I don’t know how to write about feeling blah. Not dramatically terrible, not triumphantly fantastic, just a tad on the negative side of neutral. The last couple Smorgasbordevents had been fine, but nothing to write home about – which is a bummer when you’re trying to turn them into a writing project. A dance that I left early because I was way too sleepy after New Year’s Eve, a smut slam (yes) where all the stories were confidential, a perfectly ordinary yoga class…
(Then in addition to the specific activities, there are general patterns and takeaways. But I’m so not into writing a takeaway post, one pontificating about what I’ve learned and (implicitly) how awesome I am…)
So what about feeeeelings? Emotionally, Smorgasbord January has gone from borderline-manic excitement, a sweeping sense of possibility, of the world being a great big place with unknown treasures around the corner, of randomness and mistakes leading to unpredicted adventures and gifts – to tiredness, overwhelm, struggling to combine doing all these things with work, to a sense of duty, of acting out of duty instead of enthusiasm, of nothing new under the sun, new things just turning out to be old (whereas before that same phenomenon had felt like a happy reconnection with my childhood self).
This framing is so dramatic, so exaggerated. Really, it’s just that the initial excitement has worn off a bit.
Too much head stuff. And I don’t want this to be a “what’s the problem?” kind of analyzing, I just mostly want to reconnect with myself, with my sense of why I’m doing this project. (I hate the word “project,” a ribbon wrapped around a hunk of life hacked off as a sacrifice to capitalism.) Part of the initial sense of excitement was the idea of a study in non-commitment, doing things lightly and transiently because that’s how the world is. Playing soccer once and maybe never again and still enjoying it, not immediately making it into a second, third, twentieth job. (The inner conflict around having this whole thing be a challenge, a stretch, and still taken lightly – of course that’s my inner conflict about work, about life. Right, the happy framing of the challenge had been: default to yes. If you’re unsure whether to go somewhere, to an event or something, do it. If you’re unsure whether you’re too tired to go climbing the day after playing soccer, go climbing. But this also means go back home if you do end up feeling too tired, guilt-free.)
A lot of my blahness is coming from work. I started Smorgasbord January at the end of December, back when I was on vacation, when everyone at work had taken a week off. And the great enthusiasm of those first few days was in part a release from the obligations of work. I hadn’t really taken time off since I started by job in July, and my life had started to resemble this comic by Matt Shirley:
I could feel my world shrinking, everything transformed into obligation, a sense of just treading water, struggling to stay afloat, and nothing new to be found. It didn’t start that way: the first month of working as a programmer was a constant “How can work be this fun? And they’re paying me how much to solve fun puzzles?” After a month, the puzzles got old, while my allergy to anything corporate and regimented flared up.
There’s a pattern here: new things – work, going to meetups – briefly thrill me, then I get bored. The whole point of Smorgasbord January was to tap into that, to love the boredom and let it guide me towards ever new things – but doing new things all the time itself is becoming an old thing…
Again, I’m swinging into drama. I’m going to a skiing meetup next, and I’m deeply excited. I’ll keep finding newness, then losing it. Lightly and transiently.
It’s not just about newness either. Capitalism is eating my sense of freedom. The sense that there’s nothing new under the sun, the way my enthusiasm is being transformed to duty (not “I want to go to a board game night” but “I should go to the board game night”), then to jadedness, that’s partly coming from being locked in a cage from 9-5. Since my company is a pretty enlightened place, it’s a funny sort of cage. I’m allowed to chat with colleagues, get nothing done on any given day because I can’t focus, nap if I’m feeling unwell, call a family member going through a crisis. What’s harder to justify is having the same exact chats with friends who don’t work at my company, getting nothing done on any given day because I’m writing an exciting blog post, napping because I feel like it, calling a family member because I miss them. I certainly can’t take a break just because I want to, to have fun, or for the inscrutable reasons of my heart. In other words, there’s space in my workday for personal life if it comes in the shape of a fire to put out, but not if it’s shaped like flourishing.
From 9-5, my company owns my brain and half my heart and soul. This is why it’s so hard to shift gears at the end of the workday: brains and hearts can’t just switch allegiances at will. If fun is banished as a reason all day, if everything I do has to be justified, if not by outcomes and KPIs, then at least in plain English, how can I return to trusting the inarticulate grunts with which my subconscious tells me “I can has soccerz?”
(Counterpoint: some of my best workdays have been ones where I disregarded those inarticulate grunts, pushed through despite not wanting to work, and ended up solving a hard problem I’d been procrastinating on. These days are deeply worthwhile by the human measure of fun, flow, learning, helping, contributing to a group effort – not just by the corporate measure of productivity. So it’s not that I should do whatever I want all the time, only…? Maybe it’s more that I want to trust chance, of a form which doesn’t usually fit in a regimented workday.)
On Tuesday, I left work early because I needed a nap. By the café outside the subway station, my drowsiness disappeared, transformed into a desire to write a blog post, and I spent a glorious afternoon in a dreamy blur of words. Of course. If only fires are allowed, flourishing will dress like fire. My subconscious had built a Trojan horse out of sleepiness and stuffed it with joy. Part of my project, my prayer, is this: I won’t apologize for joy.
“Do you even know how to play?!” this guy, this teammate, barks at me. I’d given enjoying myself at the soccer meetup a 25% chance, but this is my worst nightmare come true. “Do you even know how to not be a jerk?” I retort… hours later, in my head. In real time, my eyes fill with tears, and I plead: “Can you not say that?”
The last time I’d played soccer had been ten years ago – as an adult volunteer at a children’s match. The last time I’d regularly played with peers, I’d been a child myself. I’d hoped to regain the exhilaration, the delighted velocity, of childhood. Instead, five minutes in, I’d helped our opponents score two goals.
My teammates catch the expression on my face. “What did he say?” William asks, Dennis following close behind. “Ignore him! Some people are mean!” they dismiss JerkFace in unison. [All names are made up to protect privacy. Except for JerkFace, that’s totally his real name.]
I want to freeze this frame, zoom in on all the micro-dynamics of that moment: my gratitude for my teammates’ support and my indignation that they never directly confronted Mr Asshole, the two dozen feelings bubbling inside me, guilt, shame, anger, sadness, fear, defiance, rage – but that’s not how it went. The game went on. I didn’t stomp off or dissolve into tears, I didn’t miraculously turn my fury into stellar gameplay; I mostly just got out of people’s way, but I kept going until our 10 minutes were up.
Nothing in the meetup description had said “all men,” but it was me and 14 guys. Nothing had said “advanced,” but apparently this was the best group in Cambridge.
Jackass and I clashed the moment I entered the gym, late after using the bathroom, when he demanded I tell him what team I was on. No part of the meetup description had mentioned team pre-assignment. “Black,” he said, looking it up on his phone. “Where’s your black T-shirt?” No part of the meetup description had mentioned custom-colored shirts – I’d explicitly chosen this group for that reason, because what sort of person just happens to own black and white T-shirts? I look down at my own shirt – an intricate psychedelic pattern in red-cyan-yellow-white-black-orange, then at my black-and-pink yoga pants, down to my rainbow shoes, and feel equal parts ashamed and proud. He huffs and hands me a pink jersey for the red team, his. I don’t have the guts to tell me that my own multi-colored shirt is already 75% red.
