Monday, October 10, 2011


I'll never escape!
Try as I may, I just can't seem to escape some things.  Death, taxes, and episodes of NCIS anytime a television with a cable hookup is playing anywhere near me are but a few examples.  This post is, I suppose, about me how I relate to myself, but I'm going to tell it in the most convoluted and roundabout way I can think of, which has to do with celebrities.  First, though, my inescapable curse.

I have a story which has roots deep within my psyche from long, long ago which I have never satisfactorily completed.  It involves my Jennifer persona, and it was the root for both The Academy and a number of other stories.  It's had a lot of names over the years--so many I can't even keep track of them.  As far as my writing goes, this is like that one drunken abusive ex you keep breaking up with only to make up again a few months later.  Our latest make-up cycle started last week.  Why do I mention this?  It's not that it poses a particular problem.  If the story is that important to me that I keep coming back to it again and again. then I should write it and see what I can learn from it.  It is, however, by this roundabout route that I am now going to talk about my on-again/off-again perverse fascination with Avril Lavigne, whose album The Best Damn Thing features prominently in several incarnations of the story.

Oh yes, we're back to Ms. Lavigne again.  With a vengeance.  But here's why, and it's not the reason you might think.

In the course of rewriting this story, wanting a reference point for what I was writing and not actually possessing any photos of Ms. Lavigne on my hard drive other than the one I used on my previous post about her, I decided to be a creep and see what was out there, and stumbled upon a rather perverse fan site that shall remain nameless.  In a literal sense, it had what I want, but the entire experience left me feeling rather disturbed, and so I made it the subject of my meditation that night.  The more I thought about it, the more the entire concept of a celebrity seemed, well, very strange to me.

I've always found peoples' relationships with celebrities a little weird, but I find relationships with pop stars to be especially bizarre.  Let me see if I can break it down.  So here you have somebody famous (Whether Ms. Lavigne or Justin Bieber, or some hypothetical pop star X), who produces a product that excites your emotions (and probably some other things) by creating a vicarious experience that you then submit yourself to as a way of escaping the dreariness and monotony of your life.  Middle school pretty much sucks balls, I get it.  I was once in middle school too.  So you have this famous person, who supposedly lives a much more interesting, glamorous, and above all else much less painful life than you do, and by religiously following this person as if they were the prophet of your own personal religion, you vicariously experience their supposedly hunky-dory life in place of your own and you feel better.  Before I'm accused of making this up, I know this because I have at various points in my life felt this before.  In her own way, that's what Jennifer was to me, and since Jennifer and Ms. Lavigne were strongly-paired stimuli, it's only natural that I would feel some of that too.

How can you say no to that?  The smile, the arms.
She wants you to live vicariously through her.
I suppose on the face of it, it may not seem that strange.  But I've always found mental escape mechanisms to be a little odd, and this is a relationship I have unwittingly found myself on both ends of in my own small way.  I should make myself clear: while I may have wanted to be famous for a while, fame and fortune aren't really my goal anymore in life, especially as it pertains to my writing.  Fame is a tricky thing.  Over the years, as I've put more and more of myself online as I treated myself for all my various problems, I've found myself with less and less privacy.  What remains private in my life has grown tremendously in intensity, and I'm not sure how comfortable I am with that.  This is exactly the paradox that I imagine being someone like Ms. Lavigne produces.  Every once in a while I'll be on Jezebel and I'll see some photograph (the one I'm thinking of was of Leighton Meester a couple of years ago when Gossip Girl was at its peak) with some comment or caption about her clothes.  Meester was looking quite stylish in the photograph, but on the same day I checked out at the grocery store and saw a "Fashion bloopers" edition of Star or one of the other tabloids, and I had to remind myself that being stylish only ever really seems fun when it's voluntary.  Imagine having to be turned on like that all the time, lit up and self-conscious, your every move scrutinized.  Unless you're a born attention whore like Lady GaGa, who already possessed the confidence and poise to wield her fame properly when she got her break, it will destroy you.  You need only look to Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan to see how that goes wrong.  And then your consolation prize is to be used and abused as a masturbatory means of letting others feel better about themselves through your failure.  Which only makes the image I have of Ms. Lavigne even more bizarre, because not only does she seem confident and poised, she seems utterly nonchalant about the whole thing.  Make no mistake, either, Avril is actively exploiting this paradox.  As soon as the whole Abbey Dawn label came into the picture, this was nothing more than a business, if it hadn't been already from the start.  She sells a lifestyle that young girls want to buy.  It's a form of subservience packaged and sold as empowerment.

I suppose empowerment is what this all comes down to.  I dislike the idea of buying an image.  I think if someone is truly empowered, they'll be able to take whatever they want and make it their own.  A vicarious celebrity experience (or even a religious one, to take the argument a step further) is the opposite of empowerment.  You are literally saying "I would rather be someone else."  If you can't accept and appreciate who you are, how are you supposed to have any power at all?  Where's the happiness in wishing to be someone other than yourself?

This experience comes about, I believe, from a misconception of both power and happiness.  Either Avril Lavigne is extremely unhappy, or she's so desensitized to her fame that she's essentially a sociopath.  Neither is who I'd like to be.  Look, my life isn't all that great.  I'm poor, and I have almost no savings, and I'm several tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.  I get by by the skin of my teeth.  I wrote a book that a few people read and liked, and my blog gets a few tens of hits every post.  I'm not rich; I'm not famous.  But neither is a prerequisite to happiness.  I find happiness in being content with the way things are.  This doesn't mean that I give up on improving my condition.  That's resignation.  Acceptance is a beginning, not an end.  With acceptance comes nearly unlimited power to get what you want.  That's true power, not a million Twitter followers.  Twitter, MTV, Fox News--that's only a megaphone.  You still have to say something worthwhile.  I don't need this blog to say something meaningful.  This is why living vicariously, whether through celebrities, a religious figure, or your children is so dangerous.  It does nothing but push you down and step all over you.

I have a lot more to say on this subject.  If my life has become about empowerment over the past few years, then I have no choice but to answer the call and respond.  We build prisons for ourselves--every last one of us--and we lock ourselves away, because we think it's right and proper and we deserve it.  But we don't like it.  Not at all.  So we invent ways of feeling like we've escaped it.  They can grow quite elaborate.  But in the end, all we've ever had to do was walk right out the door.

Don't want to be someone else.  All you'll ever be is who you are, and that's better than all the fame and fortune in the world.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Letting it Slide

Yesterday the Facebook interface changed slightly.  If my newsfeed was to be believed, the world had just ended.  My entire social network was up in arms.  This was an outrage!  How dare they?  It was as if a couple of hundred otherwise intelligent and reasonable people had been suddenly and collectively personally affronted and decided to throw a hissy fit.  Oh, there would be hell to pay.  The jig was up.  It was all over now.  Threats were being leveled.

I looked at this yesterday, as I spent the less than a minute it took me to learn the new interface, and I thought to myself, "Something is very wrong with this picture."  Obviously, I'm not going to generalize an entire behavior based upon one specific instance, but part of my thing in life is to look for patterns, and I see how what happened yesterday is a symptom of something larger.  This larger pattern is what I want to talk about.

I was standing in line at the New Hampshire Highland Games waiting for a strawberry shortcake from the bakery tent when the whipped cream machine suddenly broke on the poor woman trying to serve us. After about two minutes of waiting while she fixed it (and did quite a heroic job of it too, I might add), the line began to grumble.  "We're never going to get it," one person said.  "We've been waiting forever!" complained another woman.  Even my own father-in-law said to me "I think you're going to be waiting a while."  The service was atrocious, claimed another.  The glaring and the whining were beginning to get to the poor woman, and when I got my strawberry shortcake after about three minutes of waiting, she apologized profusely to me.  I told her I knew it wasn't her fault, thanked her for the shortcake, paid her, and left.  But that didn't seem to stop the glares and glowering coming at her from the line.  What struck me the most as I exited the line with my shortcake and began walking back to the arena, where the rest of the family was waiting for us was how unnecessary the entire exchange had been.  Minor inconveniences are a daily fact of life.  Yet there are a substantial number of us who seem to treat them as the emotional equivalent of a deep personal crisis.

