Fame Before Foundation

I have sort of a morbid fascination with actors and performers who, after starting out very young, either died before their time or just seemed to get screwed up one way or the other.

I don’t feel I’m alone in this mild obsession – the internet abounds with information on this gang of lost souls.  I don’t want to just add to the fug of negativity, but our fame-crazed culture seems wrought with potential hazards, particularly for the young.

While it happens to adults, too, young people are susceptible to the pressures of fame, as they don’t really have their “foundation” yet –  emotionally, spiritually, or whatever you want to call it.  (Obviously, drugs and crime are problems for many people who have never set foot in front of a camera, but considering the tiny percentage of people who make up the household-name celebrity demographic, it is evident that a disproportionate number of famous youths succumb to vices.)

I’ve linked a handful of names to various sites below.

120809BrianBonsall01Brian Bonsall (drinking, crime)

Brad Renfro (drug addiction, crime, death)

Macauley Culkin (drugs, severe weight loss, alienation)

Dana Plato (drugs, suicide)

Britney Spears (drugs, loss of children)

Bobby Driscoll (drugs, death)

Tatum O’Neal (drugs, illicit behavior, loss of children)

Heath Ledger (drugs, death)

River Phoenix (drugs, death)

Corey Haim (drug addiction, alienation, death)

Danny Bonaduce (drug addiction)

Lindsay Lohan (drug addiction, lasciviousness)

Edward Furlong (assault, drug addiction, weight gain)

Justine Bateman (anorexia, bulimia, drugs) [in recovery]

Todd Bridges (drugs, crime) [in recovery]

Scotty Beckett (crime, drugs, guns, death)

Jonathan Brandis (depression, suicide)

Michael Jackson (total, unbelievable weirdness, prescription drugs, death)

Robert Blake (alleged murder)

Jodie Sweetin (crystal meth) [in recovery]

Adam Rich (prescription drugs, crime)

Drew Barrymore (drinking, drugs) [in recovery]

Taran Noah Smith (crime, bankruptcy)

Amanda Byne (drinking-related problems)

Miley Cyrus (twerking)




It would be better to have a mohawk

I saw this kid the other day.  He used to have a raging green mohawk.  Now he was working in a convenience store with a goofy uniform on.  I felt sorry for him and wondered to myself why we think there is something valuable for our young people to learn by trading their time for a few meager dollars.

Not just their time, but crucial years during an exciting, ephemeral stage of life filled with energy and vitality.  We sap it quick by teaching them how to enslave themselves, telling ourselves that they are learning about hard work and how the world operates.

It would be better if we let them come up with some sort of enterprise where they made money in another way.

Better still if they spent their time exploring what it is they did best, and learning to innovate and problem solve.

Some will argue that this is what the wage job does.  And they will say that it also shows them that they have to afford to live while they pursue other dreams.  And this all comes back to capitalism and socialism (and the idealism of a world that functions somewhere in between).

The rough idea of capitalism is that it motivates people to achieve their highest self by the pursuit of financial gain.  There are two fundamental flaws in logic here – the money market system is a part of every human inequity and a force of violence in the world.   The other is that the great innovators and thinkers of our time were never motivated by big bucks.  It has always been the people who came after them and capitalized on what they came up with.

Innovation and advancement of the human race are their own rewards.  Why not build a society which props up an individual so that he or she may pursue the best of themselves instead of struggling to survive, only to get inevitably broken by the system and become an ordinary wage slave like most everyone else?

Ardent capitalists will say that money is the motivator.  Without it, people have no impetus to excel.  Or, they will point to competition as bringing the “best” out in people and talk about a “level playing field” or a free market enterprise that is the grand denominator, separating the strong from the weak.   The problem with this is that the market is not a level grade.  People born into the dominant ethnic group possess a massive advantage over everyone else.  And if they start out with wealth this only increases their privilege.

This is only some of the inequity.  The market place is one of the tumult reflected in the culture.  Either it is blacks or women or gays or some group of people who don’t have the same chance, who aren’t born to the same preferred set of circumstances.  (Like, being born almost anywhere besides in the United States.)

