O B E Y

Frank Shepard Fairey has made a very comfortable living marketing his brand of subversive, non-conformist art to the masses. The most common image associated with him is the iconic Andre The Giant “OBEY” graphic:

ObeyGiant

Fairey has credited the inspiration for this design as coming from the 1988 cult classic John Carpenter film, They Live.

they-live

The movie is more social commentary than a black comedy or horror film, though the concept is often lost on those viewing it. The clip below illustrates the gist of the premise:

The sunglasses represent an awakening, a moment of seeing things for what they really are, and, for the sake of popular commercial entertainment, the villains are these “alien” beings that have taken over. The truth is more sinister, as the scenario in the video above is not far from reality in our modern world. Our villains are not aliens with a clear agenda, but rather ourselves. The ability to wield power over others is not something innate and explicit. It is something that must be given away, and that is where the foundation of modern life lies: compliance and authority.

RoadSigns

We are assaulted daily by rules, restrictions, statutes, laws and other ways in which we are impaired from enjoying true freedom. But most people fail to consider their complicity in this process, simply throwing their hands up and stating, “that’s just the way it is.” The color of a stoplight does not determine a vehicle’s capabilities, nor does it indicate whether or not an individual will or will not drive in a certain direction at a certain time. It’s a symbolic abstraction; we agree as a society that when the light is red, we will stop, and that when it is green, we will go. When someone deviates from this behavior, they are seen as crazy or reckless or rebellious. This is the basic idea behind compliance as it pertains to our world today.

no_climbing

Often, “lesser” offenses – jaywalking, parking in a handicapped space in order to quickly run inside a business, playing “dine and dash” (eating without paying), shoplifting inexpensive items (ex. a pack of gum), taking property from your place of employment, speeding, downloading media illegally – are judged as acceptable or tolerable ways to challenge authority, whereas more “serious” crimes – murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery, assault – are seen as unacceptable and worthy of harsh punishment. Why? Legally speaking, these things are on equal ground – there is a clear definition of what is and is not considered a violation of the given code, statute or law. What makes them different are the prevailing societal mores that provide us with context in which we feel comfortable judging the world that surrounds us.

Clearly, there is a difference between a teenager who is convicted of manslaughter when a gun he is playing with accidentally goes off, killing a friend, and a person who habitually and purposely shoplifts items worth $20 or less in value. Which one would have the harder life? Manslaughter is a felony, and the stigma attached to a moment of poor judgment will follow that person for the rest of their lives, coming up in job interviews, rental contracts, credit checks and all sorts of other places. The person who is a habitual shoplifter – and who clearly does not care to reform or change their behavior – would likely not face the same kind of stigma. In general, white collar crime is tolerated as part of “the way things are.” Embezzlement, taking advantage of bailouts, gaming the stock market – these things are not often met with the same outrage.

witch_trials

Ultimately, these types of judgments can be traced back to the idea of compliance as it applies to current societal standards. There was a point where being an athiest could get you hung or burned at the stake, but with the Gen-X/Gen-Y crowd, it is very common. Not too long ago, admitting to homosexuality would get you fired, beaten, or worse – but now, there is a massive push for popular acceptance and validation of it. These things have fallen into vogue, making it easier for Richard Dawkins and Perez Hilton to exist and flourish in a world where, just a century before, they would have been targets of a witch hunt. It doesn’t matter whether atheism or homosexuality is “right” or “wrong” (despite the wealth of arguments about them), it matters whether or not it is agreed upon that these things comply with the collective opinion of what is acceptable for our society. But let’s face it – fear of being seen as non-compliant drives us more than a desire to be compliant.

So, for the most part, we stop at red lights. We pull over to the side of the road when an emergency vehicle is approaching. We pay our taxes. We do these things because we submit ourselves to the authority we’ve granted others in order to govern us. We exchange our true freedom for the relative comfort of what we perceive as a stable and just society. But what is authority, anyway? On the most basic level, authority is legitimacy and expertise, the state of having some sort of prestige in a given context. This status is not something inherent in an individual, but rather something that is granted to them. As more people agree to acknowledge the authority granted to someone, the more it is legitimized and accepted as true.

army

It’s obvious the kind of power and responsibility that is granted to what we typically conceive of as an authority: governments, military bodies, global organizations such as NATO and WTO. Their influence is often direct and easily measured. When a war is declared, when disaster hits, when assistance is needed, society as a whole entrusts these organizations to exercise their authority with the best judgment. We rally behind troops, we donate money, we send our thoughts and prayers, but we ultimately rely on someone else to do what is necessary to achieve a desired goal or outcome.

FDA

Often, we place a lot of trust in authority figures despite continual evidence that our faith is misguided. In the past year, there has been a lot of attention in the news to product recalls for spinach, peanuts, tomatoes, jalapeños and the over-the-counter nutritional supplement Hydroxycut. All of these products fall under the authority of the Food & Drug Administration, who maintain an active list of product recalls. It’s quite long, and many of the recalls issued are quite terrifying. There are mentions of undeclared ingredients, labeling mistakes and the presence of salmonella, E. coli and other contaminants. Some of these can be fatal – e.g. a product which contains nuts, or has been processed in a facility that also processes nuts fails to state this fact on the label. Often, these recalls are only discovered once worst case scenarios begin to unfold (i.e. a body count) – as was the case with the massive peanut recall that led to a wide variety of products being recalled earlier this year.