That's just slightly hyperbolic, of course, but I can't help but wonder what this says about our reactions to stress, and our relative stress levels.  At every large public gathering I've attended in the past year and a half, there has been a noticeable tension in the air.  It isn't loud; it's more of an atmospheric tinge, and very subtle.  Nobody speaks of it out loud, anyway.  But it's there in the little things: having to wait in line, something you wanted being sold out, a change to the Facebook interface.  I can't go a day without seeing a post with the acronym FML ("Fuck my life") attached to what seems to me to be a relatively minor setback.  What could be driving this discrepancy between the severity of our problems and our responses?

The greater part of this seems to be about our expectations, accompanied built-in sense of dread, like any difference in outcome, or really any change at all will inevitably be bad.  The two are closely related.  Let me offer a theory.  Expectations easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.  It works one of two ways.  If you expect to be disappointed, chances are you'll find a way to be disappointed in whatever happens.  Whenever human beings have a belief like that, we usually find a way to make it come true.  How could we not?  When you have a belief that you consider absolute, it doesn't matter what you experience.  Your experiences will be shaped to fit the belief and not the other way around.  But that's not the only way in which we can warp our perceptions to fit our beliefs.  Our expectations can also be too high--so unrealistically high that we can never satisfy them.  If that's the case, disappointment is inevitable and becomes self-reinforcing.

To continue the point, if there is anything Americans want more than anything these days, it's instant gratification.  Our entire culture seems to be based around it.  I'm reminded of a story sequence from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, in which Calvin mails away for a beanie cap he's convinced will let him fly, but that takes 4-6 weeks to arrive.  He waits and waits and waits and waits and slowly drives himself mad waiting, only to discover when it arrives that his beanie cap won't let him fly.  We want a miracle cure, a quick fix, and we want it now.  Think about that for a second.  Think about how that expectation affects how we view change.  People take changes to the Facebook interface very strangely personally.  I was once told off and unfriended when I commented on a friend's status that his excessive ranting about what was then a relatively minor change was perhaps a bit unreasonable.  He was, essentially, a junkie who couldn't get his fix.  This instant gratification culture is a culture of chronic masturbation.  His form of masturbation had been taken away.  That really pisses people off.  Same when you're waiting in line for a strawberry shortcake and it takes you more than thirty seconds to get it.  Or you wait for a beanie cap that you think will make you fly, and you discover that the wait was all for nothing.

It doesn't have to be this way, however.  We can, if we choose, ignore these feelings and let these inconveniences and irritations slide.  It's easy to say, but not so easy in practice.  By themselves none of these little annoyances amount to much, but they add up to big trouble.  And that is something that people struggle with.  I hadn't planned to write this post until last night, but it dovetails perfectly into what I want to talk about over my next arc.  Let me finish making my case.  Then, hopefully, I can show you how to find a way out from all the negativity I see pervading almost every place and person I encounter.  It's no big thing that put us in this mess we find ourselves in.  It's lots of little things adding up.  We need to recognize it for what it is.  Only then can we fix it.

Until such a time, though, I suppose I'm going to let the public panic over a few minor changes slide, myself.  After all, it's just people being people.  It's not the end of the world.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


I struggled for a while trying to figure out how to tell this next story I want to tell.  My struggles became epic, and weren't limited to this blog.  In fact, for the whole months of August and September I've been dealing with a rather difficult mental block.  I thought long and hard about how to get past it, meditated on it for hours on end, and searched and searched for a way through it.  It was late last night that I finally came to that sudden realization that can only be described with the exclamation "Eureka!"  For I'd had the answer all along.  It was in fact, staring me in the face.  I simply couldn't bring myself to look at it.  If this post isn't as articulate or thought-out as others have been, I apologize, but that's sort of the point.  For after a while, the struggle to overcome the block itself had become the source of my block.  To boil it down to a single sentence, I was afraid of falling.

Not that you'll ever get me to do this.  But still, it illustrates
what I'm trying to say.
The fear of falling is nothing new to me.  I didn't fall once when I learned to walk.  That was because I didn't let go of whatever I was holding on to until I had completely mastered it.  It was a central dialectic of my childhood.  My parents impressed upon me two things above all: one, that I was flawlessly special, gifted, and had limitless potential; and two, that I was at the same time incredibly frail and fragile.  I'm sure they had their reasons, and I don't want this to go the way of so many other blog posts I've read and have this turn into a rant against my parents.  If I was mad at them for teaching me this, I wouldn't be writing this.  I don't believe in whining.  Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of these two forces has had an enormous impact on my life, one that I now feel like I understand.

The fear of falling can mean a lot of things.  It can mean a fear of drowning, a fear of embarrassment, and a fear of failure.  For if the golden boy is actually a FabergĂ© egg, how is he supposed to fulfill his potential?  He'll break.  This was a central paradox of my life, one that would define how I thought and felt for decades.  I knew deep down I could do something, but I'd be so afraid of falling (or making a mistake, or just plain getting it wrong) that I wouldn't try, and even if I did try, I'd be dissuaded after only one or two setbacks and give it up, or worse, flame out.  It didn't matter where, what, or how.  If I wasn't immediately a "natural" (whatever that means), I was an abject failure at whatever I did and would never, ever succeed.  Get it right the first time, or else.  This was perhaps illustrated most directly in an episode of cowardice involving a jetty and pounding surf with my good friend Nick the Magic Unicorn. Nick wasn't afraid of falling, and so he confidently sprinted out, leaping from rock to rock between the waves to a beacon halfway out into the mouth of the bay at Fort Stark, the remains of a nearby World War II-era shoreline fortification (now a public park).  The jetty was perhaps ominous, but not impassable, and there were plenty of people who made it there and back, including Nick.  But I got about a third of the way out before I became so convinced I was going to slip, fall, and get hurt that I became paralyzed with doubt and fear, and after standing there frozen in place for a good five minutes or so, turned back, my knees wobbly and unsteady beneath me and feeling plenty humiliated.  This principle was also illustrated most dramatically during my last attempt at employment, wherein I attempted to become a Nurse Assistant and my fear of failure led me to so spectacularly flame out before I'd even completed the coursework it literally incapacitated me for a year.  That is in fact one of the reasons I wound up on disability (which in turn directly led me to where I am today, so even in my darkest hour there is always a silver lining).

What changed, then?  The greatest talent I possess--when the circumstances are right and I'm ready--is to see things as they really are.  Insight like that is as powerful as it is volatile.  To properly wield it, I've learned, requires a very demanding level of emotional awareness and discipline.  Otherwise it can be very destructive.  And for whatever the reason, that insight has always come instinctively to me.  The object lesson of the past two years for me has been, rather, not to cultivate this insight, but to learn how to tame and master my reaction to it.  This is not, either, to be boastful.  In fact, if I understand anything, it's just how much of both a blessing and a curse that kind of intuition can be.  I have for many, many years longed to be ignorant of it, as if somehow taking away that awareness would return me to some sort of state of ignorant bliss.  Clearly, that wasn't going to happen, and so the only solution was to learn how to live with it.

Now I hope you can see why I'd have a hard time blaming my parents for making me this way.  I don't really believe in black and white issues, and this to me is just another example.  But still, what to do about the original problem?  Intent matters jack shit if, when the time comes, you're still too afraid to act. Again and again, I find myself coming back to the theme of vulnerability on this blog.  But what if that vulnerability was in fact my unwillingness to admit that I might fall fail?  Now it becomes clear.  I accept the failure, I accept my vulnerability, and there's no need to admit to it, because I no longer deny it.  So the problem itself then becomes the solution.

I suppose now I also can understand and appreciate what this blog means to me.  I write about it a lot, because to be honest, I'm not entirely sure I've always understood what I was doing here and why I was doing it.  Perhaps now my intent is clear at least.  I don't know who reads this, but I hope that this somehow helps people.  A narrative without a purpose isn't a narrative at all.  This is mine, and I'm aware of it now.  I've been holding back on you, Internet.  I think it's time I stopped.

Let this be the start.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Biggest Koan of Them All

It's taken me a long time to get where I am now.  That I'm even talking about this publicly is a testimony to how far I've come.  I've always hated talking about myself.  Even for the first fifty or so posts on this blog I danced around the subject.  I don't want my story to be some touchy-feely feel-good tale about how gosh darned great everything is and how you can make it if you just try hard enough.  It wasn't.  It was as awful as it was beautiful, and if I've learned anything about my fellow man in the course of this it's that we tend to cherry-pick one or the other.  I never looked for sympathy.  What I write here, I write for myself.  It's only public because it has to be--by admitting these things and broadcasting them over the internet, I eliminate the fear I have of them.

