“Sociologically Speaking” with Fashion Designer Shwetambari Mody

Fashion Forecasting Board, Fall, Shwetambari Mody

Fashion Forecasting Board, Fall 09/10 © Shwetambari Mody

I have been looking to start writing little sociological features on things and people outside of the immediate realm of the social sciences — to see how our worlds correspond. Fashion has been on my mind lately. And, as luck would have it, I just recently came upon a young international textile designer, who also turned out to be a lovely person, who fits the bill perfectly.

I first saw Shwetambari Mody in an online interview with ITV. She was talking about her work and, just for a moment, flashed images of these gorgeous neck-scarves she created. Those scarves made an impression on me with their colorful pastels and breezy stylishness.

Having just recently moved back to NYC, I was reconnecting with old friends and professional contacts, some in the fashion industry — and lo and behold, was introduced to Shwetambari Mody! She agreed to answer a few questions and even let me see some of her work.

As it turned out, those scarves I liked so much were special. Shwetambari and her sisters conceptualized three scarves as a gift to their mother for her 60th birthday. They came up with three phrases that would capture the different sides of their mother’s personality and Shwetambari then sketched and Photoshopped out the rest and brought them to life in light boxes.

Light Box Scarves Shwetambari Mody

Light Box Scarves © Shwetambari Mody

Now that I got a closer look at these scarves, I can explain their appeal to me better. First of all, they were made with love and you can feel it, somehow. I see a classic look with deeply personal details. As a human, I am drawn to the emotion behind them. As a semiotician, I think of it as intimate content, wrapped in luxury form, which is an attractive and, dare I say, seductive combination.

As a person who has watched multiple seasons of Project Runway, another comment that comes to mind is “it looks expensive”, which is another way of saying “high-fashion”, I think. Accessories tend to serve more than one purpose: they are a form of artistic expression and are supposed to compliment your look, but also, they are a calling card of sorts, announcing your socio-economic standing to the world. Some people consider it frivolous to think or talk about such things, but we take for granted how much social identity management most of us do on a regular basis.

There are very few among us who do not, to some degree, consciously or not, care about the status and class they are projecting, in addition to just looking nice. Getting teeth straightened or whitened is not typically a medical necessity. We invest into “looking healthy” because good health, hygiene, neatness and time to work on one’s appearance are a sign of economic prosperity and, implicitly, social trustworthiness. Getting nails polished? It’s a message you are sending that you don’t do manual labor.

Now that I have met Shwetambari, I am additionally impressed with her level headedness and ability to combine the artistic with the pragmatic, which is a struggle for many creative types. I asked her why and how she went for both, the design degree and an MBA in branding. She said it was because she is an artistic personality from an entrepreneurial family and was always encouraged to pursue her own ideas and interests, as long as she worked very hard at it and kept in mind the business side of things. 

Shwetambari sees too many designers in the industry, who think only in terms of artistic pursuits, but have no understanding of the structural, economic and logistical workings of the industry. As a result, they run into snags when their plans crash and burn against the financial realities of the fashion business.

This problem is actually endemic to many professions that forcefully combine the creative and the pragmatic. This is certainly true of academia: some professors exist in their own intellectual and ideological bubbles, unaware of how their salaries get paid, how academic enrollment works or what the student lives are like. Academic administrators can be equally out of touch with the faculty’s intellectual orientation and the students’ best  educational interests.

Creative freelancers can be lightening-fast at their craft but incredibly slow — and I would go as far as to say psychologically paralyzed — to promote themselves and to set reasonable, sustainable, consistent prices for their services. It is quite understandable: not all are raised and socialized to think in business terms, not everybody has the acumen for it and not everyone cares. But for most creative types, some business courses, books, internships, apprenticeships — any way to get an idea of how things run and what things cost, will spare one of having to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis, if / when one chooses to become self-employed.

I would like to thank Shwetambari Mody for showing me her beautiful work, sharing a bit of her story, explaining to me new things about the fashion industry and indulging my sociological rants. Maybe she will let me follow up, when she releases her collection of Indian Luxury accessories in the future.

ELECTION 2016 H A N G O V E R: I’VE HAD WORSE

So… Maybe it’s because I anticipated this outcome for months and had time to freak out and, eventually, make some sort of peace with it — but I just don’t feel so crushed by Trump winning. Like so many others following the election countdown, I felt my brain overheat, couldn’t stop cursing and had the dissociative sensation of being transported into the Bizarro World. But it was not due to surprise that Trump was winning — it was more of a weary “groundhog day” effect of watching your gloomy predictions play out, as you idly stand by saying “yup”. Maybe if I scream “I told you so” at my TV a few more times…

The surprising part is that, a day later, things don’t feel as bad as I thought they would. For one, there is just the sense of relief that [this particular part of] the circus is finally over, for better or worse. *Exhale*

Then, the embittered cynic in me is kind of amused by all the shocked arm-wringing in my own “camp”. I get that people are traumatized. I am too. But none of what happened was unforeseeable or unpreventable. So, people who feel that Trump’s victory came out of nowhere, this is a wake-up call, and not to martyrdom but to ignorance. “We had no idea! Guess we live in our own world here in the North East / West Coast,” is being said a lot. Shouldn’t this revelation be more humbling? Elitist obliviousness is nothing to shrug off as no big deal. It played the key part in the outcome of this election.

Instead, social media is blowing up with  “OMG, I feel so disillusioned and betrayed that half of my compatriots are INHUMANE MORONS!” We are the 47-ish percent of the voting population that imagined themselves to be a shoo-in majority, and we’re calling them — the winning side — stupid?? Then again, they are a pushy majority who believe themselves to be the persecuted minority. Up is down, left is right. I won’t lie, the irony of it all has its own perverse beauty.

they're so stupid that i didn't see them coming

They’re SO stupid that I didn’t see them coming!

There is also a part of me that is kind of curious to see what happens next. We know all the terrible predictions — but what if there’s something positive there too? I mean, we are familiar with good progressive intentions leading to bad unintended consequences. Maybe in the Bizarro World, the narrow-minded, self-serving motivations of our leader will accidentally backfire with spectacular goodwill and prosperity for all?