Then William makes small talk and I’m more standoffish than I’d like. He took a bet on this girl and it had been a mistake, I think later. But then this is pickup soccer, the rules of the meetup say “be nice,” and I’m the one who’s out of place?
“Ignore him,” Dennis repeats at the water fountain after our first match. “Some people are mean. You’re doing great. These guys are really fast up there by the goal, but if you stay near the middle and keep the ball up front for us, you’ll really help me out.”
He’s essentially telling me that I’m not good enough to be trusted near either goal, but he’s right – and he says this with enough tact, warmth, and conviction to make me believe his compliment.
I do help them, us, out. I have the skills of a brick wall, but a wall placed down the middle of the field when you’re playing offence isn’t half bad. “Eve, I need you here!” Dennis yells periodically, always remembering to thank me when I oblige, no matter the result. I get out of the way when it’s time to score, shifting into reverse right after barreling after the ball. I tackle a burly dude so hard I fall down – a chihuahua snapping at the ankles of a wolfhound – and I feel more pride than shame. I pass to an opponent, curse, then keep going. There’s no doubt I’m the worst player on the team, but with his hopeless shots in the vague direction of the goal, Buffoon isn’t far ahead.
Between games, the guys discuss their favorite moves and players. There’s an ease to their bond, a primal broship, that I’m violating with my female presence, that I yearn for and envy without fully grasping. That’s what I’d been trying to win back in elementary school, the year I picked fights with boys who never asked for it with a battle cry of “girls can fight too!” Not belonging makes me sad, but there’s a comfort to being so obviously out of place too, my pink yoga pants an excuse for foreignness they wouldn’t have been at a Zumba class.
Telling Stable Diffusion “no extra limbs, no extra soccer balls” didn’t quite work.
Dennis, William, and Tom’s goals are works of art. I emit shrieks of encouragement whenever they approach the goal, more vocal than any of them, like a freaking girly cheerleader – but then it’s helping too, and I’ll be damned if I give up kindness because it’s too feminine. Dumb-Dumb flailingly aims at the goal. “You got this!” I yell, before I can stop myself.
I’d given enjoying myself a 25% chance, but suddenly it’s happening: the rush of speed, instinct, camaraderie. In an inspired moment, I kick the ball between an opponent’s legs. The chaos of the field coalesces into patterns, then dissolves again. It may be unrequited, all gumption and no skill, but I love soccer. This is why I was heartbroken when I came back to Poland for high school, where gym class meant girls playing foolish volleyball while the boys scored goals.
I never stop being a handicap, we never do better than a draw, and Silly never apologizes, but when I see the ball fly from his feet to mine in a purposeful arc, I know I have won. I know we have won.
This is part of a series of posts from “Smorgasbord January,” where I write about an eclectic set of meetups and experiences. Part 1. You can subscribe to my mailing list to get future posts delivered to your inbox.
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What was so great about New Year’s Eve? It feels silly, hard to capture, when I try writing it down. I liked the light show, whoop dee doo. Who do I think I am, that I’ll interest people by writing about how much fun I’m having?
The sky is so blue now. I love the glow of the cloud. Light. The love of light. How those unreal lasers, those vivid crazy Disney colors, that’s what reality, that’s what perception is made of. Yellow magenta cyan. Red green blue. If you looked at the projector, looked in the direction away from the stage, to where you weren’t supposed to be looking, sometimes it was more beautiful than the actual show. The fog-machine’s swirling intricacies of tiny clouds, dissolving into sparkling galaxies of colored raindrops. The feral abstraction behind what, at the intended place of projection, was a mere circle.
So I stood there, looking in the opposite direction to everyone. Loving the rain they grumbled about for the stars it made, its fierce flickers. Paying more heed to the lights than to the music. Looking behind when they looked ahead, trying to get to the source of things, to the raw undifferentiated roiling glory behind and underneath it all. And how hard it was to keep looking! Sometimes I could only stand it for 10 seconds, till I’d feel abashed by the wrongness of it, catch the disapproving glance (just fear I did, really) of a confused someone looking the other, the right way, and turn back around to the place of supposed to.
Oh, but supposed to was better too. The music swaying my body along with everyone else’s. The music, the music! The vocalist’s effortless soaring, the lights as they were intended, with all the control of art, erupting into starry static when the band did, granularity of tone, then broad, wide, clear and confident as a river, as the river of light that danced in step to it, that was an aspect of it, an aspect of unified perception. The feeling of being there with everyone, of huddling away the rain. And then glancing back, not to feel different this time but to find my place, the crowd stretching on and on behind me like a parade of ancestors, the stage lights drawing a second show on the buildings at the rear of the square, like footprints, like the unintended consequences of every action.
Sometimes when the rays of light dissolved into droplets, each one its own color, in ratios corresponding to the color of the beam as a whole, I wanted to jump up and down. I’d grin and squeeze my shoulders up to my ears like a happy child. Then the music turned to funk, the lights bouncing ping-pong balls through the air, and we were all jumping, nothing around for miles but joy.
The midnight fireworks were a burst of relief. I thought I’d chosen a light show over fireworks, told myself it was a fair bargain, but how I needed them when they came, blasting so close, the smoke more potent and vivid than the lights, but the lights too…
I’d come here for a meetup, but I couldn’t find the people. I exchanged frantic messages with them, frustrated that they failed to read my carefully worded description of where I was. They suggested another meeting point, but then the lights came out, sparkling in the rain as I had never seen them, and I realized I could just not go. I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve alone – and I was allowed to want that. I was allowed to prefer solitude, seeing the lights on my own terms, prefer it even to a night with a loved one. Later, company would beckon again, and I’d be allowed to return. The crowd would welcome me back.
I’m planning to go to a lot of random meetups, events, classes, etc. in January and write about some of them in this faster, more stream-of-consciousnessy way. If you’d like to get new posts in your inbox, you can subscribe below.
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when more than was lost has been found has been found and having is giving and giving is living- but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing -it’s spring(all our night becomes day)o,it’s spring! –E.E. Cummings
Hi there 🙂
I’ve been painting outside every sunny day in April. I have about a dozen blog post ideas to go with the project, but it’s the middle of April already and I still haven’t written anything. So forget about blog posts. Forget about polished essays. I’m going to write letters instead, so that I might take you along for at least a bit of the ride before it’s all over.
Just a moment ago, I was talking to an elderly friend. In the spring, she tells me, she drives like a drunkard. A lot is different now that she’s older: she’s been having trouble sleeping, the minor crises of daily life overwhelm her so much these days that she hardly has the time to go out walking, but still: it’s hard not to hit the curb when she spots a magnificent magnolia or a yard with a daffodil field.
This is how I want to live my life. That magnetic pull of beauty – it’s a guide, even if I don’t always know where it’s taking me. May it stay with me into old age.
So whenever the sun goes out, I go out too, paintbrush in hand. I’m working as a programmer halftime right now, soon to be fulltime, I’m translating on the side, I’m spending more time with friends than I have in years, I just joined a gym, and still, whenever the sun is out, I steal an hour or two for painting.
It’s crazy, it’s unsustainable, and it’s impractical. I bike 15 minutes uphill to my Mount Auburn Cemetery, my favorite painting location, so some days I only have half an hour left to paint. (Yes, “my.” It was initially a typo, but now I’m claiming it as my own.) I use oil paints: the messiest, most expensive, hardest to set up of the mediums I work in. What can I do? Those are the things I love.