Peanut Recall

There is no one single individual to be held to account for food safety at the FDA or anywhere else at the federal level. – Rep. Rosa DeLauro

It took 4 days after salmonella was discovered in the supply of Peanut Corporation of America’s supply before action was taken to recall products. Even then, as we waited with bated breath, an ever-increasing list of products were recalled over the span of this past year, with constantly-changing information about what we could consider “safe.” But in all of this, few people were wondering why we continue to allow ourselves to place faith in such a plainly irresponsible authority. PCA took the fall, driven out of business despite the fact that their shady practices and corner-cutting, profit-chasing greed was made possible by the very authority we believe will keep us safe from harm.

Messiah complex

Religion is another authority that is widely relied upon as a source of comfort and security. It’s arguably the most polarizing authority there is, though the level of passion and activism varies wildly from religion to religion, and even from church to church within the same religion. What is truly interesting about this authority is that much power, responsibility and energy has been given over without any obvious justification for it. 2,000 years ago, some events occurred, a number of men retold their versions of those events, and here you have a continual dedication and fanaticism based around the belief that the things described in a book are indeed fact – nay, divine truth – that cannot and should not be questioned.

But why should witnessing a burning bush be seen as miraculous? There are a number of natural hallucinogens that could explain away this phenomenon. In fact, this theory has been researched in detail. If such a thing were to happen today, most would joke that the person experiencing such a thing must be high. What of a person who is dead miraculously rising from the grave? Criss Angel’s Mindfreak is a highly-rated show dedicated to “miraculous” feats of human will. What would have been something of biblical importance 2,000 years ago is merely popular entertainment today. Contextual perception.

Optical illusion

The elephant in the room with much religious dogma is that, while many logical and measured arguments could be made to dispute or rebut whole passages of religious text, one simply is assured that by their continued faith, they will ultimately be rewarded. Again, no proof or evidence of the rewards exist in the tangible world, and not a single person has come back from a state of death to attest to the presence of a true afterlife. It’s all conjecture. Every religious text is ultimately weakened by the same exact flaw: they are the words of men, written by mere humans. Subject to the same flawed, subjective experiential shortcomings that we experience today. Love, fear, anger, arousal, mind-altering substances – all things that can affect one’s perception of reality and all potential sources of confusion or distortion. Two different people could see two completely different things.

Westboro Baptist Church

Still, authority is granted to religious texts. Despite the fact that few men would sever their wife’s hand if she were to touch his assailant’s penis. Or shun a man for sleeping with a woman while she’s on her period. Or murder men who have slept with each other. Or murder nonbelievers. Selective tolerance of religious mores is no different than selective tolerance of societal mores. We jaywalk and we sleep with our girlfriends or wives while they’re menstruating. These are looked upon as “lesser” offenses and perfectly acceptable. But what’s the point of granting authority if you practice selective compliance? Why recognize the authority at all? Religious fundamentalists are often regarded as crazy or fanatical, but they are recognizing the exact same authority that millions of people do, only in a far more passionate and strident way.

Consume

Ultimately, though, consumerism and mass media are probably the most sinister form of authority. Where overt authorities like governments and religions are making clear grabs for power with (mostly) obvious intentions, mass marketing corporations and media do everything they can to obscure their motives. Marketing agencies work diligently to build brand trust with consumers. Child psychologists are recruited in order to more effectively take advantage of developmental weaknesses that can be exploited for profit. Celebrities and other public figures are paid to create a buzz around a brand and to attach their perceived positive qualities to a product.

Tiger Woods

When we see Tiger Woods wearing a Nike hat, we are being conditioned to associate a brand with a proven history of human rights violations and child labor with a person who seems like an infallible hero, an underdog, an untarnished pillar of achievement. We trust Nike. We associate good feelings with their brand. And it all operates on a purely subconscious and devious level. Misdirection. We don’t see Tiger Woods’ contract. We don’t see the hat get produced. We don’t see where the money comes from and where it’s spent. We only see the story they’ve carefully concocted to sell a brand.

Name brands have taken over our language, too. When our noses run, we ask for a Kleenex. When something happens that’s worth remembering, it’s a Kodak moment. Don’t know the answer to something? Google it. These are authorities working on an entirely different level, because rather than a conscious participation, they rely on us to personalize their form of authority so we no longer even consider an alternative – to ask for a tissue, to take a photograph, to search the internet. It becomes second nature to think in terms of their authority as the dominant brand in their industry.

Juicy Couture

As a world ravaged by the Great Depression and World War II struggled to rebuild a life in the ashes of their ancestors, the blind optimism of the 50’s ushered in a new wave of mass consumption that has lived on for over 5 decades without any sign of slowing down. What many religious zealots credit as the decline or downfall of our society is merely a case of switching one authority for another. Where in the 1940’s, governments were at war and faith was tested, the 1950’s brought a desire to indulge and escape recent events through wholesome, positive fun. A whole generation of “baby boomers” grew to represent the rosy outlook of the time, where people were encouraged to live it up and chase “the American Dream.” Consume for the sake of consuming, because you can, because you’ve earned it after surviving through such tragedy over the past few decades. So we began to entrust our happiness and well-being to a new authority; mass consumerism.