Finally, I don’t know about you, but I’m just happy we didn’t get bombed. Concerns of explosions and active shooters have become a routine part of public commuting and space-sharing these days — and the election day was extra tense. Granted, the heightened anxiety does not stop New Yorkers from crawling all over the city like ants day and night, but I, for one, could do without the apocalyptic dread and the nagging anticipation that something is about to blow up beneath me. Talk about irony? As a child in the Soviet Union, I grew up expecting those damn Americans to drop the nukes on us any day. Lifetimes later, here I am, an American, waiting for those sneaky Russians to go off the deep end on us. And ISIS. And psycho locals. Great time to be alive, people.

Nonetheless, this fatalist is optimistic 🙂 There is room for unprecedented social unity and solidarity to grow from all this — though, perhaps not as a flower blossoming in a richly manicured garden, but as a wild mushroom materializing from the decomposing matter in cow dung. It might be random and kinda gnarly but also organic and maybe even magic.

ROCK 'N TROLL

GIRLY DRINKS DON’T MAKE YOU A WIMP — BUT CODDLING YOUR MASCULINITY DOES

manlydrinkerpussy

Consider this scene from an NYC bar, witnessed just a few days ago:

Man: Hey, I’m getting a drink — you want one?

Woman: Yeah, an energy drink please.

M: An energy drink?????? Ugh… I don’t want to order that, it’s fucking embarrassing!

W: Why? That’s what I want.

M: It’s emasculating.

W: Emasculation is a myth.

M: Then get it yourself.

W: Alrighty then, I will.

M: Can you order my drink, while you’re at it?

Honestly, I thought that people have caught on to the ridiculousness of claiming emasculation. Don’t they get that the concept itself is wrought with internal contradiction? If you’re such a strong, independent, in-control dude, no one has the power to strip you of those things by definition. If holding a non-alcoholic drink in your hand for 30 seconds or coming in contact with something pink renders you completely demoralized, I hate to break it to you, but you are a weak, weak individual.

I cannot fathom being asked a mundane favor (especially after I explicitly offered to be of service) — and then, being like, “Nah, what you want / need is too lame and doing this for you will make me look too uncool to complete strangers surrounding us. So, uh, no.”

What’s happening here is not a degradation of a man’s dignity. A “man’s dignity”, after all, is just human dignity, applicable to everyone, not just men.

What’s happening is taken-for-granted privilege (is there any other kind?). Men have been socialized to feel entitled to say yes or no to others at whim. Having not been taught to doubt himself or invest into a bit of introspection (e.g.: why do I feel threatened by the color pink?), this pseudo-masculine type is not spiritually equipped to confront the roots of his uneasiness. All he knows is that he is uncomfortable and that it is someone else’s fault. Things he does not like or understand are simply “unbecoming” of him.

To bring this back to the opening example: refusing a woman a drink because it’s too “foofy” and then, in the same breath, asking her to get him one. If “hypocrite” is a type of masculinity, then you’ve got it up the wazoo, buddy. Just drop the pretense that women are anything more than a social accessory to you. Here’s the simple formula favored by such “gentlemen”, which, sadly applies to a much wider range of real-life scenarios than just drink-fetching and purse-holding:

  1. Pretends to be courteous by offering to do something for a woman;
  2. When she indicates a choice he does not understand or approve of, feels free to deny her request, judgmentally putting her down along the way;
  3. Thinks nothing of asking the woman to do the exact thing for him that he just refused to do for her;
  4. Gets furious if the woman does not comply.

What you are, dear cis men who use the “emasculation” excuse, are insecure and lazy. You rely on your delusion of grandeur for getting out of cleaning or serving others. You hide behind it to justify being a half-assed parent. You reach for it to cover up your ignorance of the female anatomy and unwillingness to learn to be a giving lover. You punish women for your own feelings of meekness and smallness next to other pseudo-manly-men, fooled by their empty, shallow fronting. The notion that desired masculinity is predicated on “not being like a woman” is a crock of shit you are still joyfully feeding from, while the rest of us have to put up with the stench.

COMMON MYTHS ABOUT THE “GOOD OLD DAYS” YOU HAVE TO BE A LITTLE BABY TO BELIEVE

“Make America Great Again”, eh?

Sure, it is tempting to yearn for the good old days. Most of us do it when we feel dissatisfied with the present or anxious about the future, especially as we age and the grass seems wilted and rotten in the “here and now” and crisp and glossy on the other side of the time-space continuum fence.

It is only human nature to revise and embellish the past to fit our wishful thinking. But there exists a treacherous slippery slope, when people actually start believing those rosy dreams of the wondrously charmed past and let those delusions reflect too negatively on their perception of the present. You hear people “reminiscing” about times before they were even born, convinced that those were the best years — especially compared to the shitshow of modern realities.

simpsons-perfectpast

Watching TV reruns and hearing our politicians and media peons proclaim the end of morality, this nebulous “back then” comes off as a simpler and a fairer place. “Back in the day”, everyone was doing great-o: families stayed together, small businesses thrived, lawyers were honest, bankers were generous, the police were friendly and young people were just so gosh darn polite.

“Not like today”, we gripe to ourselves, “Not like this bleak, dickful world I must occupy, a victim of cruel timing!! I belong in an era when everyone knew how to work, how to love, how to live! But certainly not in this cesspool of weak, ignorant, apathetic morons!!!”

Well, my friend, you might want to start drinking or toking to loosen yourself up, cause these loathsome nincompoop contemporaries of yours are actually as good as it gets! And so is the theater of the absurd we call modern life. As hard as it is to believe, the world, in all its supreme crappiness, has never been safer or gentler. Not because the now is great but because the before was even more obnoxious. Let’s walk through the five most frequent laments for the “good old days” heard from your garden-variety crabby citizen — and debunk them for the fairy tales they are.

