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thoughts

Looking for a reason to write this morning…

Lately, I think we’ve all been a little anxious, to use a heavily overused word, in my life anyway. Everyone is worried about the world situation with the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis in our country with regards to race relations, politics, and our collective future. How will things ever get better?

Well, that comes down to why you think we’re here, I believe. Some believe we have a “greater purpose” and that we are put on earth for a reason. While this is a belief I don’t share, I respect those who do, and those very same people have accomplished some great things. Of course, Hitler believed that too…

There are people who think life has no purpose whatsoever. We are just collections of biological goo, going around on this earth waiting for whatever other collection of goo or some cosmic cataclysm to do us in and end our turn. I also don’t share this opinion, but I say that with a few caveats.

I personally agree that we are mostly just a collection of biological goo. Still, I think that the consciousness that we see as ourselves sets us up to create a meaning for our lives that, even if no one else around us sees it, or cares about it, does indeed define our existence. If you listen to the voices available today, the mainstream of them would have you believe that only external approval counts and that true happiness comes from acceptance and praise from our peers. Indeed, we have evolved to enjoy that experience, probably something to do with being a successful contributor to the continued existence of the tribe or whatever. I would counter that this is shallow satisfaction and that the very seeking of it leads to unhappiness. Very Buddhist of me, I know. There are, of course, environments where external approval matters to some extent, the workplace and education environments come to mind. Again though, it is that same need to feel that we are contributing to the tribe’s success. The company we work for is simply an extension of the tribe. When we were all hunter-gatherers, work, and life tribes were one and the same. Today, of course, they are typically separated, at least to some extent. As athletes, we are members of another tribe, desperately seeking approval through race results, or hanging on to the tail end of the blazing group ride Sunday morning. Usually, that release of endorphins makes us feel good enough to come back and suffer through that experience again the next race weekend, or the next blazing group ride on Sunday morning.

In that sentence, I used the word that defines the whole thing, “endorphins.” Most of what we do is driven by hormones. Endorphins are a generic name for peptide and neuropeptide hormones released by the pituitary gland. They are generally thought to be linked to our natural reward circuits, in a nutshell, to make us feel good when we do something good for the body. Eating, drinking, sex, exercise, are all triggers for the release of endorphins. I’m not a doctor or a researcher, I just like to read, and I want to understand the world and myself as much as I can. I know that a lot of our behavior is driven by the desire to feel the release of endorphins and that many of the things that cause that release are physical in nature. Once we understand that our behavior is driven by this release and that our “conscious thinking” is really just a search for things that will make us feel good, it’s a lot easier to understand why we do what we do.

Yuval Harari makes a pretty solid argument in his book “Homo Deus” that this is the ONLY thing that drives us, that this explains what we see as our “consciousness” and that there is nothing more to it. I’ve read that book twice now, and I have decided (or my collections of hormones has if he is correct) that I don’t accept this as all we are.

I’m not going to go into a long rant about my beliefs on consciousness, or what I think it even is, but I’ve read and studied numerous sources on it, and I think we have a say in our actions that is driven by something more than just hormones. So that being said, I still understand how strong that desire for satisfaction is. I am also driven by the desire to trigger my brain’s reward center, and I like the way it feels. We spend so much of our lives searching for that feeling without understanding what causes it. We are constantly bombarded by messages that if we buy this thing, or look at the things others have bought, we will find true happiness, even if it’s only till the next version of the thing is released and brings even more pleasure. Sounds pretty shallow, I think.

I’ve made a few changes in my life in the last ten years, and while I haven’t been 100% successful, I’ve gone a very long way toward finding satisfaction internally, without the praise or approval of others. I am happy or less happy with my own performance based on my own critique, rather than others’ opinion or determination. I’m not saying I don’t still share, I absolutely do, I have Instagram, I have an active Strava account and the like, but I don’t dwell on any of the feedback I receive unless it is decidedly constructive in nature. In a way, one could argue that it is an extension of the philosophy of cutting the negative out of my life, and maybe that’s somewhat true. I haven’t even begun to talk about the impact of stress hormones on happiness or performance. I’ll save that for another day. I still have a long way to find this blissful nirvana I describe, but its a goal to work toward, and I have found myself to be so much happier than ever before once I accepted it as the way I travel.

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film thoughts writing

Film, its imminent death and hopeful resurrection…

We watched “Ad Astra” last night.

Like pretty much everyone, we are watching some missed pieces during this pandemic and associated quarantine. We worked through “Tales from the Loop” last week, and while I was perusing the watchlist Friday afternoon I realized there were a few movies on HBO that we had missed at the theatre for various reasons we could take in as well. I sat Saturday and watched “Ford v. Ferrari” and thoroughly enjoyed that, so yesterday I decided to watch “Ad Astra”. I am not always in the mood for the genre it represents, or that I thought it represented, science fiction is often a let down on film, when the studio doesn’t choose a visionary to manage their millions of dollars and instead drops it on someone who’s better off making a football film, but has been reliable for them. There have been thousands of words written and entire Youtube accounts dedicated to folks lamenting the current state of affairs in the film and hi end series business, and it’s pretty unlikely that I have anything particularly unique to add to the dialogue, but these are a few of my personal thoughts. I’ll post my opinions of the actual films on separate pages.

