Monday, August 31, 2009

Butterfly in the Sky...

A friend of mine posed a question the other day on Facebook, and it was an interesting one, so I thought I'd answer it.

"If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?" A simple question, really, but what made it fascinating were the answers that she got. Italy. Ireland. Greece. European countries mainly. The underlying question that I heard was "Why would you want to go there?" What makes people want abandoned ruins and lavish castles? What makes them yearn for lavish countrysides, or the beauty of fellow people on European beaches? Why look for greener grass?

I certainly understand the seduction of travel. There have been times, when, traveling at 70mph on the interstate through Conyers that I just wanted to keep going, to travel to someplace else, wherever, and enjoy my life of freedom. But, as Shawn Mullins sang, "Freedom's just a metaphor / You got no place to go." Freedom, the ability to run away from the life we have, has a strong pull. It's running away from reality, escaping from this place to another. I have known people to do it. A good percentage of the people that have worked at Borders with me have quit suddenly and moved to California, or Colorado, or Texas. Someplace far away from Georgia. Whether they found what they were looking for, I'm not sure. I hope they did. But I've had other friends that, just to get away, moved to Canada. One found happiness, marriage. The other, misery, loneliness. She moved back later and was a shadow of herself. And of course, it is certainly possible to escape from reality by taking drugs, alcohol...etc... but since I'm not talking about that necessarily, I won't. I do want to mention that reading can push that need to get away even more. There are scenes in Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts that describe the shores of the Greek Isles. Idyllic, almost paradise, and those scenes really make you want to visit there. I'll return to travel and reading in a minute.

So let's say you have the money to go to Europe and travel around Italy. Now, don't misunderstand me, I'd love to go and do just that, but let's think for a moment about why someone would want to go to Europe in the first place. Everyone talks about the Historical landmarks...the castles, the churches, the paintings and masterpieces of geniuses that lived hundreds of years ago. The achievements of mankind are definitely a worthy subject for study. I doubt one could stand in front of Michelangelo's David and not feel a sense of awe that a human being could have conceived such a piece of art. Similarly, you couldn't stand in front of St. Peter's cathedral in Rome, with the outstretched arms folding outward, embracing you, and not see the magnificence of what we can build when we try. We should see this in our own country, our own city, our neighborhoods. Because the difference is merely one of conception and usage. Could we not stand in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, and, seeing the mathematical formulas that stand the structure erect, marvel in the masterpiece that men had constructed, right here in America? Or the skyscrapers in New York City, or Chicago, or Atlanta, raised to the sky in some high praise for what we have done with the iron, the steel, the rock of this nation? It is what holds us up, holds us together. (you will excuse me if I've taken a page from makes me feel good, right in a way.) So when you go to Europe and stand before the Colosseum, or you wander about the Parthenon, realize the rocks that were carved into these shapes are not what is awe inspiring, but the people who built them are. I think if I were to go to the Old World, what would be truly wonderful to see would be the Aqueducts in Spain, still carrying water from the mountains to the villages, after all these years. Or maybe the sections of the Via Appia that still cover the streets of Italian villages, that are still used today like cobblestone streets.

If I were to travel anywhere in the world, I would go first to the Peruvian Andes, and see the marvels of Macchu Picchu, of the roads and bridges that still stand, and of the ancestors that still use those bridges. What power the Incas must have had, to construct the buildings of that city, with such angles of perfection and consistency. Only the pyramids of Egypt would compare in architectural wonder. But as I said before, it's not really the buildings I would want to see, but the people and the culture of the society that made them. So actually, it would not be just a place I would travel, but a time.

I wouldn't want just to see the Parthenon, covered as it is now with iron bars and archeologists who are trying to keep it erect. And aside them, the markets and the souvenir shops that sell postcards and t-shirts, that keep the 21st century very much in the forefront of the mind. I would rather walk amongst the people of ancient Greece, the philosophers sitting amongst the trees arguing of human principles, the politicians being just that, the worshipers of Zeus and Athena, the common people, the slaves, the difference of it all. The only thing that would nag at me would be that they never found the wheel to be of any use. Why build tools of convenience when slaves did all the work? It is the one thing that kept Greece and Rome from becoming truly great and progressing as far as they could have. Ah, to see them going about their daily lives, to see human society as something completely different from the world today. That would be incredible.

And the same would go with other cultures. The Incas, the Mayas, the Aztec. To watch the Mayan astronomers calculate the Sun and stars for centuries ahead of them, with complete accuracy, at the observatory at Chitzen Iza, or at Palenque. To witness the barbaric sacrifice of human victims to the Aztec gods upon the temples towering into the sky, not so much for the Gods, but in reality, to show the power of the Aztec Empire to the neighboring tribes. These are things I would see, not just the ruins of Teotihuacan and Tikal.