Girls mindlessly flip through issues of Cosmo, quizzing themselves on their sexual prowess. Guys pore over the pages of Maxim, hoping to catch a glimpse of Megan Fox or Scarlett Johansson in some state of undress. Parents park their children in front of the TV, trusting the Disney Channel to provide appropriate distractions. VH1 approves another season of Charm School, knowing that it’s a guilty pleasure for a growing number of people. These things become part of our daily routine, to fill up the time and help distract or entertain us and get us through the day. But our consumption of these products is ultimately another form of compliance, of submission to a form of authority that we likely don’t realize is there, or that we actively deny, claiming it has no effect on us.

Durex ad

When the editors of Cosmo put together an issue, the articles and photos are not chosen and placed at random. There’s a reason you’ll find sexually charged and visually appealing ads for condoms on the page adjacent to a comparatively plain-looking, text-heavy article about “what he really wants in the bedroom… but isn’t telling you.” The article is meant to draw your initial attention, but the true purpose is to put your eyeballs in front of that ad, which, in context, is far more appealing than the article you originally picked up the magazine to read. You tell yourself you’re not influenced by it and that you can look at it without it affecting you, but the next time you’re in need and you find yourself shopping for condoms, you discover an inexplicable urge to choose Durex….

masters

There are plenty of other forms of compliance and authority that we take for granted. As someone who has never been to college, I know first-hand that people look at you differently when they discover you aren’t college educated. It can affect your social and professional standing, your credit, your employment, your residential opportunities, and more. Yet, at the same time, I personally know a number of people who either cheated their way through school (as much as was possible) or chose to pursue majors that they had no actual interest in, simply because the coursework would be expedient, allowing them to get a degree with minimal effort.

The focus on having these degrees has reached such a high level of importance that parents are enrolling their children in college prep programs as early as 5th or 6th grade, expecting that they will have a competitive advantage to get into the best schools. Yet if the degree itself holds very little actual value in its real world application, then why surrender to the authority of higher education in the first place? As a patient comparing two doctors, will a degree indicate which doctor cut corners in pursuit of wealth and which followed a passion to help others? As a voter, will a degree help distinguish the candidate out to establish power and influence from the candidate who truly wants to improve their community?

shepard_fairey_obama

Barack Obama is a Democrat and a Columbia- and Harvard-educated lawyer. He’s also the President of the United States. The first black President. A Christian. Millionaire. A brand name. And one of the most eminent authorities in the world today. It’s no mistake that Shepard Fairey was behind the iconic portrait plastered everywhere during the 2008 election. Obama was/is a master of the personal brand (with plenty of calculated guidance from David Axelrod and crew). Delivering the idea and the image in an easily-digestible and memorable way, but without seeming intentionally focused on style over substance.

hitler

Hitler was also a master at the personal brand. The bold stylistic choices made in Nazi propaganda and decoration were no accident. Careful consideration was given to the adoption of the swastika symbol, flipping it around counter-clockwise, placing it within a white disc on a red background. The size of the disc and the thickness of the lines in the swastika were deliberate choices made to achieve a desired effect. Long before the Holocaust and the truth of the Reichstag fire were a matter of public record, Adolf Hitler represented one simple thing to the battered people of Germany, frustrated with their post-World War I struggles, eager to see a strong Germany rise again to prominence: hope. He recognized and manipulated this desire within the people to be led, to submit to an authority greater than themselves. Given this context, it’s no surprise that Obama has been compared so often to Hitler (no matter how misguided that comparison may be).

Ultimately, compliance and submission to authority represent a conscious choice within each individual to trade personal responsibility and true freedom for comfort and security. When this choice is made, the individual often chooses to view the choice as something external, a decision that has been made for them. There is an increasing trend in modern society to assume the role of a victim actively seeking the archetypal savior. A submission of will to a figure of authority is often seen as the answer to a problem deemed too large to fix by ourselves. “Let go, let God.” “Support our troops.” “You’re in good hands with Allstate.”

Marduk & Tiamat

These archetypes continue to exist because there is a conflict within each individual when presented with the choice of personal responsibility. We are conditioned to put our trust and faith in these authority figures and to comply with their demands or expectations. We consciously – and subconsciously – use these authorities to judge others’ abilities, intentions and potential. But governments, religions, businesses, institutions and organizations have all risen and fallen, time and again. Whether incorrect, ineffective or irrelevant, most forms of authority eventually outlive their usefulness. Yet instead of a change in the collective approach to personal responsibility, more often than not, a new authority is sought or created to fill the need for the savior, the father figure, the protector.

Question authority

Think for yourself and question authority.” It’s been said many times by many people, but few truly understand the full power of this statement. Even this blog post should be questioned. Information is not inherently good or bad, right or wrong. Information is just data; it’s all in how it’s processed by each individual mind, and the only way to truly control that process is to accept personal responsibility and grant yourself authority over your own world.

Aedes Saturnus

saturn

It is often said that every 30 years of your life, you experience a “Saturn return.”  This is because Saturn’s orbit around the sun takes approximately 29.5 years.  What it typically represents is a time of great upheaval and change.

In astrology, Saturn represents a number of things.  But one thing Saturn represents that tends to resonate most with those experiencing a Saturn return is the enforcement of law, or restrictions.