MYTH #5: TODAY’S WORLD IS SO VIOLENT – WOULDN’T IT BE GREAT TO GET BACK TO THE MORE PEACEFUL TIME IN OUR PAST?

Most of us are horrified by the onslaught of narratives, images and sounds of violence piping out of everywhere. It feels like the world is unraveling with gratuitous brutality and is about to reach a critical mass of FUBAR-ness that will result in “Michael-Bay-and-James-Cameron-had-a-baby” level of planetary wipe-out. In times like this, it is instructive to remember that our species’ rap sheet is actually improving.

It is a relief, of sorts, to know that our century does not hold a monopoly on human cruelty: people have been joyfully offing each other for thousands of years with impressive creativity and gusto. Despite emerging science making mass annihilation more possible than ever, we actually do less physical damage to each other today than in past eras.[1] The modern unprecedented advancement in information technology makes conflict and injustice more visible rather than more prevalent.

goodnews-tortureless2

 It is increasingly easy to feel like the walls are caving in and the sky is falling but let’s not overlook the silver lining on the noxious crudplatter that is our modern life.  At the very least, we have reached a level of civilization when we can begin to theoretically conceive of a fair, just, safe society. We have laws for complex notions such as “privacy”;  we have words like “ethics” and “inhumane” at our disposal to use in public debates on topics such as “Is it wrong to torture?”

Those public conversations did not exist before! The civil rights of “bad guys” have not always drawn so much interest and empathy from the general public, you know 🙂 And “the unwashed masses” were not always invited to participate in discussions or decisions of any real importance.

The bottom line is: for most of human history, you really had to be a one-percenter to feel secure from being driven off the land, maraudered, enslaved and violated.  Everyone else was in a tight race for survival, vulnerable to exploitation and oppression. The power elite got to live it up until they were “accidentally” poisoned by their own kin or casually dumped to rot away in a dungeon. And, occasionally, the rabble would throw down a revolution and behead everyone rich and fancy. So, no one was safe, really.

history-yuno-lurn2

Clearly, humans are still a very aggressive species, but today, some of our violent nature is seeped by “wars” we wage on the virtual battlefields. Instead of hitting each other with sticks and rocks, people express their anger and fear by furiously typing out profanities on anonymous discussion boards, bullying peers or stalking love interests’ social media accounts. Instead of going outside and picking a fight with a rando, intoxicated tough guys have to option to log on to Facebook and rip into some poor bastard who committed the ultimate treachery of not fact-checking their memes before posting. “I don’t care that you raised me, Grandma, you’re a fucking liberal fascist scum for “liking” O’Bummer’s speech! Gawd, how do these douchebags survive getting out of bed?”

So, perhaps we are just as violent in our minds, but not as much in our deeds. Online trolling is the lazy and / or cowardly person’s bar brawl. As luck would have it, there are many, many lazy cowards out there.

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MYTH #4: BACK IN THE DAY, PEOPLE TREATED EACH OTHER WITH RESPECT

No one will insist that today’s world is a glowing bastion of mutual respect and simple dignity. But to suggest that it was any better in the olden days is to erase all the blood and human tragedy of the hellish struggles for civil rights and basic life necessities denied to the majority of the world’s population by the very few in power.

In the United States, unless you are a white male of the upper class, you have no reason to long for the status quo of yore because all those old-fashioned courtesies the “yore” is so fondly remembered for would not have been available to you. But even if you are a wealthy Caucasian male, wishing for those days reflects quite poorly on your character. Are you suggesting you actually want to go back to the days of legal slavery, overt misogyny, religious morality police, child labor, etc.?

Because that’s a pretty damning thing to admit to wishing for. When you say that people aren’t respectful like they used to be, what you really mean is that you’re not being given “due” reverence as the undisputed master of the planet and every living thing in it, solely on the basis of the imaginary formula: low melanin + Y chromosome = *winning!*. The fact that your entitled ass doesn’t get automatic, unearned respect anymore is a heartening sign that the world is getting better, not worse.

norespect-dangerfield

      Maybe don’t be insufferable?

MYTH #3: KIDS TODAY ARE UNEDUCATED, MANNERLESS, ANTI-SOCIAL IMBECILES

This should be common knowledge, but let’s repeat it anyway, for the older crowd, god bless them: there has never been a single cohort of aging adults that did not consider the young people of their day to be the sure sign of the impending apocalypse! Those arrogant, crusty little blah blah blah blah *trail off* “This was, surely, not at all the case when I was a child – we were all thoughtful, well-behaved youngsters who worshiped and obeyed our parents.”

Of course you were, Dearie. You also always did the right thing and said all your prayers, so it’s shocking that God would punish you with these (check the rant that applies to your generation):

___ arrogant, defiant, oversexed, drugged up, barely literate little shits

___ pathetic, anti-social, vanilla pansy-ass, attention-deficient, barely literate little shits

thinkofthechildren-picard

The irony of ragging on their own spawn for being doomed, incompetent idiots seems to be wasted on parents who, after all, popped out and raised those funky creatures. And who, pray tell, came up with all that technology that you claim is sapping their brains and social skills? Stop blaming the inventions of the brilliant and/or evil minds of your own contemporaries on your unsuspecting offspring, people!

And while we are at it, let’s back off on holding them responsible for all the ills of the universe. Remember, you once inherited this turd of a world from your own parents! So, it seems hypocritical and mean to gloat to the next generation, like: “Ewww, you’re holding a turd! Way to catch a turd, dumbass!” Like you don’t know where they got the turd. From you. They got the turd from you.

To be perfectly clear, the young people of today are, indeed, arrogant, entitled little shits — but so were you and your parents and their parents and so on and so forth, to the dawn of human existence, so let’s zip it already.

MYTH #2: IN THE PAST, PEOPLE KNEW HOW TO LOVE EACH OTHER MORE

In today’s USA, approximately half of marriages end in divorce. This is a statistic many people find depressing and threateningly reflective of their own dwindling chances at romantic bliss. It’s true, divorce numbers have never been higher but let’s rid ourselves of the false premise that continued marriage equals a wholesome, “good-for-you” marriage.