The power of human life is not just in the incredible or the violent. I would want to see people living in their day to day lives. I have always wanted to return to the days of the 1920's, prior to the mechanical devices that we have today, and see how people in America lived. What would Milledgeville have looked like, or Shady Dale, or Conyers for that matter? What swimming holes would be filled with children swimming instead of the absorbed in the electronic whirrs of the Xbox 360 or Wiis? The rocking chairs would be filled outside of porches, the sky would be pitch black dark after sunset, and the stars would shine and glimmer through the treetops. Yes, life was hard, and people died of common diseases and so forth... but there must be happiness that they found in doing things that we have lost today, because getting to Level 17 is more important than climbing a tree.
Let's face it, reality is not like that. We have no technology to let us go back in time, nor to we all have the money to go flying of to lands foreign and romantic. While this sounds like a big cliche, we do have books that we can read. Out of the minds of authors come lands and societies real and imaginary. I could just as well find a copy of Plato's Republic and sit in with the Greek philosophers, or pick up a copy of Gary Jennings' novel Aztec and relive the days prior to the arrival of Cortez. The worlds of mankind are neatly compiled into words, and then transformed into reality in our minds.

A perfect example, coming from the current news, is the story of the 13 year old Dutch girl that tried to sail around the world alone. You can find her story on Yahoo easily enough. She was retained by Dutch authorities and is now in State Care, so vehemently against the trip is the government, for some reason. But there's no need to do that right now, as there have been people before her that have succeeded. Take Robin Lee Graham, who wrote the book Dove about his adventures around the world. The experiences that he had on Pacific islands, the paradises he found, the extreme loneliness on the boat alone for weeks on end, it is all magnificently written for anyone to read.

And when the current rules of society are too much for us to bear, we can simply read about worlds that are in another reality. Take Arthur C. Clarke's Songs of a Distant Earth, a set of stories that take place on a colony planet in the far reaches of space, where people have been sent to start the human race afresh, with the entire knowledge of mankind, but without the religious or societal prejudices that have set this world in the direction it has gone. The makers of the spaceship loaded the libraries of the Earth, but omitted anything with references to God or to the horrors of man. Tough choices, but the result was a colony that was much different from Earth. It was a pleasure to read, a a book of Tabula rasa, where people could find their own moral standards and live life according to them.

Or take Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, which is the most liveable world in Fantasy Literature. Amazing scenery, and you are surrounded by dragons constantly, ones with abilities that we could only dream of here. I'd give anything to live in Benden Weyr, or at the Harper's school next to Fort Hold.

So to answer the question of where I would like to go, I would say, "Wherever the pages in my books will take me." And if, by some chance, I get to actually visit those worlds, then they shall be but echoes, dreams, of what resides in my head.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Killing Kenny: Butters and the Bridge

[It seems odd that, while I continue to use Kenny as the title for these posts, it is Butters I use as examples. Because while Kenny represents the idea of individuality, Butters continually struggles with it. He changes, is not as stagnant a symbol as Kenny is.]

In Season 11, episode "Cartman Sucks," Butters is sent to a "camp" where he is trained not to be gay (the argument of whether or not Butters actually is "bi-curious" as he says, is another matter.) His "accountabilibuddy" is a blond-haired kid named Bradley, who, after bonding with Butters, becomes horrified that he might have "like like" feelings towards him. His conclusion, that they both must kill themselves. Now, the multitude of issues that come up in this scene is well worth investigating.... but not right now. The next scene takes place at a nearby bridge, where the adults are trying to get Bradley from jumping into the cold river below. [I want to try and clip this scene and make it available here, since it would be only a few seconds, and would fall under fair use laws] Butters comes up and realizes that, while Bradley continues to mutter "I'm not normal, I'm not normal," they only believe they are "not normal" because the adults say they aren't. The main preacher says to Butters, "Shut up kid, you're just as confused as he is." To which Butters loses his temper and tells them all that he's only been confused by their mumbo-jumbo, and not because of whatever feelings he has inside. (again, that's for another time...). The scene at the bridge is probably one of the cornerstones of what South Park is all about. It counters individual feelings and thoughts with what society claims is true. On the bridge, Bradley stands alone, fighting with his emotions, fighting with what the world is telling him, and what his own individual mind is telling him. He cannot resolve the feelings of the friendship he has with Butters from the idea that any feelings toward the same sex is immoral. Therefore his battle is made there, on that bridge, and it takes Butters, who has resolved the feelings already, to help him win.