Saturn, therefore, represents our limitations in power and control, in confinement or isolation and capacity. Taking all this into consideration, it is no wonder we face difficulty when attempting to transform Saturn from a controlling force to a teaching force because we encounter all our limitations in every aspect of our lives.

anotherbrickinthewall

Teachers are often thought of as the people who lead a classroom full of students in the acquisition of new knowledge.  In the American system of education, at least, this is often a simple case of indoctrination.  In order to achieve particular goals or career paths, there are certain things you must know, and there is a way that this information must be delivered to you.  Therefore, what we often conceive of as education is really an attempt at social control through reinforcing standards.

There are opportunities to learn everywhere in life. Anyone can be a teacher and anything can be a curriculum. Many of my teachers have been artists, musicians, actors, friends, family, strangers. The difference between knowledge and wisdom often lies in who your teachers are rather than what you’re being taught.

vitruvianman

The band Tool is an amazing group that blends superb musicianship, higher consciousness, emotional maturity and a dry sense of humor into something that no other artist can replicate – though many have tried. I refer to them as my “left brain” band – the part of the brain associated with logic and analysis. Much of my passion for learning is derived from influences such as these.

In 2001, Tool released an album, Lateralus, which dealt with this topic in particular, in the opening track, “The Grudge.”

Wear your grudge like a crown of negativity.
Calculate what we will or will not tolerate.
Desperate to control all and everything.
Unable to forgive your scarlet lettermen.

Clutch it like a cornerstone, otherwise it all comes down.
Justify denials and grip it to the lonesome end.
Clutch it like a cornerstone, otherwise it all comes down.
Terrified of being wrong. Ultimatum prison cell.

Saturn ascends, choose one or ten.
Hang on or be humbled again.

Clutch it like a cornerstone. otherwise it all comes down.
Justify denials and grip it to the lonesome end.
Saturn ascends, comes round again.
Saturn ascends, the one, the ten.
Ignorant to the damage done.

Wear your grudge like a crown of negativity.
Calculate what you will or will not tolerate.
Desperate to control all and everything.
Unable to forgive your scarlet lettermen.

Wear the grudge like a crown. Desperate to control.
Unable to forgive, and we’re sinking deeper.

Defining, confining, sinking deeper.
Controlling, defining, and we’re sinking deeper.

Saturn comes back around to show you everything
Lets you choose what you will or will not see and then
Drags you down like a stone or lifts you up again
Spits you out like a child, light and innocent.

Saturn comes back around. Lifts you up like a child or
Drags you down like a stone to
Consume you ’til you choose to let this go.
Choose to let this go.

Give away the stone.
Let the oceans take and transmutate this cold and fated anchor.
Give away the stone.
Let the waters kiss and transmutate these leaden grudges into gold.

Let go.

The song is quite powerful and has a very strong message behind it. It has resonated with me since the album was first released, but I find myself listening to it more and more these days. Letting go is part of the mythology of the Saturn return, to fully embrace the possibilities of life and question your own beliefs and values. But it’s far more difficult to let go of things than to desperately cling to what is easy or perceived to be working. Often, this only prolongs the eventual pain that we feel when we experience the upheaval of a life-altering event or moment. I believe you should always be asking why. “Why am I experiencing this emotion?” “Why am I preoccupied with this thought?” “Why am I choosing to react in this manner?” Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the same cycles of behavior in our lives without ever growing or evolving.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. – Albert Einstein

Too often, we are terrified of change and self-reflection, so many of those fears become our weapons that we project onto others.  We are self-conscious about our looks, so we judge others for theirs (e.g. Perez Hilton, et al).  We are insecure about our bodies so we overcompensate with external things (e.g. plastic surgery or ego-driven machismo).  We are threatened by intimacy, so we mistreat or push away those we feel closest to.  We are such predictable creatures, but will do almost anything in our power to avoid attaining this knowledge. They don’t teach these things in school, so most of us simply don’t know how to.

MagrittePipe

Dredg is what I often call my “right brain” band – the part of the brain associated with emotion and intuition. While they are every bit as intelligent and talented as Tool, no band can make me feel quite the way that Dredg can. Many of their songs give me goosebumps or make me well up a little bit when listening to them, no matter how many times I’ve heard them. One such song is “Bug Eyes.”

Bring back those good ol’ days
Nothing feels right, nothing ever goes my way
I threw my future away
Now I walk alone out here in the cold, wandering astray
Where’s my future?
I’m gonna need a home
You’d expect the same, now wouldn’t you, wouldn’t you?

Your journey back to birth is haunting you, it’s haunting you
Your departure from the earth is haunting you, it’s haunting you

Only those who accept will find that acceptance in return
We have been trimmed down like hedges,
And told just to sit, and wilt, and spit at each other from a distance
There is constant resistance from you
I’m gonna need a home
You’d expect the same now wouldn’t you, wouldn’t you?

Your journey back to birth is haunting you, it’s haunting you
Your departure from the earth is haunting you, it’s haunting you

It’s been ten years strong, that’s much too long
It’s time to do something good for my health
Time to do something good for myself
I’ve wasted all this time, I’ve wasted all this time

Your journey back to birth is haunting you, it’s haunting you
You departure from the earth is haunting you, it’s haunting you

Another powerful song, but in an entirely different way. While Tool offers a logical and analytical approach to the Saturn return, Dredg issues an emotional and intuitive plea – life is too short to waste it living out of sync with each other and the world around us.  Chasing after an uncertain future, amassing wealth and property, with faith in the unknown (and unknowable), consuming without concern for our environment and gratifying our ego every chance we get – this is not a way to live. This is a life completely out of balance.

