Category Archives: Culture

How to take a good sh*t

Nice title, right? The truth is, you may have been defecating incorrectly your entire life (well, from potty-trained toddlerhood onward).

“When nature is eased of any surcharge that oppresses it … relieved when overcharged,” the body feels one of its two great pleasures — the other of course is stuffing the other end with food and drink — according to Sir Thomas More in Utopia.

If relieving oneself regularly and easily is one of life’s great pleasures, then being frustrated by irregular and difficult bowel movements is nothing to scoff at. Indeed, a healthy digestive tract and colon is the very foundation of health. Think of the infrastructure of a building or city: The pipes must be clean, sound and flowing, or there will be some serious issues: sewage will get backed up, leading to impaction, infestation, and ultimately, ill health and disease.

We know that plenty of raw fruits and vegetables, moderate exercise (like walking), sound sleep, low stress and lots of water all help move things along. But there is something that virtually all of the oh-so-modern and sophisticated denizens of the civilized Western world are doing to thwart their poop processes.

The history of the toilet is an interesting one; flush toilets are as old as the Indus Valley Civilization circa 26th century BC. But the sit-down, throne-like “pedestal” porcelain version we are so used to using wasn’t invented until the mid-19th century; this contribution to mankind was designed for the Victorian royalty and aristocracy. What was good enough for the queen soon became standard, at least in certain spheres.

Supposedly, it is more civilized to sit than it is to squat. Our ancestors went out to the woods to relieve themselves, and our bodies are totally biologically designed to defecate in this manner. Try it when you are out camping. You will be surprised how quickly it all comes out. You begin to get what Sir Thomas was raving about.

Sitting puts a kink in our intestines and works against our bodies and against gravity. It makes the process less efficient and also causes some fecal matter to remain in the colon, which can lead to colon cancer. Sitting while defecating also can lead to prostate enlargement, prostate cancer and hemorrhoids; and, over a lifetime, leads to the deterioration of a balancing mechanism built into our heels for this purpose. (see this article for more information: http://aprovechoamerica.tripod.com/id10.html).

From a Wikipedia article on toilets in Japan:

A number of medical benefits are attributed to the squat toilet.[31] It has been suggested that the squatting strengthens the pelvic muscles of females, reducing the likelihood of incontinence.[dead link][32] Furthermore, it is said that this toilet builds up strength in the hips, and improves breathing and concentration. The upright squatting position also allows wastes to be eliminated more quickly and completely, reducing fecal transit time. Slow fecal transit is a major risk factor for colon cancer.[33]Other studies find that squatting prevents and cures hemorrhoids.[34] Assuming and maintaining the squatting position on a regular basis may also help maintain the flexibility of the knees.[35]

Squat toilets are very common in Japan, a place that prides itself on civility and cleanliness. (Bidets, another no-brainer, are also popular there as they are in Europe. Come on, America the greatest country on Earth? Not until we get with it in the bathroom). In fact, 75 percent of the world’s population squats to sit. Yes, a lot of this goes on in unsanitary conditions in the third world, but it is also common in developed countries throughout the world — countries such as Japan and France. A variation is the pedestal squat toilet used in India:

File:Pedestal-squat-toilet.jpg

If you don’t have a hole to squat over, don’t despair. You can get close to the same effect (although not quite to Utopian levels of defecatory ecstasy) by pulling up the resident bathroom trashcan and putting your feet on it. Some companies actually sell special foot stools for this purpose, but a trash can or anything that allows your feet to be elevated and your knees to bend will help.

I imagine that our ancestors’ waste matter was great for soil fertility, especially since their diet was largely plant-based. Modern day humans can go for a compost toilet; this one comes complete with attached footstool:

Sun-Mar Excel Self-Contained Composting Toilet, Model# Excel

Although the price is a little much. Shouldn’t pooping be free?

Along similar lines (literally), giving birth to a child is also best done in positions other than lying on one’s back. Documentaries such as The Business of Being Born and Pregnant in America talk about how our (must use the little quotey things) “modern, civilized” approach to birth — hospitals, exorbitant costs, forceps, drugs, pain, and generally long and unpleasant labor — is very unnatural. Many European and Eastern countries use midwives and time-tested methods to give birth at home. These processes are safe and often produce shorter, less painful labor, making the experience much more pleasant and comfortable. The mother should be able to move into a variety of positions (squatting, on all fours, etc.), listening to her body to tell her how to move and work with her body, the baby and with gravity.