The bridge, here, and in other pieces of literature and film, stands for man's struggle for individuality in a sea of masses. Take, for instance, T.S. Eliot's masterpiece, "The Waste Land:"

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Of all the images in "The Waste Land," this one stood out amongst the others in my mind. It seemed as if a crowd of people, walking towards the big city, were trudging their way, as if a herd of cattle, the empty gray faces, marching towards a great symbol of human society. Towards factories and jobs where they become but a cog in a machine, but a number and a statistic. No one cares about them. They were a great mass of people, and they made London function and flourish, but as individuals, they were as meaningless as the rats that scurried under the streets. When one person stands, alone on the bridge, the battle rages... society against the individual. And the individual may lose, and become one more piece of flotsam upon the river. But they can win. If, however, a mass of individuals stand upon a bridge, the battle is lost already.

Another example of this... the masses of people fleeing Manhattan as the monster destroys NYC in Abrams movie Cloverfield. The sea of 20-somethings were herded out of the condominiums and away from the self-indulgent parties and rushed toward the bridge, and safety on the other side. As the main characters reached the beginning of the bridge, we see the Godzilla-type monster destroy the Brooklyn bridge, sending the masses of people to their deaths. And as I have talked about in my review of that movie (See Here), we simply do not care about their deaths. We see them not as individuals, but as a section of society that is best shown in The Gossip Girls or in the form of Paris Hilton. The potential for these people is nothing, so therefore it doesn't matter to us. See my review for further thoughts on this.

And there are other examples, such as Edward Munch's The Scream, where the battle of individuality, of humanity, continues in the minds of the artists that made them. But let's look at something more personal.


I was at Georgia College in Milledgeville during the late 90's. It was 1998, I was a junior, living in Sanford Hall. I had taken to walking throughout the city, which is quite wonderful, as it's possible to go to anywhere (back then) just by walking. Walmart took 40 minutes, the Mall, an hour. I had heard about a rope swing underneath the railroad bridge that existed behind the dorms, and I wanted to go see what it looked like. So I walked toward the railroad tracks, and then down them, towards the bridge over Fishing Creek (it's actually bigger than the name implies). I saw no rope swing, but I had this insane urge to cross the bridge and keep going. So I took one step at a time, one track at a time, and slowly crossed the bridge. Knowing all the while that if a train came down that track, I would have to jump or be killed. And the river was far below me... I probably would have died either way. But as it was, the train never came. I realized, however, that I had done something dangerous...and exhilarating.

As I look back on that day, that evening when the sky turned various shades of amber and orange, it was one of those days when I really felt alive. And you wonder, as you grow older, if you never really lived out your youth, expending the abundance of energies given to you then. I never climbed a tree... I never really did all those things that college students do. And that's a good thing, to some extent. Sure, I think that there were some things I should have done, and didn't. Chances I could have taken, experiences I should have had. But it's not very productive thinking back with regret. The things that I did (and did not) do makes me an individual that I am proud of. Following the masses into the Brick (a bar in Milledgeville) or to Frat houses or into some passionate writhing with some person that I may or may not have liked... I didn't do any of that, and I think it made me a better person in the long run.

But for that one evening, as I walked on that bridge, I was doing something I shouldn't. Was that living life? Is living actually doing something that is wrong? Or is it taking risks, whether it be for a rush of adrenalin, or for the love of someone special? The battle on the bridge is one of identifying who we are, what we think is important to us. Because stepping off the bridge, to the rocks below, would be removing us as individuals from this Earth. It sounds a lot like It's a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart stands on the edge of his bridge. If he jumps, what would the world be like without him?

To bring this back to my original thought... the physical characteristics of a person, the look of someone, whether they are fat, skinny, have blue hair, piercings...etc... is, pardon the cliche, only skin deep. The true uniqueness of a person appears, when, on the bridge, or in the eyes of Jimmy Stewart's angel, you see what the world would be like without you. Individuality, uniqueness, is the set of circumstances that you, being on this Earth in this place and time, cause to happen. It is the relationships, the interactions, the reactions that take place because you are there. There is an old mathematician's theorem that says that if a butterfly flaps it's wings in the Sahara Desert, a hurricane forms in the Atlantic. That there is an unknown reaction that is caused by even the smallest of actions.

But ironically, that's not why the battle is won. It might be reasons for winning. When Butters loses his temper and says he is only confused because the adults say he is, he ends his speech by saying, "My name is Butters, I'm 8 years old, my blood type is O, and I'm Bi-Curious." He announces to the world his identity. The battle is won when he separates himself from the society that condemns him. He discovers his own moral standard, that it's okay to be who he is, and at that point, he becomes his own person.

The battle is won when the person becomes separated from the masses that Eliot or Abrams describes. We either step off the bridge as our own person, as a unique individual, or we lose our identity, to be swallowed up by the masses.

