London 101

My brief time in London, England would likely be categorized among anyone else’s worst travel stories. Arriving already sick with a cold, I departed sicker. I racked up nearly twice the amount of debt I’d anticipated just covering expenses such as trains to and from airports, and an “upgrade” for a rescheduled flight home that cost me an extra $400. Yes, at the time I was there, London was cold and wet and I was not in the best physical shape, but it was still a fascinating time.

The first thing you’ll find yourself doing upon arriving in London is searching for a US-to-UK adapter so that you can charge your phone and laptop, both of which are probably dead or dying. You see, if you’ve never traveled anywhere in Europe before, you wouldn’t know this, but most European countries have their own specially designed outlets, which of course, American chargers aren’t compatible with. You need to get an adapter. In the airport in Lisbon, Portugal, I was forced to steal one such adapter out of desperation (well, that, and I wasn’t going to pay the $25 asking price, fuck that extortion). Anyway, UK chargers have plugs that are THREE TIMES the size of an American charger.

Oh.

So my first real night in London (you’ll sleep most of your first day away, don’t even try to fight it), I’m running around looking for a UK charger adapter, but I’m also looking for anyplace with good WiFi so that I can reach my friend to figure out where we’re meeting up exactly. I’m in Leicester Square (pronounced Lester), which is kind of like Union Square, only far more charming (and walkable). I find a shop that sells charger adapters pretty quickly, and it’s only £5 (thank god). Finding stable WiFi on the other hand proves to be a challenge. Note to self: when traveling overseas again, find some way to bring phone service with you. Running around trying to find a hotspot strong enough to make a WhatsApp call is just as it sounds: frustrating and time-consuming. Argh!

Once you take care of the technical difficulties though – get your phone(s) charged, your commute(s) planned – London is yours for the taking!

I spent much of my time in London as an observer, only talking to my friend Michael, who was the reason I was there, and his friends, all Londoners of course. The average Londoner seemed to me to be strikingly cosmopolitan, almost too well dressed, and a bit unflappable. This is not a city where people stare, it occurred to me. As a result, I felt mostly at ease, because no one was judging me as an (obvious) non-Briton, but also because the city seemed to have a very laid-back almost tranquil vibe. This is not to say that there wasn’t urgency in the air. Londoners are very fast, especially in the Underground stations. On the streets, they walk in an orderly but rapid pace, rarely stopping to idle or look through shop windows or at passerby, the way we do in New York. These people are composed: they know where they are going, and if they don’t look at other people on the street, it seems to be out of respect or civility.

In New York, you can get lost in the existential sense. In London, that didn’t really happen to me. Everything about London is so quaint, and small: it’s not a city that threatens to overwhelm you, or swallow you whole. You can get lost in the literal sense though, as the streets are jagged, go off on tangents. If you’re traveling to an Airbnb in a more remote part of the city, be prepared to walk around in circles for a bit.

London is a big party city, and I did a lot of that there. A lot of eating too. I had DIRTY BURGER, which was fuckin’ delicious, thanks Michael. Is that solely a UK franchise?

I did drink. Three beers on the second night there at a club called G-A-Y, then I danced my head off at a club called Heaven. The next night, I had a few beers, and a shot of tequila with a cutie named James. Whatever, I still claim sobriety. A few drinks whilst visiting a country 3,000 miles away from home does not a relapse make. When in Rome, does as the Romans do (and the English are renowned for their binge drinking).

HUGE FUCKING CLICHÉ ALERT – I felt like a different person in London. Calmer, somehow. It wasn’t regular life. I was just… there. In London, walking around. Not even a tourist really, just, bloop, in a foreign country. Of course I was a bit anxious, but also stimulated, excited. There were moments of complete frustration in London, of course, as there would be while traversing any odd and unfamiliar territory for the first time, but also moments of complete liberation and exhibition *wink wink*

This trip did wonders for my mental health, simple enough. If you’re ever in a rut, or just need to get away, taking a spontaneous trip like this is a good idea. Put it on your credit card, hop on a plane, visit an amazing city, worry about the bill later. Best decision I’ve made in a while.

Why Rihanna Matters

Rihanna turns 29 today. 2-9. Remember that bare-bellied girl who arrived out of nowhere with “Pon De Replay” way back in… 2005. She’s grown now… barely! She still showing up at awards just for the kiki, as she did last Sunday at the 59th Grammys, with a diamond-encrusted flask no less.

More like the Jammies!

Rihanna GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Rihanna is my exact same age. Well, I’m two months older, being born on the butt-end of 1987, but we grew up together. Sure, I’m not as sexy, stylish, poised, or in the same galaxy when it comes to wealth and fame, but I feel a kinship with her.

Rihanna is special, and I think she would be special even if she had stayed in Barbados and never become Intergalactic Hitmaking Sensation Rihanna™. She is electric without trying, and doesn’t take the fame game as deathly serious as some of her peers. She’ll often drop music, skip the promotion thing, and still go top 10. Instead, you’ll find her on Instagram, posting charming selfies (oxymoron? She may be the only person on Earth who makes them work) and other snapshots from her lavish life. To be young, black, beautiful, and loaded…

How did Rihanna, a little girl from the island of Barbados, make it this far? Why have we allowed her to? She’s the one pop icon the public hasn’t built up just to tear down. There’s a certain confidence we have in her, a certain level of calm with her. Is this due to her authenticity and earthy charisma? Perhaps she’s just less threatening, more inspirational than aspirational, as most American cultural figures tend to inflame or gnaw at our insecurities.

She may also just be more likable: she’s completely disarming and genuine in a way that is antithetical to modern celebrity. Remember when she got on a random London train and chatted with fans, or ran and jumped into an adoring sea of them? She (literally) isn’t untouchable.