These examples are two of many in which we consider ourselves unequivocally advanced and superior to cultures anterior and contemporaneous, but may in fact  be utterly backwards. In my next blog I want to discuss the widely held assumption/misconception of future as equivalent to progress, and how ‘new’ does not always equal ‘better.’

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Avoid and destroy all evil corporations

While browsing flights on Expedia.com the other day, I became rather suspicious when just a few minutes after searching for a flight, the price on the same exact trip had jumped about $20. I get that prices go up as flights get closer and seats get sold, but I knew that 1) Expedia put cookies in my browser and knew what I was searching for, evident by the site autofilling the fields for me; 2) it was suspicious that it happened within a few minutes; and 3) corporations are often extremely evil entities.

So I did a little online searching and found that indeed, this is a scam. A trick. A deliberate extortion. Try it sometime — search for a flight, then go back and search again. Then open a new browser (like if you were using Google Chrome, try it in Internet Explorer) and your price will go back to its original state.

So Expedia.com (and I suspect, all of its kind, such as Priceline, etc.) are deliberately extorting their customers. Is all fair in love, war and business?

Obviously, corporations can be great. They can make fabulous products that enhance our lives, and they provide jobs and livelihoods. They create healthy economies, and they are often the living embodiment of humanity’s dreams.

But since corporations are people, they can be tempted by evil, and many go straight for it. Their evil is justified by the fact that it makes them more money and/or enhances their public image. Does that make it okay?

Many corporations attempt to have ethics, to help communities and try not to hurt the environment too much. Others purport to do good, but it’s really just a marketing and public relations facade, one that they try to make even their employees believe.

And many — think of Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and now, companies like Monsanto — engage in large-scale disinformation campaigns. This is why it is so important that people shop mindfully and really think about what they are buying. Are those pink-ribbon emblazoned cookies really going to help cure cancer? Susan G. Komen would certainly like you to think so, and they have a vested interest in doing so. Many food items pretend to be ‘all-natural’ and otherwise healthy when they are definitely not; low-fat food items and diet pills are cashing in on a multi-billion dollar industry that is only getting (pun intended) bigger by the day.

NaturalNews listed the Most Evil Corporations, with Monsanto taking the top spot. The rest:

British Petroleum 9%
Halliburton 5%
McDonalds 3%
Pfizer 2%
Merck 2%
Wal-Mart 2%
Nestle 1%
Other 7%

Monsanto created bee-killing, cancer-causing, neurotoxic pesticides and herbicides, Agent Orange, DDT, PCBs, dioxin,  the artificial sweetener Aspartame (NutraSweet), bovine somatotropin rBST / rBGH pus milk (Posilac shots), GMOs and more. They make it a point to sue small farmers out of business and directly caused thousands of farmer suicides in India. These are all verifiable facts. They are attempting to patent all the seeds, consolidating control over the world food supply.

This is a blatant example, but corporations are behaving in disingenuous ways all the time, in ways we may not notice. And that’s deliberate. Having worked in the marketing world, I know first-hand how companies will deliberately try to tap into hardwired emotions to make a sell. They KNOW you. They know their demographics and target audience, right down to what shows you like to watch and what car you like to drive. Marketing is not inherently evil and neither are corporations. I’m just trying to point out that the consumer needs to be very aware and to do the research behind the product.

Companies will eventually respond to consumer demands. The voice of the citizenry can be heard. But the citizen must be informed, and must care. They can’t go mindlessly along with the commercials and the trends. They can’t just get something because it looks good, sounds good, or is convenient. If we are slaves to convenience, we will have a land of Wal-Marts and fast-food. We need to make conscious, intelligent, independent choices: look at company histories, look at supply chains, look at ingredients. Look at mission statements and what backs them up. Look at what the parent and sister companies are.

And when you hear all of those terrible ‘potential’ side effects listed on drug commercials for the latest Lipoprozandiac, please pause and re-consider all of the synthetic pills and chemicals you may be putting into your body. I believe one day these drug companies will be exposed for the truly evil entities they are. For the most part, they are not trying to heal or to cure you. They exist to make a profit — by pushing their pills to larger and larger markets, regardless of the consequences. Do the research. The facts, as long as a free internet exists, are at your fingertips.