[After I walked over the bridge, in 1998, I wrote a poem about it, as I was apt to do during those days. I did change the name of the river to Oconee.]

"Walking Over the Oconee River"

One foot in front of the other,
never look down, but
always look back, listen
for the rumbling of wheels
and the howling of horns.
The tracks lie across the river
straight on forever boards
running parallel,
growing smaller and smaller
until, at a point on the horizon,
a shrill sound echoes through
the forest over the river and
into the brain. Vibrating
a steel drum into the
pit of the stomach, fear,
knowing the you can't outrun it,
and you wonder if the bone-breaking
jump into the river
would be better than
the race to shore, facing the headlights
of the oncoming train.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Killing Kenny and Devin Hester: Natural Talent in the NFL

[I've reread this a few times, and I can find no place where I disagree with it. I might be wrong, or overgeneralizing it, but the ideas are sound.]

Three years ago, if you turned on football on any Sunday afternoon, you would undoubtedly see the magnificent kickoff and punt returns of a a player wearing a Chicago Bears uniform. And amongst the quarterback controversy of Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, the bright spot on the Bears offense was Devin Hester, special teams extraordinaire. If he caught the ball on a return, chances are that he would find his way to the end zone, passing blockers like they weren't even there. Such moves hadn't been seen in the NFL since the days of Barry Sanders. It put a spark in to the Bears game, scoring them points, or at least getting them to mid-field before Grossman ever put his helmet on.

Or if they decided not to punt the ball to him, it sailed into the sidelines, causing a penalty and giving them good field position. That year, the Bears went to the Super Bowl, despite Grossman, and the Bears looked to be back in mid 80's form. But sadly, the Bears never fulfilled that destiny. Why? Because Hester, his agent, and the Bears office decided that he should stop doing kickoff returns and become a wide receiver. And while he was the Bears' leading receiver last year, which isn't saying much, with Orton as the QB, it cut down dramatically the number of returns he was able to make as a punt returner. He explained that being a WR had you running every play, and then by the time the punt return came up, you had much less energy.

Why would Hester give up his record breaking special teams career to become a wide receiver? It was like his name disappeared, only to be known to the Bears fans. Two reasons: First, wide receivers make so much more money than special teams players do. And that's understandable, since WRs play all of the offensive drives in the game. Also, players like TO and Chad "Ocho Sinco" are much more noticeable, with characters and notoriety. the other reason comes from the Bears' perspective. If they could get more out of Hester than just special teams plays, he would be more valuable, especially if they paid him WR money. However financially sound this might be, it was foolish in the end. The Bears failed to be what they were three years ago (although an injured Defense had something to do with that), and they now miss the advantageous starting positions that they had when Hester was a returner. They are giving up so much just to get more out of Hester, without the results they actually want. In a free market society, people should make what they earn. In other words, the talent that one has, the amount of production that they contribute, their potential, should be directly related to how much they make. The Bears should, in an ideal society, realize that Hester contributes vastly more as a returner than as a WR, and they should compensate him based on that production. In other words, he should be a returner making a WR salary. But that's not going to happen.

If you talk to any football fan, especially who is older and remember the football teams of the 60's and 70's, they will wistfully recall the Iron Curtain of the Steelers, or the Dallas Cowboy's teams that stayed together for years. Even I witnessed it in the Cowboy triumvirate of Aiken, Irwin, and Smith (with Dion Sanders and Rocket Ishmael thrown in). That was truly "America's team." But in 1994, the salary cap was introduced. Note that it was during Clinton's administration, when undoubtedly people were crying that the players made too much money, and teams like the Raiders and Browns were upset that the Cowboys and 49ers were too good. At that point, the good teams were disbanded, and the ability to have more than one or two good players per team was impossible. Also, it cut down on the managers paying for playing. In other words, veteran players who had lost the prime of their athletic ability still made as much, if not more, than the athletes in their prime. Those with forward sight restructured their contracts to allow teams to get as many qualified players as possible. For example, Kurt Warner, who last year with the Cardinals gave up a million dollars so that the team could keep their leading WR. Those who continued to want money wound up being cut all together, finding themselves unemployed and embittered. Prior experience, without the production that makes it real in any given season, should mean nothing when dealing with contracts and money given to a player for his performance. Pay should be given according to ability, not to his need. And if that sentence sounds familiar, go read Marx. It's there. And so is the NFL player salary cap. Right out of the Communist Manifesto.

