Art & Design Journal

Foiled Again

The Tree of Life
Pieces from the pen and ink on etching paper composition called “The Life Tree”, by Miguel Arboleda, 1992

It’s the morning of the 26th and I’ve been up all night, unable to sleep. After lying in the dark listening to the voices in my head I finally decided to just get up and battle the demons with the light of my desk lamp and the reach of the computer screen, where at least I can talk back. I was hoping to get through this holiday season with some measure of stillness in my heart, but I guess the holidays always shake loose some of the frayed ends.

Aside from the usual wrestling with relationships, one particular incident from the last three weeks kept surfacing: the exchange I had with someone who had been in charge of an art exhibition I did 12 years ago, but whom I hadn’t heard from since the exhibition. Suddenly, out of the blue, he contacted me three weeks ago, informing me of the final showing of my pieces that I had left at the hosting hall, a reception for all the artists, and the upcoming auction of my artwork. I was furious; though I had left the artwork there, I had never been informed about the necessity to remove them or they would become the property of the art house. Now they were going to be sold, for money, even though they had never been purchased from me or even approved for ownership.

I wrote to the guy in charge and told him that I would not allow my artwork to be sold. He sent back this (excerpt) note:

“Regarding the images called life-tree I have to inform you that they are
the property of the OAG. One of my request 11 years ago was to clean them
out of the OAG, you and also A. did not responded to that request, later
they have been technically disposed.

“Regarding collections, internationally their is no need to inform artist if
you have an in-house show, the OAG exhibition space is the property of the
OAG and we can present our collection whenever we like.

“Don’t waste time, be happy that we did not destroyed your work, and I hope
to see you at the auction on the 16th of March 2005 at the OAG.”

I would understand if I had been contacted about the possibility of clearing the artwork out, but since I had never received any notice from him I don’t see how, legally, he can claim that my artwork belongs to the art house. What makes me even more angry is that the whole art exhibition was not an officially sponsored event; it was just a friendly showing between the man in question and another friend. He had offered the space for free.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m a buffoon for letting myself get duped two times in one year, but I’m tired of feeling helpless while work that I did gets used for profit by others. Then again, since the work was hurriedly done in the first place and I wasn’t very happy with it, maybe if I did the entire composition again, but this time with more detail and care, I might come out of the whole disappointment in so-called “friends” with a feeling of accomplishment.

Would any artists are there have any legal advice on this?

So ironic… the art piece is about the destruction of the earth and about the loneliness of human beings in their commercialized world. Seems no one ever gets the point.

Gender Journal Nature Society Spiritual Connection

The Feminine Mystique


Gaia in pencil
Colored pencil drawing, Tokyo, Japan, 2000

It seems women are more on my mind than usual this week. First there was the discussion at Feathers of Hope (Looking Within) and WriteOutLoud (The Things She Carried: An Open Letter to Tim O’Brian) in which a number of women voiced disbelief and shock at seeing a woman, Lynndie England, participating in acts of humiliation and coercion in the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib. My initial reaction was that it seemed to me arrogant and presumptuous to ever have assumed that women are not capable of awful acts, just like men. While I still maintain that women are just as equal in this as men, I’m beginning to wonder more now if I was reaching for more justification than is warranted. In my life I have rarely encountered women who actually resort to violence and I feel that this is so everywhere. In a recent interview with England she claims that she was ordered to commit the awful acts that were photographed. And most likely this is true.

More than anything this provides a very clear picture of how it is that so many Germans (and I must point out that most Germans were not Nazis and did not descend to acts of atrocity) ended up committing the deeds that they did… just like England they were ordered to do so, and in typical military mentality, there was very little leeway for dissension.

I wonder now if England would have committed such acts, or even thought about them, if she hadn’t been ordered to do them.

But of course there will always be Nurse Ratchets in the world, so who knows?

Balanced on the other end of the seesaw came an earth shattering revelation within myself over the last two days. One thing that has always sat off kilter within me was a sense of not feeling right about both the places and peoples I lived in and with, and the suspicion that the general direction that everyone seemed to be auto-piloting their lives was missing a fundamental connection to the natural world. I always assumed this suspicion stemmed solely from my living in towns and cities that were physically disconnected from natural places and therefore I needed to find my way to some less developed habitat where I could discover my roots. The problem was that even when I did manage to get out into the mountains and woods and sea sides, there always remained a yearning and need that originated within myself, not out there. There was a hunger that drove me to keep seeking that sense of balance, but I could not discern exactly what it was that was supposed to be balanced.

Until this week when I picked up the suspense thriller “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown.

