Sunday, December 1, 2013

Of Black Fridays and Red Octobers

Velikaya Oktyabr'skaya sotsialisticheskaya revolyutsiya, commonly referred to as Red October, was the October Uprising or Bolshevik Revolution, the seizure of power within the larger Russian Revolution of 1917. As most of the world knows by now, the Soviet experiment was a failed one. But over the life span of an average human being, the Soviet Union sure gave the other world superpower a run for its money.

The irony behind the blood-rich symbolism found in Soviet history is that the Union was brought down by a red bottom line: the empire essentially went bankrupt.  An Italian friend of mine once commented, as we both watched the literal teardown of the Berlin Wall, it is unfortunate that the Soviets were more concerned with control than with authentic socialist wellbeing. In his opinion, from that milestone moment on, US style capitalism would go unchallenged. The good, the bad, and the Black Thursday.

For those not familiar with the origin of the term, Black Friday refers to retail businesses going from red ink to black ink on their ledgers  in other words, profitable. To go out on a limb, the “Black” in Black Thursday / Black Friday is not where the ugliness lies. At least not until someone steps up as the leading, post-Soviet challenger to the American way of life. Many believe China, another “red state” of sorts, has been trying to fill the Soviet shoes. With its own Great Wall full of symbolic cracks and ready to come down any decade now, China has ironically been busily producing some of the stuff that Black Friday is made of. Not as much as Americans think, less than 10% in all categories, but a sufficiently ominous portion nonetheless.  So instead of aiming its nuclear arsenal at us, China is attacking the leading superpower with… stuffed toys. This would seem like a Disney-esque plot in a world power conflict, if it weren’t for one unfunny complication: merchandise coming from China is manufactured in great part by a labor force that would not be legally allowed to exist in America. We are, after all, “better” than that.

That would seem like enough of a conscience-tugging problem for the US. But wait, there’s more: the US has not merely offshored labor that it does not stomach on its own soil, it continues to rely on hyper consumption as its structural foundation. A consumption-based economy, within reason, is technically sustainable. Cyclical recessions are simply the price to pay. But hyper-consumption, consuming at a rate higher than income, savings or investments, is not sustainable. In hyper mode, it in fact becomes a pyramid scheme – an approach that in great part explains the 1% controversy.

According to a US News Money report, the US middle class peaked in 1969. That’s 45 years ago, in case some of us have lost track. An entire generation was born, graduated from high school, college if they figured out a way to pay for it, started a work career, and found themselves… worse off than their parents in one too-many cases. Of course “worse off” is a relative term, and it shouldn’t just be measured by economics. But a shrinking middle class is not exactly the direction a system that professes to be better than socialism should take. Five republican presidents and three democratic ones have presided since 1969. This is not a partisan issue – it is a systemic breakdown. It is a crack in our very own Wall Street.

I have always been a fairly skeptical person. I don’t believe in most conspiracy theories, and I am put off by agenda-driven exaggerations. Having said that, I recognize I have committed mistakes in judgment, personally, economically, and politically. Yet as we all know, learning from those mistakes is its own reward. With that in mind, it seems to me that every year the average American keeps making the same mistake: Black Friday typically comes at the expense of Red Saturday. There's a fundamental reason the great American middle class is shrinking  it is consuming more than it produces. Wall Street's perennial hunt for Black December may just take the American system to its own version of Red October.

I blogged about the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago, my conclusion was that our obsession with Wall Street was not the answer. I do agree that the systemic damage being inflicted by the 1% is outweighing its “trickle-down” contributions. It’s the proverbial “taking more than you give” dysfunction. And yet, obsessing about what fat cats are or are not doing is not where the answer lies. I believed then as I still do today, every time the fat cats put cheese in the mousetraps, we only have ourselves to blame if we keep falling for the same impulse. The American middle class has in fact become addicted to consumption.

A few years ago I made a promise to myself: do not criticize without offering a solution. With that in mind, I am increasingly in search of post-capitalist – not anti-capitalist – movements to support in one way or another. Create one if I have what it takes.

