Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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We are all members of our culture

I’m depressed today because I know I’m complicit. Separating myself from the culture—indeed, the cultures—to which I belong is impossible.

I am an American at a terribly low point in our history, and I can’t separate myself from the embarrassing maelstrom in our daily rhetoric, the “leaders” we believe reflect our values, at least in part. I refuse to use their names in this post. Using their names has for a long time been part of the problem, a way of using attention junkies to gain attention.

I’m an educator at a time when education is far less effective than it should be, both yielding and reflecting the maelstrom. I’m in higher education at a time when the whole system—the system that compensates me so that I might pay my student loans—looks at students as streams of revenue, at courses as products, and thinks of itself the way an empire might, at its teachers the way Pharaoh saw captured troops. A contemporary college’s greatest partner is a bank. Its greatest enemies are artists and philosophers.

I’m a man of letters at a time when people argue in comments about clickbait headlines. Despite the headline’s purpose, so many don’t bother to click, yet freely unload their frustrations, ignorance, hatred, fear and anxiety. I have written such headlines in attempts to profit. My refusal to monetize this blog is a cheap and pathetic attempt at integrity, one whose sincerity is questionable. It’s embarrassing to receive a “paycheck” for your “writing” in the amount of $6.00, the result of 12,000 “clicks”. We’ll say, “Hey, better $6.00 than 0!” We justify so many vile acts this way.

I could go on. I think I’ve summarized the situation well enough. No…I’ll go on.

I am a child of migrant refugees who now fear and loathe migrants and refugees, who blame refugees for failing to contain a war that banished them from their homes, migrants for working jobs that, if performed by others, would raise prices. Among us are sons and daughters of those displaced because tyrannical demagogues decided to send their armies into battle, slaughter citizens en masse. These children of the displaced today support a demagogue and tyrant. I am complicit in this irrational fear, in this simultaneous hatred and denial of one’s back story. I have paid money to companies that financed movements and politicians who profit by inflaming the maelstrom. Some of these politicians hold shares of the company that sends me a bill each month.

That bill buys a product that’s bad for me. The company knows, all of its employees know the product is bad for me. How many of us pay our bills from the sales of products we know are bad for the people consuming them, and how many of our bills represent purchases we know are bad for us, bad for our kids, bad for people not yet born? The maelstrom swirls, gaining speed. We all know what we’re doing, and we go about it as if there’s no alternative.

Our national rhetoric is about to achieve a level of profanity we may not be able to imagine. I think it’s important, right now and right here, for all of us to stop using this sentence: “Look at what they’re doing over there.” That’s a dangerous delusion, part and parcel of the problem. The correct sentence is this one: “Look at what we’re doing over here.” If we could wake up to ourselves, to our actual predicament, which is that our conditions are the result of our actions and ideas, we’d see the alternative path.

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New Lithuanian film: Suokalbis, Anthology of the Plot

Longtime readers of Liquid Ink know how much I loved Suokalbis, the since defunct Vilnius dive, which in an essay that won’t go away, I called the greatest bar in the world.

Here’s an excerpt from Suokalbis, A Eulogy and Lament:

When an old man dressed in tan Soviet-era trousers gyrated in imitation of Freddie Mercury, and when his dance partner — a young woman who might have worked at the reception of an area hotel — swung her round hips to Fat Bottomed Girls, you knew what it was about. When you saw a scrawney trolley bus driver color his cheeks with lipstick borrowed from a tourist — one perfectly happy to hand her makeup over — and you watched the couple bounce around to Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine, you understood that Suokalbis had a purpose. The bar wasn’t merely a refuge for the city’s 86-list. It was a public space in Vilnius that experimented with the notion of absolute freedom. 

I’m far from the bar’s only fan.

Filmmaker Arturas Jevdokimovas contacted me a few months ago about the essay, asking if he could use some of the text in his new film, Anthology of the Plot. Obviously, I agreed. The website promoting the film, which will make its way around the festival circuit, is now out, and I encourage readers to visit.

Click here for Anthology of the Plot.

Click here for the full text of Suokalbis, A Eulogy and Lament.

Lietuviškas vertimas pasirodė Šiaurės Atėnuose, Suokalbis: pagyrimas ir apraudojimas. Spauskite.

A still from the film, provided by Arturas Jevdokimoas. This is a rainy Soviet-era Lithuanian funeral.

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The public piano and the homeless man

Here is a video of a homeless man playing a public piano in Sarasota, Florida, as part of the Sarasota Keys Piano Project. It requires no introduction or commentary.

