Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why Going To The Movies Makes Us Depressed

Yes. I went to go see that tear jerking piece of emotional porn, The Fault in Our Stars. The title is as romantically provocative as it is an awkward reference to ninth grade Shakespearean literature you could barely read—the kind that has two spoiled brats dying too young for a conflict easily remedied by growing the pair of balls necessary to tell their parents,
"We're gonna bone whether you like it or not." 

I've always been a sucker for and a fan of romantic strife, though I can't help but wonder if Romeo and Juliet had gotten it wrong in the first place. Maybe there's nothing really all that romantic about a love cut short by death. Maybe there's no good reason that a room full of people should buy a twelve-dollar ticket to frustration and misery. I don't know about you, but when I'm looking to pleasure myself it usually ends with an orgasm—not a popcorn bag full of tears.

Take a moment to step back and examine just how spirit-crushing all of this is: here are two people who finally have this perfect thing, something that everybody spends their entire lives trying to find. But then, no. Fate decides to roll over on them and collect on a bad karma debt, saying, "OH HELL NO". I have serious problems with this because I can't help but understand the universal message here to be a subtle FU to the dreamers within us. It's a serious blow dealt to anyone who imagines that maybe, just maybe, they might get what they really want. Essentially, the Fault In Our Stars makes the age-old claim to a heartbreaking axiom which concludes that, actually, we can't have what we want.

But there's another phenomenon that comes with these kinds of movies that proves to be far more impactful. In a story of love ended by cancer it's hard not to assume that this IS the point of the story. There becomes an intense focus on big dramatic events and the belief that these are the most important things that move us. Big love, big cancer, and big death have emerged as ultimate examples of what it means to REALLY feel. It's gotten so that we've come to demand these outrageous displays of greatness ruined so that we, too, can experience SOMETHING of significance in our lives (even if we're merely spectators). And then, we forget about the small things and how they used to move us. There's a certain degree of tragedy found in the realization that it might take disaster and pure doom to elicit any kind of genuine reaction from our hearts.

But that's where a lot of people miss it. And that's where the meat of this rambling starts to sizzle.

Actually, people don't love these kinds of movies because death is romantic. They don't go home with heartache because their biggest fantasy involves contracting a terminal illness that will one day separate them from loved ones. People go home crying and depressed the moment they realize their lives lack the little things, those everyday experiences which seem impossible to find: a friendly visit, genuine concern, phone calls, kind words, a response when we reach out to others. The real heartache begins with the dissonance felt in witnessing real human connections on screen; it pales in comparison to our everyday experiences. So much of what we long for is simply for the world to RESPOND when we call upon it and our fellow human beings.

So, the whole cancer gig makes for great choke ups and hand holding, but it's not the star of the show. We KNOW that one of these kids is going to die. This is not a new concept to audiences. But, cancer is not the reigning heavyweight champion punching at our hearts while we soak up tears with greasy theatre napkins. The real star of the show, the reason we all go home wanting more in our own lives, is because of the little things. As audience members, throughout the story, we have this very intense feeling that the people we are watching are DEEPLY cared for by others: Augustus actually answers Hazel's texts, he reads a book she cares deeply about and cites it numerous times, friends come over, friends support each other, people say comforting things at just the right time.

Compare these amazing events of everyday connectedness to our own experiences: people don't really text back when you need them, people are too busy to come over, people don't have the time, energy, or extra income to entertain guests or go out with friends often enough. Our everyday experiences of feeling connected are just the opposite. We feel DISconnected. People seem to NOT want to get involved. Our friends and family seem exhausted, with very little room for anything other than just getting by.

Our envy of Hazel and Augustus isn't so much that they loved and lost what (arguably) became this fantastically perfect love affair. What we envy is that they enjoy a reality that seems so much more of what we want in our lives everyday. When it comes to family, friends, and experiences that let us know we are truly cared for by others, fulfillment is rare.