One such example is the “Landfill Harmonic” project, born out of a trash landfill in one of the poorest countries in the world (watch the three-minute preview of the project below, I am confident you will be inspired by it). This project is a wonderful example of how change can happen, not by continuing the blame game against the 1%, but by curing our addiction to what they are selling. This particular project may or may not survive, but that's hardly the point: none of us do in the long run. That's where the beauty of change comes in. Change does not have to always stem from pain and fear. Smart change needs to increasingly come from inspiration.

The Landfill Harmonic Project

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Pursuit of The Stuff That Buys Happiness

I don’t have time to read about philosophy. Unlike you, I don’t have the luxury of pondering the pursuit of happiness.”  I remember the first time I heard those words. Struck me as very odd. I mean, the Dalai Lama may be a peculiar old man, perpetually sporting a Hare Krishna fashion statement – before AND after Labor Day. But my American friend was ignoring a simple fact: the pursuit of happiness just happens to be center stage within the constitution of the United States – a country many Americans profess to love. Unless... they have bought into an unquestioned code: that the word "happiness" in the preamble to the constitution of the United States is a prime directive code for economic wealth. 

In my travels around the world, I have observed two approaches to the pursuit of happiness: one is a conviction that it can only be achieved through relentless hard work; and the other, that working too hard yields precisely the opposite of happiness.

So let’s take a scale from one to ten, for simplification: one being minimal or practically no work, and ten being work almost all the time. You would think that striving for a 5 would be a healthy balance. Perhaps, but there’s that pesky conventional wisdom that has tainted that middle score as the pursuit of mediocrity

The thing about work is that it has two separate realities: one is the work itself, and the other one is its compensation – primarily the economic kind. In theory, it’s entirely possible for someone to be the happiest worker on earth, with very little compensation – and vice-versa (the most miserable worker, with the highest compensation). And so, just to play it safe, many people find themselves wondering every now and then if we're stuck in the pursuit of mediocrity.

Here’s the catch: we only have one shot at this life. There comes a time when we need to be as clear with ourselves as we demand the world be with us. If you are in the pursuit of compensation, then just say so and move on - don't hide behind the words "hard work". However, if and when your thirst for increasingly higher compensation comes at the expense of happiness, yours or others, then you need to be as accountable towards your poor choices as you preach to those who are not in pursuit of compensation.

As for the ones at the other end of the spectrum, those that find themselves pursuing work because they love what they do, regardless of the compensation, I only have one thing to say: well done you. To paraphrase the peculiar man with the contagious smile, happiness is the highest form of success.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I Will Prevail

It is clear to me by now that we humans descend from animals, which in turn descend from simpler life forms, which in turn descend from a single element. What has also become clear to me is this: it no longer serves a useful purpose to separate ourselves morally or spiritually from a wolf, from an amoeba, or from hydrogen. Our attempt to create dual and separate realities has reached a saturation point, with no significant value added to our lives.

One of the earliest existential pragmatisms I can think of, addressing our obsession with dualism, is that of the yin yang – the ancient Chinese (Taoist / Daoist) notion that first sought to consolidate the existence of opposite forces in our lives. The basic premise of the yin yang is coexistence: we must learn to live in the balance of good and evil, of right and wrong, and with any other significant but opposite forces in life.

Judaism identified a similar thought process. Rabbi Harold Kushner explains it this way: “Jewish theology teaches that God has planted in us something called the yetzer hara. Loosely translated it’s an ‘evil impulse’, but I don’t like that translation because it implies that God makes things that are evil. It is the egotistical principle, the human capacity for selfishness, for doing things that are not ‘right’. The fascinating thing about that teaching is that you cannot be a complete human being without it. You need an ego to go out and do things, to make things ‘happen’. Had I been given the opportunity I would not have voted for Mother Theresa to represent me in Congress. That’s because you can be a saint, or you can be an effective politician, but you can’t be both. That is not a knock on politicians, it is really a knock on saints.

While Rabbi Kushner’s explanation of yetzer hara seems to be aligned with the Taoist take on dualism, what’s intriguing to me is the following comment: “I don’t like that translation [“evil impulse”] because it implies that God makes things that are evil.” If I didn’t know better I would say that the good Rabbi is struggling with the notion that we should be trying to balance good and evil. Which brings me to the evolution of yin yang and yetzer hara from the point of view of another major philosophy / religion: Christianity.