My first experience with a public piano was this past spring in Amsterdam where I took this photo:

DSCF3238That moment was about as great an experience as I have ever had with public art. I stood by that piano for almost an hour, just waiting to see what kind of people would sit down to play; each time I returned to the train station, I walked by to see what was going on. People took turns politely, complimenting and thanking each other, and the pianists ranged from a few Asian tourists to very obvious commuters (as the man in the photo is most likely a Dutchman coming hom from work).

The piano music mellowed and calmed the experience of the busy train station. It also opened up the space and contributed to the rhythm. I was so moved by the music, the openness and trust experienced between the city, its residents and strangers, that I’m convinced every city should have multiple public pianos in places like train stations, post offices and outside the DMV.


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What’s my heritage? (Links to essays)

The Summer Literary Seminars are in their fifth day—fourth day of classes and lectures and readings—and the event has been fantastic. It’s a privilege to attend once again (this time with my little girl).

I’ve noticed that a lot of traffic from the SLS website has found its way here to Liquid Ink, and students are perusing my photos and blog entries. Last night I got into conversations with some students who asked about my connection to Lithuania.

Here’s an essay I wrote about my grandparents’ flight from Lithuania in the 40’s. It’s titled Displacing Forces, and was originally published in Dialogo magazine out of DePaul University.

Here’s the blog post that has gotten the most traffic in the history of my blog. It also says something about my heritage. You will not need to remember what happened in the London summer Olympics to catch its drift.

Cheers.

Photo: Twilight in Vilnius

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5 ways to be alternative

You know who you are. You’re not square. You’re not like those people over there, those regular people, the ones with 9-5 jobs in skyscrapers and homes in suburban wastelands. You’re hip and cool. You have tight pants and a fedora. We’re in awe.

Not really. It’s one thing to listen to Arcade Fire because the band is good, and to have remixed your own versions of various Radiohead tracks. Yes, it’s cool to be the only guy in your Starbucks who knows MC Conrad. It’s ultra-cool to go The Metro or CBGB twice each week to know the scene. But we have to face it. Being cool and being alternative are two different things. Here’s the truth: it’s cool to be alternative, but it’s not alternative to be cool.

Virtually anybody can be cool. You just need to be finished with high school, live in a city and take a photography class or major in graphic design. You see? Instant cool.

If, however, you want to be alternative, it takes more than tight pants and a gold phone. It isn’t necessarily better to be alternative, of course. But it does require doing things that few people do.

1.) Listen to contemporary classical music

Here are some names: Claire Chase and ICE, Eighth Blackbird, CUBE. If you search through all the members of ICE, for example, you’ll find a network of music that’s unlike anything you or your friends have heard.

Here’s another name: Arvo Pärt. He’s not a hipster. If his music does not kick your ass, there’s no hope for you. You’re going to hell.

2.) Read literary fiction

Sure, Charles Dickens was really boring in high school. That’s because you read him when you were a child. But you’re older now, and you’re worried about being too similar to all those people over there. One way to be different from them is to develop empathy. Literary fiction offers you this lesson.

Don’t look for a list of names from me. The list of Great Books is out there, and they are all available for free in local libraries. Investigate some of the stories you think you know. They’re different from the movie version, believe me.

If you want to really be alternative, subscribe to a literary magazine. You can follow virtually all of them on Facebook and Twitter.

(Note, reading literary fiction is different from simply getting an MFA or flaunting your copy of Gravity’s Rainbow in a Cleveland Starbucks. You can read literary fiction without doing either of the aforementioned.)

3.)  Learn a foreign language

Yes, Spanish counts. But so does Icelandic. What are you going to do with Icelandic? Funny…you never asked that question when you bought the turquoise drapes or when you signed up for graphic design. You can do the same things with graphic design as you can with Icelandic: fuck all, or whatever you want.

4.) Cook your own food

No, it’s not alternative to go to the latest BYOB in Williamsburg. Everybody’s doing that. The alternative people in the urban west cook for themselves (and others). They do it instead of playing Xbox or posting pictures of their appetizers on Facebook. They bring their own lunch to work or school.

5.) Read multiple newspapers

In any format. And if not every day, then at least regularly. And don’t worry too much about the Dining or Entertainment sections. Your friends will tell you about that. Worry instead about the Business, Science and World sections. If you read those, your friends won’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

But you will know, finally, that you’re completely different not merely from those people over there but also from most of your friends. Ironically, once you gather the narrative they’re missing, it will become very difficult to look down on them or anyone else. I’d explain why, but I’d need you to read the news first.

How I appear in mirrors