The endless, futile yet imperative quest for Utopia

My dad always told me “There is no utopia.” I now live on a tropical beach yet lack the mountains. Italy seems like heaven, yet I’ve been told living there can be quite the headache. Does any one place or country have it all?

I just returned from a beautiful paradisaical island, one of the most scenic and culturally rich places I have ever been. Yet the people are imprisoned; unable to leave and forced to live in poverty under a government that controls many aspects of their lives. There is none to minimal internet access and very limited opportunities.

In the United States we enjoy a world of comfort and convenience; luxuries like continual hot water, air conditioning and 24/7 access to shelves upon shelves of food, products, and anything we could possibly desire are so commonplace they are totally taken for granted. However, the streets seem dead in comparison, and our depression and stress rates are sky-high.

The people in Cuba live very rich lives, but in a very different sense of the word ‘rich.’ There, the streets are vibrant and alive with humanity. People interact in the plazas and shelter together under trees in the rain.  Neighbors are lifelong friends. Children play soccer — with a ball that looks like it has been in use for half a century — in the street. They don’t have much, but they have each other, and they disfruta la vida.

Because they are so poor, many grown adults — in their forties — live with their parents. Here, this situation carries an enormous stigma, and of course is widely seen is undesirable. But their family ties are so naturally close that it comes across as rather pleasant. One night, the 60-something senora I was staying with celebrated her birthday. Her 45-year-old daughter bought her a new dress, and together, with several elderly ladies from the neighborhood, danced to Latin music in their tiny entryway, door open to the street, until 3 am. I can’t picture that scenario happening often here in the USA, where most major cities are characterized by strangers shuttling around in their vehicles between big box stores.

World travels and several articles have made me ponder what an ideal lifestyle, and ideal society, looks like. I don’t think it’s utterly capitalist or utterly socialist, but perhaps somewhere in-between; it features a return to a more primitive lifestyle, yet incorporates the best modern advances.

Ayn Rand had a point. Innovators make life better for all of us. Yet at the same time, the linear trajectory of endless growth, consumption and development obviously cannot be sustained without huge cost to the environment. If maximum material wealth and profit is our ultimate goal, we will fulfill the American Indian prophecy that Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

American Indians, like many indigenous societies, lived within a circular paradigm. They did not seek material wealth but to enjoy quality of life and freedom while living in harmony with the natural world. They used what they needed and were not overly attached to material objects.

Many leading thinkers agree that we must reform and re-imagine our current culture if we want to save the earth from ecological catastrophe, and thus ourselves. A recent Aljazeera.com article “The Trouble With Discounting Tomorrow” talks about how nations need to cooperate to achieve a sustainable future. In the latest Discover Magazine, Geoffrey West, an eminent theoretical physicist, remarks:

“We need to seriously rethink our socioeconomic framework. It will be a huge social and political challenge, but we have to move to an economy based on no growth or limited growth. And we need to bring together economists, scientists, and politicians to devise a strategy for what has to be done. I think there is a way out of this, but I’m afraid we might not have time to find it … even though innovations [such as creating new energy sources] reset the clock, from the work that I’ve done, I think all they do is delay collapse.”

Another book, Abundance: The Future is Brighter Than You Think argues the opposite stance, that technological innovations will create a world where all nine plus billion of us will live robust lives characterized by artificial intelligence, genetically modified food and cellphones and laptops for all.

It’s interesting to think outside of the box, to consider what your ideal world looks like: Is it urban, rural or a mix? Do you require a mansion, a fleet of cars, and tons of the latest gadgets, clothes etc. to be happy? Or would you be content in a small, eco-conscious cottage, with access to pure water, food, air, and all that nature has to offer? How much does community, family, and an active and interactive daily life factor into this equation? The question of what constitutes utopia has been on the mind of many a critical thinker unhappy with the status quo, from Thomas More to Jonathon Swift to John Winthrop.

I recently ordered a book from Amazon.com: The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World. I was drawn to it because I sense that the way humans have been living in the past century is not really the way they were designed to live, nor is it close to how they have lived for thousands upon thousands of years. Many people instantaneously consider ancient cultures to have hard, short, and disease-ridden lives, but this is not necessarily the case. The native peoples of the Americas were noted as being strikingly healthy, sound and beautiful, and many studies have shown (such as The China Study) that native societies were often very healthy — with minimal chronic disease, perfect teeth, happy minds, etc — until introduced to a more modern, processed diet and lifestyle. They also enjoyed a healthy balance of equality, individual freedom and community. Many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are actually far more common now, due to sedentary living, nutritionally devoid food and countless environmental factors.