Much of capitalism, as I see it, is a denial of the problems of the day.  You can’t be a capitalist and recognize climate change because it implies your involvement.  Or, at least, asks you to rethink your future, either with the environment in mind or contending with the concerns of a planet reevaluating its attitude of limitless growth.

We are all driven, whether we consciously admit it or not, by the repression of our mortal knowledge.  In other words, we chase immortality and run from the reality of our limited time on earth.  That this fact breeds war, violence, religion, politics, and even the lofty desire for peace on earth is a topic for another time.  Here I mention it because chief among our quests for immortality is once of acquisition.  Acquisition of wealth, power, and material goods.  We may know better, but unconsciously we feel we can stave of the inevitable by surrounding ourselves with a bulwark of stuff.

This is the opposite of what the world needs.  By accepting the inevitable, innovation and sustainability come to the forefront.  What can we create that will last for those who come after us?  We may not be able to come up with a panacea for climate change; we don’t need to.  No one is expecting the Ultimate Answer to Everything – instead, we can create the conditions in which the best thinking and best work are nurtured by the culture.

The prevailing model that this is done through competition and the lure of money is unfortunate.  It is an agenda for those with money and power who want to keep it.  In the meantime, that each human being is a potential resource of true wealth and innovation gets lost.  That human is working in a sweat shop overseas or in a convenience store with a squashed Mohawk.  If he or she was born in a developed country which uses the rest of the world’s resources to prop itself up, then he or she has a good shot at being well heeled.  Otherwise, that human is likely to succumb to the vast lower middle belly of the world that the strident capitalists consider to mooch off of the hard working elite.  It’s a rigged game.

In these conditions, people become a race of mindless workers and consumers, not resources.  We end up powerless to truly do much for ourselves, instead of empowered to be the best.  If you live in the middle of suburbia, for instance, it’s nearly impossible to think outside the box, live off the grid, grow your own food, to learn self-reliance.  You are caught in the giant web of capital consumption, buying your nutrient-deprived food at giant mega stores, commuting to work each day to punch in and whittle away the best of your years.  If you are poor and rural, you may be able to cultivate some better degree of self-reliance, but the giant misappropriation of resources leaves you spread too thin to make much of a difference and set the example for a better way of living.

You may be lucky enough to have maneuvered through the system and to wind up doing something you are good at and enjoy.  If so, count yourself one of the lucky few.  But don’t consider yourself proof that the system works.  You are the exception which proves the rule; the system does not work.

We are a growing global society of the haves and have-nots.  The haves justify their position by citing the effectiveness of the money-market system.   The have-nots could be contributing to the health of the entire world in major ways, but are too busy being sucked into the machine that feeds the U.S. and a few other “developed” nations that gobble up the principal resources of the planet – including people.

I wish that kid in the convenience store would yank off his goofy uniform and get the hell out of there.  I wouldn’t expect him to go out and solve the energy crisis.  Just painting his mohawk green again would be something.  It would inspire me, and maybe others.

Because it is inspiration – not money – that makes the human race great.


World War YOU

An acquaintance of mine recently wrote a book review for The Daily Beast about a zombie novel.  It got me thinking, as it got him thinking, about what could be the reason for the recent spate of zombie books, TV shows, and films.

Part of that answer is simple:  If the red car sells, make more red cars.  To mix a metaphor, trends are like waves; they gather momentum and then they break and roll back.  Right now the zombie wave is cresting.

While I’m not as well-read my friend who wrote the review, I’m going to take a bite at the other reason zombie pop culture is so strong right now:  Human population.


Our popular culture reflects our inner fears and desires.  To what degree this is conscious for the creators I can’t say; books and movies are different mediums, each employing a full spectrum of personalities.  But during the zeitgeist of flying saucer movies in the 50s, while these may have been sparked by controversy, they were fueled by our fear of the foreign invader.  Little green men, with almond-shaped eyes who all look and act the same, stir up rightist ideas of the communist threat.   Then there were books and movies in the 70s and 80s which had machines hunting us down.  Then, giant robots that seek to enslave mankind.

Alien movies are ostensibly about our fear of the “other.”  Robot movies are about our fear of technology beyond our control.  Zombie movies are about our fear of ourselves, and where we are headed.

