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.

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.

New Year’s Revolutions

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.

The Suicidal Pornography of Voyeurism