There are people today who are seeking a more ‘primal lifestyle.’ Mark Sisson (check out Marksdailyapple.com) discusses the question of hunter-gatherer longevity here. He espouses sunbathing, walking barefoot, eating natural, staying active — lots of common sense things that a lot of us in the first world have to make an effort to do. David Wolfe is another nutritionist who espouses a more eco-conscious, enlightened lifestyle. This type of thinking looks backwards as well as forwards; it is progressive, alternative and visionary while cherishing ancient wisdom and common sense.

I think my personal utopia would constitute a blend. It would be closely in tune with nature and do as little harm to the earth and its creatures as possible. It would feature composting and gardening. Yet I would also want access to the internet and the world’s knowledge. I would like proximity to people whom I care about, a family and community that supports one another, yet I would want solitude and total freedom. I would like to retain the ability to travel and to experience diverse cultures, Latin, European and beyond. I’m not sure if this personal utopia is possible; according to my dad, it isn’t. Yet you can’t stop the human spirit from striving.

Paying for what once was free

“I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know!… And the end of it all will be that we shall be compelled to look for our apples in a barrel.” — Henry  David Thoreau

The other day as I was walking along the beach watching fisherman cast their lines into the waves, a thought struck me. I thought about food and the world’s resources, and how they used to be available to anyone with a little bit of ingenuity and energy. How fish were plentiful, uncontaminated, and didn’t require a license; how native peoples freely hunted and gathered what they required, and how so many people used to have everything they needed outside their front door. Instead of going to work to earn money to buy food and shelter and clothing, they worked to grow their food, build and maintain their shelter, and produce their clothing.

Recently, the state of Oregon criminalized the collection of rain water, which is a key component of what is called permaculture. Permaculture is about sustainability and self-sufficiency; about producing what you need without relying on others or big government, while living in an eco-conscious and harmonious way with the world around you.

Similar situations include:

• California has declared war on small, local fresh milk farmers and distributors

• Michigan has criminalized small, local ranchers and animal operations.

• A city in Michigan has also tried to criminalize home gardens.

• The city of Tulsa, Oklahoma sent out a “destruction crew” to chop down a woman’s edible landscaping garden of over 100 varieties of foods and medicinal herbs.

Beyond these incidents, it is undeniable that we are living in a world that is becoming increasingly privatized. Henry David Thoreau once wrote:

“The era of the Wild Apple will soon be past. It is a fruit which will probably become extinct in New England…. Since the temperance reform and the general introduction of grafted fruit, no native apple trees, such as I see everywhere in deserted pastures, and where the woods have grown up around them, are set out. I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know!… Now that they have grafted trees, and pay a price for them, they collect them into a play by their houses, and fence them in,—and the end of it all will be that we shall be compelled to look for our apples in a barrel.”

Poor man indeed. Not only are we bereft of being able to knock down wild apples as we please, but most wild, organically grown (organic as used in the original sense) plant life has been decimated, with multinational corporations like Monsanto replacing them with industrialized, genetically modified, nutritionally deficient, pesticide-laden monocultures.

If you have the means and all the permits, you can start your own organic farm and produce at home. But the vast majority of Americans are at the complete mercy of the food industry. If prices go up, we have to pay them. If they refuse to label GMOs, we have to eat them.

The $7.25 hourly federal minimum wage has not increased since 2009 and represents less, when adjusted for inflation, than minimum-wage workers earned in 1968. Our hard-earned dollars have less and less purchasing power as the years go by, and if oil prices continue to rise, this could become a serious problem. This is one of the reasons I hope to someday live off-the-grid and be totally self-sufficient. It protects you from catastrophes, shortages and exorbitant prices, while ensuring you have a high-quality, pure, nutritionally rich food source. Our agrarian antecedents had to toil for their daily bread, but they never had to worry about commutes or getting laid off (although they did have to worry about other things, such as droughts and long winters).

In such hardships, or if you weren’t able to produce everything you needed yourself, a community that traded and otherwise supported one another would be ideal. I’m not suggesting a reversion to the 19th century, but a fusion of permaculture principles with 21st century knowledge and technologies.