The reason, as the NFL gives, for the Salary Cap, is a concept called "Parity." It's an idea that says that everyone should be given an equal advantage over the other. This gives teams that are really bad for years the chance to, through the draft and through revenue sharing, to improve themselves when it might not be possible otherwise. It also allows small market teams, such as the Cleveland Browns or the Indianapolis Colts to make the same profit as the New York or Los Angeles teams (oh, nevermind... :) ). The problem, as I see it, is a overabundance of mediocrity, with so many 8-8 groups at the end of the year, and only a few with great records, and only a few with bad ones (although, going against all principles, those are usually the same teams, year to year.) The reasoning for many teams at the 8-8 or 9-7 level is so that more teams will be in contention for the playoffs come the end of the year, and therefore, sell more seats at the games. And some of this makes perfect Capitalistic sense. But when you tell the owner of a team that he can only spend so much on their team, even if they have dramatically more than that, it throws a socialistic wrench into a totally free market business. In my opinion, a team such as the 1990's Dallas Cowboys, where there were so many players that stayed for so long, it builds a character, an identity, that increases the fan base. Having players move from one team to another all willy nilly, and moreover, cutting some of the best players because they have a salary cap, and can only pay so much to their players, only decreases the fan base, and makes it so that unless you were blindly fanatical about a team, it really doesn't make any difference who you root for. And I could present an argument about this making Fantasy Football all the more popular, but it is not the time for that now.

The NFL does little to help develop the talents of the individual players that populate its teams. Sure, the League wants the players to do as well as they can, to play hard and win games, but only as long as parity is preserved. Once the players have gained talent and experienced, they are expected to make more money than the rookie contracts gave them. And this makes sense. However, since there is a salary cap, there is no way to recruit younger, talented players if the older more experienced players are eating up the salary left in the cap. This is why still talented players, such as Marvin Harrison with the Colts, are cut to make room for younger players. The draft has been particularly bad for those players who exhibited tremendous talent in college. The top draft picks go to the worst teams, thereby ensuring Parity. The problem with this, tho, is that the worst teams rarely have the backup to protect those players who have the most talent. Take Jamarcus Russell, #1 pick a couple of years ago, a QB with LSU. He was drafted and sent to the Raiders, where he was given millions in a rookie contract, and has contributed little to the success of the Raiders. Similarly, this year, UGA QB Stanford was drafted by the Lions. His contract is lucrative, and he has the potential to be a star QB in the league. The problem is that he is playing for the Lions. The team rarely has winning seasons, much less getting to the playoffs. It is no wonder Barry Sanders retired early from such a system. Stanford will be left in the pocket with very little protection from the offensive line, and he will be sacked in abundance, and therefore will get very little opportunity to improve himself. Someone like Archie Manning could sympathize with this, having played for the New Orleans Saints in a time when they couldn't win, either. This is why Archie pulled so hard for Eli to be traded to the Giants from the Chargers, since he felt Eli could not improve with the Chargers system. Maybe he was right... who knows. But Eli did win a Super Bowl over the perfect New England Patriots that year. Looks like a good trade to me. Now he is paid more than his brother (although the MasterCard commercials more than make up for that.)

Honestly, why should the owners for the not-so-good teams shell out their own money to improve the talent in their rosters? With revenue sharing in place, since it has been since the 1930's (gate ticket revenue...since then, NFL licensing t-shirts, caps...etc... has fallen into the same sharing principle) as long as people go to see the games (which is easy to do if you have a lot of 8-8 teams. "Maybe this year we'll get into the playoffs..."), then the revenue for all the teams will be consistent, no matter what effort is given on the bottom level. Thus, Al Davis can invest in his team...but he really doesn't have to. But the image of trying has to be maintained. So therefore, while the players remain the same, and never get blamed for not winning games, the coaches get sacked left and right. Al Davis can't keep a coach for more than a year or two.

I'm not saying that the NFL is evil, and should be boycotted, or any extreme position like that. And I'm also aware of the natural consequences of removing revenue sharing and the salary cap on small markets such as Cleveland. It is what it is. We should acknowledge that. My main concern is that the NFL should look at the natural talent coming out of the colleges and encourage their development by restructuring player contracts so that accomplishments and production is worth more. Devin Hester should be paid whatever the Bears could afford to keep him in the Kickoff return position, where he can become a legend, instead of a normal WR, where he would be good, but not amazing. Hester made the Bears worth watching again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sanction of the Victim

*{An addendum to the last post.]

This is a delicate topic. Upon thinking about my previous post, I started applying the philosophies of Ayn Rand to my life, and saw that, as a "Victim," I had let certain avenues open to the people bullying me. I saw it clearly this morning, how in some respects the permission of the victim is needed before he or she can become the victim. Most people will disagree with me. Heck, I'll disagree with me. But in some cases, I believe this to be true.

