The Danger Of Makeover TV, or, “These Pants Don’t Fit Anymore”

I watched an episode of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo last night and it was… fine. I like these kinds of shows, and I get emotionally entwined with the people who are having themselves/their homes made over. I wept through both seasons of the new Queer Eye (which, by the way, really impacted my understanding of post-Industrial Revolution broken masculinity, and is a subject I’ve been taking notes on for the past year). I like watching all home makeover shows. I like the little dramas, and I like feeling inspired to take action in my own life.

But watching this show I suddenly realized something I had missed before, and it was the subtle way that shows like this reinforce really bad messaging about change, and how it works. It’s the exact kind of messaging that leads to people getting discouraged and dropping their New Year’s Resolutions, by the way.

At the end of the episode, after a few days of decluttering and tidying, this gay couple in WeHo sat down to discuss how this experience changed them. They both said they were dramatically altered, that their approach to life and emotions had been forever rejiggered, and that they cherished their now-tidy home. And I was suddenly struck with the thought “This is bullshit.”

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“Do. Or Do Not. There Is No Try.”

For years Yoda’s famous advice to Luke Skywalker on Dagobah vexed me. “Do or do not, there is no try” always struck me as fatally reductive, and too results-oriented. It felt less like spiritual wisdom and more like corporate motivational drivel.

In fact, the phrase calls to mind Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan, center of one of the most famous ad campaigns of the 20th century*. But as is so often the case with stuff that gets printed on motivational posters or superimposed on images of ladies doing yoga on the beach and then shared on Facebook, there’s true wisdom in there. You just gotta get past the bullshit to see the beauty.

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BLACK MIRROR: BANDERSNATCH And The Illusion Of Free Will

This contains minor spoilers for Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

I’m in the minority on Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch interactive episode – I find Charlie Brooker’s anti-humanism increasingly tiresome, and out of place in a world that desperately needs positivity*, and I also think that the meta-within-meta concept is student-level stuff and not half as clever as it thinks it is – but I was intrigued by the way the episode approaches the concept of free will. Free will is one of the underpinnings of our modern society – we all operate under the assumption that we have it, after all – but it’s less clear cut than that.

The usual free will debates are free will vs destiny, which fall into the theistic realm – destiny is a supernatural concept that requires some kind of a guiding force. But for the past few decades the real debate has shifted inward, to the self, rather than outward to God or the Fates or whatever. It’s possible that we don’t have free will because we are, essentially, robots whose programming allows us to justify the actions we are forced to take as choices we make.

You see this in Bandersnatch, as Stefan becomes slowly aware that he’s not the one making the choices in his life. In the context of the show this is a fourth wall break, but it read to me as being quite close to some of the stuff I’ve been learning about the human mind in the past couple of years, and that is quite close to research that has changed the way we look at the world and our place in it.

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Change Your Perspective, Change Your Life

Perspective is everything. Like in the picture above – using forced perspective, Peter Jackson was able to have Elijah Wood and Sir Ian McKellen together in a scene where one is hobbit-sized and the other human sized without resorting to computer trickery.

I think about perspective a lot when I’m driving. I don’t have a big car, so when I’m on the highway (and thanks to my commute I’m on A LOT of LA highways), I usually can’t see beyond the car in front of me. When traffic is being a pain in the ass I’ll get annoyed at the person in front of me, blaming them for the slowdown – get off your fucking phone!, I’ll think to myself – but when I get into the other lane I’ll get a new perspective on the situation. Sometimes the slowdown is for sure because of the guy in front of me, but sometimes there are extentuating factors.

Here’s one that happened a couple of weeks ago: I was mad at this SUV in front of me, just trundling along in the fast lane while other cars were whizzing by in other lanes. When I finally got an opening I pulled to the right and sped up, and as soon as I did I saw that the SUV was in fact trapped behind a big, slow-moving Lincoln. So I sped up to get a look at the driver of the Lincoln, and maybe give them a bit of stink eye or pull in front of them to remind them what a real driver does on the highway.

It was a little old lady in the Lincoln. Maybe six hundred years old, hunched over the steering wheel in that posture that indicates she’s sitting on a phone book in order to be able to see out the window.

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The Movies Are Still Saving My Life

When I was a kid the movies saved my life. I grew up in a single parent household with a mother whose emotional neglect bordered on abuse; I suffered from an undiagnosed anxiety disorder and the parts of my brain that were not broken operated so differently from the other kids that I had a hard time making friends or forging any connections. I found a lot of solace in TV and comics and books, and on TV I began watching movies, which our local stations ran all weekend and after school and late at night. Then I began going to the movies, to the little Main Street Twin (which now somehow has like eight screens), and eventually I took the train into Manhattan to see older and weirder movies. VHS opened the world up for me, and it was off to the races from there.