Comfort, security, routine — marriage is designed to provide those things. At the same time, it is perfectly possible to be married and quite miserable until your dying day — and it becomes highly probable if you only get one chance to get it right. An entrenched sense of settlement, combined with social fears, unwillingness to change oneself and the hesitation to take a risk and “end up alone”: those are the guiding reasons why many people remain in marriages, not love, devotion or happiness.

howmarriagesend

Even if people had more technically “durable” marriages in the past than today, it sure as hell was not because they knew the secret to keeping passionate love alive for all eternity any more than us schmucks of today. It was for two decidedly un-warm-and-fuzzy reasons:

1) people needed to stay bonded for life out of socio-economic necessities and / or

2) marriage was compulsory and divorce was either completely illegal or socially stigmatized to the point where it was not a real option.

So, kiddies, instead of bemoaning the death of Love as we know it, be grateful for the unlimited opportunity to find a new lease on life and fulfillment. High divorce rates are actually a sign that the search for true love is quite alive: people are willing to leave their current partner and upset their established routines, identities and social lives — just to give themselves a chance at finding “the right one”, the fools.

Pretty romantic, no?

MYTH #1: WHEN *I* WAS YOUNG, THE WORLD WAS A BETTER PLACE

Who, among us, isn’t guilty of strolling down the ole’ memory lane and yearning for the magic of childhood? This tendency is so strong in humans that we start mourning the passing of our youth, while still in it.

21pilots-goodolddays-text

Go ahead, indulge in nostalgia — just don’t confuse the deeply personal experience of being a child with the historical time period that coincided with it.

Listening to some folks talk, they seem to genuinely believe that “back then”, life was objectively more exciting and full of opportunities, and that food tasted better and the air smelled fresher. Suuuure — and people and objects were much larger and distances were farther apart too  😆

In fact, the world had been aflame all along. It is just that your young brain was, first, too underdeveloped, sheltered and naive and, later, too drunk, high, horny and generally overstimulated to pick up on all the misery and atrocity surrounding you. If obliviousness shielded us from reality, all children and drunks would be immortal.

The truth is, the world of our youth was full of sudden possibilities because WE were full of untapped potential and it still remained to be seen what we would do with all those natural gifts. Then, somehow, you find yourself a grownup — with a hefty baggage of rejections, betrayals and losses and the lingering aftertaste of humble pie on your breath. Whether or not you are doing “well” for yourself, by a certain age you realize that adulthood is not the smooth ride of wish fulfillment you once imagined.

So, of course, it’s nice to long for the “good old days” of boundless energy, trust, the delight of having so much to discover in the world. Underneath it all, we all long to be a clean slate, free from responsibility and unburdened by disappointment — in essence, to be an innocent baby again. Our mouths are grumbling “back in my day” but our brains are sputtering “goo-goo, gaa-gaa”.

Buck up disgruntled Gen-X-ers and jaded Millennials! There’s a “teaching moment” and  a self-bettering opportunity in all this infantile snot-wallowing. Next time you get the urge to miss them “good old days”, ask yourself: how do I feel about my life today? What is so unsatisfactory / disillusioning about my present that I’m willing to invent a fake past to distract myself from it?

The good news is that there is plenty of wonder and magic and “good” left in the world for all of us to tap — it just has to be accessed from the advanced spiritual plane of gratitude and empathy, afforded by experience accumulated through life. The less-good news is that, while aging bears much fruit in the way of anxiety and cynicism, it in no way guarantees maturity or wisdom, so… Good luck with that, let me know how it works out for you — and I’ll do the same…

 

[1] For a detailed history and analysis, check out Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” (Public Library)

8 SIGNS YOU HAVE WAAAAAY AGED OUT OF COLLEGE PARTIES

There comes a time in life when it hits you with astonishing clarity that you are just “too old for this sh*t”. Here is a handy list of red-flag experiences, sensations and realizations that will let you know, in no uncertain terms, that you are definitely too old to be at this kegger.

One. Upon entering a party, you become painfully aware of every safety violation in the space. Your eye is immediately drawn to shoddy flooring, loose railing, gaping holes and faulty electrical wiring. Instead of enjoying the cool artwork or hip music, you find yourself entertaining thoughts like “Who was the sick psychopath that put this together?” and “I don’t want to die like this”.

At basement concerts, you cannot help but imagine “something” going terribly “wrong” and the inevitable stampede of freaked out agile drunks that will clusterfudge towards the solitary tiny staircase leading up and out. Anxiously eyeing multitudes of candles precariously balanced on stacks of books, you calculate the best and worst case scenario outcomes and realize they are not far apart. Your eyes frantically search the area for the “EXIT” sign, despite knowing all too well the ridiculousness of such an expectation. As you squint around looking for potential escapes, it hits you that your eyesight has gotten really bad and it’s time to make an appointment with an ophthalmologist.

Two. You used to play drinking games to lose, because drinking was the fun part. Now, you play drinking games to win, because drinking is the deadly part. For years, you went on demolishing your health, throwing down like there was no tomorrow. Now that “tomorrow” is here, you are either a frail invalid with zero ability to hold down liquor, or an intolerable alcoholic with a violent streak. Either way, you NEED to win at beer pong, if you don’t want that disgusting stuff hitting your leaky gut and agitating the IBS.

And that’s another thing – with age, your liver has developed a more refined palate and refuses to process Popov vodka anymore. As this rules out approximately 97% of all liquor served at college parties, you are out of luck. And this means no jello shots. And without jello shots, what’s the point?

Three. Your definition of and tolerance for noise have changed — and not in a life-improving way. You see no point in trying to interact in a loud room. You grow increasingly frustrated from being unable to hear a single word the other person is saying. No amount of yelling will cut through the zoological bleatings emitted by what people are referring to as a “band”, “playing”, as people are referring to it, two feet away.