It's also important to note that this phenomenon of depression caused by the cinema doesn't exclusively belong to tragic love stories. Remember James Cameron's AVATAR? If you don't, it's that movie with a planet full of blue people that humanity is destroying for money (pretty much what we're doing to ourselves now, but with way cooler technology)

Anyway. Immediately after the film's release, the Internet exploded with forums of people who had come down with depressive symptoms related to the disappointment of returning to a bland life of being ignored and disconnected. The real event of "Avatar Blues" was a well documented phenomenon whose link to our common feelings of disconnection was not overlooked. Fans immediately understood what was going on. AVATAR featured a race and tribe culture in which EVERYONE was important. Wanting to be a member of the Navi wasn't a desire rooted in schizophrenia; it was a desire reflective of our own innate feelings of wanting to be part of the group. We want to belong and we want to FEEL like we belong.

Feeling disconnected wasn't always such a pervasive experience. There was a time when people sat down at the dinner table, watched TV together, and called each other for a chat. The ideal connectedness portrayed on the silver screen isn't a new idea—it's a throwback projection of what life once resembled before we started working too hard, texting too much, and filling up our schedules with less intimate affairs. Modern art continues to reflect and imitate a life we no longer remember. Where the normalization of human disconnection has occurred, the longing for a simpler life that makes us feel more in touch ensues within our subconscious.

With regard to the kind of emotional reactions evoked by such dramatic movie plots, there's some dark humor here, actually. This is the awkward situation created by manufactured ideology: you get to pay a high premium for an experience that was once better, simpler, and free. That's why we're paying extra to eat organic crops in a food environment dominated by "superior" genetic modification—so science doesn't give us cancer. But it doesn't have to be that way. We don't have to rely on simulated experiences to remember our humanity. We can be better humans. We can advocate for stronger connections. All we have to do is turn off the television, come out of the dark spaces, drift from the blinking lights, and get back to what we're best at: being human.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

When We Fall

Photo, courtesy of Dan Enrico

We all fall down. But we don't all experience falling down in the same way; some are ignorant and some are knowing.

There is an ignorant person who will fall and never know it. They stay pinned to the floor, believing that life can only exist below them. And so, they live close to the ground with their heads down, all the while, forever plagued by a vague sense of wanting more. The wanting is endless. But they never think to stand because they do not know their legs—they've forgotten how to use them. This person does not know peace. 

The other kind of ignorant person falls and immediately gets back up. But they don't understand their injuries. Fear and shame propels them to speed upward and onward without pause. They never think to mend. And so they walk around on broken legs because they refuse to feel pain, they refuse their own humanity and forget compassion for themselves. In failing to acknowledge being broken, they seek to break others, exploiting the pain and injury they find in those around them. This person does not know compassion.  

There is a knowing person who falls but never asks for help. For pride of self and a fear of burdening others, they resign to stay down because they cannot allow themselves to need help. Their pride relies on self-deception, an image of invincibility that rejects the truth of limitation.
Their fear insists that others cannot handle their pain, so they believe in the necessity of loneliness and reject the notion that others can care for them. This person does not know trust. 

Then there is another knowing person who falls. This person understands what the others do not. They do not deny the fall; they embrace it. They fill up with compassion for themselves and others. They replace "sorry" with "thank you"—they do not apologize for needing help. With an open mind and heart, they heal faster, stronger, more completely, and later stand on firmer ground.

Through ultimate acceptance we can know fully the power and benefits of peace, compassion, and trust. In the act of falling down we learn how to better love ourselves and others, how to carry the torch of hope through all of human struggles. Because we know that everyone falls, we also know that all who have fallen are never alone.

For Sufey.
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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Best Father's Day Gift, Ever

My bungalow sits around the corner from a middle school whose front lawn looks like the cover story of a landscaping magazine. It's THAT gorgeous. The grass is spotless and full, the bricks are redder than red, and during the school year an entire community extravaganza ensues. It's a production that features the very best concerted efforts of parents, teachers, crossing guards, police, and a caravan of black and yellow buses.