Sure, Beyonce gets all the glory (and she is a force to be reckoned with), but Rihanna doesn’t want it anyway.  She is self-possessed in a way that perhaps Beyonce and others aren’t: she doesn’t demand you worship her, only that you have a good time when with her. Tellingly, her music is more eclectic and purely enjoyable than many of her peers’. She traverses sounds, often within the same cultural moment. In 2013, she released the gorgeous piano ballad “Stay”, followed by a trap record, “Pour It Up”, proving that she is one of the few music stars with clout on pop and urban radios. On her eighth and best album Anti, she gives us a grungy opener like “Consideration”, followed by the majestic “James Joint/Kiss It Better”, and her #1 hit “Work”, which blurs the lines between dancehall and electronica. The Motown-inflected ballad “Love On the Brain”, might just hit the top 10 on the Billboard chart this week, a nice birthday gift indeed.

Rihanna is gold in an era of trash: a celebrity worth celebrating, and maybe even deifying, even if she doesn’t want the pedestal – just the money, clothes, endless weed re-up, and following that comes with it. Rihanna matters for many reasons, but perhaps most because she reminds us to live life as if no one is watching, pay our haters dust, and keep it moving.

Live your life, girl, as fearlessly and fiercely as we all should.

 

8 Great Series for Intensely Therapeutic Viewing

The shows that we watch (and re-watch) say a lot about us – our temperaments, our tastes, but mostly, what we find enjoyable, and even soothing. After a long day of work, while sick (or nursing a hangover), amidst a bout of depression or general malaise, our favorite series can be a balm, improving mood with brutally honest humor, allowing us to reflect, or to get lost in situations with people whose problems are much worse than ours.

A great series can improve empathy, make us think, laugh, cry, and even change us. Here are eight series I’ve found great comfort in over the years.

1) Homeland (2011 – present)

Homeland, starring Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA operative with bipolar disorder, is perfect “misery viewing” – cathartic to watch, especially if you are down in the dumps. I first watched the series in its entirety a month into sobriety, and then again after leaving a particularly draining job. It levels me every time. The emotional highs are highhh and its lows are lowwww, mimicking Carrie’s own disorder in a way. When it’s hitting stride as a straight-ahead thriller (as in the fourth season, set in Pakistan), it becomes highly addictive.

There is nothing like Homeland on TV: campy melodrama and high-stakes storylines involving domestic and Middle Eastern terrorism intersect, mostly with precision. Start with the gripping first season, and if you find you’ve had enough of the “Brody era” by the end of season two, jump ahead to the stand-alone fourth and fifth seasons set in Pakistan and Berlin.

2) Veep (2012 – present)

At its core, Veep is a joyous and uplifting series. Technically, it’s a situation comedy about a US Vice President grappling for power and influence, wrangling her incompetent staff, and dealing with the endless politicking that comes with the job. It’s dark and cynical for sure, but it’s poignantly written, and, though set-and-costume designed within an inch of its life, moves with uncommon spontaneity and fluidity, thanks to a cast who makes it all look effortless. The dialogue moves at a rapid pace and the jokes, which are scatching and yield endless returns, never feel forced.

Veep is so brilliant because its characters are people who could (and probably do) exist in real life. You’ll cringe at how horrible and human these people are, and maybe fall apart with them when their tireless and futile efforts end in bitter disappointment (as in the fifth season finale “Inauguration.”) At 10 28-minute episodes a season (only 48 episodes total so far), it’s also a fast watch.

3) Buffy (1997 – 2003)

Buffy was the first show I fell in love with, and the first show I couldn’t get enough of. Watching Buffy was like inhabiting a dangerous, sexy, scary, and inimitably cool world that helped me make sense of my own confusing and at times scary experiences. I could relate to the story of a young woman coming to terms with her lot in life, having to shoulder incredible burdens, often alone and in silence, and trying to reach some level of peace with it all. I suspect most of the young people who tuned in, struggling with their sexualities and identities, thrashing about, trying to find their place in the world, felt the same.

4) Mr. Robot (2015 – present)

Mr. Robot is one of those shows that seeps into your pores, and fucks your shit up for a while. In the first season, where we meet Elliot, a young hacker planning the “largest redistribution of wealth in history”, the story functions as a red pill, forcing us to acknowledge our slavery, to institutions and corporations, to our perceptions and those of others, to our own human desires, and frailties. By season two, the writers have dosed us with a powerful hallucinogen, and maybe a tranquilizer, asking us to accept the madness  we’ve found ourselves in, to find comfort in it, if only, like our wide-eyed hero, for a brief moment.

5) Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)

Breaking Bad is more than cathartic; it’s incendiary. It challenges notions of what it means to be American, what it means to be good, and what it means to be a good American. It is the story of a man who is just fed up with everything. Fed up with being pigeonholed into a life and a role he never wanted, fed up with living life on life’s terms. To break bad is a Southern colloquialism meaning to “raise hell” – and high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White does just that, and much more.

6) Shameless (2011 – present)

The central question behind Shameless is: do the poor have any chance of getting ahead in America? Or do their destructive behaviors and addictions (often the side effects of living in poverty) threaten to keep them where they are, or destroy them? So far, the story seems to be going in an uplifting direction, implying that the Gallaghers, a hardscrabble gang of Irish-American siblings living in Southside Chicago, have a pretty good shot of making something of themselves – with myriad fuckups along the way, of course.

In the show’s final years, we’ve seen the Gallaghers become business owners, (failed) college students, and civil servants despite obstacles such as criminal records and mental disorders. With the show’s upcoming and likely final eighth season, hopefully these kids get a collective break, and if they can’t get out of the ghetto, at least end up stable enough to weather the wave of gentrification heading their way.

7) Everybody Hates Chris (2005 – 2009)

I remember watching this show every day in the afternoon and it had such an earthy and charming vibe. Chris’ family was lower middle-class; his father worked as a delivery truck driver, his mother was a wise, no-nonsense disciplinarian with a heart of gold, his younger brother and sister were equal parts annoying and adorable. This was my childhood (if it had been halfway decent), complete with ass whuppings and maternal death stares.