Now, I usually don’t like such cliched populist books in which the dialogue always seems flippant and predictable, and the first part of the book confirmed my notions, but then the plot twisted into talk of the Christian Church and the Goddess, and something clicked into place. Not to give away the plot to those who still want to read this book, suffice it to say that the book awakened me to something that I had known and felt all along, but never recognized: it was the feminine balance in the equation that was missing in my life and all I saw around. And it was the feminine that I had been seeking all my life, why the natural world meant so much to me, but could never quite fulfill the completion that it promised.

This is the spiritual poverty that the world has been carrying around for so long, why it always felt wrong to see priests celibate and men make decisions about abortion and have sole husbandry of the land and to push women into subordinate positions. Without the feminine aspect of spirituality that had been an integral part of so many traditions before the Catholic Church there could be no sense of completion in the world’s understanding of itself.

I realized this week that what I, and everyone else in the Christian world, need to bring back together, whole, is the two sides of the circle, the male and the female, the god and the goddess. I realized why it is that I am having such a hard time pinpointing my need to fill my life with the natural world, and why it is that I can’t seem to find a more wholesome balance in planning a future with the women in my life. Why I seem to be able to speak better with women than men, but at the same time miss a vital connection with men. Why so many of the attitudes and prospects of men seem to me crude and one-sided. Why so many of the men I know who are “happily” married are so because they have procured a position of power, in which the women have backed down to carrying out the whims of the men, even in this modern, “enlightened” world. Even, why it is that eroticism and sex have always danced foremost in my mind, but I always find a great wall of hesitation in candidly speaking about it, or writing about it.

Part of what surprised me so much about this revelation is that so often in the past, when coming upon images of women gathering in “goddess reawakening” rites I felt fear. I could never quite grasp where this fear came from, except that it seemed to undermine men and threatened to topple the sense of equality that I believed in, in part because so often these gatherings conspicuously counted men out. So often I lashed out in anger. But why was I so angry?

In reading “The Da Vinci Code” a kind of hidden gate seemed to have swung open, to all my lifelong tendencies and imaginings, such as an almost erotic sense of intimacy with wild places, a more empathetic connection with female dialogue about the beginnings of life and reasons for being, and dreams filled more often with conversations with women than with men.

But I am a man and have always felt an ache from not finding a suitable definition and ethos for what it means to be a man, both without women and with women. When I was a boy I fell in love with the Arthurian tales and for a long time modeled my outlook on the code of chivalry, believing deeply in self-sacrifice, doing good deeds for others, and courage in the face of all odds. But somehow it always felt artificial, whereas women always seemed to carry something within themselves that didn’t need to seek codes and lists of qualities. Ever since I have been seeking for the same state of grace within men, perhaps attempting to find the key to the garden of Eden, where men and women were one.

I suspect that my thinking, by living in the world that I do, can only bring me heartache. But somehow I feel that it is right, too. Perhaps by embracing the feminine aspect of myself I can win back the balance of the whole world within myself. Certainly that must be one reason I returned to Japan, where much of that male-female intermixing has never been lost. And perhaps that is why, over the last three years, I have been able to slip past the great male anger that I carried for so long. Men, alone in the vastness of the wilderness, without the guiding voices of women, can only hope to cry out in anger and fear.

America: Society Art of Living Iraq War Journal Nature Society Stewardship


Winter Cherry
Bare branches of a cherry tree in a kindergarten near my home, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan, 2004

I’ve had a lot of time to think. And the conclusions are not quite so cut and dried that I can claim enlightenment, but there have been some tightening of convictions and brushes with clarity. Here are some of the pebbles of insight into myself that I found:

• I love the Earth. Ever since I can remember it has been a more than average, deep anima within me. When close to the natural world, when interacting with other living things, when walking between the ground and the heavens and no human intervention to obscure the view, when the childlike excitement and fascination envelopes me while I crawl through thickets or wade up to my waist in swamp water or climb a tree to get a closer look at a nest or walk for days and days along a mountain ridge, those are the times I always feel most alive. I live in the heart of Tokyo now and am denied these things. It goes against my nature. Like Dersu Uzala (from Kurosawa’s film and the book by V.K. Arseniev) something dies within me when cities are the only connection to life that I have access to. For those who love cities this is impossible to explain.

• I love the human race. People can be capable of so much beauty and grace and generosity. When they open their minds and care for one another and the places they live in, our imaginations are limitless. As a integral participant in the dance of the natural world, our role is as the steward of this world, with the means and awareness to protect all that is around us. Other animals have their place in the scheme, ours is to protect. And therefore I want to see that I position myself within my own life to fulfill my role as steward. And to resist with all my heart and intellect and abilities those who would destroy our world.