And so, you are forced to nod along with the “conversation” as if you understand what is happening, which you resent having to do. Watching the other person make faces and laugh as if they understand what you are saying reminds you of the pointlessness of life and your own mortality. The next thing you know, existential dread sets in: “Who am I?” “What am I doing here??” “Are they really making a gravity bong out of that fish tank with a live octopus in it???”

You wearily make a note to self that you simply no longer have leisure time, intellectual motivation or life energy to pretend to talk and listen, while having your senses assaulted by the musical stylings of what can only be tone-deaf quadrupedal marsupials honking their noses and flapping their pouches. The whole thing seems like a blood-pressure-raising exercise in futility, so you return to the nervous scanning of the perimeter for signs of fire hazards. There are even more than the last time you checked.

Four. You routinely stop yourself from saying something “inappropriate” because you’re worried about setting a bad example. You and your generation went a bit trigger-happy with all the sex and the drugs and the rock-and-roll – and now that you have a doe-eyed audience hungrily attending to your wisdoms, you realize that what you have to offer may not be so kosher.

Even as you proceed with caution, you can’t shake imagining the parents’ disapproving looks and scornful questioning: “Why are you telling our children about the cocaine trade of Colombia? Is this a responsible thing to do?” *blush* “No, our child does not need to know about the ping-pong shows of Bangkok’s whorehouses, what’s wrong with you?” “But, I brought it up in the context of talking about the Marxian / Engelsian “false consciousness” of the oppressed masses.” “Well, our child definitely does not need to know about that!!”

So you hold back and don’t tell them about that time you had to pay off the Chinese border patrol from busting you and your friends smuggling uranium to the Russians. Because you are a responsible adult and should not encourage espionage in young people.

Five. Women in tiny outfits don’t turn you on or feel like competition – they make you cringe. Upon beholding the flesh parade of coeds in teeny tank tops and tiny mini skirts teetering around on stiletto heels between bars and parties in subzero winter temperatures, you don’t even think to sexually objectify them — you just want to help them survive the night.

Merely looking at them makes you feel cold – and concerned for their health. “Here,” you want to say wrapping each girl in a Snuggie and handing her a hot cup of tea, “you’ll catch your death out here in this weather! And while we’re at it, here’s some comfortable flats for you to walk in – do you have any idea what those heels are doing to your knees and ankles, guuurl?”

Six. Speaking of interrupted sexual objectification… Cruel fate of aging mutes the “sexy goggles” and adds on a layer of “parent / authority figure goggles” prompting you to see college kids as actual KIDS. Before, you looked at young, fine, able-bodied college students partying and were like, “Yeah!! That’s hot!! Bring it ON!” Now you behold those same people socializing and see wee babies sipping on their little juice boxes, rolling and poking around in a sand pit.

You are struck by the realization that, while the problems in your life can be expressed in numbers with dollar signs and unpronounceable pharmacological terms, these little creatures’ immediate worries only run the scale of A+ to F-, and they even left out the E. You don’t want to screw them, you want to grade them.

Seven. You are no longer impressed with or seduced by what passes for “sweet talk” at college parties. Let’s face it, when you were young, the shallowest compliments flattered you and the dumbest revelations blew your mind. But now that you have been alive for a while, fresh, unique or original material is very, very hard to come by anymore.

Simply put, beyond a certain age, you start walking through life knowing that everyone in the room, including yourself, is full of shit. You have heard — and used – all possible lines from the book of universal pick-ups and every epic tale of personal heroism / awesomeness. As the result, now, everyone is transparent and predictable. Oh, you’ve been to Burning Man? And what, pray tell, happened there? You had a spiritual awakening?? No way – really?? And it was –what? – life changing?? NOOOOOOO!!! You don’t say!!

What’s worse, it begins to irritate you that these poor bastards are listening to your lame lines and tired stories with wide-eyed amazement. Are they seriously buying this old-ass folklore you’re spinning at them? You’ve heard yourself vocally torture these narratives and the characters in them too many times – and now, your inner critic won’t quit with the eye-rolls, spoiling all the fun.

Eight. The final nail in the coffin of belonging at a college party is the sharp spiraling of the cultural divide. Out of nowhere, you find yourself in a one-sided linguistic incompatibility loop with everyone around you: they can understand you but you cannot understand them.

There’s nothing like realizing that you are speaking different languages with these people and the difference is, alas, generational. *GASP* References are being made to things you cannot begin to identify, while words you have never heard before – as well as words you thought you knew the meaning of until just now – dominate the conversation, making you work way too hard to follow along.

It is a sensation similar to when you are learning a foreign language and get into a conversation with a native: all your energy goes towards piecing together the few familiar-sounding words you caught – with the general context of the conversation – with hand gestures and facial expressions of the speaker – just to make some kind of sense of it all. Except that not understanding a foreign language makes you feel like an infant, whereas not understanding college slang makes you feel HELLA old.

You heard WHAT on WHAT?

You heard WHAT on WHAT?

CONSUMED WITH GUILT OVER OVER-CONSUMPTION

Garbage in Ipanema, one of the wealthiest neighborboods in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Does anyone else suffer from crippling sense of helplessness and guilt about being a pathetic hypocrite in a society of unapologetically wasteful over-consumers?

I try hard but I can’t help being wasteful and it’s looking more and more like a “damned if I do / damned if I don’t” type of situation. Everything that is mass produced comes in quadruple packaging, so even when you don’t buy many things, you still end up with a lot of non-perishable byproducts. So much of this packaging is beautiful and useful — but when you try to hold on to them for re-use or art projects, you end up with a bit of a “hoarding” situation — since the volume of incoming “parts” is never-ending.

Then, to throw away or even recycle a perfectly usable high-quality plastic container or glass vessel is the other option. Which is wasteful! To me, it feels like I did not “honor” this object enough — by ignoring its longevity and utility. Big props to Marx about the whole “alienation” observation. I have come to believe that “alienation” is a two-fold truth:

 — the laborer / farmer / craftsperson is no longer in touch with the fruits of their work, as well as appreciation from the buyers — and this disconnect (alienation) from their creations cause mental anguish and makes it an inhumane way to work;

the consumer is disconnected from the product’s originators / creators completely (with literally, several layers of packaging): temporally (when was this made?) geographically where was this made?), socially (who made this?) and morally, in the sense that the consumer feels no duty to value the labor and the material that went into the production of an object. Many times, machines assemble our wares and the parts that are assembled by humans, well, it’s best not to know the complete story, if you don’t want to feel like a monster for buying and using this stuff.

