Nation of Eight Year Olds

Twenty-four movies have topped the weekend box office charts so far in 2011. Of them:

  • Five were based on comic books (Captain America, Green Lantern, Green Hornet, X-Men, Thor)
  • Four were youth-oriented animated films (Rio, Hop, Rango, Cars 2)
  • Four were rom-com/bromance flicks (Hangover 2, Hall Pass, Just Go With It, No Strings Attached)
  • Two were film adaptations of popular children’s books (Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid)
  • Two were smash-’em-up action flicks (Fast Five, Battle: LA)
  • Two were horror-thrillers (Roommate, Rite)
  • Two were gritty adult dramas (Unknown, Limitless)
  • One was based on a series of toys (Transformers)
  • One was based on a theme park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean)
  • One was a monster movie featuring kids (Super 8)

Harry Potter is obviously an iconic cultural phenomenon, regardless of the quality of the individual films in the series, but beyond that one, I see maybe one great movie (Super 8) in the mix, bracketed by a lot of instantly-forgettable, unimaginative, unambitious, expensive, 3-D fluff. In recent years, this sort of mix has become pretty standard, as well-written, original, adult-oriented (not in the pornographic sense of that phrase) entertainment is squeezed out of the multiplexes by the loudest, biggest, splashiest, most derivative material possible. Last week, the internet buzzed with reports from Comic-Con, where Hollywood seems most happy to field test whatever reboots, regurgitations or repeats it has planned, pretty much guaranteeing that next year will be just as infantilized and superhero-videogame-toy-sequel based as this one was.

So when did we become a nation of eight year olds when it came to our entertainment choices? It used to be that quality grown-up movies could compete in the market with the big, loud fluff, so that Jaws and Dog Day Afternoon could both be box office boffo in the same year, or Chinatown could go toe-to-toe with The Towering Inferno and Blazing Saddles, while 2001: A Space Odyssey and Funny Girl could slug it out for top commercial honors in another year. The last time that the top box office film of the year was something other than a massive, effect-laden, franchise-based spectacle was in 1990 (Ghost), and you have to go back to a pair of Dustin Hoffman dramas (1988’s Rain Man and 1979’s Kramer vs Kramer) to get much by way of strong dialog and characterization and original story-telling for grown-ups at the top of the charts.

Don’t get me wrong: I love animation, I love strong graphic design, and I love a good, loud spectacle up on the screen — so long as those elements are deployed in the telling of riveting, well-written, original stories. But when a growing majority of big-budget screenplays are dedicated to endless childish variations of the DC versus Marvel superhero debates that I thought I’d left behind when I turned nine, or to squeezing every last dime out of stale, tired, flavorless film franchises, or to developing kid-movie characters around their potential for toy sale tie-ins, then I begin to grieve for my generation as I survey the cultural chaff in which we choose to nest.

And it is my generation that is leading this cultural retreat into the cozy womb of our childhood memories, of course, since we seem as a group to be terribly nostalgic for the ephemera of our collective youth, as manifested in Saturday morning cartoons, comic books, sitcoms, breakfast cereals and other such touchstones. I suspect this is because we were the first generation that had television as our collective babysitter, from our earliest sentient moments, since we came up in an era when economic and social changes resulted in more of us being raised in dual-earner or single-parent families than had been the norm before us. I can remember certain television commercials for toys better than I can remember actual television shows from my early years, and I suspect I’m not alone in that regard.

It’s not just in our movies either, mind you, where we show our reluctance to grow up. I remember sometime in the 1980s being struck by the fact that we seemed hell-bent on taking Hallowe’en away from the kids coming up behind us. That night used to be all about the wee ones dressing up to beg for candy, and the bigger ones having an excuse to engage in steam-releasing minor vandalism of the TP’ing, egging or shaving creaming variety. The idea of adults dressing up for Hallowe’en to go out partying seemed then, and still seems, absurd and embarrassing to me, but it’s become the norm for many folks my age and younger. As a result, Hallowe’en has replaced New Year’s Eve in my mind as the most idiotic of amateur nights, when grown-ups go out to act like ill-behaved teenagers, safe behind the security of their masks, after taking the kids to the mall for a sadly sanitized version of the trick or treat ritual. (I wasn’t the only one feeling this way in the ’80s, as the Dead Kennedys wrote a fantastic song touching on this phenomenon, called, appropriately enough, “Halloween.”) I stay home on nights like that accordingly.