Everybody Hates Chris was the only “black show” on TV made with any restraint and inventiveness, and that’s likely because it wasn’t a “black show”, but a sitcom about a young black boy growing up in Brooklyn in 1985, who, as we know, goes on to become one of the most famous comedians ever. The set design and period details were perfect, and you could tell every episode was made by a cast and crew that genuinely loved working together, such as in the finale, which paid homage to The Sopranos’ final episode, “Made in America”.

8) Nurse Jackie (2009 – 2015)

Poor Jackie Peyton, the beleaguered and drug-addicted nurse played so deftly and movingly by Edie Falco (The Sopranos). Did she die in the final episode? Or was she merely enjoying the high and wishing everyone would fuck off and let her enjoy it? I’d like to think it was the latter. Three lines of heroin couldn’t have been enough to take out our beloved Jackie, the tough-as-nails, (re)lapsed Catholic who said to herself once, “Make me good Lord, just not yet.”

To anyone who has craved the thrill, for whom everyday mundane life was not enough, who has used drugs or alcohol as a means to not just cope, but to get the full feel of life – this show hits where it hurts, but it’s also painfully funny and true.

Honorable MentionsHow to Get Away With Murder, Atlanta,  The X-FilesAbsolutely Fabulous, The Sopranos, The Wire, Dead Like Me.

Living the Life Unwell

“Anxiety”, “Depression”, “Substance Abuse”, “PTSD”. Whatever it can be attributed to, for much of my life, I’ve been mentally and emotionally volatile. To be honest, I feel mentally ill on any given day, if only because I compare myself to other, more normal people, people who appear unscathed by trauma, “happy”, “carefree”. But even people who have lived fairly rough lives seem more emotionally stable than me. What gives?

It’s hard to know what people think – or know – about mental illness, because we still, well, we just don’t talk about it. Attempting to do so often elicits blank stares, languorous silence on the other end of the line, a feeling of unease. Perhaps this is because it reminds people of their own woes for a brief moment, but more likely, it’s because they’ve been made “uncomfortable.” We’re living in an era (hopefully a brief one), in which people go out of their way to avoid gazing inward. We celebrate and extol the exterior – while the inside rots.

Living with mental disorder, “real” or “imagined”, diagnosed or known to be true, is confounding, upsetting, and profoundly isolating. Sometimes, you wonder to yourself, “Why is it so hard for me to smile?” And then you remember, oh yeah, depression. Other times, you think, “Why is it so hard for me to relax? Why am I always so agitated, ill at-ease?” Oh yeah, the anxiety. This is why it is futile to compare yourself to those other, more normal people. You may never be there… and it’s not your fault.

What does it take to get better? I sometimes wonder if I can even “get better”… and if it’s even worth the effort. Finding a therapist that is actually half-way decent, being able to afford it, either through insurance or out-of-pocket, trying to get a prescription. All I could be assed to do so far is quit drinking and go to the gym a couple times a week, if that. Which is better than nothing, but nowhere close enough to the actual work that needs to be done. To get better, one would have to truly look at themselves, and into themselves, perhaps for the first time. To challenge everything you think you know about yourself, others, and the world, is to dismantle all of your notions. To completely reevaluate your worldview, and change your reality. Scary stuff. It’s not surprising we avoid this confrontation for as long as possible, in some cases, our whole lives.

You can get real comfortable with your neuroses. Hell, you can get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

When I look at most people, they just seem so empty, as if they’ve never been touched by trauma or even real problems their entire lives. As if their only concern is what to order for lunch, or what TV show they’re going to watch when they get home. They seem to lack an inner life (impossible), or to live almost obscenely for the “outer life” – essentially what we call “living”. Maybe they are just “happy”. I think, is that what I’m supposed to be like? Are they “living right”? Why am I so angry? Why can I barely look at people, never mind speak to them? Why can’t I be like them? Why do they accept so easily what I can’t?

I know how painful and disorienting being anxious, and resentful, and lonely, and sad all the time is. I know what it’s like to be treated like a leper, or to be looked at with reproach and disdain, because “they” can’t quite figure out what your problem is (as if you only had one). I know what it’s like to barely feel human, between the disconnection and the slow withdrawal. You begin to feel like human detritus, tossed to the side of the road, left to watch more deserving people (the normals) lead “happy” and “fulfilling” lives.

But you can only be trash if you throw your life away. And I suspect that most of us haven’t done that – and we won’t.

Footnote:
Anxiety = mental masturbation with no release.*
Depression = Shit-stained glasses that make the world seem a bleak and hopeless place (well, even more so). A cassette tape that plays on a loop in your head telling you you’re worthless, broken, and unlovable and always will be.
Substance abuse = the way you silence all the noise and doubt.
PTSD = all of the above, usually.
*Hey, you’ve gotta laugh, or you just might kill yourself 😉
**These are simplifications of course.

Things We Learned in the Wake of #Election2016

Welcome to Trump's America. Ugh.
Welcome to Trump’s America. Ugh.

1) There were more closet Trump fans – millions more  – than we ever could have imagined.

2) America is still a mostly conservative country (see map), despite the ultra-liberal “agendas” of the last ten years or so.

3) The third of America called “flyover country”, mostly working class, white, and “uneducated,” – and largely ignored by the urban elites of the East and West Coasts – finally realized this election cycle that a) they outnumber said liberals and b) they had both the opportunity, the collective power, and collective drive (i.e. rage) to put Trump  into office.

4) On the inverse, Democrats snoozed through this election, complacent and overly confident that career politician Clinton would stand in stark contrast to boorish and “unqualified” Trump. In the end, most voters could give two shits about Clinton’s extensive (and maligned) tenure as Secretary of State, First Lady or NYS Senator, they just wanted a “Change!” candidate who recognized the struggles of the everyday person, and offered tangible (if extreme and implausible) solutions for restoring order in a country gone insane.