Other fields that have become totally privatized and often financially extort the average citizen are education and health care. Home schooling and natural remedies can often be superior — and far less expensive — than their private counterparts.

Natural News founder Mike Adams expressed his concern thus:

“What’s the pattern here? Total state domination over all resources — land, water, food, medicine and more. This is part of the ongoing effort to crush self reliance in America and turn everybody into a mindless, hopeless slave of the state, living on USDA food stamps and eating corporate-engineered GMO.

“Freedom means being able to speak your mind, capture your rainwater, bask in the sun, grow trees, raise backyard chickens, home school your children, say NO to vaccines, defend your life and property against looters and violent crime. Freedom is what once made America great, and it is the crushing of freedom which is now destroying America.

“In Oregon, California, Michigan, Washington D.C. and everywhere around the world where evil bureaucrats seek total power over all of humanity, our natural, divine rights are being viciously stripped away. Our money supply is being eroded at an accelerating rate. Our right to due process has been nullified by our own President. Our right to free speech is being increasingly censored and stifled. Our right to grow our own home gardens is under constant assault. (http://www.naturalnews.com/036234_edible_landscaping_medicinal_plants…)

“The common cause behind all these attacks on freedom is “collectivism” — the idea that individuals have no value and that only the state can provide life, food and an economy. This is accomplished through endless permit requirements that now make running something like an organic farm a paperwork nightmare.Similarly, the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act late last year will absolutely devastate small, local farms once it fully kicks in.

“With every new regulation, inspection, permit and government burden placed upon farms and land owners, we are increasingly destroying our own futures by placing more power in the hands of tyrannical government. We are all becoming indentured servants to the state.“Think you OWN your land? Try not paying property tax for a year. You’ll find out very quickly that you don’t own anything. The state owns it. You are just paying rent.”

While perhaps rather dramatic and extreme, he does make some good points! Similarly, people used to be able to move freely throughout the country. Now you have to pay to camp in state and national parks and get permits to raft down rivers, as Christopher McCandless finds out in Into the Wild.

Not everything is owned by private industry or government, but it is drastically more so than it was a century ago, and the trend is continuing in that direction; most people predict that all water sources will soon be privately held and companies will charge citizens whatever they decide to drink what once they were able to freely enjoy.

 

 

Working less, living more

As night descends upon this glorious Labor Day, I can imagine people all across the United States getting that terrible feeling of dread as they realize that tomorrow they have to get up and go back to work.

Americans’ unhealthy preoccupation with working their lives away is one of my favorite topics. I always find it amusing when people equate working longer hours with stronger overall economy. Greece, for example, has the second longest work week in the world, second only to South Korea. But because of their recent economic catastrophe, people imagine Greeks sitting around in plazas indulging themselves with fine Feta while more industrious Europeans, like the Germans, are hard at work.

This is extra amusing because Germans have a much shorter work week than most of the developed world, with the average worker clocking around 25-30 hours per week and enjoying about 34 paid holidays a year. Scandinavian countries Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands have the shortest work weeks (around 25) and yet their economies are robust and their standard of living among the best in the world.

“BUT” people then respond, “you cannot compare the United States with these much smaller countries.” Okay, well how about Canada then; their average citizen works several hours less than the average American, yet their average individual net worth recently surpassed ours.

Overall economy and average standard of living has more to do with how efficiently the government is run and where they are putting their taxpayers’ dollars than how many hours the average citizen is putting in. In other words, work smarter, not harder.

But there is a whole psychology behind Americans’ need to get up extra early, stay extra late, and put in overtime on the weekends. They equate working harder to being better. Back in the day, the ruling elite (the aristocratic one percent) had the opposite mindset — instead of toiling all day like a slave, they were able to spend their time in productive, enlightened pursuits.

Industry and productivity is indeed a virtue, but working efficiently and effectively is more often accomplished when not chained to a desk. Flexibility, creativity, innovation and a healthy work/life balance are more progressive workplace ideals than the need to spend all day long on the job, a trend that only came about during the industrial revolution.

