Yesterday I Learned … VI


Yesterday, I heard a joke that suggested if we were to accept that the now decades old television show 24 as a realistic depiction of 24 hours of Jack Bauer’s life, we were going to need to see him go to the bathroom every once in a while. Every single person has to use the facilities every once in a while, this joke implied, and if we were going to accept the fact that Jack Bauer was truly human, the writers should’ve included a line like, “I know lives are on the line, Mr. President, and I’m well aware of the fact that every precious second counts, but I have to take a squirt.” The joke is funny, because it has an element of truth to it. We don’t need to know that Jack Bauer does this, of course, but if the show’s directors and writers seek a version of true reality, shouldn’t we see him relieve himself in some way?

It’s here now. Enterprising young directors heard that call, and they responded. Whatever remained of that artistic abstract, known as the fourth wall, is now coming down. These young and ambitious directors now force their actors to engage in the ultimate form of reality by relieving themselves on camera to indulge our desire for this ultimate form of reality.

Today, I realized that if a director asked me, twenty years ago, how far they should go to depict reality, I might have told them I’m all for injecting a sense of reality in various entertainment vehicles, and I might have encouraged them to pop whatever bubble they could find. I would’ve kept that advice general, of course, as I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to making visual productions, and I don’t know how to depict reality on screen. If that director then asked me what I thought an audience might think of seeing their favorite character squat on a commode, I would’ve told them that that’s probably a step too far. If they asked me if I thought hearing a character’s water hit the water might help audiences relate to their character better, I would’ve said, “No, I think most people accept the fact that the characters these actors are portraying are human, and while there are some elements you can introduce to provide some hyper reality on a cases by case basis, the idea that one uses the facilities is better left assumed. I also don’t think seeing or hearing bodily functions, add to that sense of association or cements that bond any further.” It turns out some modern directors decided that I was wrong. When they depict a character vomit now, it’s not enough for them to provide the audio of the act or show the convulsions a body goes through in the act of vomiting. In the king of the mountain mentality of depicting reality, these directors decided that we need to see the chunks and fluid flow from the mouth. We can only guess that these ambitious directions heard the 24 joke, and they decided to heed the call and add all sorts of bodily functions to address these complaints. We’re not at the point, yet, where we demand to see waste move out of the body before we accept the fact it’s truly happening, but recent evidence suggests we’re probably not too far away.

Go to Your Room

Yesterday, I heard a great joke from Jerry Seinfeld. “The penal system we have is so American. ‘You do something bad, you go to a room. You think about what you did,’” Jerry Seinfeld said mocking the convention of our country’s archaic idea of imprisoning criminals. I don’t think I need to qualify my reply to Jerry Seinfeld by saying I think he’s a comedic genius. If the reader thinks I do, let me just say that I think there are but a handful of comedians who can put a clever spin on the conventions of daily life, or our societal conventions, on a level anywhere close to Jerry Seinfeld. How many comedians could take a large societal issue like the philosophy behind incarceration and associate it with the punishments our parents inflicted on us when we were naughty as kids?

Today, I thought about how much his clever and hilarious point misses the mark. Before I write anything further, let me also write that I understand that his comments are satirical in nature, and that satirists should not be required to debate their jokes or provide solutions. The first, obvious rebuttal I would make is that the idea of crime and punishment is not exclusive to America. Other countries, throughout the world in history, tried imprisoning those who committed transgressions against their fellow man, and that historical precedent worked so well that America adopted it. The second question I would pose to Seinfeld is, “If you were king for a day, how would you handle this whole idea of people committing crimes? And before you answer, remember that there are victims of crime, and there would be subsequent victims that could be harmed by your edicts.” The third, and related, point I would make is that lawmakers decide laws and appropriate punishments to provide cultural definition. We know we live in a ‘You do this, you go there for a certain amount of time relative to the crime and the nature of the crime.’ In a Representative Republic, we select lawmakers and judges to decide those laws and the subsequent punishments, and if we don’t like them, we vote them out of office and select another representative we believe better represents our views. Again, I know Jerry Seinfeld is a satirist who pokes fun at conventions, and this joke involves some healthy, insightful commentary on a situation that plagues our country, but I’d love to know how he might better fix what he calls our flawed system of punishment.

It’s Not about You

Yesterday, I borrowed a book from the library on the former Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, and his influence on music and society. About twenty pages in, I realized that this author was personalizing his narrative under the ‘Where was I when I first heard?’ theme. “I couldn’t believe it,” he wrote. “I was so shocked. We couldn’t believe it. I called friends I haven’t talked to in years, and we consoled one another.” Who cares, was my first thought, and I couldn’t shake that thought no matter how much further I read. I didn’t care about this author’s reaction any more than he would mine. 