Well, I do feel like a friggin’ monster and it is not making me a better person, only making it hard to enjoy life. Despite painstaking reusing, recycling and distributing goods among friends and donation centers, I am still consuming a heck of a lot of stuff and resources: the food I end up wasting, the convenient wipes/towels/tissues/napkins of various kinds that make cleaning so much easier, the disposable bags / plates / cups – things I reuse but toss sooner rather than later, etc., etc., etc.

Things become more complicated when we zoom out from the singular wastefulness of one person or one item to the surrounding system of self-perpetuating wastefulness on a much larger scale. Every time I recycle a piece of glass or plastic, I use water (a precious resource) to clean it out and it takes fuel-powered transport (using up gasoline AND polluting the environment) to deliver it to the recycling plant which uses a godawful amount of electricity to process it. Obviously, there will be some kind of trade-off no matter what we do, but the current system in place is not efficient enough — and not thoroughly networked among corresponding industries — to be sustainable.

Overconsumption weights heavy on my heart and mind, to the point of causing OCD-like distress. Almost each time I throw something into the garbage that’s not organic matter, some recess of my mind summons the image of this thing rotting away in a landfill for centuries / thousands of years. I also can’t help but picture some poor creature hopelessly ensnared, dying a slow painful death inside some superfluous piece of plastic I carelessly tossed into the trash (forcing me to obsessively cut up and shred “tangly” garbage.) This type of thinking is paralyzing as there is no solution to alleviate the problem and my mind races in a loop, unquiet.

Thus, the “big picture” only adds an element of futility and despair to the processes. I spend inordinate amount of breaking down and sorting waste — all with an acute awareness of the fact that my “contribution” is such a tiny drop in the bucket relative to negligent residential buildings, companies and factories funneling unimaginable amounts of waste into our soil, water and air every minute of every day. It is a special kind of torment to feel guilty for being a part of this wasteful culture but helpless to turn it around. Contemplating one’s feebleness in the face of a gloomy future is a major bummer for mental health. Living with the perpetual feeling of being an asshole is not good for morale.

And so, I feel disappointed with myself for not doing more and more and more to cut out the human, natural and resource exploitation from my consumption habits but it is not realistic!! Everything that I can afford is made by some quasi-indentured laborer – quite possibly underaged – “somewhere else” not in the U.S. I resent ad campaigns that capitalize on people’s sense of moral superiority by fooling them into thinking they are “saving the world one dollar at a time” with their consumer power. I do not need my shopping to make me feel like I am “rescuing” someone by “participating” in a “social cause”! How about I just want my shopping to be blood and tear and rape and pillage free!!!!

It is frustrating, being a captive of this lifestyle. As an urban person with neither much access to “nature”, nor appropriate skills with agriculture, I cannot simply quit going to the supermarket and subsist off the land, as some people will be quick to advise. In many parts of the U.S., you have to be quite rich to be a “conscientious consumer” (e.g. pay very high prices for organic / humanely harvested food, clothes made in USA or France or Italy, non-mass-produced home furnishings and wares, etc.). Or – you have to devote all your waking hours to managing this sustainable lifestyle: in addition to cultivating food, you’ll need to learn to sew your own clothes and synthesize your own antibiotics and develop all kinds of other specialized skills and knowledge nobody can be expected to just “pick up” as needed.

If all involved factions pulled together into a unified, synergized alliance, we could set up a super-streamlined infrastructure in which all recyclable materials would be collected, funneled to proper facilities and processed into new, also completely recyclable things. The best part is that it would be mutually profitable for all parties: the manufacturers, the government, the consumers, etc. It would, however, require the kind of cooperation and reorganization of priorities for the common good we cannot currently expect from our corrupt rulers and politicians. It would also mean that the rest of us have to suck it up and make an honest committment to reducing the production and consumption of useless and frivolous crap and start paying attention to finite natural resources we are pillaging as if there is no tomorrow. Also a tough sell…

Having thought about this a lot, I am willing to give up quite a few “luxuries” of modern living and have a simpler life. And I imagine there are things I will be more reluctant to relinquish from my life but, so what, I’ll adjust. But here is the thing: we may soon not have a choice in the matter anyway. In the not far off future, the problems of today will seem altogether blissfully manageable compared to snowballing issues of overpopulation coupled with exploding unrest over dramatically unequal distribution of simultaneously dwindling natural resources.

Seriously, our current petty societal dysfunctions and international disputes will seem really-really silly compared to the mondo turd that will hit the jumbo fan in a matter of decades! As things stand now, we are inching towards a FUBARed humanitarian crisis that will spill out into major global rebellion of the overpopulated, angry, starving masses. It would also be wise to prepare for disasters of unseen proportions dropped on us by Nature to remind us who is The Mother around here.

It is not fear-mongering if it is true and necessary: for now, we still have some semblance of a chance to salvage our planet and its life support system. Doom is not unavoidable but it is where we are headed if we stay the current course of arrogant sociological and ecological short-sightedness.

Even putting the complicated science of climate change aside and focusing solely on over-consumption and over-disposal of non-perishable goods, what we are doing right now is akin to spitting and tossing refuse into our own laps, blind of the space around us shrinking. The way this story ends is: the garbage piles rise and, eventually, close in over our heads, devouring us, making us indistinguishable from garbage. Drowning in one’s own waste is not a terribly dignified way to go, Humanity. Let’s not go down in the annals of the Universe as the species who crapped themselves into oblivion.