It’s crazy. It’s unsustainable. It’s impractical. So is spring.
I want this letter to be inspiring, but I don’t want you to come away thinking, as I often mistakenly do, that you need to be this exquisitely, excruciatingly energetic all the time.
I basically didn’t do anything this last fall and winter. I only cried, did yoga, and slowly processed the end of an important relationship. (Okay, I also learned to program, but I was very conscious of how much longer that took me than it would have under “ideal conditions.”)
I’m not saying this to make you feel bad for me. It was hard, but it was also a beautiful time. I can’t stress this enough: I love crying. I learned so much this winter. I would never be sprinting through spring if I hadn’t lingered inside winter for as long as it took.
I’m saying this to reiterate: spring is unsustainable. Doing everything, all the time, is no way to live. But I want you to go away with permission to do everything (or nothing!) when it feels like the season to do so. Permission to burst into periodic bloom.
Yesterday I painted a sun-gilded willow behind an exorbitantly pink magnolia. I made the painting sing with a few bold strokes. To capture the glow of light and blossom, I had prepared my canvas with a layer of fluorescent acrylics. After this step, everything came together shockingly quickly; half an hour in, the painting could pass for done.
Spring is always so full of promise. It’s alright now, it says. You survived.
When spring called out to me two Aprils ago, I had just passed my dissertation defense. Last April, after making it through the (what felt like) the worst of the pandemic, I had just gotten my first vaccine dose. And this year is so full of promise I don’t even know where to start.
What are spring’s promises worth? Around the corner from my PhD defense were two years of semi-employment. The vaccine was followed by omicron, followed by the war in Ukraine. Spring never warned me of heartbreak, never mentioned loss.
I ruined that painting. It wasn’t mine yet, it was only a stroke of luck, so I kept going, marking it as my own, until I obliterated its freshness.
What are spring’s promises worth? As little as the privilege to begin again, with joy. As little, and as much, as spring itself.
Red, yellow, and blue are the three primary colors, the painter’s building blocks. You can mix every other color out of this trio. At least, that’s what they taught me in art class: combine any two primaries, and you get a “secondary” color, which lies between the primaries on the color wheel.
Then I picked up an optics textbook, and my world was turned upside down: the true primary colors are red, green, and blue. You can mix any hue out of these three shades of light. That’s how LCD displays work: by building pixels out of tiny sources of red, green, and blue light.
Why is the painter’s color wheel different? The textbook explained that light and pigments combine in opposite ways. Superimpose a blue and red spotlight, and the resulting light will emit blue and red wavelengths. Light mixes “additively.” By contrast, mixing paints is subtractive. A patch of red pigment is red because it absorbs light of all wavelengths except the red ones. And if you combine red and blue pigment, the mixture will absorb everything that either pigment absorbs. A pigment is a trap for particular wavelengths of light, so the more pigments you put in, the more light you catch and the less can get out.
So the physicist’s color wheel differs from the painter’s because light combines additively, while pigment combines subtractively. Except… this doesn’t make any sense! Yellow and blue paints make green, right? But if paints combine subtractively, yellow and blue should actually make… black. Here’s why.
Blue pigment reflects blue light and absorbs red and green light. If you look at the physicist’s color wheel, you’ll see that red and green light combine to make yellow light:
So blue pigment reflects blue light and absorbs yellow light. Conversely, yellow pigment reflects yellow light and absorbs everything else – i.e. blue light. So blue pigment traps yellow light, yellow pigment traps blue light, and if you put the two traps together, you’ve caught all the light of the rainbow and made black!
And yet… I’ve been painting for years, and I can assure you: at least sometimes, blue and yellow do make green.
But how? Here are three reasons yellow and blue don’t always make black and sometimes make green, even though physics basically works.
1. Real-world pigments are impure.
Your typical tube of blue paint won’t perfectly absorb yellow light. Instead, it will reflect some light in the whole spectrum, and quite a lot of light in the green part of the spectrum in particular. So if you mix a pigment like this with a “cool” yellow – that is, a yellow that also reflects a fair bit in the green range of the spectrum, you’ll get a pigment that reflects quite a lot of green light. It will still be more muted than pure green, but it will be much closer to green than to black.
So your art teacher wasn’t lying to you: yellow and blue sometimes make green. Well, maybe they lied a little bit: you can’t actually make all the colors out of red, yellow, and blue. Certainly not if you only have one tube of each color. You can mix green from a cool blue and cool yellow, and orange from a warm yellow and warm red. But if you use the same tubes of yellow throughout, either your green or your orange are going to look quite a bit like brown.
2. Painters and physicists speak different dialects.
My Polish friends take offense when I call navy blue jeans “blue,” since “navy blue” is a separate Polish word. My partner keeps insisting that my blue shirt is “purple.” By what right was I assuming that my art teacher and the optics textbook meant the same things by “blue”?
In fact, as a painter, I’d call the physicist’s blue a warm blue, almost a purple. If I try mixing a paint of that precise shade of blue with a yellow, I’ll still get green, but a very impure one. So at least some of the disagreement between painters and physicists is terminological.
For the physicist, the true additive primaries are cyan, magenta, and yellow. Compare that to the most influential color wheel in art history, taken from Goethe.
If you forget about the names, Goethe’s color wheel is remarkably close to the physicist’s one. Goethe’s “red” is a cool red that is quite close to what a physicist might call “magenta;” his blue is a cool, almost turquoise cousin of “cyan.” (And his “purple” is basically the physicist’s blue.) Given the limitations of the pigments that were available in Goethe’s day, that’s really the closest you could expect him to get to the “true” subtractive primaries of yellow, magenta, and cyan.
So even if pigments combine subtractively, what the painters call “blue” and “yellow” does often combine to green. And now… time to knock down this whole house of cards. The final reason why yellow and blue don’t always make black (but do sometimes make grey):
3. Pigments don’t always combine subtractively.
What happens if you combine red and white paint? You get pink, right? But that’s not what physics tells us! White paint reflects (more or less) the full spectrum; it doesn’t trap any wavelengths. So (subtractively) mixing in white pigment shouldn’t do anything to red!
Here’s the secret: red and white make pink because most paints don’t actually combine subtractively. Instead, if you mix equal amounts of two perfectly opaque pigments, each ray of light will interact with particles from just one of the pigments. So in an opaque red/white mixture, about half of the light will interact with white pigment particles and be reflected back, and half will interact with red particles and be reflected only in the red spectrum (and absorbed in the green and blue spectrum). And that’s precisely what pink is: light with components in all wavelengths, but with more intensity in the red range.
This is so-called “additive-averaging mixing.” By contrast, if the pigment is transparent, light will pass into the paint mixture and bounce around inside it, interacting (and getting absorbed by) pigments of both colors. This gives our old friend, subtractive mixing. This is how your printer works: by combining thin, transparent layers of yellow, magenta, and cyan. It’s probably not a coincidence that Goethe’s color wheel was made with watercolor paints, which are quite transparent as well. It’s also possible to dilute oil paints and apply them in transparent glazes; if you do that, you can actually become a human printer and paint with a cyan, magenta, yellow palette!
There’s that old joke where a farmer asks a physicist for help increasing milk production. “I have the answer,” responds the physicist, “but it only works for a spherical cow in a vacuum.” Blue and yellow only make pure black when they are such spherical cows: fully transparent pigments which perfectly absorb all wavelengths except those determined by the physicist’s idiosyncratic dialect. Outside of textbook vacuums, blue and yellow make brown, grey, green, and everything in between.