“Since the 1960s, the consensus among anthropologists, historians, and sociologists has been that early hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed more leisure time than is permitted by capitalist and agrarian societies;[5][6] For instance, one camp of !Kung Bushmen was estimated to work two-and-a-half days per week, at around 6 hours a day.[7] Aggregated comparisons show that on average the working day was less than five hours.[5]

“The New Economics Foundation has recommended moving to a 21 hour standard work week to address problems with unemployment, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, overworking, family care, and the general lack of free time.[1][2][3] Actual work week lengths have been falling in the developed world.[4]” 

“In the United States, the working time for upper-income professionals has increased compared to 1965, while total annual working time for low-skill, low-income workers has decreased.[32] This effect is sometimes called the ‘leisure gap’.”

Read more here.

More depressing facts:

  • The U.S. is the ONLY country in the Americas without a national paid parental leave benefit. The average is over 12 weeks of paid leave anywhere other than Europe and over 20 weeks in Europe.
  • Zero industrialized nations are without a mandatory option for new parents to take parental leave. That is, except for the United States.
  • At least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the work week; the U.S. does not.
  • In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.
  • According to the ILO, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”
  • Using data by the U.S. BLS, the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker.
  • There is not a federal law requiring paid sick days in the United States.
  • The U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world that has no legally mandated annual leave.
  • In every country included except Canada and Japan (and the U.S., which averages 13 days/per year), workers get at least 20 paid vacation days.  In France and Finland, they get 30 – an entire month off, paid, every year.
  • The average worker in Germany and the Netherlands puts in 20% fewer hours in a year than the average worker in the United States.

Sources: http://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/http://www.deanstalk.net/deanstalk/2008/04/putting-in-the.html

Working smarter, not harder, would boost productivity and progress as well as overall health and happiness. Working smarter could mean flexible hours and location as well as more progressive workplace processes and hierarchies. The ideal situation, in my opinion, is self-employment and entrepreneurship. Then you can work as long and hard as you want to with the aim of actualizing your dream, not someone else’s.

But shortening the work week won’t just make peoples’ lives better. It might also boost the national economy and reduce unemployment, as a recent Guardian article entitled “Why Americans should work less, the way Germans do” opined. So the next time you start feeling that ethnocentric, Puritan superiority complex taking over all logical thought, you might want to re-consider what really constitutes an ideal society and a high standard of living. Yes, we all need to work to live, but I myself wouldn’t mind doing it  a little more like the Samoans or the Italians — drinking wine, enjoying the sunset, and getting called lazy by all the miserable workaholics. And don’t forget, the more hours you sit a day, the sooner you will die!

Workinghours_2

American paid vacations

Brave New World 2012

Everyone who has taken a basic English literature class has read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both were written in the 20th century and projected dystopian visions of a government-controlled, post-industrial world. The future imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four is decidedly more bleak and unpleasant. Huxley’s is still a prison where Shakespeare is banned, but punishment for dissension is merely exile to a remote island as opposed to Orwell’s having your head stuck in a cage with rats, being beaten and otherwise tortured until you are forced to admit that 2+2=5.

Social critic Neil Postman wrote: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.‘ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.” [Emphasis added].

I think that as of 2012, we are leaning more towards Huxley’s visions, although there are echoes of Orwell such as:

Surveillance and Police State — GPS tracking through cellphones; monitoring of internet, social media and email usage (which the NSA is tracking); drones;  hidden cameras; the erosion of civil liberties following 9/11 (including the possibility of indefinite detention without trial); police brutality … there are rampant examples of a growing police state and the power of government to monitor, track and control its citizens.

Telescreens — Televisions are not (that I know of) a two-way monitoring device, but they are often constantly on in people’s houses which does have a distracting and conditioning effect. Commercials and programming sap people’s time and subtly direct them to believe and think certain things, and the mainstream media is often directed by the special interests of large corporations as well as the government.

This document has further comparisons:

1984 : Ministry of Peace
Now : Department of Defense

“Useless statistics, incorrect economic predictions, and slanted opinions polls are presented on the Evening news as ‘legitimate news’, to give people the impression that ‘things are getting better’, and that all people agree with the popular way of thinking … History is being rewritten, to conform with modern beliefs” (See Howard Zinn’s a People’s History of the United States for proof).

and

“There is always war. If peace is made with one country, war is claimed  (or threatened) on another nation to keep the military machine rolling … From Goldstein’s book – “The effect (of the atomic wars) was to convince the ruling groups of all countries that a few more atomic bombs would mean the end of organized society, and hence of their own power. Thereafter, although no formal agreement was ever made or hinted at, no more bombs were dropped. All three powers merely continue to produce atomic bombs and store them up against the decisive opportunity which they all believe will come sooner or later. And meanwhile the art of war has remained almost stationary for thirty or forty years. Helicopters are more used than they were formerly, bombing planes have been largely superseded by self-propelled projectiles, and the fragile movable battleship has given way to the almost unsinkable Floating Fortress; but otherwise there has been little development. The tank, the submarine, the torpedo, the machine gun, even the rifle and the hand grenade are still in use. And in spite of the endless slaughters reported in the Press and on the telescreens, the desperate battles of earlier wars, in which hundreds of thousands or even millions of men were often killed in a few weeks, have never been repeated.”