Clinton was just selling more of the same, and her enlistment of uber-rich celebs such as Katy Perry and Meryl Streep just made the relatively independent and isolated Trump seem even more the maverick.

5) Though, so far, over 600,000 more Americans voted for Hillary than Trump (and that number is expected to hit over 2 million once all votes are counted), the enthusiasm among minority groups and traditional Democrats was gone by the time Election Day rolled around. 88% of African Americans voted for Clinton, compared to 93 for Obama, and young voters were clearly split this time around, with 54% going Clinton, 37 Trump (60% of 18-30 year olds voted for Obama). White women surprisingly deserted Clinton, with 53% voting for Trump (to Clinton’s 43). Even Latinos, a group Trump famously insulted at the start of his campaign, defected to Camp Trump.

6) If anything, this election blurred the lines more than any other in American history. More independents voted this time around, and groups that largely voted one way historically went the other way (African Americans, women, young people). Blame it on the candidates themselves (Clinton being a “weak candidate” and “unrelatable”, Trump being “larger than life”), I just think this is the future of politics. More people will vote for the candidate they most connect to, with less regard for their own political affiliation. And overall, there will be less voter turnout. Only half the voting-eligible population cast a ballot this time.

SIDENOTE: They might wanna think about making the voting process entirely digital at some point. People are addicted to convenience, and might (BIG might) be more inclined to vote if they didn’t have to wait in line for several hours to do so.

7) If the election results proved anything, it’s that the majority of the country are over the Clintons. The Clintons have lasted longer in politics than most, but have also been tarnished by scandals of various shades, from deep blood red (Benghazi) to little blue dress. Maybe voting for Hillary felt like a giant step back for a lot of people. In any case, Chelsea Clinton is being groomed for Congress and probably a Presidential run in a few decades, so they’ll never be done, even if the public is burnt out on them at the moment.

#SickSadWorld

Why We Love Antiheroes

Selina Unsure
Selina Meyer (Veep), TV’s latest bane.

On the fifth season finale of HBO’s lauded series Veep, Selina Meyer, fictional 45th President of the United States, was dealt a crushing blow. After the tied election that closed season four, votes were held in Congress to elect the next POTUS. With deadlocks in both the House and Senate, the Vice President cast the tiebreaker, electing Laura Montez, a younger, “prettier”, more beloved (and questionably Latina) senator from New Mexico, the next President of the United States. Realizing her reign is (abruptly) over, Selina turns to her press secretary, Mike, and says…

Selina Hates You All
We know, Selina, we know…

Selina Meyer’s supposed hatred of the American People and the American Way has been a recurring theme throughout the series. In the fourth season finale, “Election Night”, she goes on a rant of such withering contempt and unbridled rage it’s both endlessly funny and more than a little cringe worthy. “I’ll tell you what’s unprecedented, a tie is unprecedented! So’s me becoming the first Lady President!” Meyer growls. “So’s that jack-off becoming President through the backdoor! The rulebook’s been torn up now, and America’s wiping its nasty ass with it!”

Earlier in the episode, Selina has another outburst as the election results roll in and she loses yet another state. “Jesus Christ, you know? You do your best, you try to serve the people, and they just fuck you over,” she cries indignantly. “You know why? Because they’re ignorant, and they’re dumb as shit, and that’s democracy!”

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ turn as the deeply angry, ineffectual, venal politician Selina Meyer is one of the most awarded performances in TV history, with four consecutive Emmy wins (and she’ll likely win a fifth). Selina isn’t particularly sympathetic; in fact, she is arguably a terrible person. But she does inspire pity and even empathy within us. And there lies the paradox of the antihero: they are defined by objectively unlikable qualities and traits, but we still root for them. They are the ultimate underdogs, the people who wouldn’t have made it if not for their sheer will to survive, to excel, or to become who they were truly meant to be. These are the people society fucked over, forgot, or otherwise pushed aside.

It used to be the characters that captured our imaginations and our hearts were pure, upstanding, and heroic. But now even our heroes and superheroes are dark, complex, and morally ambiguous. The last few years have seen an increase of big budget flicks about villainous figures, such as the upcoming Suicide Squad. The proliferation of the antihero in pop culture has had a correlation to the rise of real “antiheroic figures”. A decade ago, Donald Trump was a smarmy reality-TV star that no one took seriously. Today, he’s the Republican Nominee for President. Has the acceptance of radical, polarizing figures in our media made us more receptive to these individuals in real life? In any case, an undeniable cynicism has seeped into our culture, televisual and real.

So what is an antihero anyway? If a hero is one who risks everything for the good of others, and a superhero is one who risks everything for the good of all, maybe an antihero is one willing to sacrifice everything, including other people, for self-gain. If the qualities of courage, empathy, morality and idealism are heralded in the hero’s journey, then the vice qualities – insecurity, greed, callousness, apathy or the lack of empathy – are front and center in the antihero’s. Antiheroes, however, are not usually inherently bad people. They’re usually between a rock and a cold, hard place, and this galvanizes them to such a degree that their own needs, desires, and aspirations become more important than those of others.

The first antihero on television – inarguably Mr. Tony Soprano – exemplified this to the nth degree.  With The Sopranos, David Chase created a blueprint for the male antihero, which would be expanded upon in series such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men.  Earlier in the series, it was easier to root for Tony, the beset-upon family man and mob boss, grasping for power at “work”, and struggling to meet the demands of family life. When he suffers a panic attack in the first episode and starts psychotherapy, we’re compelled. But as the series progresses, we’re repulsed by his increasing brutality. As he shoots kids dead for trivial betrayals, and in the final season, murders his own nephew, we realize that his heinous acts are committed not for survival; he’s merely become a casual murderer, a casual adulterer, and a casual liar. Soprano starts out an antihero and ends up a straight-up villain. And in that iconic final moment of the series, we assume that Tony has finally paid for it all with his life… but he’s never redeemed before he “dies.”