Walking-Dead-RickMy wife got into watching The Walking Dead after I coaxed her to pay attention during season two.  During that season, the ragtag group of survivors hole up at a barn in the country, trying to make do, figuring out how to live.  The wife and I like this kind of survivalist story.  Part of the draw is the suspension of the social contract.  The social contract, in a nutshell, is a tacit agreement among humans (centuries in the making) that tells us we are safe from one another.  Suspending that contract makes for great drama (like the “governor” character who runs the village but basically operates a paramilitary group and tries to get whatever he wants).

But what’s especially alluring about the zombie apocalypse trope is that, dramatically, you get to a world where leadership matters again.  Where having children matters again.  Where telling the truth matters again.  These concepts are fascinating to us because of the conditions of the world we live in today.

So that’s one aspect of the reasoning for the zombie bonanza – we are living in a time teeming with people, lacking in leadership, filled with lies and deceit.  Like the controversies which stoked the flying saucer movies, the perils of our dwindling fossil fuels, the fear culture of terrorism, the acts of violence set the stage for the zombie extravaganza.  But then there is the impetus that motivates us to tell these stories to ourselves.

This part is perhaps a little more personal as it entails the visceral way we may react to such circumstances as described above.

World-War-Z10To kill zombies is to kill with impunity.  In the zombie apocalypse, the social contract is already broken.  Fire, hack, smash away at those gruesome things, because survival matters now, because the human race matters now.

In reality, we are each of us up against an onslaught of an eerily similar type – we have to navigate a world of strangers, people who don’t mean too much to us, but who cut us off in traffic, or squish into the subway taking our spot before the doors close, or give us a dirty look in the grocery line, steal our parking space, take forever to fill out those damned lotto tickets; people who breathe too close to us, stink, are loud on their phones, and so on, and so on.

In this world we live in, people pick up guns and do horrific things to one another.  Armed to the teeth, people walk into malls and schools and campuses and open fire.  People in road rage get pushed that degree too far and run the other driver off the road.  Bombs go off in crowds.  Parents shake their babies.  People end their lives, and the lives of their families.

It’s terrifying out there, and the consequences of “snapping” are not only severe for the individual, but the invisible punitive damage done to the rest of humanity is just as devastating.  Somehow we deal with the tragedy we have witnessed either directly or indirectly and we press onward.  But that terrible act becomes a part of us, a part of our heritage.

So, we need to vent.  We need to sit in a darkened room with a group of the very strangers which may agitate us by day, and have a vicarious shared experience, a thrill together watching zombies get shredded by night.

Zombies are not aliens, with different skin and different eyes who pilot spacecraft.  They are not robots that, while perhaps humanoid in shape, are composed of metal and gears.  They are flesh and bone.  They are us, only “dead.”

Dead – but undead.  They are as close to us as possible without being us exactly.

And they come in hordes, and we slaughter them, because they are how we feel about ourselves.



seanpennsmokingIn the 2001 documentary film “Scene Smoking” about smoking in the movies, Sean Penn says: “Smoking is an affectation of a social disorder.”  Today, I’ve heard people say that technology is the new smoking.  Maybe, then, technology is an affectation of a social disorder.  Namely, wireless, handheld devices (but laptops and the rest, too).

In another documentary, “Connected” (2013), filmmaker Tiffany Shlain starts off describing how she has to force herself not to look at her phone all of the time.  She shares a story about flying across the country to meet with a friend.  Only a short while after touching down and meeting with the friend, she feels compelled to check her email and makes an excuse to use the bathroom.  She just came all this way, and now she’s faking the need to pee so she can surreptitiously check her phone.

Shlain’s documentary starts out ostensibly about this kind of obsession, and what it means.  Soon, though, the film turns into a love letter to her father, a wonderful man who finds all sorts of “connections” in the world around him.  Her father has written books on the relationship between art and physics and how the acquisition of the written word changed history from goddess-worshipping to patriarchal societies.

connectedRegardless of these engaging ideas, the documentary fails to touch on this idea of connectivity – or attachment to that connectivity – as an affectation of a social disorder.  Not that it promised to, but this is the kind of exploration I’m looking for.

