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Saturday, September 6, 2014

First World Problems

The synopsis of the movie "Frank" according to RottenTomatoes:

" offbeat comedy about a young wannabe musician, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who finds himself out of his depth when he joins an avant-garde pop band led by the mysterious and enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender), a musical genius who hides himself inside a large fake head, and his terrifying bandmate Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal)."

The film touches upon several interesting themes dealing with self discovery and self growth. It's not immediately apparent at first, but the two main characters of the film, John and Frank, are quite similar and they have chosen similar paths to discover themselves.  They both come from comfortable first-world lives where they lived without any problems and with loving parents.  Most of us would consider such a life a blessing since billions of people around the world don't even have access to shelter or clean water.  But there is perhaps a psychological cost to being born into such comfortable settings: it can create dull individuals who lack passion and don't have any real direction in their lives.  They do not know what they want to do. They have no calling and they feel like they have no purpose.  John is a great example of such an individual.  He has a typical and generic soul-sucking office job that many of us are familiar with either through direct experience or through having general knowledge about the nature of white-collar work in developed countries.  John lives at home with his parents and they love him and take care of him. This whole crazy trip that he takes and how he sacrifices his job and leaves his friends and family behind is about putting himself in a foreign and difficult situation in hopes of experiencing something difficult and powerful that will hopefully shape him into someone more interesting and give his music some SOUL  He is craving new powerful experiences that can potentially help mold him into a more interesting person with a genuine passion for writing good music.

Our lives in the United States (and I imagine in other developed countries)  are too easy and  people living here look for ways to create ordeals for themselves and make their lives more difficult. The greatest musicians, writers, artists, revolutionaries and a lot of interesting and passionate people in general have often come from difficult childhoods and led ordeal-filled, difficult, and/or interesting lives. They either lived in war zones or in extreme poverty or they had a lot of tragedy in their family like their parents, children, or siblings dying. Essentially, there is often times some kind of rough or difficult past and powerful experiences that helped shape who they eventually became. These powerful experiences also helped form their passions.  Many of us living in these comfortable environments lack such character and passion-forming experiences. We have to actively seek them. This is why John is a character that most of us can relate to.

Frank has also come from a background similar to John's.  This is made clear during one of the last scenes in the film.  Frank has gone missing and John is trying to find him.  Eventually, John tracks Frank down and finds him in a small town in Kansas. As he is speaking with Frank's parents, they talk to him about how Frank had such a wonderful childhood with two loving parents. John realizes how similar him and Frank actually are and directly comments on how parallel their childhoods have been.  This similar upbringing helps explain the path that Frank took.  He left his comfortable life and tried something extremely new and foreign to him. Hell, having a mask on full time is as random as it possibly gets. He joined up with two suicidal and mentally unstable band members (one of whom has a fetish for being sexually intimate with mannequins), an additional two members who don't even speak English, and a violent woman who is borderline insane as well.  He put himself in a difficult environment to help shape who he would become.  This is exactly what John tried to do in leaving his comfortable life and joining this band on their journey.

Of course, Frank's journey seems more genuine than John's. John does grow a lot in the process but it seems that he is constantly disconnected from the experience. He is on his phone and computer the whole time. He is obsessed with twitter followers and facebook /likes and comments and just wants attention in general. He doesn't seem to be doing all of this for the experience, self growth, and self discovery. A huge part of it for him seems to be craving the attention and fame. If that's your motivation in art, your music is going to be passion-less and dull. This is exactly what happens to John.  The film starts off with him trying to find his musical style and to write genuine lyrics and the film ends with him not having accomplished this goal or having come any closer to it.  This is potent commentary on what happens when art is not pursued for its intrinsic value but instead it is pursued for the external social and material benefits that it can bring.

Ultimately, most of us seek to to find paths to help unlock our passions. "Frank" provides wonderful commentary on this subject through the lives of John and Frank.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

My Work With TreePeople

On most weekends, I work with an organization called TreePeople. I help supervise volunteers while we both plant and care for trees in neighborhoods and cities around Los Angeles.

Recently, I gathered the courage and took initiative to organize my first event.  I am greatly appreciative of all the support TreePeople provided and they were even kind enough to write about me on their blog!

The link to the article:

TreePeople Volunteer Takes on the Drought

Friday, May 2, 2014

Hidden in Plain Sight

We drive up the street and it's much like any other residential location. There are gardeners blowing leaves nearby. There are children playing on front lawns.

The monstrosity we are about to enter is hidden in plain sight. There are clues that one learns to eventually see in these situations. The front porch is strewn with junk mail and all kinds of miscellaneous and useless knick knacks.  A neighbor comes out and lets us know that the old man never let anyone inside his home. This is a dead giveaway. This is a hoarder situation.