Without Tony Soprano, you don’t have Don Draper, and you don’t have Walter White. Breaking Bad marked the end of the era of “Problem Men” on TV, but the beginning of a shift in characterization. Throughout the series, every horrible thing White does is in the name of survival. In many ways, Walter White is the first TV antihero to garner real sympathy from an audience. He was more relatable than Soprano or Draper because he was a “regular”, middle-aged, middle-class American man who doesn’t start out as callous, self-serving, or dangerous, quite the opposite actually – and surely the story of a “good man” who becomes bad (i.e. breaking bad) is more compelling than the story of a lout who devolves even further (The Sopranos). Walter White is a character we love and root for from the get-go. He’s a high school chemistry teacher raising a family of four on just $43,000, struggling so much to pay the bills that he has to moonlight as a car washer after-school. We then find out that he missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime: he helped start a company, Gray Matter, worth billions, but sold his shares for a pittance. So when Walter is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, we understand his decision to team up with a former student, druggie burnout Jesse Pinkman, to cook meth in a beat-up Winnebago. This first major decision sets in motion a series of catastrophic and unfortunate events that don’t reach a real conclusion until Walter dies on the floor in the final episode. As series creator Vince Gilligan said, “If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s that actions have consequences…”

Walter White

* * *

So why do we love antiheroes? Is it because they are willing to do whatever it takes? Or is there more to it than that? Maybe we love these characters because they magnify our own rage, the tragedy of our own lives. They push past boundaries we wish we could breach. No, most of us don’t want to dissolve bodies in a tub of lye, or put a hit out on eight people, or rig an election, but we do wish we could shake off the shackles of convention and live life truly on our own terms.

On the last night of the Republication Convention, Donald Trump spoke about America’s neglected masses. “[There are] forgotten men and women in this country,” he boomed, “People who work hard but no longer have a voice… I am your voice!” And the crowd roared.

But unlike Mr. Donald J. Trump, the TV antihero doesn’t claim to speak for anyone but him or herself, but their declarations, outbursts, strident, split-minute decisions, and excoriations are vicarious living. At a time in America in which we all feel like victims, exploited or scapegoated by corrupt and self-serving politicians, trampled on and suffocated by legal and other hegemonic systems, the anti-hero, complete in his and her autonomy, speaks for us all.

The Argument for Universal Basic Income

Officially the world's largest poster, Geneva, Switzerland.
Officially the world’s largest poster, Geneva, Switzerland.

On June 5, 2016, the citizens of Switzerland decided NOT to allow their government to give them free money. The neutral Western European nation, population 8 million, held a public referendum in which the question was this: should the government provide all Swiss adults with a guaranteed salary equivalent to US $30,000 a year? Unsurprisingly, most Swiss said no, with 77% of voters against.

Why did the Swiss vote against the world’s first real UBI initiative? Because they don’t need it. The country is one of the most economically empowered in the world, with the highest wealth per adult citizen, a progressive social welfare policy, and one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe at just 3.7%. But would Universal Basic Income – giving each adult citizen enough money to cover basic living expenses – help solve and salve the chasms of unemployment and income inequality? In a country as large, heterogeneous, and discordant in beliefs and ideology as the United States, could UBI one day be economic reality?

Universal basic income, as it has been dubbed, is an over two hundred year old idea. Pioneered by Thomas Paine in a 1797 pamphlet “Agrarian Justice,” he proposed giving every adult over 21 regular payments of 15 pound sterling. Since then, the concept has evolved, taking on many names: unconditional basic income, social dividend, citizen’s income, negative income tax. UBI seems simple enough to explain: an economic system in which all citizens of a certain age are given a guaranteed annual income. However, the ramifications of such an economic overhaul, especially in Western, capitalist societies, leaves many hesitant to fully accept UBI as the future. It shifts the status quo a bit too radically.

Still, people’s gut reactions to UBI tend to jump right over the river called Nuance and into the sea of Assumptions. “People won’t work,” many proclaim, “It’ll encourage laziness”. Others still cry, “It’ll bankrupt the government! We couldn’t afford it!” Some believe that Universal Basic Income would change work irreversibly – and it would, just not in the cataclysmic ways they envision. Workers would be far more empowered than they’ve ever been, and I think that is truly what scares us. It scares the elites because an economically empowered populace has something they likely didn’t have before: options. It also scares workers, who have internalized what they do for a living, and the process of “earning a living,” to such a degree that willingly receiving a “paycheck for nothing” seems wrong, if not downright shameful.

But work is already headed towards drastic change. Many jobs will, in the near future, be performed by machines. With a UBI, work could change in other ways. The five-day workweek might drop to four days. Long-term unemployment and perhaps even the concept of unemployment altogether could cease to exist. Citizens could take as much time from the workforce as they’d like without the stigma of being deemed “unemployable.” Personal and passion projects, and maybe even relationships, may come to be more valued than jobs, work, and making money. We could see a population become more active in volunteer work, shunning fierce individualism in favor of an altruism that used to be integral to the American way. UBI threatens America as we have known it to be for some time, and that’s why it’s so dangerous. At the gut level, many of us don’t want it, and if a UBI bill were drafted tomorrow, it would never make it through Congress.

This is why, to argue for a Universal Basic Income, you’d have to know the many, many arguments against it. Most critics rail against UBI for purely economic and elitist reasons, failing to grasp its larger significance, to see the ways in which it could radically transform society.