What’s the solution? There isn’t one. How’s that for fatalism at its finest? I just hope that as we cling hard to the comfort of our own childhood memories, we also allow our children and their children to do the same. Perversely, however, we often seem equally fixated on getting them to grow as quickly as they can into tiny, world-weary adults.

Perhaps, then, they will share their comic books with us?

On Success, And Who Defines It

When I was a kid, one of the boys in our pack decided that he didn’t like his gender-neutral first name anymore, and would prefer to be addressed by a more masculine nickname. A neighborhood kid meeting was called, we were all informed of his decision, and directed to address him only as “Rock” from that point forward.

Unfortunately, The Boy Who Would Be Rock forgot one of the most important Laws of the Playground: “Thou Shalt Not Pick Thine Own Nickname.” Within weeks, his requested appellation had devolved into “Wormy Rocky.” This was the nickname which stuck, and which every kid in the neighborhood and the school called him through the years that followed, and which probably still haunts him whenever and wherever his old friends gather, nearly four decades later.

I’m reminded of this story every time I hear representatives of the burgeoning “life coaching” industry touting “success” as a product that they can sell to the individuals who hire them — because the belief that a person can ever unilaterally declare himself or herself to be a “success” is just as misguided as a person believing that they can unilaterally choose their own nickname, especially when such a declaration requires adopting tortured definitions of the word “success” itself.

You may work hard, on your own or with hired assistance, to reach a point where you can declare yourself happy, or content, or self-actualized, or fulfilled, or comfortable, or pleased with yourself, or proud, or any number of other terms that address your inner emotional states, and those are fine and grand achievements, in and of themselves. Well done, you!

These positive inner emotional states are not, however, synonymous with “success,” which is a label that gains resonance primarily when it is applied to you by others, based on the cultural norms of the society or group in which you live. And as my unfortunate friend Wormy Rocky learned, the harder you try to pin a label on yourself, the more likely it becomes that the other members of your society or group are going to start calling you something derogatory instead, especially if your self-claimed label doesn’t correspond with their own empirical observations.

Success peddlers often market their snake oil by formulating a logically-fallacious world wherein the absence of a thing called “success” is equal to the presence of a thing called “failure.” They then define “failure” as a product of the choices made and habits embraced by their would-be clients, essentially declaring such failures to ultimately be the clients’ own faults. With their assistance, they claim, such choices and habits can be corrected, flipping the life toggle from the “failure” to the “success” setting, to be followed by continued (paid) consultation, lest their new successes lapse back into their pre-intervention failure ways.

This seems grossly opportunistic to me, and the approach seems designed to prey upon the insecurities of the more emotionally vulnerable members of our society.

At best, hiring a life coach or any other consultant to deliver “success” to an individual is tantamount to paying someone to play the role of a friend or a cheerleader, which may be an effective gambit for some, and perhaps even worth the money for people who place a high value on emotional contentment and self-satisfaction, and need such reinforcement to achieve it. No hurt, no foul there, really, if it is a satisfying transaction between consenting adults who understand the rules of the game they are playing with each other.

As prospective clients grow more emotionally or financially vulnerable, however, there is a real risk of deep damage being done to them when under-trained life coaches inject themselves into spaces that are better filled by counselors, financial advisers, mental health professionals, clergy or other properly trained and credentialed service practitioners.

Unfortunately, it seems that much of the “success” marketing in the modern self-help industry is, indeed, targeted toward such people, whose belief in their own perceived failures may be as much a function of mental illness or addiction or the crushing effects of a dire economy as it is a function of how their peers actually view them. Exploiting such people by selling them pablum and bromides seems professionally deplorable to me.

For people (or organizations) that are truly seeking to achieve tangible success in the eyes of their own cultures and communities, any hired help that they engage must be prepared to offer measurable, deliverable, meaningful goods and services, rather than simply touting some nebulous, all-encompassing, self-proclaimed definition of “success” as an end commodity itself.

When you step back and analyze such ill-defined marketing claims, the very concept of life coaching or success training as some sort of holistic, all-encompassing discipline is, ultimately, absurd, as jacks (or coaches) of all trades are almost always masters of none.

If you need help with job transition, then you should engage a proven employment counselor or human resources organization, not a life coach. If you need assistance managing your finances, work with a qualified financial adviser, not a life coach. If you need emotional counseling, work with a therapist. If you need help with organizing your living and working spaces, call a closet consultant. If you need time management skills, find a professional organization or continuing education center that offers such courses. If you need to improve your physical fitness, hire a trainer, or join Weight Watchers.