Christianity created the mutually exclusive duality of heaven and hell, and, pardon the pun but all hell broke loose. It was one of the most dramatic milestones in our evolution up to that point. The bar had been raised to a seemingly unattainable height. Paradigm shift, game-changer, new rule: the time had come for all good men to choose a single moral ground; you are no longer allowed to lead a double life with yin and with yang. Not to be accused of a cruel and unusual directive, the founding fathers of Christianity offered a paradox “safe house” – a limbo if you will – so that the mere mortal would not self-destruct in an impossible expectation: they called it “original sin”.

So where are we, two-thousand years later? Well, there has been some great thinking in recent times, stemming from a part of the world that is not far from where Taoism began. In fact, I wonder if we are not close to approaching a proverbial full circle. Thought leaders such as the Dalai Lama have declared that the good-evil paradox is not a duality at all. As they see it, existential opposites are part of the same essence. It is not about coexistence, it is about transformation. You don’t have to coexist with evil  in its more mundane form of anger, negativity, greed, selfishness, etc; and you don’t have to renounce it either, unless you want to amputate your soul. What you can do is transform it. You can harness it.

I have come to agree with these new-paradigm gurus. One of our most basic animal instincts, that messy side of us which presumably served a “survival of the fittest” purpose, is not there to be renounced. It is not there for mere coexistence. Not any more than gasoline sits in a fuel tank to coexist with the car. As Rabbi Kushner would say, you need it to do things, to make things happen. I should add, I believe the Rabbi is right about that, but for the wrong reason.

Survival dictates that you choose the dark side over anything that threatens your existence. Coexistence requires that you learn to live with your dark side, in an unsustainable duality. But mere survival and coexistence seem to have fallen short of relevance for me now, when I think about the ultimate pursuit of a higher intelligence. As American author William Faulkner said during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Mankind will not merely survive – it will prevail.” I believe the kind of post-survival world that Mr. Faulkner was referring to requires that we successfully harness our dark side into a productive energy. I don't believe he was talking about a world where we add or subtract realities at will, in a zero-sum game. That would be mere survival, or coexistence at best. And the trouble with indefinite coexistence is that it's just a heartbeat away from codependence  a slippery slope back to mere survival.

I suppose like anything else in evolution, soul-searching is the way to start on this journey, should it bite you as well. One thing seems to be holding true for me thus far: once you’ve had a taste for the power of prevailing, any other option seems inadequate.

So survive if you must, and coexist if you can. I have no choice but to prevail.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Tale of Two Apartheids: "Zona Sur" ("Southern District", 2009)

Sundance award-winning Zona Sur is director Juan Carlos Valdivia’s fourth film, a production that he's proud to say has given him a lot of satisfaction. Which just so happens to be a feeling that eludes practically every character in the story  like in all good dramas. So far, muy bien

The movie is shot almost entirely in the wealthy residence of an upper crust Bolivian family, within one of capital city La Paz’s most affluent neighborhoods (Zona Sur / Southern District). It is a story of a decadent but not entirely self-destructive family, headed by a strong matriarch-divorcĂ©e (“Carola”). Set in modern-day Bolivia, Valdivia’s slow and continuous camera-panning technique is symbolic of the slow-cooking, social and political changes that Bolivia itself has been undergoing in recent years. While the vast majority of the country is of native Andean heritage, Zona Sur zooms-in on the remnants of a white minority, an unblended European aristocracy that has been gradually losing political, economic, and social relevance – intensified by the rise to power in 2006 of the country’s first native Aymara president (Evo Morales).

Carola lives with her three children, older teens Patricio and Bernarda, and young grade-schooler Andres. Live-in house servants Marcelina and Wilson are natives, often heard speaking to each other in the native Aymara language. Carola, on the other hand, can sometimes be heard calling out Wilson’s name in true Tom Hanks form, recalling that famous scene in Castaway (“Wilsoooon!”)

Patricio and Bernarda are oozing sexuality through their pores, Patricio on a decadently straight path, and Bernarda on a genuinely lesbian one – yet another interesting contrast in this story of contrasts. Meanwhile, young and curious Andres offers a neutralizing element of innocence to the story. With his rooftop and treehouse escapades, along with his imaginary friend SpielbergAndresito ironically provides some grounding to an otherwise flighty family. For her part, Carola always seems to be a heartbeat away from a breakdown, as much as she manages to maintain a front of strength in a vacuum of values. Her relationship with Wilson the butler-cook-chofer-nanny is borderline surreal: she scolds him liberally, has not paid him in six months, asks him to raid her son’s piggy bank to go buy bread, all the while ignorant of the fact that Wilson bathes in her bathroom, uses her towels, and treats himself to Carola’s expensive facial skin creams.