The parity between smoking and smartphones probably ends with this hypothetical association that they are both such affectations.  Otherwise, smoking and phone-checking are pretty different.  But what makes them related to this idea of a social disorder?  They are both compulsive behaviors.  I’ve had people admit to me that they check their phone for texts or Facebook updates every ten minutes.  And we’ve all seen people walking down the street with a phone in front of their face.  We don’t think we’re one of those people…until we are.

It’s true, I’m predicating this whole “social disorder” idea on something Sean Penn said.  But if Sean Penn said it, and we are indeed all very connected, and our actions interrelated and interdependent, as “Connected” portrays them, then this idea is likely not relegated to that of one man.  So let’s run with it.

malcolmgladwellEvolutionary thinking tells us that we have formed the quest for emotional connections out of a survival instinct.  Smoking is often touted as an oral fixation, which popular psychology suggests has to do with a child’s early relationship to breast feeding.  This may have some bearing on smoking, but certainly doesn’t make or break a smoker.  But other ideas, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s advancements in Tipping Point, suggest that early childhood factors can play a role in smoking – when and where we first come into contact with smoking, and who is doing the smoking and what that person means to us.  This too, then, is a type of emotional connection – we are seeking to be like that person, or what they represent, because we unconsciously feel it will put us in good social standing, where connections are fruitful, and thus bolster our survivability in the world (ironic though it is that smoking is unhealthy).

It’s easier to see the link between compulsive wireless device use and emotional connectivity than it is smoking, both because there isn’t that glaring health caveat to deal with, and because we are more overtly “connecting” when we tap into Facebook or text with someone or check our email.

What did we do before to get this kind of connectivity?  Have conditions in society engendered a greater need for us to feel connected?

One theory is that the technology of transportation has allowed us to travel far outside of our immediate communities, and so many people today don’t know who their neighbors are, and may spend less time in the city or village where their house is and more time somewhere else, where they work.  Advantages?  The dating pool has increased beyond a 50 mile radius populated by your cousins.  Disadvantages?  We may lose touch with the people right around us.

In his book The Human Zoo, author Desmond Morris considers human beings inherently tribal.  Human beings need connections with other human beings for security and survival.  This is mainly because humans evolved to be born before they are very developed.  Human infants are reliant on caregivers longer than any other species.  What better way to ensure security than to be born to a tribe of caregivers?  However, Morris describes the modern human race as consisting of much larger “supertribes” than closely-knit smaller societies.  And Malcolm Gladwell would likely agree with Morris that there are too many people in our supertribe to know them all individually. (Gladwell posits that 150 is the maximum number of people any individual really “knows,” and Morris would say that a supertribe can be a city – far too many people to know them all.)

lotsopeoplehuhSo, we end up on the subway with a bunch of people in our supertribe who we don’t know.  And we’re all not even looking at each other anyway, but at our smart phones, where we are connecting to our smaller tribe – those people on Facebook, those who email and text us, and so on.  We still seek the emotional connectivity, but we apparently have not evolved the kinds of brains or consciousness to find that connectivity in the world immediately around us; it is filled with veritable strangers and often outside of the communities in which we live, as we travel across the country, commute to work, every day becoming more a part of the global society.

Chances are, no matter how global we get, we will continue to need the security of our smaller groups of friends and family.  It may be hundreds or thousands of years before we evolve into beings that can process the stimuli of a global society and consider all people in it (or at least more than 150) as our “tribe.”

(Disclaimer: It’s true we’re not always checking our phones just to connect with friends and loved ones.  We may be looking at the news, or watching a video of some guy who just freed three captive women from a derelict house, or checking the weather or sports statistics.  Still, in doing so, we are connecting socially.  And even if the application is one-way, it will be our closer connections with who we share the news. )

(Disclaimer #2:  Many smart phones are shiny and cool and have games, which make them appealing, too.)