The movies offered a refuge and an outlet, they let me dream and hope. I was a troubled, poor kid from Queens who couldn’t have been farther from the movie industry, but in that world I saw meaning and in those movies I saw my fears and my dreams reflected back at me. I was so alone all the time, but not when I was watching a movie. 

I spent all of my free time immersed in movies. Eventually I spent ALL of my time immersed in movies, making an unlikely career out of them.

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Nobody Cares That DIE HARD Is A Christmas Movie

It’s the most wonderful time of year: the time when people show up on social media to fight for the idea that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. The thing is… there’s nobody to fight. Nobody really DISAGREES with that position; at most people like me respond to “Die Hard is a Christmas movie!” arguments with “Sure… okay. Whatever. I guess.”

This comes to mind because I saw this tweet from a friend of mine:

 

And I thought it was very funny, but also very true. And not just true about Die Hard As Christmas Movie, but about all things in our lives.

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Being Negative Is Lazy, Easy And Safe

If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that people who are positive and sunny are generally phonies, fakes and full of shit. They are wearing masks that cover that the dark rot at the center of their souls or, if they’re actually happy, they’re only that way because ignorance is bliss. We all know that the darker, more cynical and more depressed someone is the more real they are, the more truth they see and the more they have to say.

I regret to inform you that this is all bullshit. Maybe not the part about the phonies – we live in a society that values image above reality, and so many unhappy people put desperate masks of positivity on, like serial killers spraying perfume to hide the smell of the rotting carcasses of their victims. These people may be giving positivity a bad name. But the rest of it – the idea that only the depressed and the morose and the negative people have truth, especially in the arts, is nonsense.

In fact it might be the exact opposite. The more I learn – or more specifically, the more I unlearn 40 years of cultural conditioning – the more I realize that being negative and cynical is actually living on easy mode. It’s the default setting, it’s the simplest way to be. It’s using your brain exactly as it was evolved to be used and not going above or beyond in any way. It’s lazy, in fact.

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Pete Davidson And The Dark Side Of Civility

Civility: it’s the new dirty word. If you’re a progressive or know progressives you’ve probably heard the word spat in a way that drips with hatred and scorn, often by people who have never so much as shoved another human being but are very, very, very vocally for visiting violence upon people they personally identify as Nazis.

But is civility so bad? Yeah, probably. At least the way that we mean it these days, a way that was personified in the terrible Saturday Night Live segment with Dan Crenshaw this weekend. A quick catch-up in case you have been mercifully unaware of this brouhaha: Pete Davidson, the Lil Xan of SNL, made fun of then-candidate Dan Crenshaw for having one eye (or more accurately for his intense looking eye patch). The world, always looking for things about which to be mad, got up in arms. The next week Crenshaw came on SNL, mocked Davidson in return, and got an apology.

That’s great, right? I mean, I’m a Buddhist who believes in restorative justice, so isn’t this like the best possible outcome from the whole thing – a moment of unity and compassion and forgiveness? You might think that… if you didn’t know Dan Crenshaw’s policies.

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The Words Of My Imperfect Teacher

The first time I met Noah Levine, I thanked him for saving my life. And I meant it; in the weeks after experiencing the consequences of my past actions – I had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman 13 years prior, something I did not recall but responsibility for which I accepted – I had become sober, but I was floundering with how to deal with my new reality. I was shamed, my life as I knew it was over, and I didn’t know how to live with myself. As is common for the newly sober I threw myself into sobriety memoirs; I wanted to read about other people’s hard bottoms and see that they had survived and maybe even flourished afterwards. One of those books I read was Dharma Punx, Noah’s story of being a young drug addict and alcoholic who got sober and got into Buddhist meditation.

The first time I ever meditated it was based on the instructions that Noah wrote in that book. I sat on my couch and focused on my breath, counting each one, starting over if I got distracted. I couldn’t get past four that first time (today I can sometimes get to ten. Don’t set goals in your meditation would be my advice. Just do the thing). I picked up Noah’s other books – Heart of the Revolution, which presented spiritual awakening as a form of guerrilla warfare against a corrupt and degenerate society, and Against the Stream, which really explained the Buddha’s teachings as a form of radical countercultural protest. These things spoke to me deeply.

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Suffering And Acceptance In Video Games (aka CALL OF DUKKHA)

I play Call of Duty online multiplayer. Maybe more than I should; perhaps any COD online is too much, as the game is the opposite of what I am trying to cultivate in my mind. No, this isn’t a military violence thing, rather it’s an acknowledgment that shooters like this are twitch-based games. They are about reflexes and reactions, and I am trying to train my mind to respond more slowly, not more quickly. I think they make me kind of jumpy and amped up in a not-great way.

Maybe I’ll kick the habit, but in the meantime I was playing this morning and noticed some serious dukkha happening in the game. Not to me, although I do notice my own suffering sometimes when the game isn’t going my way. No, I saw it in another guy who was ranting and raving about the other players, whom he was calling the kind of slurs that I as a straight white man cannot repeat.

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