If you’d like to learn how to mix colors in practice, I’m teaching a color-centered beginners’ painting coursestarting July 7th. You can learn more about it and sign up here. (The first session just passed, but please feel free to contact me if you’re interested; I might create a makeup session.) And if you’d like to get my essays in your inbox, you can sign up below.
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In the 1950s, B.F. Skinner got a pigeon to spend 16 straight hours pecking at a sheet of plexiglass, at an average rate of 2.5 pecks per second. What could have caused this frenzy? Was the pigeon held at gunpoint? Threatened with the murder of its family? Attempting to break the pecking record?
No. It pecked because this action was rewarded with food pellets at random intervals.
Skinner kept other pigeons too, in pellet-dispensing containers that would come to be known as “Skinner boxes.” In the second group, pecking produced food at predetermined time intervals. These pigeons would go about their pigeon business until it was feeding time, at which point they would casually peck on the plexiglass. Predictability versus randomness made the difference between sanity and psychosis.
Don’t mock the psychotic pigeons; we are much the same. From the simple slot machine to Facebook’s endless scroll, humans inhabit their own Skinner boxes. I am only a pigeon, so I scroll through 99 blurry photographs and poorly targeted ads just to get to that one video of a cat guarding its owner’s phone.
Without pausing to take the cue, I keep scrolling. I am the endless scroll. I’m a narrowed vision, a crazed emptiness, an engagement metric. I’m a shadow of myself.
I am only a pigeon, waiting for treats at the Facebook feed.
I tried to quit, but Facebook had given me a brain itch. Nothing would scratch it: not yoga, not books, not movies. There’s no jackpot in yoga, no scrolling in a book. Every activity I could think of felt boring; in the evening, it was hard to get myself to do anything.
I could have gritted my teeth and picked up a book, but I wondered if I could make things easier for myself. Was there something like a nicotine patch for the social media itch, a harmless substitute that would take my mind off the craving while I transitioned out of the pigeon’s life?
I decided to build a personalized Skinner box.
I put names of evening activities on strips of paper. Mimicking the variable reinforcement of the feed, I included chores (doing the dishes, responding to emails), wholesome pleasures (reading a book, calling a friend), and dopamine hits (ice cream, cat videos). Instead of rationally deciding how to spend my evening, I would draw an item from the box.
The effect was immediate. Even though I didn’t actually want to do most of the individual tasks, somehow I thrilled at the prospect of randomly drawing from among them. Sometimes, the sense of adventure persisted even if I drew a chore. The very tasks my rational mind struggled to coax me into were magically transformed into treats by the power of the Skinner box.
The next day, I tried simply doing the dishes without the seemingly unnecessary detour of the box. Poof! The adventure was a chore again. Clearly, the box was an indispensable part of the magic. But how did it work? I think it helped me access a different mental space. When I use the box, instead of trying to find the absolute best activity for a given moment, I open myself to possibility. I lean into my adventure-loving, curious side; I harness my inner pigeon.
I had discovered something better than a nicotine patch: a way to joyfully addict myself to the things I actually want to do.
I applied this discovery when working on a series of landscape paintings based on photographs from El Paso, Texas. When I started the project, rationally choosing which photo to work from felt like the evening fiasco all over again: no choice seemed particularly appealing. This time, I knew what to do: it was time for a handcrafted Skinner box.
Using a random number generator, I picked one of my top 130 El Paso photos. It was a dud: an abstract, nearly monochrome closeup of the desert floor after a snowstorm. I tried copying it, but it seemed stupid to aim for a realistic representation of something that didn’t even look like anything to begin with.
Besides, I’m not a monochrome kind of person. So after a few frustrated marks, I started focusing on the brushstrokes instead, transforming the image into an abstract color field. It’s not my absolute favorite painting, but I learned more about paintbrush and color use than I would have from a “better” source photograph.
I reach for the random number generator every morning… and wake excited to paint. By combining the predictability of painting at a fixed time with the addictive power of randomness, I have turned myself into Pavlov’s pigeon, drooling at the regular appearance of the Skinner box.
Come to think of it, I had been harnessing the addictive power of randomness in my art way before I knew about Skinner boxes.
Like the pigeon whose treats come at predetermined intervals, if I know precisely what I want a painting to look like, I lose my interest. To combat this ennui, I build stochastic surprises into my process. I’ll often prepare my canvases with a layer of random colors and textures. Searching for affinities and tensions between underpainting and model, I open myself to happy accidents. I find delicacies at every corner: shades of yellow and pink in the model’s skin which echo the underpainting; a figure 8-shaped silhouette which can be made to dance with swirling brushstrokes.
I don’t like certainty. What propels me is curiosity, a sense of adventure, a hope that the next pellet is just around the corner. When I make things, I try to leave room for such treats. This is why I rarely outline my posts. The first draft of the essay you’re reading was a random collection of anecdotes about, er, randomness. Before draft #2, I had no idea that any anecdote except the first would mention Skinner boxes. Writing gave me the very gift I’m trying to pass on to you: a new mental framework.
Many posts fail to deliver such kernels. As any pigeon knows, this only makes the search more enticing.
As much as it was a revelation, the “Skinner box” framing isn’t perfect. The gaze of the Facebook-scrolling pigeon is frenzied and narrow, focused on a single, distant point. Intent on the upcoming reward, she barely notices the dozens of mediocre posts running through her feed, frantically scrollingscrollingscrolling. Unlike Facebook, creative randomness expands my vision. When I make things, I am excited, sometimes brimming with exuberance — but never out-of-control frantic.
What makes the difference? It’s pretty easy to tell whether a Facebook post is a treat or not — but discovering whether a photograph is good source material for a painting requires attention and exploration. (If you’re inventive enough, anything is good source material.) Instead of treats, the Artist’s Box dispenses puzzles. Crack them the right way, and you’ll unlock the delicious core. That requires constant alertness, and since a treat can appear at any moment, I’m motivated to keep going.
A recent vacation really brought home the power of putting ambiguous treats in your Skinner box.
I love daydreaming about upcoming travel. Wanting my trips to live up to these dreams, I plan… and I plan, and I plan. I make sure I end up in the right place at the right time, seeing the sunset at the Grand Canyon and the sunrise in Zion.
Of course, nothing is ever exactly as planned. During a trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, my partner felt some knee pain and needed to stay in the car and rest, so I agreed to substitute a short solo hike for the long and scenic one I had dreamed of.
As I started walking, volcanic rocks loomed against an otherworldly yellow. The blustery landscape suited my sulky mood. By the time I reached the trail’s end — an underwhelming drip of waterfall, seen from above — I had traded disappointment for a sense of adventure. Since I had some time to spare, I decided to go exploring. I crossed over the creek, thrilled by the (minuscule) danger of slipping and plummeting down the waterfall. The view on the other side wasn’t any better, but the sense of adventure was its own reward.
Then I wandered off up another hill, idly searching for a more sweeping vista. There was no view here either. Instead, a museum opened up at my feet. Bowls of volcanic rock served up air bubbles. Tongues of lava seemed to cool before my eyes. Lichens and sulfur rivalled the abstract expressionist’s brush. It was one of the highlights of the week-long vacation.
When I returned to the trail, to my amazement I saw that it had been strewn with equally magnificent stones all along. I never had to go off-trail to see such marvels.