My mom told me to ignore it and it would go away. I did just fact, I did more than that, I ignored everyone. There was a time when I would not talk to anyone but my teachers for a whole day. The potential friends I alienated, the people that thought I was strange... I became, to the bullies, an inanimate object. Something worse than a "victim" because at least the bully can have a relationship with that victim. But in my case, I wouldn't even let them do that. I became a stone, a rock, an island. And nothing touched me. But with all the pain I suffered through middle school, the punches, the being kicked in the nuts, multiple times, I didn't let it show at all. No one could get inside the walls I had built for myself. I lived in whatever fantasy worlds I had created for myself at that time, and, not having a whole lot of family life to support me, I became a caterpillar (if you don't mind me switching metaphors). Walled up in a cocoon that would be impossible to break (at least, while I was in middle school, but that's another story.) By ignoring them all, I wasn't telling them "NO!" I wasn't yelling at the top of my lungs.. "STOP IT!!" I never told them, "Get the Hell out of my way!" I simply took it.

Is that not just the same as Hank Reardon facing his family at the table, withstanding the constant jabs by his mother, his wife, his brother? Reardon took it, knowing that he could. He could just ignore it and take the pain and never have to worry about the lies they told him. Or to the industrialists of the novel (and to some extent, to the businessmen and entrepreneurs of today's world), they could just ignore the constant taxes being leveled on the rich and productive, because they could always stand to lose a little profit for the sake of the country. For the people.

Because not saying no is the same as telling them, "Go ahead, beat me up... I can take it." And it shouldn't be that way. The victims of today's high schools and middle schools, the ones that are bullied daily, they do not yell "STOP IT!" They simply accept the social standards of the world they live in. They have to take it because that's how the world works. Men must be men and not cry. Bullies must enact their Darwinian responsibility to bring down everyone that might be greater than they are, just so they might look as good as possible for the people they are trying to impress. And the bystanders... they are just as a participant as the victim getting beaten. Do you think that those that stand around watching are saying, "Cool, look at the schmuck getting beat up? No. They are saying, "I'm glad it's not me." Only, they know, that in some cases, it could be them. So they stay out of the way, out of the line of fire, and keep their heads down, hoping not to be noticed by the teachers, by the bullies, by anyone.

This is not everyone, of course. But for the people that care about individuality, the need to protect that is more important than being friends with someone, than fitting in with the masses. When society turns against you, you must find your own standards of living, and you must hold on to those standards no matter what, else you face destruction.

Think of all the school shootings that have happened lately. Those students, that, when the time came, broke down, and their standards became compromised. So instead of yelling "Stop!", they used other, more physical methods. And seeing that they had become the people they despised, they ended it themselves, turning the anger that had enveloped them on themselves. (The idea of Anger is one I have touched on before, both Here and Here.) In relation, the recent suicide by a student in Dekalb County, Georgia, who hanged himself because of the bullying that he received in his 5th grade class. He didn't cry out, "NO!" and was not strong enough to take the years of bullying he was to receive afterward. What makes me furious was that the school system, upon review of the whole incident, found no bullying had taken place. And I am not surprised. The standards by which students live by say that nothing like this could ever be reported by students, for fear of retribution. They would much rather see a student die than to admit that there was a problem going on, one that existed in the very core of the rules in which they live. The teachers, for fear of being accused of not reporting anything, that something like that would happen on their watch, said nothing either. And so the whole thing was swept under the rug. This was exactly what happened in Atlas Shrugged with the Taggart Tunnel disaster. No one was willing to take the blame, or to stop what they knew would be a disastrous situation, for fear of the repercussions that might happen. So nothing gets done about, and people die.

So when I say that "it all worked out." in my last blog, it needed further explanation. Only through the friends that I had in Rolling Green, like Chris and Lane, and Brad and Ford, was I able to exist in a microcosm that let me be myself. It provided a safety valve that made the Hell I went through bearable. And because of this, once I got to Heritage High, and joined the marching band (yet another safety valve.), things got better. I was able to make friends, like Amanda and Rachel. It was this that kept me from becoming like the Columbine shooters, or like the boy in Dekalb County.

The sanction of the victim is actually necessary for them to become a victim. I'm sure that every psychologist will say something similar. A wife being beaten has to say, "NO! I'm not going to live like this!" The battered women's shelters are places of sanctuary, much like John Galt's valley. But this is so hard for most people to do. The victims give in to the rules of society because they see no other way to live. They decide that they can take it. That all they have to do is to escape into some other realm and all will be better. And for the most part, today, with World of Warcraft, and multitudes of Fantasy novels, and the Internet...etc... it is very possible for people to do just that. What they don't want to do is to continue in reality, take charge of their own lives, and change the standards in which they live, and force others to see that the rules that they live by, that of Victim and Bully, of Bystanders and Apathetic losers, is WRONG! Not by force, obviously. Violence only confirms that society's rules are valid. Society must be made aware of the underlying principles on which those standards are based, and then be forced to change them. Or else the Victim should escape, in Reality, to someplace where the bullying can not happen. This is not to say they should become hermits in their own house, but rather some kind of Microcosm, like Rolling Green was for me, should be formed so that, even if going to the same school is still necessary, a safety valve can be created where the child can have time to be themselves, instead of the person that society wants them to be.