As we get closer to the door, the smell of stale feces becomes more and more potent.  Our notes show that his sewage isn't working and his "solution" to the problem was to defecate and urinate in empty buckets. We were initially unsure if the waste was being continually cleaned. The ever-strengthening stench has answered our question.

The front door is locked. We check the back.  There are fallen branches and junk everywhere. Discarded cabinets. Old newspapers. Dried up cacti. Children's toys. 

The back door is open because the coroner had to break in to pick up his body. The stench was becoming unbearable and a neighbor reported the situation.

We enter. The mask I'm wearing does absolutely nothing. The stench is nauseating. I have to step out several times to stop my gag reflex. I take the mask off since it's useless. To my unfortunate surprise, I'm getting used to the smell and I no longer mind the shit stench going down my lungs.  There are buckets everywhere. I jokingly tell my colleague that there is chocolate milk in all of them. She calls me an idiot but still laughs because there is no other way to respond.

I check the bedroom. Used condoms on the floor. Homosexual and heterosexual pornography strewn all over the place. I browse through some books on the shelf to search for important documents. Nope, all the books are filled with explicit content used as bookmarks.  He has a stack of wind instruments in a chest near his bed. He used to run a music school and teach children. Seriously?

We enter what is supposedly the living room. Piles and piles of junk from every source imaginable. Lamps. Purses. Discarded violins. A cello. Old tools. An accordion. Framed pornographic photographs. Who frames porn? These are useless questions. You don't ask such things when you enter such a world.

Japanese prints of samurai line most of the walls. There are empty cases everywhere. Why would you keep so many empty receptacles? Silly question of course. I keep my feces nice and cozy next to my bed. You think I follow any coherent form of logic? Such a clueless little boy you are.

We get what we need. We collect the cash, jewelry, and important financial documents. We leave this disgusting world behind only to come back to another the following week. Once again, it most likely hides right in front of you, among the freshly cut grass and children playing.  

What's perhaps a bit unfortunate is that a certain part of me enjoyed entering this vile den that so few people will ever know exists.

Oh, it exists alright.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

From the Highest Peaks to the Shadows of the Lowest Valleys

I don't claim to be an expert on love and relationships or even someone who is extensively experienced on the matter by any stretch of the imagination.  But, even with such restraints I do want to share the story of how my first true love and eventual heartbreak changed many aspects of me.

There is no logical place to begin. Perhaps the most important gift I have gained from the entire experience is that even though I can't define what Love means through words, I can confidently say I know how it actually feels.  The feelings manifest in many ways. Thinking of the person automatically puts a smile on your face, whether you are consciously aware of it or not. Making sacrifices for her no longer becomes a matter of whether you will pursue a particular course of action but how you will pursue it. The first thought is always the how and no longer whether. Your heart-rate rises and you're filled with excitement when there is an incoming message or a call from her.  You think she's beautiful even when she looks like a complete mess.  When she's sick, you want to drown her in hot tea and soup.  When speaking to her, all you can think about is how to bring out another beautiful smile. Her smell is intoxicating. The softness of her skin sends chills down your spine.  Her voice is melodic. You want to get lost in her hair. Her lips feel like clouds? What the FUCK is this absurdity?  You mistake her eyes for gems. Her mind is an endless book you crave to be lost in. A never-ending forest perhaps? Her jokes are so terrible that they break some weird threshold and actually become hilarious.  Her childishness and optimism are unashamedly infectious. This feels drug-like. This is unreal.

Of course, as beautiful and true as the above Disney-esque bullshit is, there comes a certain point when you start taking her for granted. You've never experienced the surreal level of happiness that genuine Love can bring and you become afraid of losing it.  This fear leads to paranoia. This paranoia leads to insecurity. This insecurity leads to needy and suffocating behavior.  The more you go down this path, the more you push her away. The farther away she gets, the more intense your fears become, causing her to fade even more.  The beast you've created relentlessly gorges on itself. It's indifferent to your suffering. You start second guessing all your thoughts, words, and actions.  You start questioning her behavior and words at every chance you get. Why is she calling less often? Why is she providing less and less details about her life? Why is she progressively becoming more and more closed off from you? Why does she keep fading away? You've become hopelessly obsessed.

You're now a burden. Regrettably, you haven't realized it yet.  You won't ever realize it until it's too late.  She's already gone but you're in denial. You don't consciously realize it but you are. You definitely are.  Her presence is a mere shell of her former self.  She's already made her decision. There are several close calls and half-hearted attempts at concluding the journey.  You keep hoping it will continue but you ultimately realize that the end is in sight.