Oh, but I did: off-trail is a state of mind.
The pigeons with predictable feeds wander off to do other things when it’s not feeding time. Similarly, when I plan a hike with a clear treat at the end, my attention wanders before the climax. But if the treat could come at any time — and if, moreover, what counts as a treat is as much a matter of how you look as a matter of where you are, then I will walk through the landscape open-eyed — and gasp.
All of my Skinner boxes eventually stop working. I have enough of a feel for all of the tasks in my evening box that “use the box” now feels almost like its own predictable activity, forcing me to keep adding more items. And sometimes, I opt for the radical act of… rationally deciding how to spend my evening. It’s a little like putting my Skinner box inside another Skinner box — the big box sometimes delivers the small box, and sometimes the instruction “do what you think is best right now.”
Though it needs regular maintenance, the slot machine is a powerful tool. You can’t decide whether or not to become a pigeon; randomness will always be addictive. But you can build better Skinner boxes. You can addict yourself to Twitter — or to creativity. You can engineer a slot machine that will shrink your world — or one that will open it wide, then fill it to the brim with possibility.
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1) I provoked my partner. 2) He yelled at me. 3) I thanked him.
More precisely, it went something like this.
One Saturday morning, I bring up the topic of possible weekend hikes.
“In an ideal world, today I would — ”
“Is this plan going to involve both days?” my partner Ben interrupts me immediately.
No wonder I dread suggesting weekend activities… he won’t even let me finish a single goddamn sentence!
“I didn’t say anything about plans! I just want permission to dream!” I explode.
This goes on for a bit, in tight and frustrated circles, until Ben suggests that I go and meditate. It’s the last thing I want to do, but I don’t have a choice: we’d both precommitted to disengaging in the middle of arguments.
On my meditation bench, I let myself feel all of my emotions. When I have an angry thought, I turn up the volume. Internally, I say all the meanest things I can come up with.
Ben is such a stick in the mud! Such a lump. I always have to fight him to have any sort of fun. It wasn’t supposed to be like this! We were supposed to be adventure buddies!
I feel constricted, tight, trapped.
He was supposed to expand my world, not narrow it! When did this happen? When had this inspiration, this beautiful altruist who chose his job based on the number of people he could help, become a constraining force?
What would it be like to escape this constraint? I am a blazing fire. I am a storm. I am untamable.
When I finish the meditation, I know that this is bigger than our weekend plans.
“I feel like I’m the keeper of travel and adventure in this relationship,” I start.¹ “Nothing fun ever happens unless I suggest it.
“At the start of our relationship, I thought we were adventure buddies. Like that time my friend had invited me to visit her in China, and I really wanted to go, but it seemed frivolous. And you said “why not? I’ll go with you.” And then that same year we went to Morocco and to Iceland — I wanted to do all those things eventually, but you were the one who said “why not now?” And now I feel like it’s always me who says those things.”
I hesitate, searching for the least hurtful words. “I think I… a part of me… is disappointed in our relationship. Before we met, when I set up my OkCupid profile, I wrote “I love reading — but ‘at home, curled up with a book’ is not my idea of a good time. I’d rather be reading on a train headed someplace new.” I wrote that because I didn’t want to be dating someone whose idea of a good time was sitting curled up with a book. And,” I take a deep breath, “there’s a part of me which is afraid that you are this sort of person.”
Ben lurches to his feet. He looks like he’d just been punched. “Reading a book is not my fucking idea of a good time!” He pounds the table, its rattle the only sound in the icy silence. I have never, ever seen him this angry. “My fucking idea of a good time is improving the world! Reading a book is what I do to recuperate when I’m too exhausted from that.” He strides to the other side of the room, panting.
He’s a storm, a blazing fire.
I say the only words that do justice to what I’m feeling: “Thank you.”
What the hell was that about? In the moment, I don’t need to know anything more than this: I am satisfied. I got exactly what I needed.
Later, I put words to the experience. I got my Ben back. The Ben who sees suffering and injustice as problems someone needs to fix, then asks “Why not now? Why not me?” The Ben who, if he helps in China, will help in Morocco and Iceland too. Who welds ambition and altruism into an inseparable whole. Who will fight for the things he believes in. The Ben who is passionate; the Ben I fell in love with.
That’s what scared me about a lump reading in the corner: a lack of passion. All of that stuff about travel and adventure was never the point.
Of course, on some level I already knew that Ben was passionate about improving the world; I knew that he chose to work on a mobile money service in Africa specifically because of its impact on people’s lives. But his passion manifests during his workday, which I mostly don’t get to experience. Instead, I’d been witnessing his exhaustion afterwards, and a part of me started to believe that the exhausted Ben was the true Ben.
There’s a difference between knowing something on an intellectual level and knowing it in an embodied way. Between knowing Ben would fight for his beliefs and seeing him do it.
Between knowing I love him and feeling it.
The tunnels of hatred and contempt always seem to lead to love and admiration. Not just in that argument; again and again, when I let myself experience my negative feelings, I end up feeling love.
Like the time I hate a friend for her fakeness.² She gives a compliment to an acquaintance, then turns around and whispers “I don’t really believe that, but we need to support him.”
When I let myself feel the hatred, I realize that what bothers me isn’t fakeness, but honesty: I also say nice things I don’t believe, but I don’t go around admitting to it. My friend, it turns out, has more integrity than me.
Or the time I allow myself to find a friend unbearably boring. I imagine myself pounding my fists. Energy courses through my body; it feels exhilarating. “He’s pitiful,” I think. “Why did I ever want to be friends with him in the first place?” Then I remember: he’d worked so hard as a student, spending all his time on schoolwork, retaking every test it was possible retake, coming to all the office hours. All this to get what I would get by totally slacking off. Grit. Determination. Resilience. This is why I admire this pitiful person.
How can hatred lead to love? Here’s how I think of it. When I don’t let myself feel hatred and contempt towards my loved ones, I’m boarding up the doors to those feelings. Love can’t reach the places I’ve boarded up, and so it shrinks. (This narrow type of love, born of flinching from people’s flaws and my feelings about them, is sometimes called duty.) But when I open the doors, love floods all.
You know those couples who have everything going for them, then one day wake up and realize that they’re each other’s worst enemies? The ones who never argue, then find themselves in a bitter divorce? Who turn seamlessly from love to hate, with no gradation in between? They’ve always puzzled me, but now I think I understand.
It’s precisely because they didn’t argue that their love turned to hate. A part of them had always hated their spouse, but that was never the problem. The problem was that they never faced that hatred. Afraid to lose their love, they’ve been forcing it into tighter and tighter spaces. Eventually, all that remained was the very hate and contempt they’d been trying to avoid.
Another thing I think I understand now is teenage rebellion. A child loves her parents in a constricted way: she doesn’t see them as full, flawed human beings; she shuts her eyes when she sees something she doesn’t like.
“I hate you, mom!” is cause for celebration; it’s the first step towards mature love.
Periodically visiting your hatred and contempt strengthens your relationships, but that doesn’t mean you should do it — let alone express these feelings — every day. Before our argument, I had been processing my thoughts about Ben’s “lumpiness” for several weeks. If I had expressed them in their raw form earlier, I would have only hurt him. (This is also why disengaging in the middle of an argument is so helpful.) And there will be stretches of time when you or your partner (or friend) won’t have the emotional resources to process your feelings, to crawl through the dark tunnel of hate towards love. If one of you is having a particularly difficult month at work, or if your newborn has been keeping you up all night, it makes perfect sense to store your hurtful feelings in a sealed-off cellar and briefly run on the fuel of duty instead of love. But in large quantities, this is a fuel which corrodes. Eventually, you’ll want to find some space and time to convert it back to love.