What's a koan, as the title suggests?  It's a Japanese word.  In Zen Buddhism it roughly translates to "riddle," a question such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping" transmitted from teacher to student that he or she then meditates on in order to further enlighten themselves.  If my life has been anything to me, it has been a series of riddles: koans.  It's what led me to Zen Buddhism, and it's why I practice it today.  It's how I perceive the world.  This practice has taken me far; far beyond what I expected or even thought possible just two years ago.  Now I have come up against what may be, literally, the mother of all of them, and I find myself not quite overwhelmed, but nonetheless totally consumed by trying to figure out what it all means.  It's not simple, nor is it easy to grasp.  This process is one I've often struggled to explain to outsiders.  My previous journey has come to an end, and a new one is beginning. Every time one of these cycles completes itself, the new one seems to build on the last.  This is no different.  This is far bigger than any one post or cycle could ever hope to cover.  Look at this as a recurring theme in my next several arcs.  For the first time on this blog, I'm going to take whoever reads this along with me as I go, rather than simply reporting back after the fact.  What I know, you'll know too.

So, without further ado, let's begin.

What the essence of this koan boils down to is trust.  Phrased in a question, I suppose it would be "Why don't I trust myself?"  Nearly every problem in my life boils down to this.  It's a belief that has shaped everything I see, and everything I do--good or bad.  Every time I hesitate at a ledge or a wet rock, it's my lack of trust in myself that does me in, causes me to lose my footing and shrink back.  Every time I want to speak, but can't; bungle a speech, blow off a chance to lead, it's that.  Likewise, however, I must also acknowledge the powers of observation it has granted me.  When you can't trust what you see, you naturally adapt by becoming very good at looking deeply.  Looking deeply is of course the essence of  Buddhism, and it was one of the main selling points way back when I first came to it.  But there is also another layer to it--both sides--one that has for most of my life preventing me from seeing myself as well, and from understanding who I am.  After all, when you can't trust yourself, you have a Matrix phenomenon on your hands.  How do you know anything is real?  When I turn my lens onto myself, all I see is blurry static.  I've groped at answers here and there, but I don't really believe them--not on that deeper visceral level.  Even here, to demonstrate how difficult this is for me, I'm writing this sentence nearly twenty minutes after I wrote the last one.  It's a powerful wall between my interior and exterior space.  But it's one that must be torn down if I am to fully recover.

There are always two layers of truth, and two dimensions.  There is what we think and what we feel, and what then is rational and what is visceral.  No one part can exist without the others.  The tragedy is that we treat them as exclusive entities; a false dichotomy where none exists.  I have some friends who believe all they do is think, in complete ignorance of their emotions.  And I have some that only ever seem to feel, in complete violation of what they know.  We need both in order to survive.  Denial of any one part is just that--denial.  It changes nothing about who we are.  Psychologists use the term "dysfunction" to describe the result.  It's accurate, but I think for my purposes here it's too detached, too clinical.  I prefer simply to see it as suffering.  Self-inflicted wounds hurt the most.  We can't know the future or predict how complex things such as destinies will turn out, but the least we can do is stop hurting ourselves.  This is my attempt to do just that.

I'm reaching the limit for what I consider to be a good length in a post.  I'd be doing a disservice to you and me both if I wasn't thorough, so like before let this serve as an introduction to what will come next.  I for one have always believed that things can get better if we're willing to believe they will.  Our attitudes shape our perceptions and vice-versa.  I don't believe that things must be either one or the other.  That is a product of incomplete thinking, just as hopelessness is the product of incomplete feeling.

Now to figure out how.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Generation Gap, Part 3: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Quick!  Summon Bruce Willis!
Maybe around the age of twelve, I started to notice that adults really like to talk about the apocalypse a lot.  That was when I first started watching a lot of adult TV (though my relationship with 90s Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network would continue for some time), and whether it was science documentaries, the news, or network dramas, everyone seemed to agree: the jig was up, the party was over, and the world as we knew it was clearly and unequivocally about to end.  Well, in a way, we're getting our wish.  But why is that?  Were we really right, and our predictions came true?  Or did this fear itself somehow cause it?  I'm going to explain why I believe the latter case is true, and how.

Mind you, the end of the world is not a concept I am necessarily hostile to.  As I struggled with my illness and inner demons over the years, it became in a way a comforting belief to keep around.  If I've learned one thing about human suffering during that time, it's that suffering is relativistic, and so while mine is probably a more dramatic example, I can't help but think that the principle is the same for a lot of people.  Explaining why is not simple, and will require a a few more pieces of evidence before I can show exactly how.  So bear with me, and I'll take you through it.  Hopefully you've read my two earlier related posts, on Classism and what I call Taking Reality For Granted.  If not, here's a brief recap: segregated as we are by class and race and cloistered away in communities populated nearly exclusively by like-minded individuals (real or online), Americans, particularly my parents' generation the Baby Boomers, suffer from errors in perception and judgment that effect how they perceive others.  In particular, material wealth is seen as the primary scale of value to society.  This principle extends outwards to errors in perception and communication that lead to social hypocrisy and an ironic lack of self-awareness in which one's beliefs effectively become the opposite of one's actions and history and the world are rewritten to fit the beliefs.  For more details feel free to peruse the individual posts, but this is what matters to my point.

Americans have been convinced they were in decline and the end is just around the corner for a long time now.  Anxiety about status and financial insecurity is largely what drives it.  Just a little while studying basic economic data can show you how income has been declining relative to the cost of living and how wealth disparity has affected it for several decades (this is a nice summary of American economic issues over the past several decades, for reference).  This combined with skyrocketing personal debt and the costs of medical care has given many people a legitimate grievance that things are not as good as they once were.  Combine this with the culture shocks of the 60s and 70s if you happen to be conservatively-minded, and you have a recipe for discontent with the way things are.  Call it deep unhappiness, even.  You can even fairly call it hopelessness.  The rationally-minded who read this are probably right about now saying "Now how can that be?  People go about their days and they seem perfectly fine."  To make that assumption is to again assume that man has no inherent nature, one of the fundamental misconceptions I've mentioned again and again as behind Baby Boomers' dysfunction.  Whether cultural, familial, or vocational, people have a lot of obligations and responsibilities in life.  We're conditioned to put these above our own happiness.  The result is that we have a lot of really unhappy, irrational people who hide their unhappiness from their conscious minds day-to-day in order to get through it.  You don't have to be an ardent Christian or an office drone to feel that way: nearly everyone does it to some degree.

But of course, that will warp your thinking and your perceptions of the world.  Now the idea of the apocalypse, whether the Evangelical Dispensationalist vision of the Rapture or the peak oil/climate change collapse conspiracy theory so popular with liberals, it's all the same.  If the world ends, or at least so permanently alters itself to be unrecognizable, BAM!--you're released from your responsibility.  Either you're up in heaven kicking it with Jesus, you're one of the smart ones living in a Utopian, if humble post-oil community, or best of all you're really and actually dead.  Thus the death wish plays itself out right under our own noses.

Oil...need sweet, delicious oil...
The media, being interested in profits above all (including public service), reflects that sentiment, as that's what the market demands.  Pundits, authors, and producers alike give us what we want, which is a narrative of a world on the brink, about to slide off into oblivion.  This process feeds back on itself, and so what you get is a feedback loop of ever-escalating anxiety and pessimism.  Liberals like to blame Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh for causing problems in life, just as they in turn blame liberals.  The truth is that Hannity and Rush are effects, not causes.  Nobody wakes up one day and says "hey, I don't like [insert group or label here]!  Let's get rid of them!"  It unfolds organically as a reaction to experience.  Beliefs shape experiences and experiences shape beliefs.  Neither exists in a vacuum.  Baby Boomers' widespread ignorance of this is in part what drives their irrational beliefs about Millennials and the world, and greatly contributes to the social and political dysfunction in this country.

These ideas also become self-reinforcing.  If you believe the end of the world is going to happen in the near future, you're going to be looking for signs of it in order to prepare yourself.  Whether or not the world is actually going to end or not is largely irrelevant.  The logic itself is perfectly rational, it's the belief that's misguided.  You're also going to be acting as if the world is going to soon end, and that will change your behavior, which will in turn affect your experience.  So the whole thing feeds back on itself.