If you can afford a life coach, then you can afford these services, and if you can not afford a life coach, then many of these services may still be available at no cost from credentialed, licensed nonprofit providers in your community. And working with professionals who are trained to deal in and produce tangible, measurable outcomes in their specific areas of expertise is likely to reap you more long-term benefit than working with a personal consultant whose primary motivation may simply be to continue a paying relationship by doing whatever it takes to make you feel good about yourself.

Feeling good about yourself does not necessarily make you a success, though, any more than being perceived as a success will necessarily make you feel good.

Equally important, not being perceived as a success does not necessarily make you a failure. The world is not digital, and there’s a whole lot of gray space between the poles defined by those labels.

At bottom line, we don’t become successes by hiring cheerleaders to plumb our inner spaces with us, then declaring “I am a success” to a skeptical world around us, which may see strong evidence to the contrary in the very decision to hire a life coach in the first place. Anyone could achieve that form or success, and when everyone is a success, then no one is a success, really. How dull.

We truly become successes, rather, by looking to the world around us, understanding its expectations, and figuring out ways in which we can productively use our own unique talents and skills to meet those expectations. Not everyone can do that, so when a culture recognizes those who do, such recognition has merit, meaning and resonance.

And it’s always better to hear “you are a success” from someone who isn’t being paid to tell you that, right?

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Eight): Secret Meadow

The largest undeveloped parcel of land within my Hidden in Suburbia range has long eluded me, as its perimeters are rendered formidable for three reasons:

  1. A good portion of its boundaries are defined by bogs and swamps that are beyond Trusty Steed’s capabilities.
  2. Most of the non-aquatic segments of its boundaries are blocked from easy road access by houses, fences, and backyards, through which I generally don’t pass.
  3. The owners have done a particularly fine job of properly signing its boundaries with “Posted” and “No Trespassing” signs, which I don’t cross, so long as they’re clearly presented and obvious.

I’ve done a lot of research trying to figure out how to get into the heart of what I’ve come to call The Secret Meadow, and have generally been foiled, time and time again. Until this week, when a low-expectation push from the east revealed an incredible network of large trails that are completely invisible to Google Maps and Google Earth due to rich, full, over-hanging foliage. While the aforementioned signage issue stymied me in the end, I actually got deeper into The Secret Meadow than I’d ever been before, and I was awed by what a beautiful piece of property it is, right smack in the middle of deepest, darkest suburbia, where you’d never expect to find it.

For your own peak into The Secret Meadow, click the photo below for the narrated version of this installment, or click here to see the wordless slideshow.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

Facebook Without Facebook (Part Two)

I’ve been down in New York City since Sunday, with no computer in tow, so sorry for lack of regular Indie Albany administrative support and announcement services that I normally provide. While I was away, I found myself mentally noting certain things that might have found themselves on Facebook, were I still there. Here are some of those stray neuron firings to fill the time until a more fully-formed post bubbles up into my fore-brain:

  • I find Neti Pots to be absolutely terrifying. Why would you pour water into your nose?!? WHY?!?!?
  • I listened to an incredible 1973 live recording of “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” by Genesis this morning, which made the thought of Peter Gabriel traveling around with an orchestra playing Radiohead and Coldplay covers all the more depressing.
  • Three days in New York City in 90 degree heat = at least 30 days trying to get the smell out of my sinuses. And don’t you dare suggest a Neti Pot . . .
  • I think the main reason that crime has dropped so dramatically in the Times Square area over the past two decades is the fact that even the criminals find the churning mass of tourists slugging it out to the get into the M&M Store to be more than they can bear.
  • I had a lovely meal at Momofuku Ssam Bar with my friend Allie, who I hadn’t seen in decades. It was delightful on all fronts.
  • I have indoor cats, so I am used to processing cat crap, using a foot-long plastic scoop to remove it from a box filled with clay pellets, then carrying it to the trash can. Gross, but manageable. On the flip side: I gagged a little every time I watched a dog-owning New York City denizen put a baggie on their hand to pick up their canine’s droppings, turning it inside out and stowing it in a pocket or sack. That’s far more of a direct tactile experience than I ever want to have with my pet’s waste. Blech!
  • I also had a nice meal at Saigon 48. Nothing earth-shaking, but nice ambiance, a great sugar-cane shrimp appetizer and an interesting yellow chicken curry noodle bowl as an entree. Not particularly authentic in the latter case, but still very tasty.
  • The hotel I stayed in was in a convenient location at a good price, but I think I stayed in about the only room in the hotel that was located high enough, and at the right angle, to have the gigantic illuminated marquee below the Times Square ball-drop location flashing right smack in the middle of my window all night long. This would not have been a problem, except for the fact that if I closed the curtains, the window air conditioner unit did not adequately cool the room (see comment on 90 degree heat in NYC above). You’d be amazed at the wattage they pump out there at 4:00 in the morning . . .
  • When I am in New York City, I spend much of my free/down time walking, checking stuff out. When I am on the street, I try to make eye contact with as many people as I possibly can, just because it seems to freak them out so mightily. The more they freak, the more I smile . . .