• The planet is in danger. How long are we going to sit around squabbling about this? It is not some parlor room debate where the “winner” gets to make a toast. It is the lives of millions and millions of our fellow creatures and our very own survival that is at stake. The danger is NOW! And yet we sit around like crash victims, staring with disbelief out the window. Meanwhile we play like fools with our weapons, our chemicals, our water, our air as if there isn’t a care in the world. The whole scenario seems to be following, step-by-step, Kim Stanley Robinson’s warning, from his Mars series books, where the Earth falls into worldwide catastrophe. We are on the verge of meltdown and still denying it. The planet cannot take this abuse any more.

• My anger is not impotent or inconsequential. When I react with anger to what the United States and Bush are doing it is out of pain and love for the planet and for all people. I cannot sit idly by while there are those who would destroy it all. Meditation and a letting go of self is all important of course, but what self will there be to let go of if there are no people to examine themselves? Before Hitler took control so many people had opportunities to voice their anger and prevent him from coming to power. If the Blacks in America had not voiced their anger at and opposition to their suppression, where would they be today? Certainly much worse off than they are. Or the Indians. If Gandhi had not seized upon the strength of his anger with Britain, where would the Indians be today? No, I will not back down and whimper in a closet. I am angry. I am opposed to what is happening and, though I am but a small voice and cannot do much, I will do what I can to oppose the world order that the United States is forcing on everyone. This in no way means that I am not angry about other countries and what they are doing, or that I think other places are perfect, but the United States poses the biggest threat to the world today. If the United States cannot learn to live in harmony with the rest of the world, if they continually shake the tree without thinking of others or the tree itself, then I will work to oppose it.

• Bush is a criminal. Not just a local criminal within the U.S. itself, but an international war criminal. He has attacked and murdered thousands upon thousands of people. He has started two wars, based on lies, and defied the international community. He has upset the balance of the entire world, possibly putting the stability of the world’s economy in jeopardy. Personally, I believe that he was responsible for the New York tragedy… there are just too many coincidences, lies, and sleights of hand to see it any other way, much as Americans are just too horror-struck to admit the possibility of such a heinous act on the part of their own president. Almost no one in America has even entertained the possibility of this, in spite of the awful lies and acts that Bush has already committed. The fixed election; denying access to the information about what happened before the New York tragedy; tripping up the investigations; planning the attack on Iraq long before the tragedy; the inability to find bin Laden (who was in the employ of the CIA for many years…which is suspicious in itself); the convenient death of Senator Paul Wellstone; the illegal and humiliating internment of people denied even the most basic human rights at Guantanamo; the backing of Sharon’s atrocious subjugation of the Palestinian people… just how many more outrageous and “evil” acts must cross the television screen before people wake up and inquire into the goings on behind all these things? Bush should be subjected to an investigation at least… really he should be facing trial in an international court.

I am certainly not going to back down and quietly “accept” the state of affairs. Bush losing the election this year allows a great criminal to get away without answering for his crimes. That simply is not enough for me. Someone has got to say something, even if the outcry is ineffective. At least I am trying and not simpering in some cage. If Bush manages to get you to cower, then he has won. He’s managed to gain the crown without even really making much of an effort.

• I will find peace. If I hold fast to my convictions and practice loving what I love, if I get out there and protect the world and people who mean so much to me, if I don’t let someone bully and intimidate me, I will find the steadfastness within me and know who I am. THAT is what I will meditate upon, not some wilted stem that forgets who and what it is.

But it would certainly be easier and the going a little lighter if others of you would join me, if we would join hands and stand up together. Many small voices can chorus into a roar. Even mice have strength in numbers.

America: Society Iraq War Journal Musings Society


Ice Dipping
Ballet of ice at the tips of branches dipping in Jamaica Pond, Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts, 1989.

I’ve been trying to come to grips with the maelstrom of thoughts and emotions concerning the United States, especially these last two and a half years. Susan of A Line Cast asked me, in a comment, what I thought of the effects of America:

“Funny how when we try hardest to justify and protect our way of life, and extend it to others, we create the most animosity in others. A recipe for further terrorism if you ask me.
It also strikes me as interesting that we don’t see any real need to be truthful in our portrayal of other cultures or even our own. I remember traveling to Asia a little over 10 years ago when it became apparent that what the US had most successfully exported was the television show “Dallas.”
I commented in my blog last night about a conversation with an ex-serviceman about how the only crime he saw in Japan during his stay was that which his fellow US troops had committed. I wonder what your impressions have been over the years about the ongoing export of “westernization” (in reality americanization” and if you think it destructive there?”