THE PITFALLS OF GOSSIP

OnGossip.ColorProps

Have you ever been surprised or horrified when you catch yourself publicly saying something completely out of character for yourself and wonder: Why did I fall for the obvious bait and get trapped into a political argument? Why did I brag and show off so obnoxiously to friends all night? Why did I reveal so much personal, private stuff to a stranger, or worse, someone from my own social network? Why did I say something so catty about so-and-so, when I really do not harbor any negative feelings towards that person? Why did I help pass around a rumor, though I quite consciously and as a matter of principle detest gossiping?

Sure, alcohol comes to mind, but let us not focus on it because it is a catalyst, not the cause of the phenomenon. It is true that the more relaxed and “loosened up” people are by alcohol, the more they tend to lower their filters and yak with wild abandon. But drunkenness is not a necessary condition for gossip and other TMI blunders: I would wager that people gossip just as much over tea!

The true culprit is the social climate created by the awkward combination of fun and anxiety. Even though we all like to think we are in complete control of ourselves, social contexts dramatically shape our behavior how we express ourselves.

Socio-economic necessities force us into unwanted interactions (having to talk to bosses, associates, family members) and social pressures dictate the topics we end up discussing publicly. One moment you’re having innocent lunchtime banter with a coworker, next thing you know, you’re talking about Johnson’s outfit and speculating about her sexuality….

I have always considered myself a keeper of secrets and not a passer-arounder of confidential information. Likewise, I have always felt uncomfortable around people talking negatively about others behind their backs and avoided fueling the fire.

And yet, on a number of occasions, I have caught myself saying something suggestive about people – with remarks that felt innocuous and funny and a propos at the time – but seem questionable or straight-up inappropriate in retrospect. I meant no harm, I swear, but this fact neither excuses the behavior nor lessens the resulting shadow of doubt cast upon another person’s character.

This problematic tendency to get carried away with unintentional mudslinging emerges when we get swept up in the group dynamic: everyone is “on a roll” of discussing others and one is instinctively drawn in, compelled to contribute something funny / interesting / intriguing to the lively conversation. If the tone of the gathering is to badmouth someone, badmouthing becomes easy and natural. These little acts of slander happen under the guise of humorous, friendly, playful chatter and seem to especially thrive in certain groupings, like those of colleagues, relatives, teammates and super-closely-knit friend cliques.

Certainly, some people are quite purposefully vindictive and actively stir up “drama” as a means of self-validation. But most gossipers are not being harsh or acting as a saboteur intentionally: they are simply in the habit of mindlessly recanting other people’s secrets and thoughtlessly criticizing and ridiculing others – to keep boredom at bay and to find something light-hearted to connect over with people.

Unfortunately, when you get enough gossip instigators together, it creates enough momentum to suck in the rest of us who, under other social circumstances, would not think to say something inflammatory about a peer. But when inside the rumor mill, we suddenly find ourselves blabbing away, surrendering to the impulse to fit in, to go with the flow. You really don’t have to be a mean-spirited person to gossip but it becomes a slippery slope, if you go there. The potential social fallout from publicly maligning a friend, colleague or relative can have unintended harmful consequences for the target of gossip as well as people who started and passed it around.

There are myriad explanations in the social sciences for why people gossip. For instance, we have an evolutionarily developed psychological propensity to crave social acceptance – and gossiping offers a temptingly fast ticket to popularity. Gossiping and sharing secrets also strengthen camaraderie and increase a sense of belonging to an exclusive club or community when we share intimate knowledge with the select few individuals. It makes us feel special to be a part of a “circle of trust”.  

Another major component of universal human psychology engaged in gossip is the rule of reciprocity: that magnetic sense of obligation we feel when people say or do “nice” things for us. Symmetrical, ritualistic exchanges of favors keeps the power dynamic balanced, which is why most of us do not like to feel indebted to someone, not for too long. So, when people around us are sharing bits of gossip, they entrap us into feeling that we, too, must now “contribute” some sort of insider information, in kind. We respond by sharing more gossip.

If one willingly surrounds oneself with thieves, thievery will eventually become the “new normal” and the person runs a pretty high risk of succumbing to it. Likewise, gossiping and other social vices, like casually throwing around sexist and racist language, can seep into our behaviors inconspicuously and organically. We see people we love, admire or fear saying and doing all kinds of things and we can’t help but want to emulate them.

So far, my conclusion is: if you don’t want to be a gossiper, avoid social scenes in which judgmental or mocking commentary about acquaintances is the main source of entertainment. Otherwise, sooner or later, you’ll likely find yourself caving to human nature and, if you are like me, feeling like a real jackass and kicking yourself for it later.

 JackAssKickingSelf.cc

Our peers carry huge potential in shaping our social habits and setting roles, norms and boundaries. It can be hard to recognize “toxic” environments if the venom is not directed at us personally and when everyone is laughing merrily and having a great time. Complicity in bullying thrives in the same environment, by the way. Gossip can certainly become an indirect tactic of bullying. It can even seem that we are all “getting away” with it. But, no, we are not. There is a golden tenet in social interaction and it goes as follows:

The way a person talks about others with you is the way this person will talk about you with others.

Period. No exceptions. And because this rule seems so elegantly fair, a small, idealistically moronic part of me keeps hoping that, by the same logic of justice, some social grief in life can be avoided by being a decent person. If I keep my karma cache clear by refraining from saying “iffy” things about others, I may be spared being put through the ringer when it is my name’s turn in the grapevine spotlight. Right?

AsDontBeAHater if!..

The pragmatic realist in me who has been alive (and actively so!) a number of decades among fellow humans knows this to be an unreasonable expectation, to put it mildly. No measure of cosmic justice will prevent haters from hating. The nectar of meanness is just too sweet for some to give up 🙂 The rest of us should try really hard to not feed the trolls.

OLD VISA PHOTOS WILL AWAKEN THE TRAVELER IN YOU

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Rummaging through my passport pouch to double-check its expiration date, I came back up with a set of old unused visa photos. It may be self indulgent but I like to look at these photos once in a while. Since these pictures are usually taken when I’m already on the road somewhere, the face that looks back at me from them is the face of a person who is doing A-Okay.