Facebook Without Facebook

I noted a couple of days ago that I was eyeballing my final days on Facebook and 48 hours later, I went ahead and pulled the plug. I now have only seven friends there (all of them family members), down from 600 or so at my peak, and I like and administer only two groups: Indie Albany and USNA ’86. Since I’m The Destroyer, obliterating this chapter of my life feels solidly satisfying, since nothing is worse than clinging to a community for longer than is seemly or healthy, especially when the proprietors of said community seem hell-bent on making it annoying and intolerable.

Facebook had a good run. But now, for me, it’s done. Like the Times Union Blog Portal, Upstate Ether, Upstate Wasted, Xnet2 Liste, Collider Message Board, Beef Log, Metroland, CompuServe RockNet, Cyber-Yugoslavia, Sounding Board, Orkut, Friendster, Classmates, The Flexible Tetragrammaton and many other online and media communities in which I’ve participated over the years. I will give Facebook credit for holding my attention longer than most interactive websites have done, so props to them for that.

Now, lest I sound like more of a heartless, sociopathic tool than I actually mean to be, I do want to note that it was great to re-establish connections with a lot of folks from years gone by via Facebook, and it’s great to still be in touch with so many people from most of those other, earlier groups as well. Here’s hoping that I’m able to keep in touch with many of them in the years ahead . . . but I’d just like to do it in a place where I’m not constantly on high alert to dodge rule changes, security breaches, hackers, crackers, stackers, attackers, spambots, spiders, crawlers and FarmVille players. Not to mention those creepily relevant advertisements on the right side of my page that made it very clear that, no matter what their printed policies said, Facebook’s marketeers were clearly data-mining my words and links to use against us, for their own profit.

So what’s the next step for me? I’m knocking around Google+ at the moment, with low expectations, though the platform looks clean and efficient, so maybe I will be pleasantly surprised there. I’ve got a sizable network on LinkedIn, and can always be reached there. And, as also mentioned earlier, I’m relaunching jericsmith.com, and Indie Albany continues to grow more robust and durable with each passing month. This platform has legs at this point, with a solid readership. Score one for the little guys and girls.

“But Eric,” I hear some hardcore, longtime Facebook devotees saying, “it’s just not the saaaaaaaaaaame here! Waaaaaaaahhhhhhh!”

Well, true, except that the only fundamental differences are the facts that Indie Albany won’t steal your photos and personal data, force you to look at advertisements, and change the rules of membership on you while you hang out here.

Don’t buy that? Okay, let me show you what I mean: here’s a rough estimation of what you would have seen from me tonight had I hung out of Facebook instead of being here . . .

**********

9:06 PM: I can’t decide which is scarier: clowns or mommy-bloggers.

9:23 PM: Dear House of Representatives: Isn’t it time that we let the grown-ups drive the car for a spell, since we’re getting perilously close to the cliff? Signed, Your Employer.

9:45 PM: I think I just saw a mommy-blogger with a balloon in the sewer grate in front of my house.

9:56 PM: Tragic Mulatto were easily the greatest ’80s band that nobody but me seems to remember and love. The final song from their final album. Requiescat In Pace.

10:26 PM: A mommy-blogger just offered me candy to get in her white panel van with no license plates. I asked her if the candy had caramel in it. It did, so I said “no thank you.”

10:40 PM: Wait! Maybe Human Sexual Response were the greatest ’80s band that nobody but me seems to remember and love. It’s tough to top “Land Of The Glass Pinecones.”

10:58 PM: Q: How many mommy-bloggers does it take to change a light-bulb? A: Two, one to change the bulb, and one to post a photo of the big boy doo-doo that L’il Sproutman Bunkum Doodle proudly left in the poo-poo pail this afternoon. Yay!

11:12 PM: Being Nice . . . You’re Doing It Wrong.

11:28 PM: Dear House of Representatives: Isn’t it time you set aside partisan differences and did something worthwhile, like putting a cap on the number of mommy-bloggers allowed in the country? Signed, Your (Terrified) Employer.