Now we're getting somewhere.  The Baby Boomer doomsday prophecy has become largely self-fulfilling.  If you're convinced everything is going to come crashing down around you, chances are you're going to find a way to make it happen.  Now take that principle and apply it en masse.  We've created a self-fulfilling doomsday prophecy society, one in which the future isn't valued, the past is rewritten to fit the ideal of a lost golden age, and the truth--whatever that may be--is completely obscured by the belief.

This is the world our parents have handed my generation.  They have blamed everyone but themselves for it, including us.  And why would they blame themselves?  They believe they're the victims in all this. I don't know what the future holds for them, or for us.  I like to think it'll be better than the way things are now, but I'm an optimist and that's my nature.  One thing is for certain, though.  This generation gap, this irrational delusion, and this self-fulfilling prophecy did not come about by any malicious intent.  It arose as a natural response to the environment and situation in which it was created, and continued reacting to the world as it evolved.  To call Baby Boomers evil is not just wrong, it completely misses the point.  Selfish?  Maybe.  Probably.  But you have to put that selfishness in some sort of context.  It's ironic for sure, given how this played out between them and their parents back in the 60s and 70s.  But it's also unfair to blame them entirely.  This mess we're in is everybody's fault, not just theirs, and was started a long time before they contributed their little piece of it.  Likewise, it will take everyone working cooperatively to solve it.  When and how that happens, I don't know.  But in order to start, we ought to at least recognize the problem.  It's my hope that these past three posts have contributed in some way to that.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Generation Gap, Part 2: Taking Reality For Granted.

Our oldest and most dangerous assumption.  Now
in coffee mug form.
My last post in this series caused something of a stir on Facebook, and hopefully this one will too.  I was debating whether to work on it today or tomorrow, but then I read this article, which contained a lovely quote from a legislator in my home state openly stating that young people weren't worth minimum wage, and it seemed to me that the timing was good.

America, particularly you older Americans, you have a problem.  You think you're a lot smarter and wiser than you actually are.  I'm going to lay out exactly why and how this is.

I first became aware that my generation and our parents weren't speaking the same language through my fiancee's family.  Kari has been involved in a number of conflicts with her parents in the past few years, each stemming from a basic breakdown in communication.  It's a matter of perspective.  Neither of her parents, but her mother in particular, are very self-aware, and both have difficulty seeing past their own lives and experiences and putting themselves in someone else's shoes.  This is a difficulty I've had with my own parents, as have countless others close to my own age with their own parents.  If our grandparents were naive, our parents are something worse: overconfident.  It comes back to the spirit of the 60s and the Vietnam War, really.  Think about that dynamic.  Postwar America was a place of strong fear, which was mitigated and countered with very strong beliefs.  Think Eisenhower in the 50s.  Those beliefs were countered with other beliefs, each of them promoted as exclusive to the other and in many ways a reaction to the other.  The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, and Watergate produced one of two belief responses, each deep and all-encompassing.  Either things had to radically change, or they had to radically change back.  This has helped to form the basis of our partisan divide over the last 40 years (in my previous post I talked about how conspicuous consumption formed another part).

The important thing here isn't the content of the ideology itself but rather how it works.  I have never known a more uncompromising group of people than the Baby Boomers.  Particularly the movement conservatives, but also the liberals, though it manifests itself in a different way.  The spirit of zero compromise is rooted in self-righteousness, which if you're even remotely familiar with the 60s and 70s and the debate over the Vietnam War, should be self-explanatory.  As with conspicuous consumption, there is nothing unnatural or illegitimate about this: it was the most effective weapon at the time.  However, like with many things over time, what was once the previous solution has now become the problem.  Let's break this down.

A good scientist and a good Buddhist know that assumptions are a dangerous thing.  Our beliefs are constructs of our mind, and do not necessarily reflect the outside reality.  That doesn't mean they're never right, only that there is the possibility that they're wrong.  I can't tell you how many times I've gotten into debates or arguments with people over politics and religion that spiraled out of control because one or both of us couldn't see past our own beliefs.  The trouble comes in assuming that you're right.  Of course, if you believe something, it could very well be right.  Or it could be wrong.  But that is only revealed through actions and experience, not words.  I call this principle Taking Reality For Granted (or TRFG, for short).  Kari's mother, for example, doesn't understand that the relative cost of living to income ratio has changed significantly for the worse since the time when she was our age.  She takes that part of reality for granted.  The New Hampshire legislator quoted in the link at the beginning took for granted that low-income workers have the option of seeking better employment should they not be offered a living wage.  They took upward mobility for granted.  There is not necessarily anything malicious about this, it's simply an error in judgment.  I've met very few truly bad people in my life.  Most in fact, had very good intentions.  They were simply either misguided or misinformed.  Yet when you Take Reality For Granted, anyone who disagrees with you instantly becomes a malicious enemy who must either be educated and failing that punished, because how could they be so wrong when the truth is so obvious?

I blame a lot of our current societal and political dysfunction on this lack of self-awareness, both individually and collectively.  When you make those kinds of assumptions and Take Reality For Granted, hypocrisy naturally follows.  Let's explore one way in which this plays out between generations, which is especially pertinent to the case at hand.
Also known as "Alcohol."

Baby Boomers love to criticize the children of others.  Every few weeks, I come across an article in some newspaper or magazine or another written by a Baby Boomer about the Millennial generation, ranting about how lazy and unprofessional they are, about how special they all think they are, how much praise they require, and what terrible workers they are.  It's the fault of their upbringing every time.  They've had an all-out assault waged on their low self-esteem, and it's permanently damaged their ability to work.  Conservatives take this a step further: devaluing us to the point of a commodity.  Liberals are more subtle, but nonetheless make it clear that we're worthless to them.  My response to this is always, well then who the hell do you think is responsible for raising them and coddling them every step in the way?  The retort is always "Not my child."  (I'm paraphrasing here), "My child is perfect in every way.  It's everyone else's child."  Which, after hearing that line from adult after adult makes me wonder, well if all your children to be perfect, then who are these mysterious "other" children I keep hearing about?  The answer, of course, is that to find the culprit they need only take a look in the mirror.  The response, and the retort, betrays the very flawed thinking that produced the prejudice in the first place.  Now, lest we make the wrong counterargument, this is a perfectly logical deduction.  It's the belief the logic is based upon that's flawed.  And not a one of them has any idea about it.  This is what I mean by a lack of self-awareness and an inability to see past one's own worldview.  Once that happens, hypocrisy naturally follows.  The trouble is, of course, when everyone suffers from that same flaw, has it reinforced through a constant  bombardment of propaganda, and only ever associates with people that completely agree, you get exactly the breakdown in discourse that we're witnessing right now in politics and society.

Can anything be done about this?  To be completely honest, I don't know.  There are several lines of evidence that would suggest a potential course of action.  For one thing, I don't know very many young people who are so uncompromising that they demonize those who disagree with them as somehow less than them.  Sure, I know uncompromising people my own age, but I haven't met one with whom I couldn't come to some sort of agreement with in a political debate, even when we're far apart on an issue.  That gives me tremendous hope.  We also seem a lot more social than our parents ever were, and we're far better at making connections than they are as well.  In fact, connecting with people seems to be the paramount priority of my generation, far more than ideological victory, which seems more and more like the highest priority of our parents.  Which is not to say that we are any less hypocrites than they are either; just about different things, and in my opinion, less destructive ways as well.  Seeking experience, with the confidence to not be frightened by it, may in fact be our greatest gift.  It is certainly ironic, as it is that very same quality our parents love to deride in us.

Along another avenue, I think there are Boomers out there (most of them, in fact) who can be nudged into more accepting and compromising positions through personal experience.  Even conservatives who know at least one openly gay person are significantly less homophobic than those who do not.  But getting that lesson to be applied to anyone outside the inner circle of a family may be more difficult.  However, I think trying is well-worth it, as the reward of a healthier and more cooperative society far outstrips the risks and the effort involved.

The danger, it seems to me, is that we become more isolated, not less.  But that pushes against the tides of long-term demographic trends, so if we do, I doubt it'll last.  It's our silence and our inaction that speak louder than whatever militant zeitgeist happens to be blaring out of Fox News or MSNBC these days.  The most dangerous belief of all is that we are powerless and have no hope.  Resignation is not the same thing as acceptance.  Nor is it true that our beliefs are self-evident.  We have to go looking for the reason why, and accept that sometimes we're wrong.  So long as we fail to account for this, our troubles will continue.  At the very least we can be a little bit more flexible about it.

