[Originally written in May of 2010 then promptly forgotten as my life got very busy playing in a new band. An inauspicious move from LA to Portland in 2012 kept my writing on the backburner for a while, and only today did I rediscover this piece. After four years it’s still pretty darn spot on!]
As I stand in line at the drug store, the blond supermodel on the cover of this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue looks out at me from some perfect beach and makes the same impossible promise Elle MacPherson did many years ago, when as an eight-year-old sports card collecting SI subscriber I came home from school one day to find not a baseball or football star on the cover, but the ravishing Aussie absently trying to rip off her one-piece navy bathing suit as she stared into the camera.
That profound moment of sexual awareness was not the first time my young mind had been infiltrated by a powerful outside force, because I was just one of the millions of media crack babies growing up in the early 80s held captive by what the entertainment industry’s best minds cooked up. From the glamorous party lifestyle in MTV rock videos to know-it-all brats who sanctioned rebellion in sitcoms, our worldview has been so manipulated and poisoned that it is no wonder many of us now find ourselves at thirty infantilized, holding unrealistic expectations, and overly excited about the latest Predator movie sequel.
We’ve tried playing at being adult, maybe got a master’s degree or worked for a non-profit organization, some of us even got married for a few years. But for our generation the simple routine of keeping a town functioning is not enough because we bought into the media-driven vision for what life should be, of beautiful people on the go having it all and things just working out in the end. But it’s a hard fox to chase, and sometimes all it takes is a speed bump rather than a fall to knock you out of the race—and then every game-winning touchdown on TV makes you sick with longing for what should have been your own moment in the spotlight.
I think of my own entrapment now with a bitterness I barely dare let myself indulge considering how much it may have cost me. Once at age six while on a family shopping outing I had put an important Star Wars figure into the shopping cart, but my three-year-old sister, who was sitting in the cart’s child seat and not even knowing what she was doing, threw it onto the floor. None of us saw her do it and when we got home I discovered that the toy wasn’t there, then made my dad drive all the way back to the store but he couldn’t find the exact one and bought me another instead. I was furious and resented my sister for it forever…because already I had cast my lot with Star Wars over my own family.
But it’s not a two-way street, you must give of yourself more and more, and when I see grown men dressed up in costumes at Star Wars conventions I thank God that even though I was not the son and brother I should have been, I’m not too far gone, I can still make an effort now.
In my own flaws I see a societal sickness, and with this small bit of lucidity I must take on the sacred role of witness and see the tragedy for what it is: a nation of incomplete souls, unworthy of their affluence and unable to pull themselves away from the buffet long enough even to procreate to keep the country alive. How can the beautiful girls I knew at age 14, the ones who had the boyfriends and wouldn’t give me a second thought, when I see them now on Facebook at age 31 still unmarried and childless, I wonder how after all these years of dating and vacations and fun, they still haven’t had enough? What a reflection of the state of our nation that its young women find their most natural and important role undesirable.
Meanwhile two other girls I knew, one of Arab descent and the other Greek, both married in their early twenties and now have several kids. I’ve seen photos of their beautiful families and even in my DNA I felt the righteous truth. But it seems that for most white Americans, our European ancestors gave up their entire cultural heritage in trade for the materialistic American Dream, but nothing exists to fill the spiritual void.
It’s as if we’ve substituted obsessions for spirituality and intimacy—obsession for sports, for politics, for celebrities—and now with the internet and a thousand TV channels there’s much more involved than when it was just about watching the game and the presidential debates. Now we watch the NFL draft, we wheel and deal the players on our own fantasy team, we watch celebrity poker, we watch pundits argue about a governor’s infidelities, on and on, anything to keep us from ever finding ourselves sitting in silence with our thoughts—because then we would hear our souls screaming in despair, “For all the human suffering throughout the ages, you’re lucky enough to live in a place with all this opportunity, yet you spend your time reading a website about what clothes a singer wore to a party you weren’t even invited to?!”
I see this all as a confession of my own guilt as well. I too have indulged in the orgy of distraction even when I was old enough to know better. The dawning realization of how empty we all are is sickening. This addiction to media and its filtered worldview, be it the soon-forgotten news of the day to even my craving for great books and films, ultimately it is escapism from real life with its mundane tasks and flawed people. We’ve got to find a balance between pursuing this desire to get distilled experience through art and being present for your own life, however painful it may be to accept that doing the dishes at home in sweatpants is more in touch with reality than the androgynous people dancing all over each other in your favorite pop music video.