koyaanisqatsi

The above image is taken from the breathtaking film Koyaanisqatsi – a Hopi word that means “crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living.” In the film, human life, technology and nature are juxtaposed, often in jarring ways, to illustrate the effect that modern society has had on the planet.  While human development as a whole has carved its path on the earth, each of us as individuals have taken to discovering our own niche within that world, often at odds with ourselves and each other, in pursuit of some elusive destination. In this image, a skyscraper – indeed, a monument that serves mainly to gratify our ego as a species, as well as destroy an otherwise pristine view of the heavens – is placed next to a bright, full moon, awe-inspiring in its simple beauty and grandeur. Two of mankind’s greatest achievements, side by side, which are also simultaneously two of mankind’s failures. Our planet is polluted with these skeletal monstrosities pointing upwards at a celestial body that has been littered with trash by those lucky enough to have experienced it firsthand.

But have we learned our lesson?  Will Saturn teach us something or will we ignore our chances to evolve?  This choice resides in each and every one of us, and on the eve of my 30th birthday, it has become clear to me that the evolution has already happened within me. I am no longer the person most people have come to perceive as “Erik.”

A few years ago, I got a tattoo on my left ankle of the Dredg logo:

dredg

The symbol is a derivation of the Chinese symbols for “change” and “chameleon.”  As I believe that constant open-mindedness and willingness to change are an important component of how I live my life, this was a perfect fit for the first thing I’d want permanently inked on my body – a way for me to refuse to let myself become too complacent or too fearful in life.

Now is another occasion where it is necessary to burn down the ruins and build a new monument out of the ashes. To reboot the system. To change the channel.

nosignal

NO SIGNAL

New Year’s Revolutions

Any good storyteller will tell you, above all else, to remain true to your subject. Your story may be imbued with a variety of plot contrivances, embellishments and anecdotal meanderings, but if you are true to your subject, the story will be worth telling.

We hear the same tired cliches time and time again, reminding us that “life is what you make it” and to “embrace the power of positive thinking.” These are wonderful platitudes, but never quite seem to resonate in the way that they were meant to. Most people roll their eyes and continue on doing exactly what they’ve been doing.

That is, until New Year’s.

New Year's resolutions postcard from 1915

New Year's resolutions postcard from 1915

Every year, the symbolic beginning of a new year encourages people to make changes in their lives. Why? What is so important about January 1st?

Pope Gregory XIII

Pope Gregory XIII

We measure our time by the Gregorian calendar, so named after the Pope Gregory XIII who decreed it, rather arbitrarily, in 1582. This calendar system is a modification of the Julian calendar, which is derived from the Roman calendar, which may have its basis in the Hellenic calendar of ancient Greece. So, how is time measured using this calendar system?

The Gregorian solar calendar is an arithmetical calendar. It counts days as the basic unit of time, grouping them into years of 365 or 366 days; and repeats completely every 146,097 days, which fill 400 years, and which also happens to be 20,871 seven-day weeks. Of these 400 years, 303 (the “common years”) have 365 days, and 97 (the leap years) have 366 days. This gives an average year length of exactly 365.2425 days, or 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds.

365.2425 days in a year, a number reached by playing around with arithmetic based on lunar movement. Entirely arbitrary and rather arrogant, given how often mankind has been incorrect in its assumptions throughout history. Remember when the Earth was flat? Of course not. During your lifetime, you’ve been taught otherwise. Let alone the fact that the life of Jesus Christ is intertwined with the structure of the calendar. So when someone tells you that January 1st is approaching, there is an unspoken inference that you believe in Jesus as a prophet and lunar cycles as an accurate measurement of time. That is one hell of an assumption.

Magritte's "The Son Of Man"

Magritte's "The Son Of Man"

So in any good story, there will always be a protagonist and a villain, with some kind of conflict. Man vs. man. Man vs. nature. Man vs. society. Man vs. the supernatural. Man vs. technology. But by far the most interesting (and least understood) is man vs. himself. It is here where the battle lines are not clearly drawn and the heroes and villains are not always well-defined and in direct opposition. Here, man must reconcile his desires and temptations, to arrive at some kind of peace with himself and his decisions. It is in this hidden struggle where the New Year’s resolutions exist.

All of us have our insecurities and perceived weaknesses. We struggle with our health, our finances, our personal relationships. So each January 1st, many of us resolve to address these problems head on and with intense focus. The problem, of course, is that most New Year’s resolutions fail. So what does that teach us about ourselves? That we are failures? That because of Jesus and lunar cycles and our lack of discipline, we are doomed to disappointment? Of course not. Each January 1st, we have another chance to start anew, to re-dedicate ourselves to self-improvement.

While there is some truth in “life is what you make of it,” that phrase fails to capture the true magic of existence. It’s not just that you have the ability to change the outcome of your life, it’s that each of us is our own storyteller. We choose the story we want to tell the world. Some of us allow the world or other people to tell our story for us. Some of us are so distracted by modern life that we let the story go untold entirely while we are off pursuing our interests. Ultimately, though, the story is ours to tell. Through your speech, through your actions, you tell your story. You update your Facebook status and your MySpace profile and upload your photos to Flickr. You share (or don’t share) your life with those around you. Some are left with the right impression, some are not. The story is still yours to tell.

