Category Archives: Life

Words of Advice for Future Residents of Spaceship Earth

1. People that are scared lose time worrying.

2. The best artists don’t know what they’ll do next.

3. The fearless see death as an eventuality that has already happened.

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Filed under Art, Life, Philosophy

Blueberries

This poem was inspired by Naomi Shihab Nye – thank you for your lyrical enthusiasm.

The white of the kitchen sink is stained

with blue splotches

from the berries we picked

as children

And we are old now

but those splotches still smile

with youthful exuberance

against the cold white porcelain

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Filed under Life, Poetry, Writing

Unused Candles

I once helped a hoarder clean her house. For the longest time afterward I couldn’t stop thinking about how disgustingly filthy she had let her house become. It took me a while before I could process the possibilities of why and how she let it get that way.

Hoarding is an obsessive-compulsive behavior in which someone cannot discard possessions they accumulate. For hoarders, it does not matter if the objects are worthless, unsanitary or hazardous.

It was clear to me that the woman whom I helped had an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She considered the condition of her house a little messy – an understatement of great proportions.

Cat urine saturated the carpet. Moldy, expired food sat in the kitchen without refrigeration. Gnats flew about the pungent remains of Chinese takeout. Junk mail, boxes, and a mess of random items scattered the living room floor in stacks. The smell made it difficult to enter the house. The mounds of accumulated waste made it almost impossible to go further.

For anyone familiar with the various TV shows about hoarding it is not difficult to imagine the challenge I was faced with. I spent several months cleaning and helping her get the house in some sort of order. It felt good to have made a noticeable difference in the condition of the woman’s house and life, but I worried my efforts wouldn’t last long. I knew there was a lot more I could have done.

I later found out I was right. Any trace of the progress I made quickly vanished. The house has once again become a monument of the woman’s inability to part with any object.

I understand that hoarding is a mental disorder and it is, to a certain extent, beyond a person’s ability to control. But my experience cleaning the house of a hoarder made me think of other people I know who aren’t hoarders at all, but are hesitant to use ordinary things that are perceived to be superior to other ordinary things. Things like fancy candles, expensive soap, a prized sweater, a handmade coffee mug, fashionable sunglasses or specific dishes.

The lesson I learned from my experience with hoarding is to enjoy what you have. Use it or lose it. Why save “good” dishes to only use a few times a year? Why not use “good” dishes all year?

It is clear that as a capitalist society we have become obsessed with stuff. Material objects are held in such high regard that we are not even able to enjoy them anymore. So it has been said, the stuff we own ends up owning us.

The purpose of life is to live. The purpose of a candle is to provide light and to burn. Wouldn’t it be better to live life and to burn like a candle until the last flicker of illumination is gone rather than to sit unused on a bathroom sink, collecting dust without the satisfaction of fulfilling your purpose?

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Saturated Superstition

Many people have irrational superstitions, even if they don’t like to admit it. A broken mirror, a black cat, the number 13 and opening an umbrella indoors are all common signs of alleged imminent misfortune.

No matter how absurd some superstitions may seem, they are prevalent across world cultures. Even people who claim to be pure logical thinkers inevitably act in irrational ways according to some unexplainable superstition.

Ahchoo, “God bless you.” This custom comes from the idea that when you sneeze a part of your soul flies out. Assumedly, not many people hold on to this belief. Rather, most just practice it to be courteous.

Superstitions provide a window into the past where people struggled to find meaning in the world around them. Understanding how these superstitions reverberate today allows insight into what people of previous lifetimes were concerned about and valued.

Spilled salt is a symbol of bad luck because long ago salt was a precious commodity used to preserve and season food. Wasting something so valuable would have been regarded as a sin of carelessness. People thought the sin of spilled salt would attract the devil and so they would throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder into the devil’s eyes to neutralize bad luck.

A superstition still believed by some remote cultures of the world is that a photograph captures your soul, or part of it at least. In such a camera saturated world this idea is either absurd or frightening, depending on whichever you believe.