Film and “TV” in general are obviously blurred together these days. Since Netflix became the streaming juggernaut it is, and actual broadcast TV has declined to the point of needing life support, I think I should define the two. I say “TV” in reference to content created with the home viewer as the primary audience, and film as that created for the theatre and big screen experience. You can make a solid argument that they are the same, but even if it isn’t budget and production quality any more there is still usually a palpable difference. In a sense, the big shared universe franchises, and things like 3 “Hobbit” and three “Lord of the Rings” films are not so different from serialized “TV”. The market dictates that even films are made with an eye on the subsequent streaming market from the start. I suppose a more accurate term would be “serialized content” since it doesn’t really matter where we are viewing it anymore.

The whole business seems to be about 50% dedicated to cashing in on nostalgia, and I’m not totally against that. So many really solid stories were let down by abysmal budgets, or in the case of almost all sci fi, the pretty sad visual effects available in the 80s and 90s. They were at best less than stellar, or more likely, never made at all. Some original sci fi has real potential, consider Larry Niven’s “The Smoke Ring” series, which was talked about but never materialized, or, for contrast, the disappointing vision of “Dune” that did come to film. I’m all for some re imagining of a few of the real classics, as long as they respect the source in the process. I don’t need to see a CGI version of “The Last Starfighter”, it wouldn’t improve on the story, and the effects were part of the joy, but I am stoked to see Denis Villeneuve’s take on Dune, with a real budget, and (hopefully) less studio interference.

Who didn’t love the new “Battlestar Galactica Series”? The original was a weekly appointment view for me when I was a kid even though it was the campiest thing ever made after the Gil Gerrard “Buck Rogers”. The reboot came at a time when these things were just getting off the ground, and it was made for a modest budget, making the most of every penny they spent to create a gritty take on the original, without completely disregarding it’s lore and texture. Sci Fi made it as a two hour movie first to test the waters, and found such an enthusiastic audience that it ran for seven seasons. On that note, serializing a few classic movies isn’t the worst idea either. We’re all waiting to see what Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series looks like, and I am really enthused with what I’ve seen of the upcoming “Foundation” series. The story telling options a season of 40 minute serials gives writers opens up whole new depths to character development and deeper plots.

Some recent classics like “Firefly” are probably not firing up anytime soon, but just imagine if that franchise had found the type of rebirth that “The Expanse” did with its switch to Amazon Prime and it’s dramatic budget increase. The world of “Firefly” is rich and well developed, and perfect for a spin off shot.

We’ve generally been let down by serial adaptations of films, but when the writers use a well known and popular universe of an original film or franchise as the starting point rather than the characters and plots themselves, we’ve gotten some really good work. I submit the first season of “The Mandalorian” as the obvious candidate. It’s a familiar universe, the writers don’t have to spend three episodes world building, and we get to scratch the nostalgia itch in the process. A similar series based on material not so well known to the general viewing audience requires a good bit more in the way of exposition dumps to get us involved. Instead, “Mando” hit the ground running.

Original series that don’t dig into a known universe, but rather a general since of nostalgia for a period, like “Stranger Things” are new and popular also for very solid reasons. An engaging cast paired with stellar writing from the Duffer brothers made the most surprising and entertaining non franchise series I’ve seen in twenty years. We completely stumbled onto that gem by sitting around in the house alone the year it was released just surfing the Netflix recommended list. We even started it reluctantly, saying “well, we can always turn it off” and ended up watching all night. Having grown up a child of the 80s, the universe it is set in was instantly familiar to me, and different enough from our current that it gives the writers some license to not be 100% gritty and realistic. The obvious nods to classic horror and sci fi films just iced that cake.

I think (and I say this all the time) that were in a golden age of serialized content, and even though the film industry is on life support as far as creativity goes, she’s still hanging in there, releasing the occasional gem for us to dig into. I have high hopes that we’ll get some greatness in between the industry bean counters stepping in and wrecking things. Those giant blockbusters that everyone rushes out and drops 25.00 a ticket on creates profit that pays for riskier but quality work like “Knives Out” and “Ex Machina”. Maybe I’m painting with too optimistic a brush, its a weakness of mine for sure, but things don’t seem to be so bad right now.

Categories
thoughts

Veteran’s Day. Armistice Day. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Woodrow Wilson famously said —

“With splendid forgetfulness of mere personal concerns, we remodeled our industries, concentrated our financial resources, increased our agricultural output, and assembled a great army, so that at the last our power was a decisive factor in the victory. We were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral, of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought.

Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert. The war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for high purposes, and the victory of arms foretells the enduring conquests which can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of the common interests of men.”

Big words as usual from politicians, but its a bit more personal for us isn’t it. I’m sure it was for the men who had returned from Europe a year prior to that speech as well.

We’ve come so far since then, remember some of those men ended up marching on Washington to get paid and instead were tear-gassed and had their worldly belongings burned by Douglas MacArthur “for their service”.

Yes THAT Douglas McArthur.

In sharp contrast, today as veterans, we can get a free or discounted meal if we can prove we were worthy at one point or another of receiving it. (ID cards or DD214’s will suffice).

I get it, everyone wants to feel that they contribute, and this is a little gesture to get there, but I’d encourage you to take a little pause before you run out and hork down some hypertension at Applebee’s, (hypertension you can afford on your own, at least if you’re presently serving, we’re well-compensated these days, and as of yet we’ve not had to march on Washington to get paid).

Use that pause to reflect on our friends we’ve not heard from recently, those we never see wallpapering facebook, or at the reunions. Take a minute to drop a line to a buddy. Reach out to a fellow veteran, say “hey pal how’s it going”. Maybe they need some hypertension in their lives too but aren’t comfortable being thanked for it 200 times during a meal…alone.

We’re not all coping so well with life and the many changes it throws to a person who may have spent their formative years in a distant country, dodging rockets, mortars, and errant Sergeants Major.

For some, it’s the transition out of that life, the question of how to translate your “life and death” (or at least they all seem that way at the time) experiences into paying the bills and getting the kids to school every day can present a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Sometimes these things don’t seem as important as what we used to do, and it’s hard to find a sense of value after doing the “most important things” for so long. A tall glass of perspective can go a long way at these times, because that depression, it’s lying to you. If we can help a friend see that, we’ve truly then done the “most important thing”.

All I’m saying is if you’re feeling good today, help another vet feel a little of that too. If you’re not feeling good, find a friend to talk to, we like nothing more than bullshitting and telling stories about the “Glory Days”, and that might be all takes to get through another week. It’s definitely better than self-medicating your way through life and being unhappy alone. At least be unhappy with someone else, misery loves company.

But if you’re able, think globally, act locally and make sure your brothers and sisters are doing ok.

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music thoughts writing

Jay-Z “Blueprint”

One could make a strong argument that what this album brought to New York on September 11th, 2001 (the original release date) is a bit of what’s missing from America right now. A little bit of a plan, one that doesn’t fly by the seat of the pants, or appeal to nothing more than the base emotions of a group of the uninformed masses. The back and forth lurch the country is making on any given day in any given week is giving us all a collective case of motion sickness, when we aren’t going anywhere in particular it seems. No blueprint.

There is a lot of baggage wrapped up in the back story of this release, with Kanye West having produced half the tracks, there is the weight (for better or worse) that his name lends to things today, that may not have been present when it was released. “Takeover” in particular drips with his influence, but not in a bad way in this listener’s humble opinion. Sampling Jim Morrison adds some excitement to a track that might just be self-aggrandizement with a different artist and producer mix.

Its’ important to remember that when this album was released, Kanye West was not the universal clown celebrity we know today, he was not married to a Kardashian, had not yet stormed the stage at the MTV Music Awards, had not yet proclaimed himself the voice of the nation, nor had he established his undying love for the reality TV star we elected president a few years ago. While I could go on and on with his publicity stunts, the reality was that he was a young and hungry music producer that did some fine work on this and a few other (Ludacris) albums, in the same early 2000s era.

I think my favorite track on the album is “U dont Know”, which was produced by “Just Blaze”. The Motown soul connection is heavy in this one, despite the sped up, almost falsetto chorus line. This is a theme that has appeared in a few other Jay-Z tunes, most notably “Otis” from “Watch the Throne” where he and Kanye worked together sampling the man himself called out in the title within the song.

Another big standout is “Renegade” produced by Eminem, who also accompanied Jay-Z on the recording. It’s missing some of the juvenile flavors that Eminem likes to sprinkle into his recordings, enough so that I, as a grown man, can listen to it without looking around to see who’s watching (judging).

Motherfuckers

Say that I’m foolish I only talk about jewels (bling bling)

Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?

See I’m influenced by the ghetto you ruined

That same dude you gave nothing, I made something doing

What I do through and through and

I give you the news, with a twist it’s just his ghetto point-of-view

Those lyrics are straight and to the point unfortunately I think, they are also often underappreciated for their accuracy. Jay-Z’s universal popularity means that much of the intellect in his writing is glossed over by the pulp populace. Folks that listen to his recordings because he is currently the person they are told to listen to. When you listen to his words, when you dig into the thoughts and emotions of the writing, he is without a doubt the equal of any of the more heavily lauded poets of the literary world.

Categories
thoughts writing

Enlightenment

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. 
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. 
Although its light is wide and great, 
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. 
The whole moon and the entire sky 
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass. 
Dogen