Many people who I know personally choose to tell stories that betray their true identity. They show a smiling face to the world. They are popular, they are beautiful. They have been blessed with great wealth and opportunity. But often, there is a dark side to the story, a shame or regret or resentment, some intangible (but overwhelming) presence that is a large part of their story, but is never shared. Others seem happy to expose their demons and dark side for the world to see, afraid of somehow becoming too vulnerable if seen as anything less than human garbage. These are not likely stories that they would consider an accurate reflection of themselves, but they are being told nonetheless.

When you introduce others in your life, you will often say, “this is my friend Bill” or “this is my wife Sarah.” In that short introduction, a story is being told. A label has been applied. The person receiving the introduction has had their perception colored by this information, a fact that will remain inextricably connected in their minds to your story. It conveys a message; “this is my friend Bill” implies that Bill is trustworthy and deserving of respect simply due to the nature of your friendship. “This is my wife Sarah” indicates that Sarah is sexually and emotionally unavailable; it sets a boundary and defines her existence in a very particular way. These are their stories, but not likely a sum of their existence. Bill may be a pedophile. Sarah may be cheating. We don’t know these things – we only know the story that they (and those around them) choose to tell.

baghead

Hiding something?

Social groups often reinforce and re-tell these stories, with complete disregard for their veracity. Juicy gossip is something many of us relish, whether it’s about a celebrity or a co-worker. We tell our own versions of someone’s story to others. We criticize and devalue them in ways that are important to us. Perhaps it is jealousy, perhaps it is simply a mechanism of reinforcing one’s own ego by making others appear to be lesser in comparison. One way or another, the end result is the same – a story is told about someone. As is often the case with gossip, these stories involve weight, looks, finances, job performance, family or relationship troubles – many of the same things we resolve to fix with our New Year’s resolutions.

So why wait until January 1st? Why wait until an arbitrary lunar cycle happens to line up with an arbitrary calendar system developed by men who died nearly 5 centuries ago and centered around an arbitrary Christian theology? You can change your story any time you want to. That’s the beauty of life. If you don’t like the story you’re telling, or the story being told about you, you can change it. If you want to lose weight, start the day you decide to. If you want to stop drinking or smoking, stop the day you decide to.

Tell your story.

Tell your story.

It’s your story, so tell the story you want people to know. If you are true to yourself, the story will be worth telling.

The Suicidal Pornography of Voyeurism

We have created a culture in which distractions have taken primary focus. The purpose they serve is clear; to distract us from remembering the fact that one day, no matter the wealth, circumstance or favor we may enjoy in our lives, all of us will die.

So we watch.

After less than a century of television’s existence, it has fully embedded itself into our daily lives, becoming an integral part of most American homes. Building on its’ success, TiVo has revolutionized what was thought by many to be a dying technology. No more worrying about setting VCR times, buying tapes, or even having to be awake to watch something. Via our 24/7 multi-satellite and multi-cable connections, we can record hours and hours of shows to watch, and the networks have been more than happy to adapt by replaying most of their popular programs in different time slots and on sister networks to ensure that you will never have to miss a thing (for example, the recent season finale of Rock Of Love: Charm School was replayed more than 20 times on Viacom’s channels during the week it was aired). In the past 10 years, reality TV has exploded, with hundreds of shows catering to almost every possible niche of popular culture. This year, almost as many people voted for the winner of American Idol as voted for the President of the United States. Since CNN started the trend, 24 hour news has given us stories that would never have received mainstream attention before, leading to more news creation and less news reporting. Constant streams of information, always something to watch, always something happening.

Innovation in the tech industry of the 90’s led to the generation of a consumption-based economy on the internet. Prior to the late 90’s, the internet was mostly used by the government, students, teachers and professionals in order to achieve specific aims. Email and IM were popular, but not prevalent. Even at its height, the internet as many of us knew it back then was still something only middle class nerds were fooling around with. LiveJournal and Friendster ushered in the concept of social networking, but it was MySpace that truly launched the idea into the mass market. Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo, Hi5, Orkut and many others have all had various levels of success. Just as with reality TV, it appears that there is a service for every possible niche. Countless ways to connect your life with the global network around you. Constant streams of information, always something to watch, always something happening.

There was a time when cameras were bulky and expensive, limiting their use mainly to the wealthy mavens of Hollywood and highly skilled professional photographers. In the past decade especially, this once unreachable medium has become available and affordable to nearly everyone. Digital cameras and camcorders are cheap, and in many cases, embedded in other common products such as cellphones and laptop computers. Where social networking has created a place to interact, social media became the companion piece; a way to visually document our lives, to share it with others. The success of Flickr and YouTube – as well as of all the clones to follow in their wake – has given rise to an even richer experience, a more effective method of engaging others. To ensure that you never miss a thing, you can subscribe to customized RSS feeds of all your favorite sources of information, no matter what form it takes. Constant streams of information, always something to watch, always something happening.

With internet connection speeds increasing exponentially in the past decade, it’s now possible to stream high definition video, audio and pictures almost instantaneously. Gone are the days of waiting minutes or hours for relatively small files to download, in its place the immediate gratification of always-on, instant data. Cell phone popularization in the past 10 years has transformed mobile phone use from a luxury into a near-indispensable commodity, bringing this instantaneous data streaming device to even those without any truly disposable income. Not only have the devices become more common, but the networks hosting them have become far more complex, evolving from dicey basic phone reception to full-featured internet access. In the age of Blackberries and iPhones, you never have to be more than a touch away from all the world has to offer. Constant streams of information, always something to watch, always something happening.