But, like in Brave New World, our current paradigm is much more benign, though fraught with insidious forces. Not through sleep hypnosis or electric shock conditioning, but by being exposed to thousands of ads per day, we are brainwashed to buy buy buy, that “ending is better than mending.” Our economy depends on large scale consumer consumption of mass-produced goods, and planned obsolescence is necessary as well as the reinforcement of the belief that the accumulation of material goods is one of life’s main aims.

While not engaging in getting and spending, we of course should be playing. In Brave New World spending time alone and in introspective, intellectual pursuits is discouraged. Deep thinking and thinking “outside the box” is grounds for exile, and high culture artifacts and classic literature is banned. Instead, empty, superficial activities are encouraged. We don’t play centrifugal bumble-puppy, but the popular entertainment of today (shopping, movies, video games, TV, YouTube, social media) sure do offer a lot of time-sucking, vacuous fluff.

And then of course, if your mindless job and even more mindless entertainment is not enough to distract you from thinking about the Why and Wherefore of it all, as well as alternate ways of living, then you can just pop a pill and feel good at all times. People who are real and fully alive either live as savages on reservations or are banished to remote locales.

Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958 as a non-fiction follow-up in which he concludes that the world was becoming much like he predicted, mainly through the use of subliminal suggestion, subtle but powerful societal pressures  and prescription drugs.

Christopher Hitchens, in a 1999 article called “Why Americans are Not Taught History” that references both books wrote: “For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.”

Our educational system is deplorable and cultivates an extremely ethnocentric worldview. Cultural norms in fashion and entertainment are reinforced through the popular entertainment of television, music and mass media, creating superficiality, homogeneity and rampant commercialism and materialism. Whether deliberately or not, Americans are being dumbed down — by the school system, by the media, by the low-brow culture and entertainment, by distracting us with shiny new high-tech gadgets, and by the large-scale use of chemicals in food, water, air and pills/Westernized medicine. If you dare to challenge the status quo, to suddenly say “Let’s stop and look at the logic of what we are doing here,” to challenge the institutions and authority figures and 9-5 schedules and the way things are, well, you’ll end up like the Occupiers. Battered, belittled and finding yourself, like John the Savage, alone and futile in your rage against the machine.

How do you define Success?

When I was a 23-year-old novice writer at an edgy alt-weekly mag, I once discussed the meaning of SUCCESS with a fellow writer a decade or so older than myself.

He drove a beat-up car — jalopy is a nice word — and rented an apartment. He was single. He wasn’t very, as they say, financially “well-off.” He wrote, he observed, he experienced, he analyzed, he read, he traveled. He was free, open, curious, fulfilled, alive. Was he successful?

“Depends on how you define success,” he said to me, in a conversation about the implications inherent in pursuing the writer’s life, the peripatetic life.

I often feel constrained by society’s definition, the capitalist Modern American Society a la Mitt Romney definition: vast amounts of wealth; stocks and bonds; accolades and titles; multiple vehicles; big houses; marriage and kids.

Let me preface this little diatribe by stating that I don’t think any of these things are unequivocally bad — and that each and every one can indeed be the most fulfilling, joy-giving element to someone’s life. One woman may want nothing more than to raise her children in a snug little cul-de-sac, shuttling them to and fro in her safe SUV. Another might want nothing more than to achieve an executive title in her field. The tricky part comes when people feel pressured to conform to certain roles that don’t truly make them happy, simply because they feel pressured to be seen as traditionally successful by their parents, peers and society at large.

Several studies have suggested that once basic needs and desires are met, more wealth does not translate to more happiness; several ‘developing’ countries outshine the United States in regards to overall levels of happiness. Many indigenous cultures — before being colonized and decimated — were certainly very happy living simple, sustainable lives that didn’t include lots of superfluous material things and distractions. Wealth and prestige and progress can all be good things, but if they are pursued relentlessly and single-mindedly, this free-market, first-world mindset can cause environmental degradation and other ills.

