame, and promise to never, ever sink so low again. As with the earthquake in Haiti, it will probably take many years to repair all the damage that Donald Trump has caused. But with Americans like Martine, I have hope that it will be not only possible, but highly probable.

shithole

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Don’t Compare. Contrast!

A lot of women in America (and, I’m sure, in other places as well) are trained from practically birth to compare themselves to others and find themselves wanting. We can’t live up to those photoshopped models in the fashion magazines. How many of us look in the mirror and are unsatisfied with what we see? I know I am. My thighs are bigger than your thighs. Trust me. I know.

This “training” is such a big part of our culture that I suspect many of us don’t realize we’re doing it. I’m sure, for example, my mother didn’t do it intentionally. But those times that she said she wouldn’t “be seen in public” with me “looking like that” sent me a message, loud and clear. There’s some unwritten standard, and I do not meet it. And I got that message at school, on TV, in magazines, in music, from every man and boy who crossed my path, ad nauseum.

If you ask women to name someone they know who is thinner, or smarter, or prettier, or more popular, or taller, or shorter, or better in any way than they are, those women, if typical, will be able to answer you with very little hesitation. It’s sad that we all carry that baggage around with us. It’s tragic. There’s a reason that 90 percent of all people with anorexia or bulimia are female.

There’s also a reason why this culture persists. It’s convenient for retailers. It keeps us buying shoes and clothes and make up and shampoo. And it’s convenient for men. If we weren’t weighed down with all this comparison foolishness, our confidence would soar and we’d rule the world. We can’t have that, now, can we? Oh my goodness, no.

Let’s all concede that no two people are alike. Everyone will be more or less of this or that than the person standing next to them. Personally, I’m thrilled at the diversity in the world. I think we need to start thinking of contrasts instead of comparisons. It would be ever so much healthier if we got into the habit of acknowledging each other’s strengths and capitalizing on them.

For example, I have one friend that I go to for advice on publishing books, and another who is my style guru. A third can tell me everything I need to know about home remodeling and repair, and a fourth is an expert on the environment. And these people, I’m sure, come to me when they need input about matters that are more in my field of expertise. Together we are a formidable, amazing force in this world. And no two of us look alike. No two of us are alike.

As the meme below indicates, we may not all be identical, but we’re all awesome!

1 30ToObsaO_7vMFU-MP5d0w

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