You don’t always need to involve your partner (or friend) in this process, but it often helps. How do you do that without causing unnecessary suffering? That’s another thing Ben helped me understand.
Later that Saturday, on a hike on the Florida Trail (Ben’s suggestion), it occurred to me that I had essentially said a bunch of mean things to provoke an angry response out of him. “Thanks for that, again,” I say. “You put up with a lot today, and I think it was basically all for my sake. I’m not sure that you got anything out of it.”
Ben furrows his brow. “I don’t think of it that way. A part of you had been getting in the way of our relationship. We reassured that part, and now it’s no longer in the way. That’s good for the relationship — and what’s good for the relationship is ultimately also good for me.”
When I think of what makes an argument good, this is what I keep returning to. Throughout our quarrel — even when I was saying the meanest things about Ben, even when he was pounding the table — we never completely let go of this overarching sense that we are on the same team. That by fighting for our rights and our autonomy we were also fighting for the relationship. Even our hate had only one purpose: love.
—  I’ve condensed the argument into a near-monologue because I don’t think you, the reader, would get very much out of the details of the actual back and forth — but please remember that what actually happened was a lot messier than this portrayal.
 Some details changed to protect identity. Hatred strengthens relationships if expressed properly, but these descriptions are the opposite of proper expression, so I don’t want anyone to see themselves in them.
I’ve been doing a new type of meditation — “therapy” is an equally good word. There’s really nothing to it (all I do is set a 30-minute timer and sit quietly with myself), but the effects have been profound.
What I mean by “sitting quietly with myself” is that I let my attention go wherever it naturally goes, while trying to maintain awareness that I am sitting here, now, in the background. Whenever I notice that I’ve lost that awareness, or that I’m feeling impatient or distracted, I anchor my attention in the sensations in my body, then let it go wherever it wants again. If something intense, like a pang of anger, comes up, I try to give it space, lightly saying “you’re welcome here” to the experience. I try not to overthink what I’m doing, trusting my gut when something feels important. So if I feel like I need to cry, I just cry, without trying to check whether I’m truly present every second.
This simple practice has uncovered so muchunder the surface of my mind! It’s a bit like snorkeling — until you dive in, the water seems perfectly uniform, but underneath the glories are endless. One of the most interesting “fish” I have found are the emotionally charged memories which spontaneously bubble up to the surface when I am sufficiently calm. Here are a few examples.
I noticed I was stressed about an upcoming social interaction. I let myself fully inhabit that feeling and… Poof!
I am back in third grade, my bully Victoria pushing me down to my hands and knees. Pulling down my pants. Sitting on my back. I am back in third grade, a humiliated horsey.
Here, now, on my meditation bench, I can’t stop crying.
My teacher, Mrs. P, can’t stop apologizing. She gives me a beautiful little bear-shaped stamp. She pampers me for the rest of the day. She has never scolded Victoria this bad.
I love the stamp, but I don’t deserve it. Doesn’t Mrs. P. know that today was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing but the culmination of the little cruelties Victoria had been piling on me for months?
The tears come, and come, and come. Had I carried this sadness here all the way from third grade? At the end of the sobbing, there is calm.
2. I am back in Oxford. I see every shade of ochre in the sandstone, every gargoyle. I walk across the lime-green quad to the stately dining hall. The space is as it has always been, not one inch of air misplaced.
The memory is dense with feeling. Intoxicating awe at the privilege of being here, at the sight of every blade of juicy grass and every sandstone curlicue. Around that, something dark and heavy. Nostalgia? No, the feeling seems internal to the memory, something I carried with me often across this quad.
I am inside the dining hall, sitting at the edge of a group of unfamiliar faces in the flickering candlelight of a formal dinner. Inside, the darkness intensifies.
Loneliness. The word comes as if from outside me, but when it lands, my body shudders in recognition.
Oxford had been a dream come true, but my time there was punctuated with periods of despondency. I called it depression; the word “loneliness” never crossed my mind.
I found it hard to make friends with British classmates; most of the people I was closest with had been visiting students who disappeared after one year. Of course I was lonely.
3. I feel lost. The feeling is connected with a sensation in my hips, but every time I try to focus my attention on that area, I bounce off, like there’s something lodged in there causing me to skid. I feel impatient, distracted. A minute goes by without me knowing where I am. “You’re welcome here, lostness,” I remind myself.
I am back in Warsaw. I’m about to start an orienteering exercise for my scouting troop; I need find my way to given point using map and compass. There’s a knot in my stomach; I have no idea what I’m doing, but it feels too late to admit it. Should I be going north? South? I toss a mental coin, grit my teeth, and go.
“Eve?” I hear my mentor’s voice behind me. “You’re going the wrong way. Are you sure you know how orienteering works? Do you want more time to learn and try this another time?”
I should have known this by now. Everyone but me knows how to find their way.
That familiar flash of embarrassment stands for more than just high school scouting. I suddenly realize that a part of me believed that everyone except me already knows how to find their way in life. I had felt not just lost, but terrified of asking for directions.
4. I’m at my first advanced contradance. After the first number, my partner asks: can I give you an advanced-dance tip? “Sure.” It’s easier if you spin in the opposite direction to how you’ve been doing it.
I can barely hold back the tears. I mumble something about needing fresh air and stagger towards the exit. I sit on a park bench and sob; the minutes tick by. Why am I such an overwrought wreck? Why can’t I stop crying? Why can’t I just go back to the dance?
I let myself feel all of that day’s pain and shame. From the comfort of my meditation bench, it suddenly makes sense. It wasn’t just about dancing. The experience had been a concrete manifestation of an existential fear: the fear of waking up on my deathbed to learn I’d been running after all the wrong things. The fear that I had never been as advanced as I thought I was. That I didn’t belong here. That I never belonged; thinking I did was no safeguard.
The fear was exactly this: I had been spinning in the wrong direction all along.
I cry during almost every one of these sessions. That might sound horrible, but these are the cleansing tears of music, of poetry, of safety. Most of all, they are teachers.
The more I’m taken back to the past, the more I understand the present. Of course I’m afraid of meeting new people; a part of me still believes that anyone could turn out to be Victoria. And when I realize that, the fear lessens.
I think of this meditation as mental reshuffling. An experience triggers a memory, which triggers a feeling, which triggers another memory. After I observe this sequence of events, it stops being inevitable. I don’t have to consciously try to stop it — social interactions just no longer send me into a panic; dances naturally stop provoking existential dread.
The more of these friendly tears I let fall, the fewer tears of rage and helplessness I experience off the meditation bench. I no longer need to avoid my feelings; I know I have space for them all.
When Japan opened its borders to trade in the 1850s, inflation, epidemics, riots, murders, executions, and battles ensued. It’s easy to rattle off the sequence of events, tracing chains of political cause and effect, and lose sight of the human dimension of all this carnage. The imagination smooths over the detail, removes individual faces, wipes out the actual blood.