When the camera was first created this superstition was more widespread. Several Native American tribes refused to be photographed. Likewise in Africa and South America. The belief is based on the idea that a photograph is more than merely a representation of one’s own image. It is a part of oneself, linked to the soul. It is a moment in time, a subtle essence of oneself captured and then reproduced.

Of course, I do not believe in this superstition, but I do find it interesting to see how much attitudes toward the camera have evolved since its creation and how it has affected the world in the process.

Cameras were once extremely bulky, requiring tripods and needing considerable time to elapse before an image could be captured. It was once a status symbol to have your portrait taken and displayed in your home.

Toady, nearly every cell phone has a camera. Whereas film cameras are mainly used by hobbyists or artists — digital cameras allow pictures to be uploaded to the Internet and sent anywhere in the world instantaneously.

Beyond still photographs, video is easily accessible and producible as well. YouTube allows anyone and everyone to claim their 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol predicted.

When I go to check my email on Yahoo, I can’t help glancing across the page at the mish—mash of media and advertisements. In the bottom corner, there is always some inane video. I occasionally click on it out of curiosity or boredom.

It is typically some amateur video of a dog running into a wall or a celebrity saying something out of line, but recently it was a video of Good Morning America hosts talking about a YouTube video sensation that had spread rapidly across the web. I clicked on it hoping to be amused and saw a little baby shifting between terror and laughter at his mother blowing her nose.

Sure, it was cute, but it seemed strange for this video to have gained such prominence as to warrant a segment on Good Morning America.

It is great to share the joys of life. But is there a point where too much sharing is problematic? Do the joys of our own life diminish if we become so taken with the joys of other people’s lives we see on the Internet? Do amazing moments like a high school kid throwing a basketball at the buzzer across the full court and scoring the winning basket become less amazing if we see it happen more often through the Internet?

I do not adhere to the superstition that cameras capture our soul. But perhaps we are loosing something of ourselves by becoming so immersed in the lives of others, while neglecting our own potentials.

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Filed under Entertainment, History, Life, Philosophy

Their System Doesn’t Work For You

The American government functions as a plutocracy, a government of the wealthy.

Democracy is a disguise that has fooled the population into complacency. Votes are cast, but laws are bought. The American system was rigged to favor the wealthy elite from the beginning.

To be fair, progress has been made since the time when only white property owners had a voice in government.

In terms of class struggle, such progress was a result of the working class suffering brutal beatings, targeted assassinations, expulsion from company housing, loss of jobs and armed conflict with union-busting thugs and state militias.

Big business has never had much sympathy for workers. And government has typically favored big business, even as far as giving corporations personhood, which means they have as many rights, if not more than you or I.

Workers, on the other hand have had to battle for social progress. And now, state deficits across the country are being used as an excuse to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public workers — rights enjoyed today as a result of the blood shed by those courageous enough to demand justice.

In Thibodaux, LA 1887, striking sugar cane workers were gunned down. 1892, steel workers of Homestead, PA were shot and killed while striking. Coal miners were massacred in 1914 at Ludlow, CO and again at Matewan, WV in 1920.

Unions without collective bargaining rights will be rendered virtually ineffective, restoring the level of influence corporations enjoyed before organized labor.

Think about the strides unions have made historically. Paid vacations, job safety, pensions, minimum wage, health insurance, the eight-hour workday and retirement benefits were made possible because workers organized to physically fight a cruel capitalist system.

When the systems of power were created in this country, the poor and working classes were deliberately excluded. Seen as commodities to be exploited, they struggled to earn their position in society — a meager position compared to the extravagantly wealthy. The hollow promise of the American dream is being deferred.

Our consumer culture and celebrity obsessions propagate a stark historical amnesia where loudmouthed news pundits can rewrite history. The growing impoverishment of the working class is missing from public debate. There is no discussion about the absence of legal and regulatory devices to avert mounting corporate fraud.

It is no secret that corporate interests sideline the well-being of the general population. Currently, it is their interest to pit middle class workers against each other, fighting for the scraps leftover by a money-hungry machine.