**********

Okay . . . that’s pretty much what I likely would have posted on a typical Facebook evening. Underwhelming when the Emperor’s clothes are stripped from the words, right? But why does it feel that way, really, since now you can respond to those words and links just like you can on Facebook? There’s a place here where you can comment on my little bon mots of inane wisdom, and there’s a “like” button on the comment page that you can push if you’re so disposed, and there’s an RSS feed subscription, so my piffle and tripe can be delivered in real time, and there’s eight other bloggers here at Indie Albany, so our “wall” will always have variety on it, with multiple voices offering multiple posts and perspectives.

We might not help you hook up with your third-grade crush, and I’m not going to become a billionaire here, but beyond that, we’re as fully functional as we need to be.  So I think that my group blog and personal blog will do just fine for me from a social networking standpoint for the foreseeable future . . . and here’s hoping that others agree.

For the Young Sophisticate

1. I’ve had Che Guevara T-Shirt’s New Young Guns of the Angular Wooden in high-repeat mode on my iPod recently. The Albany-bred trio (K. Sonin on guitar, bass and vocals; Matthew Heuston on bass, guitar and vocals; Sean Meddler on drums) are ostensibly rooted in the math-rock pot of the post-rock garden, but they’re growing some shaggy, potent stuff out there in that all-too-often arid loam. Their second full-length disc finds the Che T’s mining a rich vein between thick slabs of heavy King Crimson and Black Flag, where orderly and ornate composed musical figures are stretched and bent in ways where you think they might break, but they never do . . . leaving you marveling at their tensile strength and elasticity. When I listen to Che Guevara T-Shirt today, I’m often reminded of the glory days of SST Records in the early-to-mid-’80s, when the label embraced and promoted such genre-melting fare as Saccharine Trust, October Faction and seminal releases from the Minutemen, Meat Puppets and Husker Du. K. Sonin’s guitar work, in particular, evokes the fractured near-jazz that Joe Baiza used to spray across so many SST albums, and it’s a delight to hear him work his magic atop the tight, locked, intricate rhythms laid down by Heuston and Meddler. A worthy disc from an under-appreciated band. You can get the entire album here at K. Sonin’s website, and I’d also encourage you to check out Sonin’s challenging back catalog, which offers ample rewards for the discerning listener. Start with We Take the Dead and the Snow and Make Soup, and then explore further from there.

2. I’ve pretty much had it with Facebook at this point. Haven’t you? As an early adopter, I found it entertaining to see folks from all phases of my life show up and reconnect, but then after the initial blush wore off, I often found myself having to actively work to block content that I didn’t want to see (“Mafia Wars” anybody?), or protecting myself from less-savvy Internet denizens who thought that they were proving something when they clicked on those hacker-placed “Most People Can Only Watch This Video For Ten Seconds” spam-bombs. A few months ago, as part of my vanishing program, I cut back from about 600 friends to about 100 friends, and didn’t have a noticeably inferior experience over at Facebook. So today I took it to the next level: from 100 friends to about 30 friends. I figure that in this day and age, if the other ~570 folks that I’ve cut loose want to chat with me (or me with them), I’m pretty freakin’ easy to find if you know how to operate Google, and if you don’t then, well, we probably don’t have a lot to talk about anyway. I’m going to continue to maintain a Facebook presence so that I can tend to the Indie Albany page there (please subscribe), as well as manage my Naval Academy class reunion in October, but beyond that, I’m seeing LinkedIn and (maybe) Google+ as being the preferable platforms for my social media needs in the months and years ahead. If you follow me there, please don’t invite me to help with your Farm or your Town. Thank you.

3. I have decided to un-vanish one facet of my online presence, reviving my self named domain: jericsmith.com. I’ve had that domain registered since the late ’90s, and I’ve got it locked down until 2020 at this point, so it seemed a shame not to use it in some capacity. For a long time, it served as an archival destination for my 20+ years online, but I think this year, rather than just re-posting all of the old stuff, I’m going to re-brand it as a destination for my professionally-oriented writing, while Indie Albany serves as my primary repository for creative work. So feel free to bookmark or subscribe to jericsmith.com, and as things reach ripeness in my frontal lobe, I’ll make decisions about whether they belong there or here, while still providing all of the infrastructure and “back-of-house” support for both operations. I think Indie Albany has reached a self-sustaining level of maturity and readership where I won’t be competing with myself or the other writers by reclaiming my own named brand in parallel . . . but if you find two sites of me exhausting, let me know, and I’ll reconsider if necessary.