But for me, the real show happens in the front of my house. It's the weekday morning rush. The show begins at about 8 A.M. and I grab a front row seat to catch a glimpse: a parade of SUV's and minivans pack themselves into the church lot across the street, vying for a chance to see their children off to school without getting a parking ticket. The sidewalks and streets run with the flood of young minds eager and wanting for knowledge, a mass exodus of hopeful vessels linked to the hands of their parents as they make the hundred-yard journey into an immaculate building of learning.

This is the view from my screened-in porch. It's a little slice of heaven nestled between the green lawns of New York Metro suburbia, and for a cool two-thousand dollars a month, it's a great time spent in your pajamas while sipping a large cup of black coffee.

One morning, while working up the nerve to call in sick, I noticed a young father passing in front of my porch with his daughter. Before reaching the corner, he stopped for a moment and motioned for the girl to open her backpack. Carefully, he returned a small notebook he had been carrying at his side, and as he did, the girl spoke her mind about a recent assignment she had completed.

"Daddy, we had to read ten pages, but the story wasn't good. And then she made us answer the three questions at the end. It took F-O-R-E-V-E-R."

She made sure to emphasize each syllable of the word so that her father might know, firsthand, the intense hardship she had endured. 

But he didn't take the bait. He only smiled.

This girl could read. This girl could write. This girl could comprehend information well enough to tell you that she didn't like what someone else wrote. She and her father are part of the 99% of literate men and women in the United States whose basic education has afforded them the means to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. It's this story of success through education that's become so familiar to the fathers and daughters that stroll past my home every morning. It's familiar to me and my family; my grandfather came from Puerto Rico and worked sixteen-hour days to put his son through medical school. My father is now a successful surgeon.

But that story of education changes drastically over the 7,000 miles between the New York Metro area and Ethiopia—a country whose annual Gross National Income is just one-hundred dollars.

For young women like Mebrhit and her father, Mezgebe, the road to a good education holds a grimmer reality, where the odds of going to school are slim to none. Over three million Ethiopian children will not attend school in their lifetime—a fact which further contributes to a national literacy rate of just thirty-nine percent. The inevitable result is the proverbial space between a rock and a hard place—a VERY hard place.

With mouths to feed and limited resources by which to feed them, Mezgebe's most valuable assets are his children; losing just one of them to the hours and cost required to educate them could mean the difference between survival and complete ruin. It's a fate known all too well by farming families in the town of Guangua, Ethiopia, where tilling the arid landscape to harvest sorghum grain has become an absolute livelihood. Families just like Mezgebe's find themselves caught in a zero-sum game spurred on by an endless feedback loop of poverty, lack of opportunity, and dismal circumstances that leave its victims with little control over outcomes. That lack of control, in turn, puts Ethiopian children behind the eight ball and forces fathers like Mezgebe to face a gambit of tough choices. The human cost that follows is one that not only threatens to jeopardize the personal potential of his own daughter, but also the future prosperity of his family and community at large.

Just four short years ago, the 51-year-old father of seven had committed his then 11-year-old daughter, Mebrhit, to marriage. In light of the union, cultural expectations would have demanded that her future husband help out her family at home. This would help save them, her father thought. It was one of the few cards left to play. Her family was immediately showered with gifts of clothing and shoes from her fiancé, and later, there was to be an exchange of oxen and goats, too. But Merbrhit had different plans: She did not want to be married this way. She wanted to be educated.

Determined to continue her studies, Mebrhit turned to her teachers and principal for help. For one month she did not go home, while her educators supported her studies, and spent weeks trying to convince her parents to reconsider the marriage. The dramatic action paid off, and eventually, Mebrhit's father and mother conceded and the wedding was cancelled.

Today, Mebrhit's path to a brighter future through education is a much different picture than it used to be. Next year, she'll begin her first year of high school with the aid of imagine1day's Graduate Fund program, a high school scholarship fund designed to support high performing students like Mebrhit in completing a full course of high school education. The program also aims to cultivate graduates into strong community leaders that will help shape Ethiopia's future.

His daughter's education is now seen as a blessing to Mezgebe and his family.