I won't end this post on a note of fear, because I am neither afraid nor do I believe in using fear to make a point.  I choose instead to issue a reminder that none of us is above our humanity, and thus none of us is above our own flaws.  Nor our families, loved-ones, friends, heroes, politicians, and religious leaders.  The expectation that anyone is perfect and anything is infallible is the very worst way to Take Reality for Granted.  Use this information wisely.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Generation Gap: Part One: Classism and Conspicuous Consumption

More kitchen gadgets!  More clothes!  More DVDs!
Anything to avoid experiencing the scary outside world.
My uncle loves to spend money.  Flatscreen TVs, expensive toys, fancy cars, you name it.  His wife and son (my aunt and cousin) are accessories: items acquired for status.  Conspicuous consumption, it's called.  I recently had a conversation with a political operative wondering why young people weren't more enthused with his party.  More than half of my graduating class still lives at home because the jobs they were able to obtain with college degrees don't pay enough to afford them their own place, and on top of that, almost all of them are drowning in student loan debt.  Right-wing talk radio hosts and liberal pundits alike love to slam the very generation they raised as lazy, incompetent, and self-entitled.  My fiancee has a degree in biology and works at a sandwich shop.

Something is very wrong with this picture to me.  I am going to attempt to explain it.

I am now twenty-seven years old.  I was born in 1984, which places me firmly in the first wave of the so-called Millennial generation.  I left high school before the advent of social media and texting, but only by a hair's breadth.   However, I still feel like I am a part of that whole experience, having otherwise grown up with computers and the internet.  My father was a market executive for a succession of software companies throughout my childhood.  He was always well-versed and literate and with the times, and because of that he had a better grasp on the experience of my generation than most.  But there are many others who don't see it like he did, and it is these particular individuals which I want to write about.  It's not just about technology and privacy.  It's about a cultural attitude, a lack of self-awareness, selfishness, and a need for emotional satisfaction.  The Baby Boomers, who so loudly professed their uniqueness and how special they are, have become their parents, and that will have significant consequences for both my generation and the future of the country.

I want to address three specific issues here, and I'll list them out beforehand.  One is selfishness and self-absorption, which covers the conspicuous consumption angle.  The second is hypocrisy, which covers the relative lack of self-awareness.  The third is more subtle, and has to do with how we view technology and the future.  Call it outlook.  In order to understand our generation gap in this country, we have to understand all three.  In the interests of keeping these posts short, I'll break up each topic into its own post.  I'll address selfishness and self-absorption first.

My generation--a lot of us, at least--grew up in suburbs and exurbs.  We were raised in a kind of outward affluence that not even our parents truly knew.  We had computers from an early age, and grew up on them.  Our lives were managed; nearly every material comfort provided for us with little fuss; we would go to college and become wealthy, and most importantly of all, we were told from day one that we were special, unique, and entitled to the very best in life.  Ours was a world of safety and almost dreary shiny, squeaky-clean monotony.  We came of age in a country increasingly segregated by class and race, where automobile ownership was tantamount to existence itself, and our parents' longing for the lost days of their youth was filled with the ownership of things--stuff, material possessions, anything you could imagine.  I split my childhood between an economically-mixed outer suburb of New York City and a much more uniformly affluent and ethnically homogeneous exurb of Boston.  In the former, I was one of the wealthiest kids in town.  In the latter, if anything I was in the lower-middle tier.  My parents were especially voracious consumers of things.  My father drove luxury cars, my mother bought self-help books and various gadgets to help her relax.  Slowly, they were buying themselves into the upper class.  Spending sprees at various stores in the mall during sales were not unheard-of.  I too had bought into this game.  When the meaning of life to you is wealth and materialism, it's easy to become critical and contemptuous of the less fortunate.  After all, your only value is how much you own.  There are some--the conservatives--who opt for a direct approach to this line of thinking.  But to make this a partisan issue is to largely miss the point.  My parents were liberal, but liberal classism is nonetheless just as prevalent, if subtler.  In fact, I would argue that liberal classism is the far more dangerous of the two.  Here's how it works.

You know, for that mountain you don't live near.
Let's say you're an average suburban dweller.  Your life to you is your children, your job, your cars, your house, and the monetary values of each.  I know, I know.  You're saying to me "But Matt, that's not all there is to life.  I love my children for who they are, not what they're worth."  But is that really true?  Let's look at this mathematically.  120 years ago,  before the advent of modern medicine, it was in the best economic interests of parents to have lots of children inside the confines of marriage.  This is because before the advent of social welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare, the elderly were entirely dependent on their offspring to care for them in their old age.  Before the advent of modern medicine, many children died before reaching adulthood.  In addition, the relative levels of education required to earn a living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not all that high.  Thus, more children meant more income for the household through factory work or, say more help around the farm.  But in the first half of the 20th century this began to change.  Most children were surviving to adulthood.  Automation reduced the need for child labor, and the relative skill level required to earn a living wage increased substantially, to the point where children now required over a decade of schooling or more in order to find suitable work.  This changed everything.  Instead of a net financial gain, having children now became a significant investment in both time and money.  I'm not going to sit here and pretend like pregnancies are usually planned, but in the context of affluent suburban nuclear families, I think having a child means something very different than say for a young working-class mother.  You pay into your child's education through property taxes at a bare minimum, and almost always in a lot more ways than that.  You're living in a community designed to eliminate concerns about safety, access basic amenities, and healthcare.  But to assume that that eliminates human fears and insecurities is to assume that humans have no inherent nature, which would at best be extremely naive.  We're always going to find something to complain and worry about, and compare ourselves to others, and if we're not worried for our safety and basic quality of life, we're going to get crazy competitive about our relative wealth, and the way we engage in this practice is through conspicuous consumption.  Your kid, which already was a significant investment to begin with, naturally becomes a part of this too.  Self-absorption of this sort is not anyone's fault: it's an organic reaction to circumstances, and there's nothing even illegitimate about it.  But it does warp your world view, and this is where it starts to become a problem.  If the conservative position is contemptuous deceit and malice, the liberal position is one of contemptuous ignorance.  I hope the reason is clear by now, but if not, I'll spell it out.  When you're surrounded by people like you, people who aren't like you are no longer concrete and real.  They become abstractions; concepts.  Something imagined and not experienced.  Whenever experience leaves the picture and your conceptualizations are no longer grounded in reality as such, your view becomes warped.

What does this have to do with my generation?  A lot.  As the Baby Boomers age and start to retire, their views of Millennials are changing.  Their views of us, by and large (at least in the way I've just described above), were already deformed by affluence and ideology.  We are increasingly an abstraction to them--an "other" to be feared and viewed with contempt.  It really does seem sometimes as if we were just another form of status to them.  When I talk to people my own age with these kinds of backgrounds, the overwhelming view is one of disgust.  We were taught to pursue our dreams and that money doesn't matter.  And to a certain extent it doesn't, at least in my experience.  To that end we ended up exactly like our parents wanted us to, and for our trouble we are now being told that we are lazy and entitled.  We were all told that we had to go to college, and for our effort most of us have worthless degrees and many tens of thousands of dollars of debt.  Student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt in this country.  Yet we are told that it's our own damn fault, and not only that, now especially by conservative Baby Boomers that we are not entitled to the same benefits our parents are (I'm thinking of the Paul Ryan budget in particular).  What kind of message does that send to us?  It is only selfishness that leads to such thinking, selfishness brought about by an environment that encouraged an obsession with oneself for several decades running.  Instead of being valued as future innovators or a workforce, we're a target group for advertising so our parents can make even more money off of us by selling us things we don't need to put us into more debt in order to feed the finance system that pays their retirement plans.