I learned a valuable lesson, twenty pages in, if an author is going to write about someone or something we all know, their first job is to tell us something we don’t know. If an author is going to make it about the author to illustrate a point, that’s fine, as long as they employ the ‘get in, get out’ methodology to achieve a greater point. At some point in his long-winded narrative, the author made it obvious that his book was more about him than his subject. As far as I’m concerned, there is no fine line here. In this case, the author described his reaction to Cobain’s suicide to be part of the moment. I don’t care what the subject is, whether it’s fiction or non, I read with an ‘I don’t care what the author thinks’ mentality. A gifted storyteller might tell us what they think, but they should do so in a carefully structured method that leads us to think we thought it first.

As a reader, my advice to all authors is, don’t write about you until people care about what you think. Even then, the reason we might care about you is that you’re such a gifted writer that we never know it’s you telling us what you think. Today, I realized how difficult this is in the Twitter age. We make posts about our friends, our feelings about our friends, our feelings about our feelings, and the fact that we’re now at Arby’s. People tell us that they enjoy our posts, and we morph this into creative ways of telling everyone how everything is about us in one way or another. We continue doing so, until we are unable to make the separation necessary to write about our subject without including our feelings on the subject. Some suggest that it’s impossible to be objective, but there’s subjectivity and then there’s subjectivity. Some authors obviously think that when they begin writing about their feelings on a subject that their readers will appreciate their ability to be vulnerable on paper and that they will value their unflinching and refreshing honesty on the subject they’re addressing, and we might, if we cared about the author. If we cared about the author, we would’ve knowingly purchased their autobiography, their memoirs, or some catalog of their musings. If the author decides, instead, to write about someone that someone else might be interested in reading about, the author needs to remember that we purchased the book, because we thought it was about them, and no one is ever going to purchase a book about you, because not everything is about you.

The Media and the Coronavirus

Yesterday, I believed in a couple crackpot, Chicken Little conspiracy theories and some depressing doomsayer stories. I didn’t believe a majority of them, but I believed enough of them to recognize these theories for what they are. It took some embarrassment to reach that point. “You don’t really believe that do you?” friends and family would ask when I would repeat their drivel. It also took the humiliation of being wrong more often than I was right to help shape and form my beliefs system, but as I said in another post on this topic, I was eventually able to shed that skin.

We believe these theories because we’re afraid, and fear can be a good thing when we use it properly, as it can lead to self-preservation. A fear of heights, for example, can prevent us from going so high that we could get hurt. Some fears are irrational, such as a fear of alien attacks, sharks, and ghosts, but the brain uses fear to protect itself and the body. The 24-7 news outlets, and other companies that send out email blasts, also learned how to manipulate fear to get us to do what they want us to do, mainly tune in. They played on our fears to get ratings and clicks, and they did it so often that we were numb to it when they begin reporting on what we should fear for our own self-preservation.

How much of our time and fear did these networks and email blasters waste over the years on frivolous matters that would blow over by the end of the week? How many “News Bulletins” followed by exclamation points did they waste on stupid stories that had no relevance? How many people were afraid to invest their hard-earned dollars in the stock market? “Just wait,” rational minds advised, “this whole thing will blow over by Wednesday,” and so many of these Chicken Little conspiracy theories and some depressing doomsayer stories did. The market rewarded diligent investors, who ignored these stories, for their patience.

The job of various news outlets is to report on matters that require our attention. When they report on natural disasters, for example, we tune into their broadcasts for information on how to act and react. They know when we tune in, as do their advertisers, and the two of them join forces to develop, or enhance, subsequent stories to demand our attention. As any artist will tell you, a novice can enhance relatively meager paintings with shading and artistic framing. The 24-7 news networks often enhanced such relatively meager stories in this manner, until we began believing every story was a national tragedy, and then we experienced burn out.    

I don’t know what difference it would’ve made, but I think we might have taken the coronavirus more seriously if they didn’t break us down with every over-hyped hurricane or political story that was going to end our country, as we know it. I also have a special place in the black parts of my heart for the financial doomsayers who, for years, predicted the market would fall for whatever reason they dreamed up to get us to click on their emails.      

Today, I realized that the coronavirus is a full-fledged pandemic, and it took a lot of convincing to break through the thick, hard shell I developed to all of these Chicken Little, crackpot theories and depressing doomsayer stories. I don’t know about anyone else, but I had a threshold. By the time the coronavirus broke, some of my instincts told me that this might be different, but after being inundated by so many disaster stories that required my attention for so many years, I thought it would all blow over without too much pain. So, I direct some portion of the blame of my financial pain on all those crackpot, Chicken Little conspiracy theorist and depressing doomsayers who exaggerated every story to the point that they scared me. Over time, I found that the best course of action was to do nothing and to recognize conspiracy theories and doomsayers for what they are. If I believed one-tenth of them over the decades, there’s no way I would have invested my relatively meager savings into the stock market. I wouldn’t believe in America, and I probably wouldn’t have left my home. I didn’t believe the coronavirus was as bad as they were saying. I thought it was more 24-7 news bulletins on a story that would blow over like an over-hyped hurricane, and I now blame them for it.   

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