“I am glad due for the cancellation of that marriage. Her education isn’t just benefiting her, she is helping her brothers and me also,” he says.

I think about Mezgebe and his daughter Mebrhit every time I walk out onto my porch in the morning, every time I hear fathers and daughters laughing on their way to a future that's easily accessible to them.

Mezgebe's choice to wed his eldest daughter was one rooted in desperation to survive, in the love he has for his family. It was an event that, by western ideals, seems unthinkable; surely, a father who would marry off his daughter at such a young age could not truly love her. But that judgement would be our folly. Moral high ground is the luxury of those sitting at a comfortable distance from tragedy—people like me in my cotton pajamas, sipping some K-cup coffee blend with a name I can't pronounce. Things are different for those outside the bubble of privilege, where even the innocent ignorance of their struggle seems like a lame excuse for going about with our day.

Those thoughts of Mebhrit and her family's struggles, of the many others working hard to advance the prosperity of rural Ethiopia—I don't fight them off. I want them to stop me in my tracks. I want to remember. And as I shuffle my way through sleepy eyes onto my porch this week, waiting impatiently for my coffee to cool, I know I'll struggle terribly to think of a better Father's Day gift than what Mebrhit gave to her dad.

This Father's Day, imagine1day is making an extraordinary effort to make it known that stories just like this happen everyday in rural Ethiopia, and that support from people just like you can make ALL the difference. During this special Father's Day featured event, imagine1day invites you to become part of the global revolution of change that helps bring awareness and support to men and women just like you by donating, sharing this story, or connecting with imagine1day for opportunities to get involved.

Because the greatest thing about change, is making it happen.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 10.59.28 PM

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Monday, April 28, 2014

Why Looking On The Bright Side Of Things Is Kind Of Bullshit

Nobody likes a "Debbie Downer", especially when that person is ruining the hell out of your good time.  Right? I mean why can't these people get it together? Why can't they understand that perception is everything? 

The answer is because perception ISN'T everything. Perception is  simply one part of the equation. There's perception, and then there's reality. I might imagine that going toe-to-toe with a high-altitude mountain seems like the greatest adventure of my life—until I'm losing toes to frostbite, falling off 100-meter cliffs, and sprinting away from a pack of wolves I thought might want their pictures taken. There's a reason why all footage of Bigfoot is blurry: shitting in your pants for fear of being mauled by a mythical creature takes precedence over searching your bag for that camera you don't really know how to operate. The dream is often rosier than the reality that surrounds it, and when it's time to wake up, there's no going back to sleep.

This whole thing started after I witnessed some crap headline polluting up my newsfeed on Facebook. There was a picture of that American working-class phony, Mike Rowe (who ironically advocates for wealthy corporations, like Walmart, who refuse to pay workers a living wage), and he's giving some dejected fan "advice" about life—specifically, about finding a good career.

What spewed out of Mike Rowe's mouth seemed to be an excerpt from the ruling class playbook, essentially: 

"Don't have standards or dreams, just find something that works and be happy with that. Also, change your attitude and dub down your self-respect and confidence. Stop thinking you deserve a good-paying job that you like. Stop having dreams about supporting a family and just work for free and hope that someone up there at the royal table might throw you a bone someday."

Okay, so that wasn't exactly verbatim. But I'm pretty sure I captured the essence of Mike's coded message to a class of citizen who ranks well below himself. The message I'm referring to is the same one that gets played like a broken record in this country whenever the ruling class screws up, or imagines that those below them are disatisfied with being treated like second-class citizens:

"The quality of your life and how you feel about it is entirely up to YOU." 

Essentially, what Mike Rowe's advice on LifeBuzz implies is that the writer asking for advice would be happier if he simply wanted for less, lowered his expectations, accepted work without pay, and hoped for the best—because wanting to have a family and enjoy one's work are insane aspirations. If you're as hard-nosed and keen as I am, that pretty much describes slavery.