It’s taken me several days to digest her question and to delve into my feelings and thoughts. There is simply too much there, from too many years, a lot of it now stretching into numbness and deep, deep anger and distrust. The feeling is like the nervous suffocation that you feel when you are standing on the block the moment before the gun goes off for a swimming race, skin exposed to the cold air of the swimming pool hall, all eyes on you, the anticipation of water inhibiting your movement big enough to incur a kind of anxious frustration. In a place like this blog, where the vast majority of readers are American and the whole discussion is weighted in favor of what Americans might find distasteful or appropriate, rather than there being a worldwide dialogue so that all the unseen reactions to America can be fully aired, you risk quite a lot of backlash for opening your mouth about something that Americans are so sensitive about. And yet it is America that is disrupting the balance of the entire world right now, no one else. It is America that is fanning the fury that so many people around the world feel.

Just how do you deal with this huge debt of outrage, and still remain a fair and compassionate human being? Why must I carry this sense of outrage in the first place, or feel that I must somehow apologize to Americans for not being one of them?

This whole week fighter plane after fighter plane has been booming by over my apartment, in constant reminder of what the United States is asking the world to do and to submit to. I sit under my roof, staring up at the ceiling, cringing in the roar of sound, and feeling, well, what the hell can I do? And yet I must put up with this, because that is what the Americans want. I, not being American, have no say in the matter. I certainly have no say in whether or not Bush should be allowed to dictate to all the rest of us what we can and can’t do. As so many irate American e-mailers have enjoyed reminding me, “If you don’t like it here, get the *___* out!”, not stopping to think, of course, that I don’t live in the States any more and actually left it for many of the reasons that I list below.

I admit that my anger towards the States began long before its first reaction to the New York tragedy, in fact way back in high school when I had to endure the bullying that the American (and Australian) kids inflicted on everyone else in my school. All my life I’ve been watching Americans play this thespian mask game, one moment the comedian and do-gooder on the block, the next moment the tragic victim and raging machine gun wielder. My twenty years of living in the States brought me in contact with segregation in schools; with police throwing me up against police cars because I looked like a Mexican; with being asked to pigeon hole my identity by being given a series of boxes to check off in government surveys: 1) White/ Caucasian 2) Black. African-American 3) Oriental 4) Latino 5) Pacific Islander 6) Other… Please explain ______; with hundreds of movies in which the Arabs or Latinos or Germans or blacks are always evil, while white, American men are always hulking, innocent, wronged-but-I-single-handedly-will-wreak-my-revenge-on-a-whole-army heroes; with the devastation and despair of such places as the Bronx, which literally looked like a bombed out war zone, or the Douglas Fir clear cutting in Oregon; with professors in school telling me that my desire to study ancient Asian architecture for my graduation thesis was a waste of time because Asian architecture didn’t contribute anything of note to the development of world architecture, or a group of research doctors at the New England Cancer Research Center where I worked part time as a glass washer, during one lunch period when I sat with them discussing new directions in medical research, staring at me as if I had committed an error in the ways of propriety by daring to open my mouth and suggesting that they take a look at Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for some new ideas; with the loud-mouth ways of so many Americans who step into MacDonald’s here in Tokyo (heaven forbid that they would try the local food!) and literally shout at the girls behind the counter for not understanding English, or English teachers who whisper to me under their breaths about how ignorant and stupid they think Japanese are, and expecting to find a comrade in arms in me; with the dozens of books by people who lived in Japan for one year and propose, without speaking a word of Japanese, to “get” Japan now; with surprising number of American Jews calling me a “Jew-Killer” and “Mass Murderer” just because I happen to be part German, but who themselves have never experienced anything like the Second World War and wouldn’t stop for a second to ask what role my mother’s family played in the whole Nazi Germany mess (my family was pacifist, my grandfather refused to bear a weapon and became a medic in the national army… as distinct from the Nazi army…, and they harbored a Jewish family in their attic through most of the war until most of the family was discovered and sent off to the camps); with the almost chest-poundingly proud way of so many “patriots” who unapologetically condone the use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but vehemently deny that it is anything like terrorism; with one of my closest friends in college, a Viet Nam vet, going through the whole Agent Orange thing, and another friend, a Vietnamese room mate who felt so lonely in America that he almost committed suicide; with some fruitcake sticking a pistol in my face while I worked the night shift at a hotel gift shop in Boston and snarling at me, “Get the *___* out of this country, you *—* Ayrab!”; with… with…with…

So much. I couldn’t possibly put it all into words here. So yes, I am angry. It’s like this enormous duffel bag of injustices and bad attitude toward the rest of the world that has been shoved at me and the perpetrator taking off into the dark. I am left with more weight than I can carry alone. And yet alone I have been forced to carry it. What American is going to truly listen or care? Or truly comprehend? I am told I complain too much. That everyone has a difficult life. And yet what other point of view can I validate, but my own?