In a later blog, I want to look at the school's role in protecting individuals, in producing individuals, instead of mass-creating the clones that they believe should be made in a free, public educational system. Also,the steps that parents can take to support individuality are just as important as the schools. I do not think that bullying can be ended forever. It's in human nature for the strong to overcome the weak. Nor do I suppose that the weak, that sometimes need to be weeded out, must be held in a higher regard than the strong people in this world. But a society that destroys the good, the brilliant, the truly talented in place of the mediocre, the mundane, the multitudes of muscles and obedience, that should not be allowed to happen. Give the victims a chance to grow, and, as individuals, they can become like Bill Gates, or Christopher Paolini, or Einstein, to name a few. Woe to the people that repress those who would be victims in our society, and force them to be the same as everyone else, only to squash the amazing future that we might all have as human beings. But equal woe to the victim that lets them do it without shouting to the hills for his own life, and slumps down in his seat rather than be the human being he was meant to be.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Killing Kenny: Velcro Shoes and Hot Topic

Aesthetics and the Individual.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." That saying certainly is true There must be a set of standards in which something is either deemed beautiful or ugly. A set of standards, opinions, given by a culture at any one time that declares something to be of aesthetic value. These rules are crucial to understanding the individual's opinion for what is attractive, and what is not. I want to call this the Societal Norm or SN for short.

I have read and seen on different shows/articles that faces are remembered or forgotten based on how different or similar they are from the collective mean of all the faces that one sees in a lifetime. That some place, in the core of our mind, lies the "Form" of a human being, with the physical attributes of everyone we have ever seen. Then, as we see people's faces, we mark them as individuals
through the differences that we see apart from the collective face. The same goes for entire bodies, or anything else for that matter. Plato explained this concept as "Forms." I have internalized it, making the collective idea of a "chair" or a "person" to be the collective mean of all chairs or people that one sees in a lifetime.

Building a Hypothesis

But what are the set standards of the Societal Norm? What do we consider attractive or ugly based on the differences from the collective mean? I suggest a hypothetical experiment to find out. Go to the Internet, and find 1000 (or any number that's sufficient) pictures, randomly, of people in different poses. They have to be alone, but other than that, it should be totally random. Depending on your sexuality and gender, it will depend on which gender you choose. The easiest way of finding these would be to find porn sites, or modeling sites...etc... They can be clothed, naked, engaging in self-pleasure, but they have to be pictures of one person only in the shot.
Now, putting these images in a folder, use the slide show function on Windows to rapidly go through them (about every 5 seconds or so.) In that time, you have to push one of two buttons. Keep, or discard. The choice should be made instantaneously, with only the mind valuating the aesthetic beauty(or not) of each person. It's amazing how much information is analyzed in that short a time span.
Afterwards, return to those that you have discarded and ask yourself "why?" For male pictures, is it skin tone? Weight? Muscular build, facial hair, chest hair, facial shape, circumcision, race, tattoos, piercings? Or is it something outside the body (which can't be helped in a non-controlled experiment)? Could it be that he is smoking? Or there's an animal in the shot. Or the couch is red, or the wallpaper is ugly....etc.... For female pictures, is it skin tone? Weight? Muscular build, facial shape, breast size, shape of the buttocks, hair color, race, eye color...etc... There are any number of reasons why someone would be discarded in this manner. And given two or three shots of one person, one might be in a discard stack while another might be a keep one. Depending on profile angle, pose...etc... All of this is decided within a very few seconds.
Looking at the Keep stack, analyze each picture in the same time frame, giving 1-5 to each picture (let's suppose out of 1000,300 are keeps.) After this is done, take wallet size photo shots of each one of the 300, and place them on a grid, with 5's in the middle, and 1's on the outer edges. From this, you will see similarities in the people you found most aesthetically pleasing. If you wish, do that will all of them, although it will take longer. This gives you, at the center of the grid, the focal point of what you consider beautiful. Now, here's the important part. Where does that focal point fit in the grid that demonstrates the Social Norm (SN). In other words, how are aesthetic standards dictated by the ideas of society?