Zona Sur stands on its own merit, you do not need to be a connoisseur of all things Bolivian to experience its human side. Having said that, a little historical background adds a layer of intensity to the experience. So with that in mind, indulge me for a moment as I slowly pan my review into a related commentary... 

The film's trailer mentions an interesting word at one point: "apartheid". While the word is not actually used in the movie, there is a clear and underlying theme of classism and racism. Bernarda utters those same two words in one scene, as she accuses her mother Carola of being both a classist and a racist. But there is a danger of extrapolation here, for audiences that are not intimately familiar with Bolivia's history and social reality. The house in the story, as a "bubble", can give the illusion that the Bolivian native population is suffering from white European oppression in the same way historically found in South Africa, the U.S., or even other Latin American countries like Mexico and Colombia. To be sure there will always be some parallels there, of course. But there is a unique circumstance in Bolivia that makes this story wonderfully different: if you don't pay close attention, you will miss the point that the apartheid here is in a way a "reverse" apartheid.

The part where you have to pay close attention may be considered a “spoiler”, so continue to read at your own risk (personally I don’t think it is a spoiler in the classic sense, but I’ll let you be the judge of that). It could be said that the climax of the story takes place when Carola is visited by two native Bolivian women, dressed in typical native garb. One of them is wheeling a large suitcase, and they are both accompanied by a third woman dressed in business attire. Carola is courteous with them and invites them in for a refreshment. What Carola doesn’t realize is that the two native women are there to buy her out of the house, and the suitcase contains $250,000 in cash. In the other countries I mentioned earlier, such a scene would raise eyebrows and would leave the audience thinking that the natives must be crooked. But outside of our house bubble in the story, Bolivian natives have slowly been taking back their region, politically, socially and economically – since as far back as 1953 (the Agrarian Reform law).

To be clear: “reverse apartheid” taken literally is too strong of a statement, in the sense that the unblended white population of Bolivia is not being forced into basic labor with few or no benefits, or forcibly segregated. My point in this commentary is not to make a political statement as to whether there have or have not been a certain amount of injustices committed by both sides – or who is “winning” that pissing contest. The only point I am trying to make here is that, in a world where stories of revolution and oppression have almost always been clearly delineated along obvious economic and/or racial lines, the social revolution twist in Zona Sur is almost Hitchcockesque to the impartial observer. An appropriate analogy, by the way, if you are familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s extended/slow panning camera technique, most notably used in his masterpiece Rope


Zona Sur Trailer

Monday, March 18, 2013

Getting Shot In America: A Tale Of Two Cities

Sitting at the surgery trauma waiting room at UC Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, I couldn’t help but notice two separate realities. The good news is, the divide was not racial. The bad news is, it was painfully economic.

There was a prison inmate in the room, shackled and leg-injured, with a sheriff on one side and his girlfriend on the other. His girlfriend was arguing with him, he kept asking her to leave. There was a little old lady, black and cute as a daisy, whom I wanted to adopt as a grandmother. What struck me as odd and a little heartbreaking is that she seemed to be there alone, and disoriented. A nurse came by to check up on her. There was a middle-aged white woman in a wheelchair, who looked all of sixty-five but my bet is that she was no more than forty-five. She was accompanied by her daughter, stunning looks and looking all of thirty, though my bet is that she wasn’t more than twenty. Growing up fast is an expression of bittersweetness on the right side of the tracks, but on the wrong side it is just another battle wound.

I was there because a friend of mine had been shot. Twice, once in the leg and once in the abdomen. The leg shot had shattered his femur. He was ambushed at midnight in what turned out to be an armed robbery, and as he wrestled for his life the gun went off twice. My friend is in his mid 20’s, but I’ve known him since he was 14. He was “assigned” to me in 2003 by an organization that works closely with the division of Children Services at Hamilton County. I was his Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

Sydney (not his real name) had landed in “the system” after he ran away from home. His life -- or “file” as the system prefers to call it -- was a textbook case of child neglect and abuse. The complication is, once you dig in beyond the surface, it really does get complicated. Sydney’s mother was a product of the system herself. 