The most ironic thing of all this, of course, is that these are exactly the same complaints the Baby Boomers had of their parents, only to an extra degree.  It is certainly ironic that in the name of wealth and the glorification of oneself, they have created exactly dystopia they imagined they lived under in the 60s.  Now history is being rewritten to suit their needs and justify their excesses.  There was a moral to the financial crisis of 2008, but it was lost in the melange of fear, blame, denial, and resentment that followed, when the bill came due for their feast.  I have tremendous faith in the youth of today that we have learned this critical lesson, if not completely than at least more than our parents.   Whether or not we have much of a world left after the Boomers are done with it remains to be seen.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Outside the Matrix

I started this blog late last year because I was searching for an answer to a very basic question: What is the truth?  Where it's taken me I don't think I could have ever fully predicted, and over the months it has evolved to become a reflection of me and how I see the world.  I think that's good.  When I started blogging, I was deeply afraid to share myself period, let alone broadcast it like this.  I haven't really promoted it, because I've spent most of the past year trying to hone my craft, to the point where reflecting myself in this way became second nature.  I think in a way, I've succeeded, and this post is proof positive.  All of this began with a few Facebook statuses, and over the years since I started that, all this has completely taken on a life of its own.  Everything I've posted here thus far has been completely true, but what I haven't shown is how it's affected all of me.  I think I really stand right now on the threshold between what I'd been working towards and something else, and so I want this post to do two things.  First, I want to fill in all the details of what I haven't shown over the past few months, and hopefully put this all into context.  Second, I want to use this post as a bridge to newer and bigger things I have planned for the blog in the future.  So, with that in mind, here goes.

I had, for most of my life, had a real problem with articulation.  Anyone knows me knows how verbal I am, so this may come as a surprise.  I've written something like eleven novel manuscripts in my life, but really they were all about only one thing.  Every work, whether it was The Academy, or any of my other long-running ideas and series (such as Emma's story, or AK's) were all attempts at articulating the same idea, one that has been with me for as long as I can remember.  They are all about freedom.

The word freedom is bandied about a lot these days, and in the past on this blog I've used the concept of the simulated world in the movie The Matrix as a metaphor for my own particular interpretation of the word.  Searching for it, I believe, is one of the most basic efforts of all life.  By now I hope that my struggles to control and manage my mental illness have been made clear what this means to me, at least on a functional level.  Just like in the movie, freedom to me is the awareness that everything around me--everything I feel, everything I think and do and see and experience is in some way an illusion, and that my craving and my clinging for that which is neither permanent nor in reality what I imagine it to be.  It's not even a state of mind: that would imply that I had somewhere to go, existentially, in order to get it.  The only path to freedom in that sense I ever found was acceptance--acceptance of the way things are right now, without trying to change anything.  Life is suffering, and then we get sick and die in the end for our efforts.  But acceptance doesn't have to and shouldn't be an ending.  That's resignation, and resignation is garbage.  Acceptance--true acceptance--is a beginning.

Two Thursdays ago, I walked out to my secret beach, at an undisclosed location in the greater Portsmouth area, determined that I was going to accept something about myself that I had been striving towards for the better part of a year.  I had a problem with validation.  There were many reasons, some of which I'll eventually touch on on this blog, and some of which are largely irrelevant at this point.  As I've come to understand, the reason why something is the way it is in my head is less important than how it works, at least as far as undoing it is concerned.  I couldn't be happy on my own.  I'm hard on myself--even still now too hard--and I have unrealistic expectations of what I can do and how quickly I can get it done.  I used to imagine an audience--mercurial, always just out of reach of the light--laughing at me, talking about me like I was a giant fraud, rejecting me.  At certain points in my life that audience may have been real, but not anymore.  I think that audience turned out to be as much a reflection in the mirror as anything else.  I feel extremely self-conscious about these things, which is why in the real heat of these moments I always try to make them public--on Twitter, which is linked to my Facebook account, which is a real and powerful tool to seek validation.  It was that self-consciousness that was the problem, and by publicly admitting it, I faced the fear and it no longer held any power over me.  It was a realization as profound as the experience was grueling.  Because of it, I have now come to the following conclusion, which holds larger implications than just my own personal betterment.

We think our problems are external to us.  If only we were rich.  If only we had that new pair of designer jeans.  If only we went on vacation.  If only our boss weren't so mean.  If only other people weren't so rude.  If only we could not be hurt.  If only our loved ones would change.  We crave.  And what we have doesn't last.  Relationships end.  Friends move away.  Elation turns right back to normalcy and habit again.  We cling.  We can't see it for what it is, because we're right down there in the cycle of it all and we don't know anything else.  But the problem is not our bosses or our loved ones, or liberals or conservatives to put this in a political context.  The problem is our craving and our clinging.  It's not the people we're fighting, it's the fighting itself.  This is what I've learned.  Now that I can see it for what it is, I feel to some extent freed from it.  Not totally, mind you.  But closer than I have in a long time.  My imaginary audience went away.  I stopped craving validation because I stopped needing it.  As the Third Noble Truth of Buddhism says: eliminate the craving, eliminate the suffering.  I didn't truly understand it until that night on the beach, but I think I do now.

All of the people I've written about thus far are real, and all have helped me reach this conclusion in their own way.  This is the end of one chapter in my life and the beginning of a new one, and thus the end of one phase of this story and a new beginning.  What I'm going to get into next is both more difficult and more complicated, and I have every intention of giving every nuance and detail its fair dues.  Writing this has been tremendously helpful, and I hope it will continue to do so.  If I understand freedom now, at least what it means to me, all the better.  If I don't--well, at least I know a good way of seeking it out.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Illusion of Cool

Of course, no one is as cool as Snoopy.
First and foremost, apologies for the long wait before this post.  When I began this arc last week, I had a very specific idea in mind with what I wanted to do with it.  It has turned into something very different.  I think I would do best to introduce this post by talking a little bit about why I have this blog.  I was at a meeting of other local writers, and the subject of memoirs came up between me, a friend, and a new woman who had only been to one or two of these gatherings.  The woman wanted to write a memoir about surviving emotional abuse.  She was very focused on the marketability of the book, as if her suffering was a product to be packaged and sold--a commodity like any other.  It made me realize, in the heat of the conversation, that that isn't what this blog means to me at all.  I may appreciate feedback and take comfort in the knowledge that people care what I have to say, but ultimately that isn't why I started blogging about my life.  I blog about my life for myself, to try and put my demons to rest.  What others may think about it is at best secondary, and worst irrelevant.  This is to be key as I go about what was supposed to be a follow-up post.

Talking about Suzie as I did last week was actually very difficult, and it made me realize that talking about Emily the Rock Star was going to be even more difficult.  Both young women were something of a riddle to me-- a Zen koan that seemed to hold the key towards overcoming the latest obstacle in my path.  I'm more convinced than ever this is true, and after several days of intensive meditation on the beach, I feel both like I've put Suzie to rest, and I feel ready to talk a little bit about Emily.

Emily was cool.   Emily was the coolest teenager who ever lived.  Emily is the embodiment of hip: a rock star, someone with their finger on the pulse of the here and now, who knows how to find whatever's happening and be a part of it.  I knew her in high school, and like Suzie, I found myself irresistibly attracted to her.  Like Suzie, that attraction was rejected, and the escalating fallout actually led to me being kicked out of the private school Emily and I both attended.  Emily was everything I was not: confident, self-assured, secure, and most importantly of all, she wore vinyl pants.  I very badly wanted to wear vinyl pants in high school (even today I own two pairs): they were one of the most distilled expressions of who I was in clothing form.  That time period was a time of immense struggling with my identity for me, particularly with my parents over how I wanted to look.  I wanted to dye my hair, I wanted to grow my hair long, I wanted to wear shock rock clothes, makeup, be someone totally unrecognizable.  But my parents wouldn't allow it, I was heavy from the medication I was on, and my image of myself was completely distorted from how it actually was.  (I do regret never wearing black metal corpse paint in public before I grew my beard, but I suppose as far as regrets go, that is a relatively minor one).  Emily was, in that respect, a representation of all I wanted to be but couldn't.  She also professed to be a lesbian, which of course only compounded my fascination and attraction.  It was all I could do just to keep it together day to day back then.  Of course things went south quickly.

Interestingly, however, and unlike Suzie, Emily and I reconnected a year or two ago via Facebook.  Imagine my surprise when we friended each other that not only were there no hard feelings for what happened between us, there was total forgiveness (and in fact, she claims, she had completely forgotten about it).  Talk about history being a matter of perspective.  Except now the relationship was different.  I was in my 20s, independent, and had begun to piece together my own identity.  I was, in some strange way, as cool as her, and she regarded me as such.  I cannot tell you how surreal an experience it was to suddenly have validation from the very object of cool that had previously rejected me.  But something was still wrong.  It was more than that.  Something about me needed her validation.  Now I'd had it once.  I needed it more.  It was as if nothing had changed.