Then, it finally happens. She's made her decision and there is no going back.  You are surprisingly calm and you're relieved that you don't feel worse.  But, you foolishly have absolutely no idea how big of a loss you have suffered. Your mind is taking pity on you and letting you swallow the pain one spoonful at a time instead of forcing you to deal with all of it at once.  Soon, the symptoms begin.  You can't sleep. You can't eat. You've lost motivation to do anything but the essentials.  It takes all your willpower to crawl out of bed. You force yourself to eat primarily liquid food because everything else makes you nauseous.  You read anything and everything about the pit you have found yourself in, hoping it will allow you to understand the pain and make it go away.  You even see her in your dreams and there is absolutely no escape.  You are reconstructing and replaying every relevant memory and conversation with her. You are stuck in the universe of What Ifs and you see no escape in sight.  You try to predict the milieu of realities that could have been possible if you hadn't said X or hadn't done Y or behaved in manner Z.  Every time you reconstruct a memory, the more warped and inaccurate it becomes, eventually transforming into a incomprehensible blur. As expected, none of it works. Mere distractions. Nothing more.  This quite literally feels like going through drug-induced withdrawals. Sooner or later you realize that you're experiencing similar physical and psychological states as someone who is dealing with the death of a loved one or an addict coming off of an addiction.  That realization finally allows you to understand just how deep of a hole you are currently in and how long it's going to take to climb out.

Time passes at an excruciatingly slow pace but it still passes. The random bursts of bawling become less and less frequent.  You find yourself getting busier and busier in hopes of distracting yourself.  To your pleasant surprise, these distractions are becoming permanent and you are becoming progressively more active and diverse.  You start to entertain the possibility that you are coming out stronger from this situation than when you entered it.  This thought is the first one in months that is truly making you happy on a more consistent and permanent basis.

The recovery continues and you finally have the spare mental and emotional resources to devote towards brutally honest introspection.  You own up to the mistakes you made and how you can better yourself as a person. You slowly but surely start to understand how wonderful she was and how absolutely foolish you were.  You were in the presence of a gift and you squandered it. Owning up to all the ugly things you have done is both painful yet liberating.  You almost start being... thankful for what you went through.  You finally ask yourself if knowing what you know now, if you would go through the whole experience all over again.  Without a second thought or hesitation, you admit to yourself that you in fact would.  You understand that through the process of being completely broken down, you reconstructed yourself into something more stable and powerful. More confident. More interesting. More passionate and emotionally honest.  More comfortable with accepting uncertainty and letting go of whatever isn't under your influence.  You realize that you are forever changed, for the better. For the first time in many months, it feels euphoric to see with such clarity. You understand that your journey From the Highest Peaks to the Shadows of the Lowest Valleys was not wasted and you became a better you in the process.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Don't Settle for OK

There are certain questions I struggle with. I have been struggling with them for years. I imagine many others have as well. What do I want to do with my life? What am I passionate about? How do I even discover what I'm passionate about? Even after I find out what my passion is (however the hell you define "passion"), how would I go about pursuing it?

These questions are brutally difficult to answer and perhaps the answers change over time depending on which point in one's life the questions are asked.  Outside of people who want to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, actors, or musicians, these questions seem to generally be very difficult for most people to answer.  But, even for these professions, how did these people discover what they wanted to do?  How did they wake up one morning and have that EUREKA! moment?  Did they have a mentor pushing and inspiring them? Did they have an emotional or powerful experience that changed their outlook and provided clarity? What exactly did they do to gain such rare peace of mind and much-needed clarity for such an important life question?  How does one put himself in situations that are more likely to yield such "passion-revealing" experiences?  There seems to be nothing but questions here.  Maybe that's the point.  If the solution was easy, questions on this matter would be difficult to come by.

Perhaps some of us have such a wide range of interests that we are afraid of picking one passion to pursue, in effect giving up on our other interests.  Perhaps we are afraid of being simplified and pigeon-holed into being associated with a single topic when others think about us.  Perhaps we are afraid of going broke because we realize that the issue we seem to care about is not likely to lead to financial stability.  Perhaps we are afraid of the volley of judgmental commentary and doubts that will be thrown at us by our friends and family.  The list of fears and uncertainties are endless and paralyzing.

Ultimately, no matter how daunting or difficult the issue seems, we can't simply give up and not even try to figure out what we would love to do.  There is no reset button at the end of the journey.  We can't risk living an OK life where the potential for being inspired and feeling alive is non-existent.  We should seek the valleys and peaks instead of being content with stable plateaus. Such a safe, flat, and predictable path is a guaranteed recipe for suffering through intense feelings of regret.

Get out there and embarrass yourself.  Get lost.  Take chances. Fail. Fail again.  Fail yet again.  Rinse and repeat.  Keep clawing away until your fingernails start to bleed.  As the great Llewyn Davis might potentially say, "don't merely exist."

So you basically wake up.

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