Now that Borders has their calendar selections up, look at the swimsuit women / shirtless men calendars, and you'll see what people in the calendar industry feel is the SN. They populate their calendars with those models because the models they have chosen will appeal to the greatest number of people, and therefore create the greatest amount of profit. I doubt very seriously if many calendars of 300 pound shirtless guys with beer bellies will sell to be placed on kitchen walls. It's not the standard by which people evaluate beauty. This is not to say that some culture in the past, where food was a great scarcity, might have found that appealing. And there are people who would definitely buy that calendar and relish it daily. The former is a SN from another time, another culture. The latter is someone who's aesthetic standards have deviated from the SN, resulting in an Individual perceptive of beauty.

Derivation from the SN

Perhaps society has done something to alienate the individual. Thinking back to the South Park episode, the Goth group was on the outside of the social system. And whether that was because of their standards, or the other way around (they were rejected, so they rebelled against society and developed individual standards), is unclear. But the idea of rebelling against society is an appealing one, so I shall look at it further.
I guess rebelling isn't really the word I would use for myself. Ignoring would be better. When I moved to Georgia from Oklahoma, I had already garnished the "Victim" sign on my forehead. When I complained to my mom about it, she simply told me to "Ignore it all, it'll go away." So I simply ignored everything. What was popular, was not for me. Everyone went gaga over Aladdin, I have never seen the movie totally. When people started wearing WWJD bracelets or whatever little knickknacks they thought were "cool," I could have cared less. Course, I didn't have any friends to try to impress. Nor, at the time, did I want any.

I think the main fashion rebellion I insisted on was Velcro Shoes. I wore them because I didn't want to take the time to tie regular shoes. In fact, I only stopped wearing them after the 8th grade because they no longer made them in my size. To me, Velcro was so much easier to deal with than having these shoelaces everywhere. My mom thought it good to, as the shoes most everyone else wore, Air Jordans, Nikes, Reeboks, all were $100 or more. Mine could be had for $20 or less.

I still feel that way, finding more fashion at Goodwill than the Gap, and finding no real need to get brand names when normal clothes will work just as well. I traveled along at my own pace, ignoring everything that society told me was appropriate, creating my own standard of living. And while I have some regrets, that maybe I didn't do some of the things I should have, maybe gotten in trouble a little more, let my conservative stance slack a little, it all worked out*.

As I have finished reading Ayn Rand's main novels, I can relate to the fashion and appearance taken by Dagney Taggart, or Hank Reardon, or Howard Roarke, as outward expressions of the inward simplicity of their philosophies. They are unique, individuals in a sea of socialites, uncaring about the rest of society thinks. To me, there is nothing more beautiful in this world than the characters of those novels, shining in individualism while society crumbles around them.

I have a friend who, having lived a short life filled with drama and hard times, has decided to die his hair. He feels that the "Emo" style fits his personality best. When I asked him why he wanted to dye his hair, he told me that he wanted to be unique, to find his individuality in school and in life. He wanted to express himself. While I don't necessarily believe that the unjust and unfortunate treatment that the world around him gave him had a direct correlation with him dying his hair, it is a possibility. I have often told him that he could write a memoir of his life so far, fill it full of the truth, and no one would believe it. It would read much like Augusten Burroughs' memoir Running with Scissors. Now, taking what I have mentioned above about the Societal Norm, why would he, after having been mistreated by the world around him, want to emulate what society says is normal? It is very natural for him to rebel, as a lot of teenagers do. His focal point for what is attractive is much different from the SN. His standards are different, unique, and he has achieved what he started out to do when the majority of his hard times ended (give or take being run over by a car.)

But was the hair dying and Emo look necessary? Couldn't he have expressed himself similarly without changing so drastically? Truly, I don't know. The inner rebellion must have an outer expression, at least, for the extrovert, such as he is. To me, going away from society's standards does not mean changing my physical appearance, the music I listen to, the things I do. But to some people, that's exactly what it means. They must change their own standards as a symbol of rebellion from society. This makes them, as well as myself, unique. Individuals who have changed from what everyone else thinks for whatever reason, and they have moved away from the cliques and the stereotypes. They become themselves.

Of course, society would be amiss not to notice this, and to profit off of it. While most people shop at the Gap, or A&F, or wherever, there are those who try to stand out, to be unique, that find Hot Topic the place to find clothing. Society benefits from those rebelling against it. That's capitalism for you, and it's very fitting it should be this way. It begs a question, then. When does the expression of individualism become swallowed up by the standards of the masses. Again, cue the South Park episode.
The Goth kids (the true individuals in the school) increasingly become outraged at those who are just playing "vampire," emulating the popular Twilight series. So they burn down the Hot Topic store.

So I'll conclude this part here. Next I'll take a look at some of the other books that have dealt with individualism, and deal with parity in the NFL, which is probably the most Socialist business venture in America today.