So where does all of this leave us? More on that in a bit. First, let’s take a break to explore a tangent.

Andrea Dworkin is infamous for popularizing the idea that pornography has been responsible for an increase in rape and violence against women. In her book, Pornography – Men Possessing Women, she attacks the adult industry for its use of violence and degradation in order to sell a product – mainly the idea of a male-dominated world in which women functioned as on-demand fantasy-fulfilling submissives. Granted, Dworkin was a staunch feminist, but there is some truth in the arguments she made. Much of her criticism of pornography was written in the 1980’s, and in the quarter century since, many phenomena have occurred not only to support her arguments, but to surpass what were probably her worst fears motivating her to speak out in the first place.

The adoption of the internet as an indispensable component of our daily lives brought with it an inevitable eventuality; a massive explosion of the interest in – and consumption of – pornography. As the tools became available to us to sequester ourselves in a room, alone, with no fear of judgment, and to gather discreetly with others with a common shared interest, every possible sexual indulgence and fetish became not only possible, but probable. Gonzo. Scat. Water sports. The 2 Girls, 1 Cup video went viral. Jokes about a Dirty Sanchez, Donkey Punch and Cleveland Steamer are all present in recent blockbuster (i.e. mainstream) comedies. Pornography has become acceptable and even perhaps encouraged in modern society. There are elements of it present in all of the media mentioned earlier; Tila Tequila takes “A Shot At Love” by making out with attractive men and women in a hot tub, the “MySpace whores” of the younger generation post scantily clad pictures and videos of themselves dancing seductively on their profiles and ads appear on late night TV with some breathy siren imploring you to text her in order to get in on an all-night text party that’s happening somewhere at this very moment.

Female seduction has become less about the mystery of a woman and rather about sexual violence. Nowadays there is seemingly no end to the sacrifices women will make to be seen as sexually desirable, from painful and irreversible plastic surgery procedures to LUG/BUG experimentation to the types of pornography listed above. Interestingly enough, these phenomena are not common in homosexual, lesbian or other types of pornography, which seem geared more towards -philia, or “the love of” their chosen subject, rather than the desecration of it. Certainly this is an extension of the Biblical concept of wives submitting to their husband’s authority. When a woman is seen with a group of men ejaculating on her face, or being defecated upon, or urinated upon, or beaten, choked or pretending to be raped, it is seen as arousing and even acceptable by an increasing number of people. Yet pictures of a child clothed in underwear (not nude) will get you jail time. It’s not that child pornography should ever be considered acceptable. The more pertinent question is, why are we so indifferent to the types of self-degradation women are allowed to experience for the enjoyment of the public at large? Aren’t all of us equally deserving of respect and dignity? One of the top searches on Google is “Bang Bus” (and has been ever since the site’s inception). The entire premise of that website is that a woman in distress is picked up off the street, offered money in exchange for sex, then is dropped off in an unknown area with a laugh, money thrown at her feet. Whether it is real or scripted is irrelevant. The human mind reacts to stimuli whether it is actual or perceived, and it is not hard to see how something like the Bang Bus could be perceived as society’s acceptance (and perhaps encouragement) of bargaining away your self-worth in exchange for transient things like money and fame.

So how is this tangent relevant to the initial point?

What has happened in the pornographic industry certainly speaks to Dworkin’s perspective of its effect on how women are treated, but I believe that she was diagnosing a symptom of a much larger problem. This tendency of humankind to watch no matter what the cost to others and to ourselves has been mirrored in much of modern life. “MySpace whores” will do anything for attention – lying about their age, taking pictures from flattering angles, flirting with strangers – hoping that someone will value them in ways that they have not been able to value themselves. They put videos up on YouTube, sometimes embarrassing and exposing themselves in the moment without fully realizing the potential consequences. Pictures of people getting drunk and high at last night’s party are posted on publicly-viewable profiles for the world to see. Status updates are sent across social networking sites to keep everyone informed of the latest adventures and drama in your life. More often than not, people are willing to go to great lengths to be noticed, and we are willing to go to great depths in order to watch them.

George W. Bush made many mistakes as President (and will certainly be remembered for them), but chances are that more people watched a shoe being thrown at him than watched any of his State Of The Union addresses (i.e. his job). While the man performed poorly in office, there is a basic human dignity that is lacking in seeing something like that replayed time and again. We enjoy watching the mighty fall. Britney Spears, bald, wielding an umbrella, pushed to a breaking point. Lindsay Lohan passed out drunk in the passenger seat. Paris Hilton giving a mediocre blowjob. Celebrity Rehab. The Smoking Gun. Our world no longer has a flag being raised at Iwo Jima. No Alberto Korda documenting the steely resolve of Che Guevara. The memorable images of our time are not important historical moments that happened to be captured. Instead, we are left with photo ops that are created for the sole purpose of public opinion manipulation (insert “Mission Accomplished” banner here), moments of catastrophe and failure which are replayed ad infinitum (9/11 anyone?), embarrassment (the celebrities mentioned above) and quite frankly, the majority of these images exist merely for our own enjoyment, to re-watch and re-live at our leisure. While it may not be acceptable to masturbate to a plane flying into the World Trade Center, there is a part of us that sees it as being no different than a Michael Bay movie; tantalizing action sequences that get your adrenaline pumping. We forget about the people dying in front of our eyes. We are desensitized by the very act of watching. We forget that these people are as human as we are, with hopes, dreams, families, friends, colleagues.