The message of "change your attitude and everything will be alright" is often cleverly packaged as THE answer to a better life, but makes staggering assumptions about what control an individual actually has over the real value of their lives. There's an inherent problem with this message, a message which has a dark-side often hidden from its recipients. Passed off as a call to personal empowerment, encouragement for the pursuit of happiness-by-self, this rhetoric doubles as a subtle means of furthering oppression.

Imagine for a moment that your greatest enemy was an entity you could not beat by brute force. Now imagine that the only way to kill this enemy is to convince THEM to kill THEMSELVES—not an easy trick. The most obvious way to accomplish this is to somehow make the act of self-destruction APPEAR like a desirable thing—you know, dress it up real nice. This would be the way to do it. This is how the message of "you and you alone decide how great your life is" kills. It bascially ignores the oppressive role of the ruling class.

At face value, it sounds like empowering advice: "You decide this and that and every thing else will fall in line". It's a great bait, especially in the United States, where the concept of the self-made person is still a prominent necessity of our cultural identity. Yet, this insistence that "perception is everything" can be used as a utility of deception which means to shift all responsibility to the individual—most often those who have the LEAST power over their lives. This keeps the greater populous in their place by renaming THEM as the guilty party, while also reducing the risk of having torches and pitchforks at the doors of the ruling class.

There's an attempt by the elite class of our society to psychologically normalize the experience of marginalization as a lower class citizen by insisting that all responsibility lies with the person (not those in power). Put this soundbite on repeat for the next three decades straight and you've got an elite class all freed up to continue on as they please, because dogmatic ideology adopted by the self is extremely hard to contest (see The Crusades and all other wars and acts of mass genocide).

There is, of course, SOME truth to the idea that altering one's perception can improve one's life. We can, in fact, make decisions that change our focus, actions, and at least some of the possible outcomes. However, the propagandized slogan of "you determine your fate" has become increasingly overused to distract the greater populous from the irresponsibility of an elite ruling class that exploits others for their own prosperity. Absolving one's self of guilt in America is extremely easy—just tell someone that this is a free country and "anything can happen if only YOU did something about it". It's a motto that would almost be funny if it weren't so blatantly untrue.

Using outdated cultural ideology that stresses "individual freedom", the elite class tries to pass it off as truth in a society where very few have true power, and the rest of us have the illusion of power.

There's a limit to the benefits of self-deception, where reality lives on the borders, and when people hit it, they wonder why they never noticed it in the first place. And then it's too late. No amount of self-deception is going to pay down your student-loan and mortgage debt faster than when corporate America DECIDES to pay people living wages again. The most frightening danger here is the normalizing of oppression, where the ruling class solution to genuine social issues becomes: Yes, we treat you like crap, but if you think happy thoughts slavery won't seem so bad, really. It's pretty hard to feign the absence of power and manipulation when you've got all the money and political pull in the room. You can entice people to imagine something better, but eventually they find the man behind the curtain and the jig is up.

Telling everyone that the reason their life sucks is because they aren't trying to see the bright side of things, can only make sense for so long. Sometimes your life really does suck. And sometimes it's really NOT your fault. Evoking the common person's sense of self-guilt for feeling bad about a shitty situation they did not create is a clever way to keep them looking the other way while you continue to steal from their pockets.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why Feminist Outrage About Kirsten Dunst Makes No Sense

This Sunday morning started out just like any other: a shower, some coffee, and the Facebook login. Upon logging in, though, it  became blatantly clear that this morning was not like any other. My ENTIRE news feed—that's every damn space available—was filled with the backlash of feminist outrage directed at comments Kirsten Dunst had uttered during an interview with Harper's Bazaar UK.

Apparently all the rage-filled controversy was sparked by the hollywood star's praise for traditional femininity and motherhood. She expressed:

"I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued," she told the magazine. "We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking—it’s a valuable thing my mom created." 