It is important to reconnect with this version of myself on occasion – this person at the height of self-esteem and mental and physical fitness. This is my most uninhibited and confident “me”. It does not have to mean the wildest / craziest “me” but it is me when I feel the freest.

These snapshots are the faces of a person in perpetual motion. Those super faded Brazilian pictures, they are useless as visa photos but they summon forth the “me” from that day in time. Frozen in a photo, right there, I will always be that traveler with a mondo migraine who was sent on a wild goose chase around Curitiba to hunt down a gazillion different stamps for a Paraguayan visa that is rivaled only by Russian visa in cost, bureaucracy, labor-intensiveness and dark magic involved in its conjuring.

The fact that I remember having a really bad headache is, actually, a very positive indicator of how great my life was at the moment. Living in the American Northeast, my migraines are so regular that they all blur together into one long hellish game of “chicken” between me and pain. If I remember that Brazilian migraine, it means it was a blessedly isolated incident at that time.

The four undamaged copies are of the picture taken in Thailand for a Lao visa. The old-fashioned photographer fetched me a man’s shirt to cover up my tank-topped shoulders for the shot. At that moment, bitterness and disappointment were weighing heavily on my heart and I was going through a “withdrawal” after some major emotional poison. And weed. I had also not smoked weed in a while and, as usual, it was making my dreams a little too intense and exhausting.

Withdrawal is the initiation of recovery and spending an emotionally difficult time on the road can really serve as salve for the hurting soul. On this trip, largely staying away from substances and parties, I got the exact communion with nature and with culture I knew I needed and had set out to find. I returned to the States excited about getting back to work – if that is not the mark of a miraculously transformative vacation, I don’t know what is. And so, I dig looking at stills of myself in that moment – it gives me a positive charge of spirit, transmitted through the memory, transformed into a renewed intention to be like that again.

Looking at these pictures, I am also reminded that youthfulness and beauty are still within reach. After a couple of weeks of being on the road, I usually get a whole second wind of energy. My senses become uncorked from heavy mental grime, my skin tightens, my facial features relax, my back un-pretzels, my neck de-petrifies itself, etc., etc., etc. It’s nice to see a tan, strong, healthy version of myself in those photos – it gives me hope.

By the way, if you can carve out a few months on the road, you can work up to some serious traveler zen bliss. It will give you enough time and distance to look back at what you’ve left behind – as well as think forward to what is waiting for you – and re-evaluate those things in light of being more relaxed and in touch with yourself. Seriously, if you haven’t taken a prolonged solo trip yet, I cannot recommend it enough. Do it as soon as you can, really. It is good for anyone. And it is a vital necessity for some of us 🙂 Take yourself on a “walkabout” and, in weeks / months, you will re-emerge as a more confident, calm, wise, fit and all-around badass version of yourself.

And then, at times when your life has become a little too settled and static and you feel the ole Wanderlust tugging and scratching at your feet, you can dig up those visa pictures and start planning the next adventure.

TV VIOLENCE MAKES ME WANT TO DO VIOLENCE TO MY TV

I have just about lost interest in both TV shows, Game of Thrones and Gotham, as it gets harder to tolerate the gratuitous violence – especially against women – and all the torture porn that is so en vogue right now. I am beginning to feel my quality of life suffer from prolonged exposure to the ceaseless assault on the senses pumped out by what passes for popular entertainment on TV. Lately, I am particularly triggered by sounds of brutality. My husband plays a lot of MMORPG games and watches a lot of HBO dramas and, as I walk back and fourth through the living room, hearing the sounds of gunfire or sword stabbings or women screaming out in pain or ecstasy (sounds exactly the same), I actually feel my blood pressure shoot up.

Anyone who knows me at all will confirm that I am not a person who fears violence. Throughout my life, I have dealt with serious conflicts, threats and quite a few actual assaults. Violence was frequently the language spoken around me and it is a language I understand well.

So it is not that I am too delicate of a flower to handle TV violence.

It is just that most of current TV violence is too shallow, senseless and excessive to be entertaining. It has become anxiety- and rage-inducing instead.

It is just that I do not at all enjoy the feeling of disgusted despisement I get at the sight of humans senselessly pounding each other into meatloaf over ego or breaking each other’s knees and teeth over money. Observing testosterone-blinded males bludgeon other testosterone-blinded males over some imagined testosterone-fueled “beef” is not a spectacle that brightens my day or lifts my spirit.

It is just that I do not enjoy feeling murderous rage at the sight of a yet another stereotypically powerful, clever male victimizing a yet another stereotypically pathetic, easily terrorizable female. And murderous rage is the only way to describe the reaction these viewing experiences summon in me. I want to grab a gun, a machete, a tazer – anything destructive – and go find myself a sexual predator to shoot, slash and electrocute. Are those the feelings of a happy, relaxed person? Do I really need to cultivate thoughts and emotions of sadistic hatefulness in myself? Do you?

I don’t know about you, but there are enough real stressors in my life to make me go out of my way to avoid artificial ones, especially when they pose as “entertainment” and take up my valuable downtime. I feel angry and helpless enough in the face of real, everyday cruelty and humanitarian disasters around the world. Why are we, as a society, so greedy for graphic displays of physical, psychological and sexual abuse – to the point that we are willing to spend our hard-earned money and precious leisure time watching realistic enactments of torture and degradation?

To be clear, I am criticizing gratuitous violence – not the violence necessary to show in order to tell the story – but the dragged out, over-the-top torture scenes, the gore for the sake of gore, the endlessly blurred boundaries between sex and violence — the dumb junk that dominates our entertainment media. There is nothing original about these trite misogynistic tropes and nothing exciting or engaging about the formulaic, one-dimensional, barely-there narratives, with just enough “story” to justify all the “action”. The glorification of slaughter, torture and sexual assault (on women in particular) keeps forcefully broadcasting the cultural message that constantly watching human beings get brutalized – complete with a dramatic  soundtrack of screaming in pain, sobbing in fear, pleading for life, etc. – is a perfectly normal, healthy and enjoyable pastime.