But these are big, heady ideas and hardly relevant to your life, right? Well…

Imagine the last time your child was in a pageant or play. Were you watching them perform, or were you recording it? You go to a concert to see your favorite band play. Are you updating your Twitter, Facebook and MySpace statuses, submitting mobile photos and videos taken on your cameraphone, or are you watching the band play? You’re in mixed company and there’s an awkward silence or lull in the conversation. Do you try and discover new and interesting things about the people you’re with, or do you play on your Blackberry or iPhone? You’re on vacation, maybe even your honeymoon. Do you shut your phone off, or do you keep it by your side at all times?

These are walls; barriers to existence. We all have 5 physical senses in which we experience the world, in which we are able to absorb data for our minds to process. The thought of losing any one of those senses is be unbearable for many of us, yet when was the last time you’ve really seen someone, heard them, smelled them, touched them, even tasted them? There is a delicate beauty that runs through much of the life on this planet, which is what the old adage “stop and smell the roses” is all about. But we are all conditioned to believe that we are missing out on something. There’s always that constant stream of information, always something to watch, always something happening. But very few of us actually require constant contact and notification (think: doctors). So when I am having coffee with a friend, something inside them forces the need to know exactly what is going on, even if it’s just a notification that a friend has “poked” them. In the physical world, they don’t look at me, they don’t hear me and they don’t touch me, as those senses are all dulled and distracted by the act of watching something else. Usually I have half their attention and find myself often needing to repeat what I’ve said.

It may seem a stretch to compare violent pornography to being poked on Facebook, but ultimately, the idea is that there is less appreciation for the humanity and beauty in this world because of the things we choose to watch, and to a lesser extent, participate in. It’s not about the morality of one thing vs. another, it’s not about the severity of one act vs. another. In all the behavior mentioned here, there is a subtle murder, a subtle suicide happening. Not a direct and final one, to be sure – nobody is actually dying from reading TMZ. But we all have a finite amount of time on this planet and absolutely no idea when it will end. The next time you are in the presence of someone you love, it may be the last time you see them. This is an uncomfortable truth we collectively ignore. But really, does anyone on this planet want to die wondering if they were truly cared for? If someone close to you were to die and you passed up an opportunity to see them in order to stay at home and catch up on Perez Hilton, would it be one of your haunting regrets in life?

If you’re ever in my presence and you hear my cell phone ring, maybe you will now understand why I ignore it.

Chernobyl Children’s Project International

For those who know me, you are aware that I don’t really do Christmas, but some still insist on getting me things I don’t really want or need. Please, consider donating to Chernobyl Children’s Project International (CCPI) instead. I’m trying to raise $300 – the cost of a single Gore-Tex heart patch used in the life-saving operations performed on children with “Chernobyl Heart.” It’s not much – the cost of the full operation to save just one child is $1,500 – but it’s a good start. You can see pictures of some of the children who have had this surgery here.

UPDATE: The pledge to raise $300 was successful. In less than 6 months, we’ve more than doubled the amount of money raised through the Facebook application, but the journey doesn’t end here. Please feel free to continue donating as often – and as generously – as you can.

Take some time to watch this clip from the HBO documentary Chernobyl Heart to get a better understanding of why this inspires me to action. In the years since I’ve seen it, many of the stories and images still haunt me. If you are interested, there is a link below the video to the full 39-minute documentary.

Full 39-minute HBO documentary Chernobyl Heart

Here’s a promotional video put together by CCPI that explains what they do:

Lastly, a photo essay, Chernobyl Legacy by Paul Fusco, may be viewed by clicking this photo:

chernobyl-legacy

My buddy Shawn graciously started off my fundraising pledge with a $25 donation and a blog post about it, so great kudos to him for helping to raise money and spread the word.

If you are interested in learning more about what happened in Chernobyl, the Wikipedia page is good for a general overview, and Chernobyl.info has more in-depth information. I’d also highly recommend looking at the photo essay done in 2004 by a woman who calls herself Kidd Of Speed (real name Elena Filatova); it shows what a desolate wasteland Chernobyl remains today. There are similar photographs in the gallery at Chernobyl 20, an exhibit dedicated to showing the lasting effects of what happened. A news article from 2006 investigates whether more disaster is possible at the Chernobyl site. More recently, studies have shown that the effects of Chernobyl are worse than originally thought, causing mutations in the wildlife that roams free in the contaminated area.

mutation

This is entirely a man-made disaster. Human effort built the reactor. Human error was responsible for the failure. Human shame and greed covered up what really happened and human ignorance and apathy have contributed to the continuing problems that exist today, over 20 years since the event. Please help spread the word and make this small difference in our world. These children never asked to have these health problems, nor were they given a fair chance by the government and citizens who were supposed to help protect them.

What you can do:

But most importantly, you can donate to the cause. Many charities and non-profits which receive mainstream attention, sexy celebrity endorsements, telethons, commercials and documentaries have massive budgets and can afford to make a major difference in the world. CCPI does not have this luxury, so whatever you can do to raise funds and awareness is greatly, greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time and attention.

California Voting

vote-poster

There were a lot of misconceptions and misinformation surrounding this year’s election. The best way to address these issues and help encourage people to think for themselves is a healthy discussion based on the merits of what is on the ballot and not the emotional rhetoric it comes wrapped in. This is my take.

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