I remember when I first met Sydney, at a foster home. His foster mom seemed nice enough, the home was clean and well-furnished. I could tell Sydney sized up all of us rather quickly: the foster mom, as much as he seemed to respect her, received a subsidy from the government for taking care of him; the social worker from Children Services did not interest him in the least. But he looked at me up and down more than once, almost as if to say: what does he get out of this? It was emphasized more than once that my role was strictly a volunteering one.

Four years later, with a few visits to juvenile detention centers in between, I found myself in court for Sydney’s official “release” from the system – on his 18th birthday. It seemed a bit surreal to me, as there was a strange assortment of people present: a lawyer from the CASA organization; my CASA supervisor; Sydney’s 3rd social worker (I had been his only CASA throughout the same period of time); a lawyer from Children Services; Sydney’s biological mother; and me. Sydney chose to sit with me, not surprising given the revolving door cast of characters. The judge went around the room, asking everyone for their comments. The social worker was issuing a somewhat defensive statement, sprinkled with local politics, occasionally glancing at the lawyer from the county. The judge interrupted her a bit impatiently, looked at me and asked for my thoughts. I looked at Sydney, then back at the judge and said, “All I can say is that in these past four years I thought it was Sydney who was hopefully going to learn something from me. Instead, I believe I have learned more from him. I am thankful to him for that.”

In the ten years that I have known Sydney, I must have traveled between the west and the east side of Cincinnati over a hundred times. The West Side, while it does include a couple of middle class and affluent neighborhoods, is primarily blue collar or poor. The East Side is the exact opposite – a couple of blue collar and poor neighborhoods, but primarily middle, upper middle, and highly affluent neighborhoods. There are awkward jokes in Cincinnati about which side of town you are from – usually in the form of "where did you go to high school?". As a permanent outsider no matter where I have lived, the jokes struck me as odd. People from the East Side and the West Side have no more in common with each other than people I have met from opposite sides of the world. So if by “which part of town” they really mean “which part of the planet” – I guess I could join in the nervous laughs.

I have traveled the road from New Delhi to Agra; north and south through Port-au-Prince Haiti; through the slums of Bogota, Rio, Manila, and countless of other "third world" cities. I have wined and dined in London, Paris, Munich, and other “first world” cities; and I have driven through Cincinnati’s Indian Hill neighborhood over a thousand times. Indian Hill is not only one of Cincinnati’s wealthiest neighborhoods on the East Side, it is home to one or two king makers. During my thirteen years in the city, both US presidents have paid multiple visits to the neighborhood. Given all of these contrasts, I can safely say from all of my travels that a common name and adjacent proximity does not a single city make. Neighborhoods, and their economic realities, are the only relevant segments of society.

Sydney was released from the hospital within a few days of being shot. It was much too early a release, but it is common for someone without health insurance in the US. I also learned that you don’t just drop off someone without health insurance at a hospital for a follow-up: you are expected to wheel him from one section to another, help him up on the x-ray table, get him down, hold him up while they remove his staples, wheel him from one doctor to the other, and beg for him to be given painkillers.

As I drove Sydney from the hospital to his sister’s house on the West Side, I realized he was in significant pain. Yet he had already reprimanded me once at the hospital for demanding that someone get him painkillers. He explained, half-groggy from the pain, that all I was going to achieve was get the nurses to entrench against getting him meds, since there are so many junkies that try to play the system. I asked him if there was a rash of cases with junkies shooting themselves in the stomach and shattering their femurs for free painkillers. That was a wiseass reply that I probably shouldn’t have made, given his state of pain.

Sydney mentioned something I’ll never forget, and it had to do with his ambulance ride to the hospital -- “the longest ride of his life”. Paramedics are trained to keep such victims conscious, even though all they want to do is pass out. But in describing what he remembers looking out of the ambulance, some of the words he used seemed very familiar to me. I had to look them up when I got home, but it didn't take long for me to recall where I had heard a similar thought:

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.”

- Sydney Carton, “A Tale of Two Cities” (Charles Dickens)

Mother Should I Run for President? (A Video Blog)

Almost forty years ago , the British psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd released its masterpiece titled " The Wall ". The double...