One problem with spreading awareness about UBI is that even the people most qualified to talk about it – economists, journalists, thinkers – don’t seem to have a solid grasp of it, which leads to a lot of misinterpretation and misinformation. Even this guy, who wrote a piece lambasting UBI critics, fails to understand that a universal basic income is just that: a basic income. He instead suggests eliminating tax breaks like the standard deduction in favor of giving all Americans $2,500 a year through a kind of tax rebate program (which Bush notably tried back in 2008). I don’t think UBI would work as direct tax rebate because it would completely derail the current tax code in a way that would negatively impact millions of people, and the goal of a UBI in my estimation should be to reform not obliterate systems already in place (unless they really need to be).

Max Sawicky has been one of the foremost critics of universal basic income. A former member of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), he argued that the “objectives” of a UBI would be outweighed by the “specifics” of it – how it would be implemented. He goes on to offer some alternatives, amounting essentially to patchwork on existing programs – raising the minimum wage (even though it will never catch up to inflation), and “federalizing the TANF program.” These fixes would “keep with our current system and political culture,” he writes.

Maybe he doesn’t get the nuances of a UBI because he believes so much in the way things are. And therein lies the problem. These economists, for all of their education and knowledge, aren’t able to grasp that UBI isn’t about tax policy or welfare – it’s about leveling a playing field ravaged by rampant free market capitalism and corporate greed for too long.

Universal basic income could, and would, work in the United States, and in most rich, Western economies. The US already spends over $1 trillion across dozens of federal and state public welfare and entitlement programs. With the implementation of a UBI, most components of Social Security, Medicaid, TANF, SNAP, and other programs would be scaled back or cut completely. Unemployment insurance would be dramatically scaled back.

Let’s go back to the single biggest economic reason people argue a UBI could never work in the United States: the government would go bankrupt trying to pay every adult a base salary. Who says the burden must fall completely on the government? While U.S. federal revenues are only about $3.4 trillion, our GDP is easily ten or fifteen times that. Ultimately, UBI is about wealth redistribution. With non-profits and charities currently testing UBI pilot programs, and Silicon Valley, with a combined wealth that is unfathomable, being one of its fiercest advocates, funding could come from a variety of sources, philanthropic and federal.

Some have proposed methods for doling out UBI, usually with conditions, as there should be. Recently Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute put forth his basic income plan in the Wall Street Journal:  grant every citizen a total of $13,000 a year, with $3,000 to be put towards their healthcare. Here’s how my universal basic income would work. Each adult citizen or permanent resident would receive an annual gross income that is 150% of the poverty line. So somewhere around 16,000 to 20,000 a year. A portion of that income would be automatically diverted into a tax-free retirement account, let’s say 10%. Another portion, let’s say 20% would be put into a personal healthcare account. The rest would be taxed at a flat rate. This forces citizens to invest in themselves, and also encourages them to continue to work, because whatever is left after healthcare, retirement costs and taxes are taken out is nowhere near enough to live well on, but would no doubt give a nice boost to the struggling classes.

Socioeconomic tensions create many of the ills of society. Ultimately, American capitalism is about competition. It engenders a fierce individualism in all of us – every (hu)man for self – and devalues cooperation and human potential. We have become the wealthiest nation in history because of this, but as noted by Andrew Flowers of FiveThirtyEight, capital is no longer scarce. We’ve created enough wealth: the last big scarcity is attention. What would we choose to focus on, to do with our time, if we didn’t spend most of it earning enough, in most cases, just to survive?

A UBI levels the playing field, as everyone receives it. How we choose to use our “social dividend” is, of course, up to each of us. But at least we have that option now. UBI as an idea is ultimately about empowering people, who can then decide how and what they will spend their time and energy on, whether that means creating artisanal products, or playing World of Warcraft, or choosing to be a perpetual student.

Of course, this leads to the single biggest logical argument against UBI. Basically, it’s this: if you give people money, they won’t work. Why is this assumption wrong? Can anyone tell me? This assumption is wrong, because to paraphrase Charles Murray, “The problem isn’t work, but idleness.” For the people who want to work and do work, and the people who want to work but can’t work (for any number of reasons to complex to dig into here), the opportunities for meaningful work will increase. Those who live idle lives or lives of leisure will choose to continue doing just that. Again, it all comes down to choice.

When people have enough money to meet their basic needs, and even save a little for future goals, everything begins looking up. Perhaps the biggest single UBI experiment to date, dubbed MINCOME, was conducted by the Canadian government and the province of Manitoba from 1974 and 1979. Every eligible family in the town of Dauphin, pop. 10,000, received an income. The study data, though abandoned, was unearthed by economist Evelyn Forget in 2004, resulting in a research paper titled “The Town With(out) Poverty”. What Forget discovered when looking at the data collected about these families who received the guaranteed income was that they had better health outcomes – less mental health hospitalizations, accidents, and injuries. The high school completion rate went up during the years of the study, and young women were much less likely to have children before age 25. Most tellingly, Manitoba’s guaranteed income experiment brought most of its recipients above Canada’s poverty line.

As with the MINCOME experiments in 1970s Canada, recent cash transfer experiments, such as the pilot program run by Give Directly in Kenya and Uganda, have revealed that when you give people money, especially the poorest among us, they tend to invest in themselves instead of excessively spending on vices such as drugs and alcohol (another fear expressed by UBI naysayers).

I don’t see how poverty is beneficial to anyone. Some argue that there is a point to poverty, that it is even essential to the structure and functioning of society. But the only thing that poverty contributes to society that is even remotely “useful” is a systematically oppressed underclass to fill low-wage service jobs. It also creates dysfunction in families, communities, and society: crime, physical and mental health issues, abuse, neglect, and the list goes on. With a UBI granted to everyone, regardless of status, we’d see healthcare costs fall, crime stats fall. Why does anyone need to rob or steal if their basic needs are being met? Of course, you are never going to fully eradicate crime or poverty or any other social ill, because these are deeply complex phenomena whose origins lie in the darkest corners of the human condition. But UBI would be a hell of a fucking start, and we are at the perfect time in history to kick-start it.