The art of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi puts the blood back in the picture. He was there amidst it all, sketching in the execution grounds and battlefields. His prints zoom in on individual people — beheader as well as beheaded — and condense the spirit of his time. At this scale, his era’s violence attracts as much as it repels, leaving us face-to-face with our own capacity for bloodlust. It’s no wonder he called one of his series Biographies of Valiant Drunken Tigers; the warriors he depicts are as abhorrent in their bloodthirsty battle trance as they are admirable in their bravery. To look at his prints is to mourn the loss of life and to revel in it.
Yoshitoshi was born as Owariya Yonejiro in Edo (now Tokyo) on April 30, 1839. His father was a merchant wealthy enough to buy himself a place in a samurai family register — and hence a samurai title — from a financially struggling clan. Around the age of three, Yoshitoshi left home to live with his uncle; one of Yoshitoshi’s students would later claim that this was because Yoshitoshi disliked the mistress who moved in with his father at the time. At 11, he was apprenticed to printmaker Utagawa Kuniyoshi, whose studio specialized in depictions of heroic battle scenes.
In Kuniyoshi’s studio, the aspiring artist learned to draw human and animal figures from live models (a rather unusual practice, which Kuniyoshi had adopted from the West), perused his teacher’s art collection (which included Western engravings), and copied his designs, including gruesome prints like Byôkwansaku Yôyû Gazing at a Severed Head. He was building the foundation of his pictorial language. As was customary, he acquired his name as part of his artistic training; Kuniyoshi gave his student the name “Yoshitoshi,” including the character “yoshi” from his own name as a mark of lineage.
Outside the studio, history was happening. In 1853, three years after the start of Yoshitoshi’s apprenticeship, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay and demanded that Japan open its borders to trade with the US. The shogun (military leader) complied with Perry’s demand, and the following years saw massive inflation, epidemics, and riots. As if that wasn’t enough, in the years 1854–1855 Japan was hit by a series of devastating earthquakes.
When the 1855 Edo earthquake hit, Kuniyoshi was returning home from the kabuki theater. He had just watched a performance of the chilling tale of the hag of Adachi Moor, a cannibalistic witch who preyed on visitors to her home, especially pregnant women. By the time he made it home, his students (including the 16-year-old Yoshitoshi) had given him up for dead.
Sometime during the next few months (or perhaps that very night), Kuniyoshi suffered a stroke. Though he lived for another six years, he hardly made any more work after the earthquake…with the notable exception of multiple prints of the Hag of Adachi Moor, whose image seems to have lodged itself into his brain. As we’ll see, his student inherited the fascination.
When Kuniyoshi died in 1861, 21-year-old Yoshitoshi hadn’t had time to establish his own art studio. Meanwhile, unrest was reaching new heights. After the opening of borders, inflation and unemployment skyrocketed, and epidemics swept across the country. Hundreds of thousands died of cholera in 1858, twice as many of measles in 1862. Westerners were blamed for this and anti-Western sentiment soared; rebels began murdering foreigners. The murderers, in turn, faced execution. During these restless years, Yoshitoshi would join the crowds at execution grounds, continuing his teacher’s practice of sketching from life…or, in this case, death. There were many scenes to behold. A samurai plunged the knife into his bowels himself when ordered. Others were hanged or crucified, but good old-fashioned decapitation was favored for its simplicity. Plus, the severed head was a useful deterrent, easily exhibited and paraded around town; 123 severed heads were displayed in Edo between 1862 and 1865.
The fruit of all this observation can be found in the 1866–1867 series 28 Famous Murders with Verse, which Yoshitoshi completed in collaboration with another of Kuniyoshi’s old students, Utagawa Yoshiiku. (Each artist designed 14 of the prints.) The stories depicted in the series draw from history, popular legends, and the kabuki theater.
Fukuoka Mitsugi with Flying Papers, Severed Head, one of the 28 Famous Murders, is based on the true story of the 1796 Aburaya teahouse murder, during which a 27-year-old doctor flew into a jealous rage, murdering three and seriously injuring six. The print captures the instant after the decapitation. Everything about the composition implies the recent struggle: the papers scattered during the altercation haven’t had a chance to descend, the killer’s expression is still frozen in fury. The red pigment mixed with glue spattered across his robe horrifies with its verisimilitude. Look more closely, and it only gets creepier: two of the bloodstains are handprints, left there by the woman whose head lies severed in a puddle of its own blood.
Yoshitoshi was hardly the first Japanese artist to represent violence. Long before it was a print, the story of the raging doctor had been dramatized in a kabuki play. Violent plays like this one were traditionally performed in the summer, to cool the audience with shivers of horror. Gore in woodblock prints was nothing new, either. By the time of the 28 Murders With Verse, the genre of violent art was splitting into subgenres, common enough to have their own special names: chimidoro-e (blood-stained prints), muzan-e (atrocious prints), namakubi (depictions of severed heads).
Yoshitoshi’s prints are gorier than those of his predecessors, but this may be due less to his personality than to temporary lapses in censorship. During the last years of the shogunate, his police force must have had better things to do than chase down unruly artists. (In 1884, the police would start a clampdown on prints depicting blood and violence, which had nominally been forbidden all along.) Perhaps the 28 Murders were simply the result of the shrewd marketing decision to print gore while that was still possible. Given how often woodblock printers turned to violent subject matter, there must have been demand for it; we know that 28 Famous Murders with Verse sold extremely well.
Tradition, demand, and lapses in censorship all conspired to make Yoshitoshi’s art possible, but it was the violence of the final years of the Edo period that turned the possibility into bloodstained reality. The years of the series’ publication saw killings, rebellions, executions, and riots caused by an unprecedentedly bad rice shortage. Yoshitoshi’s art was a mirror held up to its time.
The prints also coincided with the death of both heads of state: the shogun in 1866, the emperor in 1867. When the 14-year-old Meiji succeeded his father as emperor, opponents of the shogunate saw their chance: if the shogun could be deposed, the “restored” emperor could be controlled by his cabinet. So began the Boshin War of 1868–1869.
By May 1868, the shogun had given up Edo (soon to become Tokyo) — but a band of his samurai were too honorable to follow suit. They fought to the death against the emperor’s modernized army at the doomed Battle of Ueno. Yoshitoshi was there too, sketching the fighters, and perhaps even the 83 bodies left to decompose in the summer heat due to an edict that forbade burial.
Yoshitoshi’s Selection of 100 Warriors, printed during the years of the war, represents the violent acts of famous samurai, and features such bloodthirsty work as Sakuma Daigaku Drinking Blood from a Severed Head. The print applied lessons learned in the battlefield, execution ground, and Kuniyoshi’s studio. The debt to Kuniyoshi’s Byôkwansaku Yôyû Gazing at a Severed Head is clear in the hair-clutching and the green kimono (complementary to the red of blood) — but the terrifyingly compelling result is Yoshitoshi’s own. The print traps the eye in a gory loop: from the grimacing mouth of the victim, down the blood trail dripping into Sakuma’s armpit, then back up to the gaping mouth, the gaping neck…The dead and the living are inextricably bound, the winner and loser have almost the same face — two heads like theater masks, differing only in mood.
The image depicted a scene from the 16th-century war between brothers Oda Nobuyuki and Oda Nobunanga; Sakuma Daigaku took the head of Nobuyuki’s general during one of the battles. He doesn’t appear to have drunk his victim’s blood, though his leader Nobunaga did eventually have the skulls of his defeated enemies gilded and turned into sake cups. Perhaps Yoshitoshi combined the two events for dramatic effect. The subject-matter — a war between brothers — echoed the civil war of Yoshitoshi’s own era, while avoiding possible censorship.