BOOM: The Last Doom and Gloom Report

Explosions.  Chemical fertilizer plants, bombs in the streets.  Gas lines blowing up and water spigots spouting fire.  Mass shootings at movie theaters and schools.  Media-hyped madmen and un-avenged departed children.  Man-made earthquakes.  Giant cruise ships tugging along thousands of people infected with sickness.  People traveling helter-skelter, toting gastroenteritis in their guts, passing it on to all others.   Doctors performing late-term abortions with horrific consequences.  Millions on food stamps and disability and medical assistance programs and baby boomers closing in on social security.  Massive bank bailouts and endless scandals with thieving CEOs, corrupt politicians and sex-crazed leaders.  A corporate oligarchy behind the veil.  An increasingly polarized country with the left urging ever father left and the right to the right.

These phrases sound like the makings of a Hollywood apocalypse movie.  Instead, they portray daily realities.

Have these problems always been with us?  Are things worse?  Are we headed to some sort of catastrophic showdown?

Here’s what I think.  There are too many of us.  We have too many “things.”  Our lives are too busy and complicated.  We travel too much.  We have lost sight of what we ought to be doing in a race to grab what we feel we are entitled to — which has become virtually anything and everything.

We’re in love with our own progress.  We revel in self-satisfaction at what we can achieve and then immediately take it for granted and infuse it with our sense of personal rights.  The police have a saying:  “Driving (an automobile) is not a right, it’s a privilege.”

We feel it is our right to have abundant, variegated foods just a short trip away from the grocery store.  Yet our top soil is devoid of any nutrients, and is just a junkie for the chemical, petroleum-based fertilizers we feed it in order for big agribusiness to grow crops.  Then, BOOM, a fertilizer plant blows up.

We start to worry that we’re running out of oil.  But rather than change the way we live, we search for another abundant source of energy so that we don’t have to adapt.  We blast a toxic stew of chemicals into the ground, literally creating earthquakes in order to bring up the natural gas (just another incarnation of our old friend, oil).  Then as we clear more land and excavate more ground to build more tract housing, BOOM, a gas line inadvertently struck explodes.  Or, the homes built over the fractured earth have flammable water coming from their kitchen sinks, poisoned by seeping gas.

We feel we’re entitled to a vacation.  So we take a cruise on a ship that chugs a gallon of gas for every six inches it travels.  And BOOM somebody has a bad moment in the bathroom and everyone starts getting sick all over one another.

We swap viruses in the airport.  We clog the highways and bi-ways in our personal vehicles, with one passenger per car still 80% of the time.  We fly everywhere, filling the sky with 60,000 planes over the U.S. at any given minute, tearing through tons of jet fuel in an endless cycle of travel and transplantation.  And BOOM, BOOM we wreck our cars on the highway and the planes come dropping out of the sky.

We stockpile munitions in anticipation of some societal collapse.  But when the predator drones come, BOOM, there will be no defending ourselves with rifles and handguns.  Instead we’ll just continue to shoot each other.  (And canned food stored in a root cellar is not going to cut the mustard for long.)

It’s in our collective psyche.  It’s in our DNA.  We have dreams of this; visions.  The Road tells the story of a post-apocalyptic wasteland as do hundreds of other books and movies.  The story is almost always the same:  We did it to ourselves.

Technology and innovation are good things, and have expanded our reach.  Yet a directly proportional sense of responsibility needs to accompany every advance and achievement.  Again, it’s in all of our stories, expressing our deep, unconscious knowing.  In Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  From Jurassic Park: “But instead of thinking whether or not they could they should have stopped and asked if they should.”

Things have happened so quickly since, say, the 1950s.  Back then we held a limitless sense of possibility and felt assured of interminable growth.  Since then the population on the earth has tripled, after being stable for thousands of years.  Our advances in medicine have cured many diseases, protracting longevity and decreasing infant mortality.  Yet these major boons have had massive impacts.

We’re just now making sense of all that has happened.  We’re coming to understand the impossibility of limitless growth.  We feel the burden of an astronomical population.  We get road rage.  We lock ourselves inside.  We delve into cybernetic personas online.  We kill virtual versions of one another in games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.  We spend more and more time sticking our faces in the tiny devices with transport us into an alternate version of our world we can control and manipulate.