This leads me to another one of the paradoxes of writing this blog.  Emily and I are still friends.  I have a great deal of respect for her, but in order for me to continue and explain the solution to her koan, I have to in some way talk about her flaws.  I thought long and hard about how I wanted to do this, because she is both a very kind, loving, intelligent person, and someone whose opinions I still value.  So perhaps rather than necessarily talk about her, it would be best for me to talk about my reactions to her.  After all, this is a post about how I overcame my need for external validation (if you hadn't guessed it already).  I can't very well put her down to bring myself up.  So let me instead talk a little bit about myself, and let me show you how she reacted.

One of the ways in which I seek validation the most is through sharing my music.  I have seldom had someone in my life who shared my musical tastes, and that made me feel very insecure about it.  I did this with a lot of people, but given that Emily herself is a bass player in a rock band, she especially felt like an authority on it.  But one of the things that frustrated me about that whole process with her is that she oddly bluntly rejected my musical inclinations.  I eventually came to understand that that really boiled down to a difference of opinion in vocal styles.  But for someone who takes things to heart, opinions like that are often misunderstood for objective truth.  I was looking for her to praise my prog rock along some sort of objective scale of "goodness," whatever that means.  What I got instead was pretty much all you'll ever get when you compare subjective art forms, which was her opinion.  The two are very different things.  She was always judgmental in an odd way, and it wasn't until I captured the dynamic in action that I began to get a hint of how it worked, and how my perspective was wrong.

I tend to make a natural assumption that there's always two levels to conversation.  The first is the surface, which is the literal content of the topic and discussion.  Bobby Eckstein, my brilliant counseling professor at UNH likes to call the other, deeper part "process."  Process is a lot like the part of the iceberg that's underneath the water: the meaning, the underlying explanation; substance.  By assuming that there is Process to everything I talk about to everyone, I had unwittingly been seeing and reacting to something that wasn't there.  Two clues from Emily led me to figure it out.

Emily occasionally blogs through Facebook's notes system, and one particular one caught my eye. She was complaining about the neighborhood in Philadelphia in which lives, how it hadn't gentrified yet, how she had to travel a long distance to be at anything "happening."  I don't know what in particular about it seemed so off to me.  It only made sense if you assumed she was thinking literally--like her words themselves were the actual meaning, and nothing more.  This is, I believe, the essence of her "coolness."  I'll explain.  A few days later, I had another conversation with her, in which I said something (what exactly I forget), that essentially had two different meanings depending on whether you were listening for surface or process.  I had meant it as the latter, but she misinterpreted it as the former.  A few more minutes of conversation and it became abundantly clear that there was not even an awareness of the process content of that line.  Though it took me a little while, herein lay the answer to the riddle.

There's one of two ways to look at this.  Which of those Emily actually is I don't really know, and it's kind of irrelevant to my point.  "Cool" in the sense that I'm referring to, is a surface feature.  One can obsessively try to find "cool" and seek endless validation for it, and one can even be quite successful at obtaining it (*cough*hipsters*cough*).  But there is another option, and in my opinion it's the better one.  One can simply disregard the need for surface-level validation.  Both techniques produce a superficially similar result, but in reality the two are worlds apart.  One makes you look confident.  The other makes you actually confident.  Once I'd brought myself to that point, it was a relatively straightforward decision: instead of doing what I think people want me to do in order to feel validated, why don't I do things that I like and validate myself instead?

My my, what a deceptively simple proposition.

When I realized that, late one night on the beach, deep in meditation, something incredible happened.  The craving ceased.  I had spent two years trying to resolve a conflict about myself.  The truth is, there was no conflict.  Believing there was a conflict was what created the conflict, and it necessitated taking it this far in order to see it.  That to me, ultimately, is Emily's greatest gift to me.  Then things started to come together.  Big things.  We're all trapped in a prison of our own design.  All we have to do to escape is walk right out the door.

Just like that, release.

Now I understand.  The rest is relatively straightforward.  I really hope others can read this and understand what I mean, because I think the meaning I've found here from this is more essential than all the others.  We all seek emotional satisfaction, but it's the craving itself that's the problem, not what we imagine satisfying our emotions will solve.  So there you have it.  Hopefully you can take away something from this.  I will remember this as one of the greatest things I've ever done.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Suzie Cherry Blossom (Defense of Porn: Part 2)

I spent the weekend trying to think about how I was going to approach the rest of this arc. Unlike Mike the Broken GI Joe, I hadn't done much planning.  I had come up with a couple of posts that would work, and address what it was I wanted to talk about, but they weren't really as interesting as I like my posts to be, so I scrapped.  I came to the conclusion that the point I was trying to make couldn't really be made without speaking about my past, and in particular two characters from that past leap to mind: Suzy Cherry Blossom, and Emily the Rock Star.  Today's post will be about the former; tomorrow's the latter.

Something about being young and hysterical leads one--male or female--to anime.  I can't say for certain what about it is so appealing, only that to the shy, awkward and emotional, it seems to speak to something very deep and primal.  It could be its emphasis on invariably shy, awkward lead character (typically male, but not necessarily) and the way they are invariably rewarded in life for being who they are.  I used to write entire essays on the social dynamics of Sailor Moon for college classes.  But that's not necessarily relevant to what I want to talk about it.  Suzie Cherry Blossom was anime.

We met when we were both fourteen, at a day camp for learning Japanese language and culture.  Suzie and her friend Autumn were the only other two camp-goers that were my age, and we talked a lot during our free time.  I met her when I asked if the anime-style girl she was drawing in her notebook was Sailor Moon, and she corrected me that it was someone else.  I developed a stupid, childish crush on her on the spot.  We got to talking; our parents met and took us out with our exchange students for sushi.  But Suzie never completely liked me back, and the more I persisted (as 14-year-old boys do), the more she rebuffed me.  Camp came and went, and we managed to stay in touch.  I never really lost interest: she was physically attractive, outwardly intelligent, and by introducing me to the wide world of anime, the coolest person alive.  But she was also unstable in a way I couldn't ever quiet perceive.  My continued advances weren't just being rebuffed.  Again, anime and hysteria seem to go hand in hand.  So it was that the following March, I received a rejection letter as it were, in the form of an email, telling me never to speak to her again.

I was of course as devastated as I was confused.  Suzie was my first real crush, the first attempt I had ever made to reach out to the opposite sex.  She was, oddly, very feminine and yet very assertive--aggressive even, almost.  What I remember the most about her was how juvenile she seemed to be--more comfortable her mannerisms and style if she was nine or ten rather than fourteen.  But she had energy and spunk and all of the things I liked, and I being a fourteen-year-old boy who had never done this before, had no good way of expressing those things.  It was bad.  I reached out, she closed up.  I did it again, and harder this time, she closed up even more.  But I never saw the end coming, not like that.  For it to be so cruel, so final, and so impersonal, that we couldn't even be friends.  A part of me broke that night, and splintered off, and it hasn't really been fixed or reintegrated until this past year.

I became obsessed over the years, worming my way through the internet until I'd stumbled upon her LiveJournal.  Minori, my Japanese and Buddhist teacher, also taught Suzie, and so I kept up with the latest news about her for a while.  As my problems at school grew worse, apparently so did hers.  Eventually, we both dropped out of high school in our senior year for approximately the same reason: difficulty socially, a bad match-up academically, and the stress of it all making us wilt.

Then I started acting weird.  I became obsessed with doing to others what she had done to me, even though I myself was barely aware of it.  I destroyed my relationship with what had otherwise been my greatest, most loyal friend, someone who deserved nothing of what I did to him.  It was as if Suzie had hurt me, and I believed that the way to nullify the hurt I felt was to in turn hurt someone else I cared about.  It was, in no minced words, incredibly fucked up.

What does this have to do with porn, you ask?  Everything, at least for me, and I will explain why now.  Herein lies a struggle at the core of who I am, and a frightening double-standard of gender.

At the heart of my struggles with my illness lies two basic and diametrically opposed identities.  I am, in some sense, as I was up to the age of eleven: a relatively well-behaved goodie two-shoes, feminine in appearance, interests, and skills.  I've talked a little bit about that part of my life.  I had trouble with my emotions, but that was overshadowed by my raw academic, creative, and musical talents.  I may have had trouble with the other kids, but I was liked and respected by my teachers.  I was, for the most part, passive and accepting.  My anger had little sway in the big picture.  Then I came to middle school.  The kids were brutal to me; the teachers even more so.  That feminine golden child had disappeared, and what had replaced it was a hideous hulking monstrosity who couldn't do anything right.  Anger.  Hate.  Bitterness.  Frustration.  This was what he embodied.