Let's be clear about something: If a man had said this, he would have been crucified, his career would have ended immediately, and he would have had to complete a campaign of cross-country podium apologies, etc. It would have been easy to dismiss a man's comment as the rhetoric folly of someone disconnected from the female experience. But, that's not the case here. Kirsten Dunst, last time I checked, is very much qualified to speak on behalf of the female experience, because, well, she IS a female—and that's pretty much the requirement for understanding female experiences.

Anyone who says to the contrary, who snidely remarks that Kirsten Dunst is simply "too dumb" or simply "not qualified" to accurately speak on behalf of the female experience, is emulating the exact form of elitism that pigeonholed female gender roles in the first place. The historic marginalization of women by men is being repeated today in an assault that targets men AND women. A feminist elitism which asserts that only "certified professional feminists" need speak on the behalf of all female desires, is one that no longer serves to liberate women as it once did, but now, only continues to silence any desires which deviate from the neo-feminist agenda. One feminist writer, Erin Gloria Ryan remarked, “Kirsten Dunst is not paid to write gender theory so it shouldn't surprise anyone that she's kind of dumb about it.”

Dumb about it? Dumb about what exactly? That she PREFERS traditional roles? Not paid to write on gender theory? Does that also imply that the incentive of money alone properly equips one with the "right" intelligence to speak well on female desires? And while we're at it, doesn't the word "theory" imply there's a chance that someone got it totally wrong?

It seems absurdly convenient that neo-feminism backs any woman whose message is congruent with its agenda, but stands to shame one that expresses a desire that contradicts that campaign. Feminism loves women when they aspire to destroy the power of men, but falls short on its claims to further the freedom of its own members' desires—those desires being that of traditional roles. The minute a member of the camp stands up for herself, and therefore expresses the true meaning of feminism by choosing ideals against the grain, the house of cards collapses. Suddenly, feminism seems less about the freedom of women to choose, and more about the priority of neo-feminism to censor any choice that disagrees with the movement—even if that choice represents the very freedoms for which feminist purports to stand.

Ironically, the hard-lined ideology and rhetoric of neo-feminism mirrors that of the political right they so adamantly condemn. The same dogmatic debate brought on by right-wings who insist on, heterosexual marriage, banning birth-control pills, and that women SHOULD continue traditional gender roles, is being played out by feminists who strike out against other women who simply PREFER traditional gender roles.

When you break it down folks, feminism is about CHOICE—the power of women to CHOOSE their destiny, their roles, and with whom they wish to be. Women are no longer FORCED to marry some dude that treats her like crap simply because she can't support herself. A woman is now free to pursue a career-driven lifestyle absent of children, husband, and any other domestic roles once assigned to her long ago by a regime of men who would never let her shine. These liberations are good for both women and men. These liberations have made our society stronger and better and are among the most important since the emancipation of slaves.

But, in the extreme feminist rhetoric that has launched public backlash against Kirsten Dunst, the freedom for women to CHOOSE what roles they wish to live out seems to only go one way. Effectively what's taken hold is a campaign which sits on the extreme left of the right-wing agenda, a one-way street for women where non-traditional gender roles are ALWAYS RIGHT and traditional gender roles are ALWAYS WRONG.

This is the question that neo-feminists have to answer:

Is your goal to have women be able to live the lives THEY want?


Is your goal to have women live the lives mandated by YOUR agenda?

Because one of those goals is not true feminism (I'll give you a hint: it's the second one). That's dogamtic elitism.

Women should not be punished by men OR by other women for their choices—this includes the choice to live traditionally. It is undoubtably the case that some women don't feel the desire to be mothers or wives. Feminism has helped create a better society which allows such women to prosper and pursue happiness in those lifestyle choices. That being said, the same is true of women who prefer traditional roles. Undoubtably, there are women who feel a strong desire to be mothers and nurturers. And yet, extreme feminism denies them THIS choice by shaming them and marginalizing THEIR desires as some misguided mistake of a naive woman. This is the same marginalization once used by men to force women into a life they do not desire on their own.

Kirsten Dunst did not start a movement. She did not create a political fund or organize a march for traditional roles. She simply expressed her own personal desires as a woman. Calm the hell down.  

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