It’s hard to resist the pull of that other kind of life, which is so easy to turn on and off without consequences whereas raising kids to be real humans demands patience, endurance, standards, being judgmental. And our generation doesn’t want to judge, we grew up watching “We are the World,” we were taught that we’re all the same, that we can help all the poor people far away, not that it’s human nature to scheme and invade and take care of your own. Yet in cloaking our selfishness in self-righteousness we actually prove the point—when tsunamis and earthquakes ravage Third World countries, we buy plastic wristbands and say we helped with the recovery.
I think now of my own entrapment by the media fantasy world, how as a very young child this sealed my fate of not connecting with people and in the end it drew me to the heart of the dream factory, Los Angeles. It’s as if because the comedy shows and CDs and porno magazines got me through the loneliness and confusion of the high school years, I had to come to LA to find tangible fulfillment of the promises or at least to repay the debt by working for the machine.
But something in me revolted against the plan, it wasn’t enough for me to be an extra on the sitcoms, I balked when I started doing stand-up comedy and later found myself writing a script “perfect” for Will Farrell and Andy Dick. Every time I entered the gates of a castle I thought I wanted to inhabit my stomach tightened and I made a move toward self-destruction to get out of there.
Each of these episodes was followed by many months of aimless isolation at the shock of discovering that yet another dream come true had left me empty. The feelings of doubt and failure were paralyzing, and as has always been the case I was unable to communicate this frustration to anyone—and Star Wars wasn’t listening. In the back of my mind I have always thought of myself as a seeker of wisdom and truth destined for great things, and now I look upon these moments of defeat as part of the necessary cleansing to rid me of my pop culture conditioning.
Several years ago my friend worked for Playboy Radio and I accompanied him to Las Vegas when they went to broadcast at the porn convention. Having come of age before the internet made porn easily accessible and you got your kicks from magazines and the occasional VHS tape, this world still held some mystique for me and I was curious to see what it would be like to actually meet one of these performers. While I did speak to one mindless petite blond the memory that stays with me the most is when I saw a middle-aged man running down the aisle with his camera bag—in a flash my mind said, “What are you doing here? You should be back home chasing your son down the soccer field sidelines with that camera!”
But is he really any different from all of us with our fantasy baseball teams and tabloid subscriptions and Sundays spent watching golf on the couch? And what about all the purposeless travel, flying halfway around the world to pose for a photo op in front of a piece of architecture whose history and meaning we are completely ignorant about? And the hedonistic indulgence, the plastic surgeries, vanity waving a scalpel in defiance of aging gracefully—all of us evading the necessity of living local, at a slow pace, without dishonesty or fear.
I’ve wondered if we affluent ones are somehow the vanguard of a transcendent new level of man or if the rich of every era rationalize their sick arrogance in this way. This new breed we have become, is it the proof of a nothing culture or are we striving for the crowning creative achievement in order to leave some sort of digital pyramid in our wake instead of just perpetuating the species? When I think about how we finally conquered the oceans and use this triumph to load cargo ships full of Barbie dolls made in Chinese factories because it’s cheaper, I think I know the answer.
Back in 2006 I was in Virginia for a friend’s wedding and one day as I was driving through a park I saw a young Indian couple—the man in checked shirt tucked into blue jeans, the woman with Hindu shawl over her head—playing badminton with each other, and it struck me how most of us savvy Americans would scoff at this beautiful scene, so afraid we are of being vulnerable while having fun playing a silly game.
We are a dying breed, we who have tasted the fruits of comfortable modern life and are bored—that which has always sustained men no longer interests us. We eschew the imperfections of a real life community for the virtual worlds online, we zone out with headphones at the gym and on the train, each the little king of his own mental island.
And for the few of us who try to break free, the cost is eternal vigilance. Recently even I got all wrapped up watching my hometown hockey team, they’d had the best record all season and were favored to win the Stanley Cup. But they lost in the first round of the playoffs and at the end of that awful game 7 I sat in a drunken stupor, my heart sick for a team I hadn’t even followed in ten years…when bounding out of the bedroom came my two cats, purring with love and ready to play.
We must find the strength to not let the sight of a team logo on football helmet elicit a too-deep emotional response. We must not fall in love with the air-brushed and Botoxed celebrity-model-actress creatures that litter our airwaves and newsstands. We must stop chasing all of the meticulously engineered dreams that leave us exhausted, broke, and unsatisfied. Somehow we’ve got to be happy with who we are and what we have, otherwise we’re going to lose the last of what little humanity we still have left.