These devices, at the same time, bring us ever deeper into an anti-mnemonic realm where nothing lasts long past the 48 hour news cycle.  One devastation quickly gets replaced by another in the media.  We condition ourselves to forget, and it becomes easy to downplay the current social and psychic climate on the planet because we piecemeal our reality in tweets and posts and video clips.  There is no longer any semblance of a sensuous, steady stream of reality, one held by an immersion into the moment.  Instead, we juggernaut forward through a fractious reality in a distracted fashion.  Short-term memory becomes lost.

In the meantime, we argue about everything.  In our effort to preserve our false sense of security and the myths of immortality we cling to, many of us adhere to the dominant group in our culture and fear the outsider.  The rest of us are pushing against the status quo in order to find a place in the world along with everybody else.  Each group just wants to feel secure.  We fight incessantly about God, drawing on literal interpretations and waging academic debates over them, or digging our heels into radical fundamentalist values and waging war.  In our daily lives we reward entertainment-value and ignore legitimacy, understandably too tired to hear about another cause, or problem, or concern in the world.

Like this one.

Just another doom-and-gloom report from the front lines of a dying world.

Does it have to be this way?

No.  We can turn over a new leaf.  I can start with myself.

Before I wrote this I was taking a shower and imagining writing something that spoke to the recent rash of tragedies.  I thought there was value in taking a look at these things not just in a newsy, one-at-a-time manner, but all together.  (Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface with my mostly generalized list at the start of this essay.)

But then I thought, here I’ve been preaching doom-and-gloom for going on fifteen years.  I’ve spent much of my life on the fringes, looking in at the world through squinted eyes, badmouthing cars and companies and oil and sports and pop culture and any other bandwagon.  Do I really need to write yet another dark epistle about how horrible everything is?

Well, obviously I have.  The thing is, I think it’s going to be my last.  To quote from another movie, a documentary called Collapse: “I’m not going to debate anymore.”

I’ve done enough tugging on the pantleg of the world and trying to convince it that it is sick, that a reckoning is coming.  I’m tired of feeling bitter, and that what I think or do won’t change anything.  I’m tired of viewing the world as, generally, this mass of clueless people who are just going to keep on doing what they’re doing until we’re all fucked.

And we are, sorry for speaking French here, fucked.

At least, we’ve done inestimable damage, and we’re just starting to see the repercussions, both “natural” and “man-made.”

And it’s going to get worse.

But, you won’t need me to tell you.

Instead, what I solemnly pledge to myself and any of you who have actually made it to the bottom of this essay is that my new mission is to contribute something positive.  Where I would have ordinarily delivered more bleak reportage about the failing of the world, I will instead cite subjects of hope.

I’m not talking about dewy-eyed, naive idealism that electric cars are going to save the planet or small farms will be able to feed the exploding populations of India, China, Russian, and nations in Africa.  I’m not saying I’m going describe whole foods recipes and wear hemp and figure everything will be o.k.

Because brother, let me tell you, there is nothing we can do right now that will act as a panacea for our myriad troubles.  Things are going to get far worse before they get better.

It’s what we do during that time that will make the difference.  It’s how we will weather the storm.  How we will raise our children during these times, how we will change who we are and what we think we deserve in this life.  That is the only way through this and into a possibly brighter (or at least stable) future – we have to chop ourselves down, each one of us.  We have to stop bullshitting ourselves about what we take and what we feel we give back.  We need to relearn what it means to be equitable, and what reciprocity truly is.

(Hint: It’s not just recycling your cans and bottles.)

Finally, to paraphrase from one of the Zeitgeist movies:  Reality is emergent.  That means it is changing and developing all of the time, since we are changing and developing all of the time.  Our perception of reality and what actually “is” are inextricable from one another.

And reality is symbiotic.  Everything affects everything else.  Everything is interrelated.

This is not just hippie mumbo jumbo.  It is not “new age” thinking.

This is the oldest thinking that there is.  This is the ancient wisdom.  We respond to it in the same way we express our unconscious understanding through our storytelling.

And now it is time to manifest that understanding in our everyday lives, bit by bit, one day at a time.

I must move forward with a positive goal.  We are each of us Atlas, and we carry the world.