There are, of course, a lot of wonderful experiences and growth that America gave me, and most of the time I concern myself with the small things in my life that have only to do with every day living, but that is not the point of this post right now, is it?

My father and I had a conversation on the phone yesterday, a long one, in which we both tried hard to make a fair assessment about why we are both so angry about the States. And to our surprise it was not what America had done or what they lied about that incited the anger, so much as the attitude behind so much of American thought and life. Americans seem to live in a state of perpetual existential discontent. Nothing is ever good enough. Nothing can differ from what they conceive as the “right” way to do things or think things.

Americans have the answers and business rights to everything (America threatened economic sanctions against the Asian cooperative economic group ASEAN when many countries balked at the United States demanding to join the group). They feel they can bash into anyone else’s garden and demand tribute, but take great offense when anyone else attempts to gatecrash their parties.

And the populace seems to argue and get angry about everything! Look at the movies and television shows… every other minute it is someone losing their temper and shouting at another person.

Look at the amount of suing gong on! Once, while living in Newton, in Massachusetts, after my roommates had spent days disturbing the neighbors with drunken horseplay, I proposed that we go around apologizing to everyone… one of my room mates, a lawyer, looked horror stricken at me, and announced, “Miguel, you’re living in the States. You can’t just go around apologizing to people! They will take that as admission of guilt and sue you!”

Look at such supposedly little things as the covers of video games… there was a game called “Spyro the Dragon”, in which a little dragon goes about trying to save his friends. The Japanese cover showed a cute little dragon, smiling and flying about with his friends (basically exactly what the game was about), but the American cover showed this fire breathing monster, destroying a village and looking mean as a devil… an interview with the American distributors revealed that without the mean-looking cover the game would never sell in America.

Or look at the sarcastic and often militaristic anger of women towards men in the States… (or the childish reaction of men towards the issues the women are trying to talk about) While I understand and support the need for men to change toward women and that women need more representation and opportunities, but even women know that disparaging another person, being sarcastic with them, or ridiculing them, in private or in public, rarely gets the other person to see things your way or gets them sympathetic. When I watch these popular talk shows on TV, such as Oprah Winfrey, or these movies where it seems every single time some woman has to make the point about how deceitful men are or how stupid men are or how socially superior women are or how much more nurturing and emotionally mature women are, well, it just turns me cold. Things are much more grey and unclear in the real world.

It seems there is no attempt to find a center point, to reconcile. It’s just, “You are wrong. You are evil. You this, you that.” Almost never, “I have a lot to learn. I have a lot of faults and habits I must work on. I need to see things more clearly and from a more balanced point of view.”

This kind of attitude is every where in the States. It’s what must, in part, lie behind the high school shootings or this insane “Homeland Security” nonsense. It most certainly is what lies behind the Iraq War. I have never felt this level of discontent anywhere I’ve been in the world (note: I haven’t been everywhere). While Japan has a lot of problems of its own, there is one thing I love about this country: there is at least an attempt to find peace and balance first, before throwing a tantrum or finding fault with everyone.

It wouldn’t matter so much what the States felt or did, if it didn’t affect everyone else. The whole world is turning on America’s whim, though, and no one can nay say it, lest they risk attack or sanction. We have to have the Coca Cola, the CNN (international, no? But with 90% of the news about America, of course), the jeans, the barage of movies, the computers, the basket ball games, the Nike shoes, the hip hop music, the MacDonald’s, the secular life set, the Puritan work ethic, the plastic shampoo bottles, the War Against Terror (“Against us?” we all ask ourselves here outside the States), the war planes screaming overhead. While I like a lot of these things and have found my own cultural uses for them, at the same time it feels like hegemony. What if I don’t want a secular government? What if I want to sing songs condemning the States? What if I want to wear a sarong rather than a business suit? What if, if I go by America’s dogma of “freedom”, I don’t particularly find the States a bastion of all that I want to be or want the world to be? What if I don’t think the States is a particularly good role model?

Arundhati Roy, the author of “The God of Small Things”, puts it much more eloquently than I: Do Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?.

My wish is that the world work toward peace, not war. That we all talk as equals, not as master and servant. That we put aside our anger and try to understand each other. That we work for the common good of all, not just a privileged few. We don’t need some far-fangled project of settling on Mars; we need to figure out how to live together here on Earth, now. Not tomorrow.