But the sweet feminine golden child wasn't truly gone.  She was just having an increasingly difficult time reconciling herself with the fuckup.  In time I came to know the golden child as Haley, and the fuckup as AK.  For years I wondered why it was that Suzy affected me so strongly, and so bizarrely.  I think I understand now.  Suzie was the one who sealed Haley away.  Cut off from that part of me, I could only access her through bizarre ritualistic pornography, most of which wouldn't even be considered porn by the rest of us, connected through equally strange stories I wrote to explain them.  From there, Haley broke apart into a collection of feminine identities, each a step closer to AK: Jennifer and Emma, whom I've mentioned, Rebecca (who was tamed and starred in The Academy), and Jennifer Angel (a separate entity from Jennifer the robot: rather, a combination of several of them).  That was when I truly began to dissociate.  I am still trying to reconcile these things today.

What is it about society that makes it so difficult to express these things?  This to me is where porn offers one of its greatest gifts: a (somewhat) socially acceptable context of breaking the gender norms.  Beyond just pornography, and into the realm of female dominatrices and BDSM, it is astonishing just how many people--particularly men--seem to feel the need for a service like that.  Feminism gave us something valuable: it broke the gender binary--for women.  This is what feminists mean when they talk about rejecting the Patriarchy.  But that only goes halfway, and it is feminism's failure to recognize the counterpart to that argument that I hold partly responsible for many of our society's current failures.  As virtually every feminist I talk to who makes mention of the patriarchy as she rants about how it puts women down, in the same breath makes a natural-sounding counterargument that the men all love this, because it gives them power.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Gender norms are every bit still as restrictive, self-contradictory, and harmful to men as they were to women before the sexual revolution. What makes my case unusual is that I wasn't taught to reject my femininity at an early age.  What makes it difficult is that I was given utterly no instruction or assistance in reconciling and integrating it with my masculinity.

Suzy Cherry Blossom was in many ways a highly pure manifestation of what I perceived Haley to be.  I know this, because she stood in for Haley, Jennifer, and Emma in early versions of the stories I told myself.  Her assertiveness notwithstanding, she was infantilized by her family into a perpetual 12-year-old girl, even today, and it is that image that has stuck with me the longest--about her and about Haley.  It's both difficult and sobering to talk about this all these years later (it has in fact been just over twelve years since it happened).  The ramifications of this are too long for this one post, and so I'll return to it tomorrow.  This is only one half of my point, but the post has gone on too long already.  There is a part of me that will never fully be over that email in March.  It was incredibly destructive.  But I can be at peace with it.  This is my challenge.  This is my effort.

Friday, July 22, 2011

In Defense of Porn Part 1: The Introduction

Yes, but does porn love you back?
I'd like to do a new arc now, one about sex, pornography, and gender, building off what I thought was the best post of the Mike the Broken GI Joe arc, which was about masculinity.  Talking about sex is kind of a paradox for me, because while I am disabled now, I am planning on seeking employment in the future and these are the sorts of materials online that come back to haunt people on graduate school and job applications.  So, let's start with a few ground rules.  I do not want to talk about the specifics of my sex life or my sexuality if I don't have to.  Therefore, as a general disclaimer, you can safely assume that everything I talk about here is in the hypothetical.  Second, we need to draw a couple of important distinctions.  The most important of these distinctions comes in paying for sex.  I draw a huge distinction between downloading a pornographic picture from the internet and even paying for a lap dance, and so should you.  The key difference is that there is no personal, face-to-face interaction, and thus the opportunity for harm is somewhat limited.  The second distinction has to do with legality.  This should almost go without saying, but the exploitation of minors is not just wrong, it's illegal.  So even if I talk about men being say attracted to teenage girls, there is a very big distinction between thinking this and actually acting upon it.  The former is a commonplace occurrence, the latter is a crime depending on each state's statutory rape laws.

Okay, I think that covers the ground rules.  Now let's get into the meat of this post, where I defend pornography from would-be foes on both the right and the left.

Porn has long been scorned as a moral and cultural abomination, yet few people ever stop to think about where contemporary society would be without it.  There is certainly the classic argument that it's exploitative of women, but it an age of celebrity glamour and fetish models and practicing "lifestyles" I don't know how necessarily true that is.  True, there will always be exploitation in the sex industry.  But a simple Google search for several fetishes (e.g. "schoolgirl," or "maid," or "latex"), or even simply "nude," draws up at least as many well-fed, healthy-looking women who have neither tired eyes nor dark circles and seem genuinely willing to be there.  This is not to say that every model is there entirely of their own free will, but certainly neither is pornography some universally degrading and exploitative experience for women.  In fact, it's essential that it not be.  The reason is two-fold, and has to do with two technologies that pornography helped to bring into the mainstream (as it were): home video, and the Internet.

Back in the late 70s, seeing something pornographic typically involved trekking to a seedy theater in a disreputable part of town, sitting down with your feet on a disgusting floor, and being surrounded by sketchy perverted men.  That all began to change with the invention of Betamax and VHS.  Much as we have a copyright controversy today with digital music, the home video era began with a similar public battle over whether or not it was okay to tape shows and songs on the radio.  For a while, there was a real possibility that home video may never have caught on.  Enter the pornography industry, who knew a good thing when they saw it.  By vociferously defending the right of the public to watch movies in their own home, they not only brought us the video store and the concept of movie rental, they also revolutionized our sexuality.  So many conventions about society seem held together only be collective pretense--if we don't see others doing it, we assume that they don't do it, and if nobody does something, it must be wrong.  How many times has there been bubbling weirdness simmering just beneath the facade of normality in modern American society, only to be released at the first available opportunity of free expression?  Home video did that for sex and in particular fetishism in a big way.  But that was to be eclipsed a little more than a decade later by an even greater revolution.

This was exactly what Al Gore had in mind.
Big ideas seldom work as intended.  The phonograph was originally envisioned by Thomas Edison as a means of secretaries to keep records for their bosses.  In fact, he fought against using phonographic records for music.  But his only part was to bring his invention to the market.  The market ultimately decided what the most profitable use of it was.  The internet started out as a way for academics to talk to other academics, and rapidly became the most powerful tool of self-expression ever invented.  I was on the internet since about 1990.  I remember what it was like.  And I remember what society was like, even though I was only six years old.  Over the course of my life, I've watched that completely change.

What pornography did was give the average person on the street a reason to be online.  I highly doubt eCommerce would have been the resounding success it was without it.  Here at last, gays, lesbians, and the transgendered, many of whom were isolated, had a way of connecting with other like-minded individuals, overcoming geography and local hostility.  Fetishists too could for the first time connect with other fetishists.  Internet porn's effect on our sexuality was as total as it was rapid.  I hold it largely responsible for taking LGBT rights mainstream.  Every weird kink and quirk now had its own community, and people could see for the first time that they were not alone.  Porn had become mainstream almost overnight, taking with it acceptance of sexual orientation and alternative lifestyles such as BDSM.  We were, as we discovered an incredibly kinky nation of small-scale closet perverts.  And because of porn's early investment, the Internet took off, and brings us everything we take for granted today such as Google, Facebook, and smartphones.

I haven't met someone who was opposed to pornography who wasn't also opposed to sex in principle. This position is more common among feminists than conservatives (many of whom research shows oppose it publicly but privately are some of porn's greatest consumers).  Acceptance of sexuality has become in this era an acceptance of pornography as an expression of said sexuality.  There is, however, a frightening double-standard in place, particularly in the way women view men.  I will fully admit that I both own and view porn on a regular basis, even in my relationship with Kari.  Porn was, like for many people, among my sole means of expressing myself sexually for a long time in my life, and that has simply become a rite of passage for males in this society.  Moreover, porn was educational, and helped clarify many things about sex for me.  But there is still a stigma attached to this, and it has come into play in my life more than once.  This post has gone on long enough already.  There are so many things I want to talk about on this subject, and it's fully deserving of its own arc.  Let this post serve as an introduction, then.  I will leave no stone unturned, no kink left out, and no popularly-held conception erm, unconceived.  Sex is an important part of life, and porn is an important part of sex.  So let it all be said--in defense of porn.