We live an absurd existence where 0.3 percent of Americans have more wealth than the lowest 40 percent. A surplus of food is thrown out or left in the field to rot in order to control prices while people starve.

Corporate welfare and tax cuts for the wealthy increase national debt, yet it is insisted that the government cut public spending and remove collective bargaining rights from public employees in order to decrease debt.

It is ridiculous that the largest wealth gap among industrialized nations is defined as a war between public employees and taxpayers. Irrational is the new rational.

This absurd, greedy parade of corporate indulgence must end. We must resist the further theft of democracy. If the only power we have left is to say “no,” then we must refuse to cooperate in a system that limits diminishes the well-being of its citizens.

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Filed under Criticism, Life, News

Elusive Beauty

Beauty has been an obsession throughout centuries.

In the American dilemma today beauty has become cheapened, afflicted and exhausted. Advertisements sell impossible ambitions. Television and films promote flawlessness. And gorgeous skinny models impart an absurd standard.

In the American chasm of cultural dissonance plastic surgery, eating disorders, liposuctions, tanning salons and weight loss pills have filled the gap between self-identity and the need to be accepted. The ideal image of beauty in American culture is harming our national psyche as well as our physical bodies. Yet this detrimental image of beauty persists.

In other parts of the world the appearance of beauty takes on a much different form. Although in several cultures there is an element of pain involved in acquiring a beautiful image, it is less a matter of a choice and more an obligation to custom.

The women of the Mursi tribe in Africa pierce their bottom lip at a young age and stretch it in order to place a plate inside the opening. The bigger the lip plate, the more desirable they are to men.

The women of the Kayan tribe who live near Thailand believe that long necks are beautiful. They wrap copper rings around their neck in order to stretch it throughout their lifetime. The copper rings end up pushing their shoulders down, deforming their collarbone and compressing their rib cage, ultimately creating the illusion of a long neck.

Women of the Amazon tribes pierce their bodies and use plants and animal blood to paint their faces with tribal patterns.

The Maori people of New Zealand tattoo their bodies and faces as a sacred ritual. They believe that women are more attractive when their lips and chins are tattooed. These facial tattoos also reveal a woman’s lineage, special skills and marital status.

Whether it is the Mursi lip plates, ancient Chinese foot binding or modern stiletto heels, it appears people across cultures are willing to endure pain for beauty. The need to feel appreciation and belonging is universal. As a result, people comply with the cultural standards of beauty defined by their community.

Science, however, explains that physical beauty is a product of symmetry – the spacing and alignment of facial features and body parts. An infant will gaze at a picture of a symmetrical face longer than an oddly formed face because the symmetrical face is more pleasing.

In the appearance obsessed Western cultures, plastic surgery is able to modify physical features in order to appear more pleasing. This can have both positive and negative effects. In the case of a minor deformity or car accident, plastic surgery can greatly improve a person’s self-confidence and ability to be socially outgoing. However, the idea that plastic surgery can solve someone’s problems can become a detrimental psychological affliction.

Western media has inflamed a paradoxical beauty mania. Women strive to imitate the rail thin bodies that radiate from television screens, yet America is headed toward an obesity epidemic. There is a daunting gap between the cultural ideal of beauty and the reality of the American physique. This has contributed to an increase in depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem.

Beauty can be a monster – a neurotic, mutation of cultural impulses. Beauty can also be an idiosyncratic algorithm – a peculiar variable of personal preferences.

At its best, beauty is a celebration. From a Brazilian Txikao warrior painted in leopard like spots to Madonna in a pointy bra, it is humanity shedding its everyday skin for a chance to revel in the attire of a more powerful, radiant, sexy being.

At its worst, beauty victimizes. It causes trauma to and discrimination against those who look different than the socially acceptable norm.

When we move away from bodily beauty and toward the philosophical pursuit of aesthetics, beauty becomes even more difficult to define.

What is beautiful is good, Plato once wrote. James Joyce argued that true beauty causes aesthetic arrest. That is, true beauty neither pulls nor pushes. Rather, it causes a stillness of appreciation – an experience of simply beholding an object.