Sakuma Daigaku Drinking Blood from a Severed Head is the 20th in a projected Selection of 100 Warriors, but Yoshitoshi would abandon the series by #65. Just as the country was returning to a semblance of peace, the artist would suffer what appeared to be a mental breakdown and fall into a deep depression. During the five years that followed, he had to accept his students’ gifts of rice and pickled vegetables. Once, he burned the floorboards of his home for warmth. To support him, his mistress, Okoto, would sell her possessions and formal clothes. A few years later, she would move back to her hometown, sell herself to a brothel, and send Yoshitoshi the profit.
Yoshitoshi emerged from his five-year hiatus into a changed Japan. Though the pro-imperial samurai had rallied under the slogan “Western technology, Japanese values,” what followed the Meiji Restoration was in fact the dissolution of much that traditional Japan had held dear. Replaced by a conscripted army, the very samurai who had helped overthrow the shogun would soon become obsolete. The same fate was befalling many Edo traditions — including, eventually, woodblock printing, which would be superseded by the Western techniques of lithography and photography.
Yoshitoshi clung to tradition as stubbornly as the samurai fighting at Ueno. He took up time-honored artforms like Noh chanting, abstained from Western technologies like gas lighting, and sang praises to old ways of life in his many historical prints. His work took on a more subdued tone; in addition to near-bloodless warrior prints, he now designed images of beautiful women. His treatment of real women remained appalling, though; around 1878, his second mistress sold her formal clothes and possessions to support him, then contracted herself out to a brothel. Though biographers praise the wife he married in 1884 for her stabilizing influence, Yoshitoshi “did not stop his philandering” after their marriage, Eric van den Ing and Robert Schaap noted in their book, Beauty and Violence: Japanese Prints by Yoshitoshi, 1839–1892.
And then, in 1885, he produced perhaps his most bloodcurdling design. In The Lonely House on Adachi Moor, a heavily pregnant woman hangs upside down from the ceiling, her round belly flopping helplessly downwards. Below her, the shriveled hag of Adachi Moor readies a knife to slice open the womb. There might not be any blood (by then, censors wouldn’t allow that), but this print is as haunting as any Yoshitoshi produced.
Yoshitoshi’s Lonely House on Adachi Moor — designed on the 30th anniversary of the Edo earthquake — is strongly indebted to Kuniyoshi’s earlier prints. The flaccid-breasted, bony hag is almost the same; her victim even wears the same red skirt. Still, let’s give Yoshitoshi his due: it’s the innovation of hanging the victim upside down that turns his design into the stuff of nightmares.
As with the teacher, so with the student: prints of the hag heralded the beginning of Yoshitoshi’s final years. She reappeared in one of his last masterpieces: The Actor Onoe Kikugoro V as the Hag ofAdachi (1890). The following year, Yoshitoshi invited his friends to meet a group of artists…who turned out to be a figment of his imagination. He spent the next year between several mental health hospitals, then died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 53.
Hoping to extend the artistic pedigree which stretched back behind him in unbroken lines of repeated syllables — Yoshitoshi, Kuniyoshi, Toyokuni, Toyoharu — Yoshitoshi trained more than 200 students and gave 60 of them artist names. None of their work passed the test of time; woodblock printing effectively died with its bloodiest proponent.
Like the subjects of his prints, Yoshitoshi had been a “valiant drunken tiger,” risking his life to view the carnage from up close, battling mental illness, bravely and foolishly pushing his medium forward even as it was becoming obsolete. Like the samurai he admired, he was the last of his kind. He was also, by 21st century consensus, the greatest Japanese artist of his era.
Originally published as “The Artist of Japan’s Bloody Era” in Rabbit Hole Magazine. Reprinted with Rabbit Hole’s permission. All images in the public domain.
Sometimes I think everything is beautiful. Then I come to a place like this, trees glowing orange over cobalt hills, a beauty so blinding I veil my eyes with clichés – and my worldview shatters.
I had a dream, once, of moving to a cottage in the mountains, but I had settled for city life. I told myself I wanted closeness: to cafés, museums, friends. More importantly, Ben liked the city. (Never mind that he shared my dream of mountains, my inner conflict – it was easier to think that he didn’t.)
Besides, everything was beautiful, people as lovely as nature; I wasn’t really giving anything up. I meant it when I said it – patches of pavement, paintings of corpses, busy city squares have all floored me with unexpected glory – but “everything is beautiful” had also been the spell I chanted to protect myself from my own dreams.
It was only when I arrived at the dream, the home with trails leading out the front door, that I let myself feel my yearning. It did make sense to want this, not just weekend drives to the distant mountains, excursions to the highest peaks on the sunniest days, but the daily walk, the grass decked out with pearls after the rain, the leaves turning day by day, the birds I know almost by name.
I walk, climb on. This place, in its silence and solitude, lets me hear my own thoughts. I think about what we give up: happiness, adventure, community; success, safety, solitude.
Ben and I became nomadic just as the days were getting too short and too cold for gathering outside. (We’re in New Hampshire now, but who know’s what’s next? Not knowing is part of the thrill.) The pandemic has removed some of the tradeoffs; the dream of community is slumbering, adventure and solitude can take its place. But afterwards? Once, I would have moved to mountainous seclusion in the blink of an eye, but I have grown to love people, almost despite myself.
Walking through birdsong, I remember the first time I visited New York. Screech! Rush! Honk! No end to agitation; agitation to no end. So that’s what people meant by “energy”? The one place I could never live, I thought. I visited once, twice, thrice, and started to understand, the way you understand a second language, the attraction of cities: the beauty of crowds, faces, people, everyone with a different story, everyone a miracle.
When I lived in the suburbs of Boston, I had those glorious strangers, plus friends I’d known for years. What do I give up when I choose solitude? There is a tension in me: even these hills of gold are empty without the hearth, the heart.
Another vista emerges, horizontal strips in complementary colors: grey-blue and russet grasses, orange trees, blue hills, long thin clouds. Vertical birches frame the view and complete the picture, forming a box, a home for my vision.
I inhale; the air smells like being alive. I see my inner tensions as complementary colors, sources of vibrance.
I grew up between places. Our house in Poland was an anchor, a base, a home – but travel was always my second home. I want to have it all. I dream of a cottage in the mountains; I dream of never settling down; I dream of city friends.
I dream of a single place that is travel and home, community and solitude, mountains and city. Maybe this is what our ancestors had, hunting and gathering through the forests in a band of friends. I had this in high school, for a moment, when my scout troop backpacked through mountains of stillness, sang full-throated at the bonfire at night. I carry a nomad inside me, who doesn’t understand this world of screens and only wants to walk, and walk, and sing.
The mountains are calling and I must go. I heard what John Muir heard, but I stopped my ears. “I must go” – what sort of a reason is that? When you live in society, you do what you can explain.
Our mountain is a ski slope. Near the peak, a narrow, vertiginous ladder goes up to the chairlift. I look up. Folly to climb and folly not to climb.
I choose a place halfway up the ladder, just where delight meets fear, climb there, no further, then descend. My dreams butt heads with dreams; the tensions are what defines me.
What scares me more than a life of inner conflict is a life without it.