America needs to change. We can’t keep up the level of prosperity that we’ve been at for the last 60 years or so because we’re seeing that it is coming at a very human cost. This country has not directly invested in its people in over 50 years, since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson, and even those systems, so visionary at the time, are now obsolete or nearly so. Instead, we over-invest in corporations and ramp up defense spending to the point where we are #1 in the world at it. The Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, so beautifully invoked in the Declaration of Independence nearly 250 years ago, has been replaced by The Right to Debt, Drudgery, and Pursuit of Things.

UBI is a beautiful idea because it encourages people to invest in themselves, their communities, industry, and their country, rather than encouraging dependence upon beleaguered government programs and stigmatizing those in need in the process. It will usher in an era of post-work, in which what you do isn’t so important, but what you choose to do is. It will end poverty as we know it. Is UBI the future? Or the now?

The Slow Crawl to Sobriety

There are a few things you realize after quitting the booze. Perhaps the first is just how different life feels. There was your life while drinking, and now there’s your life after, where everything feels muted, as if you’ve just broken the surface after years of being submerged. There is a period of self-estrangement where you wonder if the person you were before and the phantom you are now are one and the same. Social interaction becomes exhausting. The anxiety and depression you were merely tempering with alcohol reaches hellish depths, until you find yourself days or weeks into a black hole, binge watching TV (my pick was Homeland, perfect for misery viewing), ignoring phone calls and otherwise voluntarily secluding yourself from the world. The people in your life, for all their good intentions (if that can even be said), can’t or won’t understand what this is like. And anyway, you wouldn’t even begin to know how to explain it to them.

You may find yourself physically tormented as well, bloated and constipated for days or weeks at a time. Insomnia may become a fact of your life. You’ll be highly irritable, angry, and guilt ridden for who knows how long. But you’ll have to take care of yourself now, because no one is coming. Even if you are lucky enough to have support, you’ll still have to do the heavy lifting yourself. You’ll have to get up out of bed when you’d rather lie there. You’ll have to brush your teeth, take a shower and eat a meal, do your laundry. If you can get these basic things done, then maybe next week you can get to the gym. And the week after that, to your doctor (I know you’ve been avoiding this forever). In this game of getting better, time is on your side. If it takes a month or six, so be it.

Slowly, you begin to surface. Sometimes, you just have to keep yourself alive and functioning. And so that’s what you do. You try to get to sleep at a normal hour and wake up before half the day is gone, with mixed results of course. Many a night will be spent wide-eyed, hovered over your laptop tinkering with various projects, hate reading, misery reading (two different things entirely), ruminating, masturbating, and cringing at the memory of past indiscretions. You’ll have entirely too much time on your hands with no idea how to structure it.

What this experience does for you, this psychic and physical purging, is immensely valuable in ways that you can’t see while you’re in the midst of it. Years of drinking have numbed you to your anguish, have prevented you fully confronting the facts of your life, and placated you with an illusion of control, when really you’ve only been holding on. The emotional withdrawal that comes upon quitting a reliance upon any toxic crutch, whether that be booze, drugs, or a bad relationship, forces you into a deep intra-personal conflict that has probably been delayed for some time, maybe even your entire life.

Life will feel hollow and joyless for a while. I’m not even sure how long to be honest. The friends you had whilst drinking are gone, and the friends you had before are hard to relate to, especially if they’ve got their shit together. You’re still unemployed or underemployed, or worse, forced to show up to a job you can’t meet the demands of. At this point, you can barely run daily errands without wanting to run back home and retreat to the comforting glow of your laptop. Life sucks just as much sober as it did when I was drinking, you think. What’s the fucking point? But then you realize something quite amazing. In the three weeks or months since you’ve stopped drinking, you realize that you don’t need it anymore. Sure you might have an urge to drink still, but that’s all it is, an urge, and soon even that disappears. You no longer need alcohol. Those weeks and months of violent turmoil and turbulence ushered in a sea change of some kind. Even if you’re still miserable, at least you’re not compounding your own misery anymore. If life isn’t necessarily “better” sober, it’s at least a hell of a lot more authentic.

Becoming sober is almost like being an infant again. You have to learn how to talk to people again, how to read social cues, how to wait, how to be comfortable standing in your own skin. Social interactions become daunting to get through, because the booze and drugs made them too easy in the first place. Life is hard, and alcohol and drugs can at best temporarily relieve the stresses of the day. Sobriety means a lot more than putting away the blunt or beer. It means looking at things, perhaps for the first time, with  clarity.

I don’t want to be one of those people who swears he’ll never drink again. There’s nothing more annoying than a zealot who insists that anyone who has ever had a problem with alcohol should never, ever, ever drink again or their lives will surely end in misery and death. I do think that one should stop drinking if they find their reasons for drinking change. If you find that you are no longer just drinking socially or even because you enjoy it, but you are drinking to maintain yourself, you should stop. If you are drinking even though you hate drinking (and every drinker reaches that point), maybe it’s time to stop. I don’t subscribe to the ways of the Big Book or AA or any of that fuckery. In the end, it doesn’t really matter how long you’ve been sober. It doesn’t matter how long you will be sober. Whether it’s another two days or two decades, you’re sober now. That should be enough.

 

Prince (1958 – 2016)

When a major music star dies suddenly, especially one as youthful and vital as Prince, it comes as more than a shock. Many of us are still reeling from Bowie’s passing in January, and so Prince’s random death from “flu-like symptoms” is confounding and upsetting. Prince was many things, a guitar virtuoso, a musical chameleon, a musical genius really. As a producer, mentor, and song-writer, he put several artists and bands on the map, and he himself produced a staggering thirty-nine studio albums over a 35-year career.