In his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats wrote, “beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

But perhaps Voltaire made the most sense when he argued that because of its relativist nature, beauty is not just difficult, but impossible to define.

A toad sees beauty in a flat nose and a nice hop. A donkey prefers a donkey and a pig prefers a pig. Whether beauty has a common core or not, the argument will persist between objective and subjective thought.

But above all beauty should be seen as a reinvention to be taken lightly – a mystical transformation of temporary pleasure. Beautification should be an enjoyable experience, not an impossible apex.

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Filed under Art, Criticism, Entertainment, Life, Philosophy

Infinity On Trial

At the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. I saw my childhood encased in glass. It was a truly surreal sensation to view items from the Millennial Generation in a museum.

Nintendo, Sega Genesis, VHS tapes, Discmans — these were artifacts of my youth, with fond memories attached to them, on display as part of history in an exhibit called “Your Place in Time.” I remember playing Donkey Kong Country on Super Nintendo, listening to a cassette tape of Green Day’s “Dookie” in a cocoon of pre-adolescent satisfaction.

Such fleeting, finite memories, shared in some collective way by my peers, now sit in a different context — with a looming shroud of antiquity. Never mind that anyone can go to a resale shop today and buy a GameBoy or Beanie Baby — these symbols of my younger years, I realized, will be preserved in a museum beyond this lifetime.

I felt a little unnerved to see the progression of 20th century generational symbols — from jazz to Shirley Temple, “Gone With the Wind,” The Beatles, the moon landing and Watergate mixed with Alf, Pokémon and Michael Jordan.

Yet, when looking at my place in time, I realized that I am part of a significant generation. I am part of the last generation who will know what it was like to live without the Internet or cell phones.

Although the development of both technologies has a longer history than most realize, stretching to a time before I was born, neither cell phones nor the Internet began to dominate the personal and public domain so rampantly as they do now until the 1990s.

Despite this realization of historical significance, my feeling of discomfort didn’t subside. A quote from the great American songwriter, Bob Dylan, came to mind, “Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial.”

Future historians and museum-goers alike will misconstrue the experiences of my generation — coming of age during the dotcom boom and the birth of a new century.

I envision people of the future looking at the 8-bit video game console in wonder and amusement or looking at pictures from 9/11, without a full understanding of why or how it happened and no real connection to how it changed everything.

Perhaps it is the same for me as I look at pictures of Pearl Harbor or images of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, not completely aware of all the implications. And so it is for each generation as they look back on their predecessors.

My generation, the so-called Millennial Generation, knows the excitement of seeing Michael Jordan become the greatest basketball player of all time. We can remember the Y2K pandemonium. We lived through a presidential sex scandal and witnessed the emergence of the musical genres grunge and gangsta rap. We can remember the first bulky, brick-like cell phones and the weird noise a modem made when a computer connected to the Internet.

What these personal experiences mean to those who lived through them will mean something entirely different to future generations. A degree of disconnect from history is inevitable. The primacy of experience is not transferable. But that does not mean we cannot relate to historical events.

We inherit the fruits of historical struggles and stand on the shoulders of ancestral giants. Even though we will never know what it was like to bargain with Native Americans as settlers expanded westward, it is important to understand the implications of such events.

To understand history is to understand why the world is the way it is today. To understand history is to understand that the collapse of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with Sputnik or the space race, as a certain former Alaskan governor had mistakenly asserted.

History is based on facts, confirmed by primary documentation. But when people fail to learn such facts, then history can be rewritten by powerful media personalities, as is the current case with President Reagan’s legacy.

Historical revisionism is dangerous. It creates a type of disconnect with reality and encourages people to form invalid judgments based on misinformation.

Museums are a great way to learn about, come into contact with and understand history. But if there is no historical context for the museum-goer to frame the artifacts, then such objects will be lifeless, void of real meaning and only interesting because of their apparent foreignness.

Historical knowledge is paramount in understanding the world as it works today. As George Santayana warned, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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