Most of us, even those unfamiliar with most of his creative output, recognize the pinnacle achievements of his career: 1984’s Purple Rain soundtrack album eclipsed the B-film it was composed for, boasting signature songs such as “When Doves Cry”, “Let’s Go Crazy” and the sprawling, magnificent title track. Even the most uninitiated recognize his score for the 1989 Tim Burton Batman film.

The album that made me a Prince fan was his breakthrough, 1982’s 1999. It’s hard to believe that he was just 24 when he wrote, composed, and produced these 11 witty, weird, and sexy songs. Nobody, and I mean nobody, was making dystopian pop records in 1982 – this was the era of mindless glitz and gore a la Thriller. Even before mainstream success, Prince’s records exuded a raw sexuality, he married genres effortlessly, pulling from the best of  ’70s funk and rock n’ roll and deftly incorporating the synthesizer, which would become the crutch of pop music later in the ’80s.

Prince, like Bowie, transcended his own time, and perhaps even ours. His genius is hard to fully grasp, even now, as we reconcile with the fact that he’s no longer here. His music will always be here though, so in more ways than one, he always will be.

Fear and Loathing in the Time of Trump

In America, all one has are problems. Financial problems. Marital woes and family dysfunction. Drinking and drug addictions. If you live here, chances are you have more than one.

Is anyone really happy here? According to some researchers, despite our great personal and national wealth, our overall sense of well-being has dwindled since the turn of the century. We’re more depressed than ever, and prescription and opioid drug abuse is alarmingly high, even amongst affluent whites. People in this country live in unceasing turmoil, yet few do the obvious and leave.

Perhaps we’re afraid of not being part of the (shit) show. Living in America is akin to being part of an elaborate performance. The rest of the world sits and watches, at times jeering and throwing things onstage. Every now and then, an “audience member” joins us onstage, but in the end, we are the main attraction. Our domination of the international “stage” is what keeps many of us in line. Being an American, or even just living here, grants benefits and privileges most of the world doesn’t have access to. 

Also, we all need something to be outraged about. If we lived in a calmer, safer, saner, and overall better country than the U.S., what would we have to be angry, outraged, offended, and fired up about? If our politicians were honorable, whom would we have to blame?

Soon, we may be electing a billionaire real estate tycoon President, after decades of rule by establishment politicians with law degrees. The problem isn’t so much Donald Trump’s money, or his über-privileged life and upbringing, although that does put him at odds with the average person who lives paycheck-to-paycheck, or worse. It’s his attitude and his belief system. He has never held elected office, but somehow, he feels entitled to the Presidency, because only he can fix the myriad problems in this country. He proposes extreme half-baked “solutions” to complex sociopolitical issues, declaring that he will deport all illegal immigrants, build a wall to keep them out, and ban any and all Muslims from entering the country. While hordes of people have fallen for his shtick, many of us are terrified at the prospect of a Trump Presidency.

But even if we don’t want Trump – and we’re becoming more and more aware that we don’t want Trump – do we really want another establishment politician with a law degree? Must we really choose between stagnation and obliteration?

Then again, would that be so surprising? America is the Land of the Extremes, where we are commanded daily to Pick a Side! – Republican or Democrat, Christian or Atheist. Soon, we’ll be asked to choose between Clinton the Corrupt and Trump the Terrible. In America, you’re either a winner or a loser, black or white, good or bad, a capitalist or a socialist, a have or a have-not. As a people, we don’t appreciate subtlety or depth; we don’t consider the nuances and intricacies of issues, identities, and ideologies. 

This bullheaded, black-and-white way of viewing humanity has made it easier for figures such as Trump to divide us all. America is a country galvanized by fear and hate. Our long history of racism and propaganda proves this, and now, the rise of Donald Trump only further exemplifies it. And because we live in a culture that thrives on fear and hostilities, the people are, you guessed it, filled with and governed by fear and hostility.

Of course, Trump’s entire modus operandi has been to prey on these fears, namely those of the white working classes, and a good share of the elite as well. This is a man whose campaign began as a punch line, who only really started garnering attention with crude, outlandish statements (“Mexicans…. are all rapists and drug dealers”). Every word he’s spoken since then has been an escalation of this. Trump’s strategy is simple: point out the “enemy,” propose the most extreme solution for dealing with the enemy, gain the rabid devotion of people who were too angry to listen to reason to begin with. He’s tapping into unexpressed rage and irrational fear. Maybe the Hitler comparison is on point, after all.

We can talk ad-nauseam about how abrasive America’s culture and politics are, but really, it’s personal. America has ruined us all. We’ve become entitled, resentful, and embattled, because we’ve been discarded by the political and corporate system. Our dreams have been dashed, trashed, and rendered void. Unable to cope, we turn to antidepressants and alcohol, high fructose corn syrup and heroin. We escape into reality TV, porn, social media, and 24-hour news coverage. We seek out constant distractions and entertainments, instant gratifications. The American people were ready for a candidate like Donald Trump: a one-man show whose anger and hatred they could readily empathize with, whose wealth they could live through vicariously. 

The collective cynicism of the people is indicative of where we are now. In the past, we set out to put a man on the moon and cure polio, purely to advance humanity (Salk wouldn’t even patent his cure). Now Virgin Galactic is testing $250,000 commercial space flights, and pharmaceutical companies are charging hundreds of dollars a pill for HIV medication. Even art is fully commercialized. The album is nearly dead because we prefer to buy songs on iTunes. Hollywood has tarnished cinema with an assembly-line approach to moviemaking, churning out remakes, reboots, and sequels to sequels. We now live in a country where everything is exploited for max gain. 

This is the Time of Trump whether we like it or not (I don’t like it, not at all). Plan your exit strategy! Or strap in. This country will never be quite the same again. Who’s to say ‘Ye can’t run for President in 2020, if Trump can in 2016? Who’s to say anyone can’t? Maybe this is just fierce democracy in action – or the beginning of a very dark chapter in American history.

Realities… and peculiarities…