To many, a house and a car and a career and a family are the pinnacle of a fulfilling life — security, prestige, and the nicest decorated house on the block.

But what about the girl who feels she just has to get married by a certain age or face being seen as an outcast, a spinster? Or the person who chooses a career path simply because their family wants them to, or it pays well, or makes them feel validated? Or the person who takes on mortgage and debts to accumulate these outward signs of having made it, only to be eternally enslaved by these all-important physical possessions? At what cost, and what do we sacrifice, to achieve conventional success? Can we step outside the paradigm, have the courage to let down those around us, to be true to ourselves? What does your inner self really want?

Do you dare to bare?

naked bicycle parade

Women ride topless at a Burning Man bicycle parade

Every one of us is a slave to fashion. Some more so than others –many people are fine with wearing the same old t-shirt and jeans every day. Others care enough about being on-trend that they spend thousands of dollars a year on the latest styles from the hottest brands.

But this isn’t a symptom of a consumer-centric, first world country. Every culture in the world, including indigenous and aboriginal tribes, have their acceptable styles. A part of it is looking good, but an even bigger part is fitting in.

This is going to sound totally off-the-wall, but I have this side of me that really wants to be a Native American. I would love to wear moccasins and leather and feathers and bodypaint, and to walk around with a bow and arrow. But could I? What kind of a reaction would I provoke? Might I even attract police attention?

Dressing up however the hell you want is a very cathartic form of individual self-expression. There are only a few times when this is allowed, however (outside the privacy of your own home, of course): Halloween, fetish parties, cosplay parties and conventions, raves, and festivals like the upcoming Burning Man.

“Burning Man is a philosophy, an attempt to reinvent the parameters and constraints of society. Within the most advanced capitalist economy in the world, participants choose to free themselves from commerce.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2008/aug/20/burningman.festival)

These “constraints of society” entail everything from what we wear to how we interact with one another and the world around us. For one galvanizing week, riding a bike naked, dancing around a fire, practicing yoga with strangers, sharing, giving away, trading … all the regular conventions, rules and mores disappear. You can express your inner essence without inhibition or fear of judgment. You can be utterly one with the universe.

I started thinking today about all the cool styles I would rock if I was free from these constraints. Here are a few:

Hats — Top hats on men are awesome

Gloves — I love women’s gloves

Leg warmers — Think they’re sexy, same with knee socks

Capes — Sooooooooooo awesome, especially the hooded kind

Lace up gladiator sandals — Sexy and functional

At least our society is more lax than it used to be. I would really have hated to wear the full-length, multi-layered dresses from the 19th century, especially in hot weather. Although they were very beautiful! And I do wish there were more opportunities to wear the type of elaborate gowns that we only get to rock at senior prom!

It’s interesting too how people view the showing of skin. Muslims come to mind as the most stringent. Mormons tout modesty as a great virtue. But other countries like the Dominican Republic and Brazil — notably, in a lot of cultures famed for their extremely happy and jubilant populace — showing skin is in. In more “primitive” tribal societies, being naked or half-naked was/is not seen as sexual or provocative, but simply functional, practical and natural. So is our body something to be flaunted and celebrated, bared to the world? Or is to be covered, visible only to our mirrors and our significant others?

I’m going to get a little personal here. I was raised in the Mormon religion and was always taught to cover up — knee length shorts and skirts, one piece bathing suits, no sleeveless tank tops. And every since I can remember, I absolutely hated it. I like to wear comfortable clothes, and many times this entails — especially in warm climes — wearing as little as possible. I just feel more at ease. I like styles that flatter my figure. The church leaders said it isn’t good to attract male attention. Why not? When you look good, you feel good — and yes, you can be covered head to toe and still look and feel good. Depends on the situation. The smallest I’ve gone is a Brazilian string bikini, although there is a nude beach down the street …

But there are other women who only feel comfortable when they are covered up and dressed conservatively. And there are some men who wouldn’t be caught dead in an old t-shirt. I think it depends a lot on your personality … and how much you are subconsciously influenced by your social sphere and cultural expectations. What would you wear if you could wear anything? Who would you be?

Let the Games begin

Next week, all of us with middling BMIs, plastic trophies collecting dust in the attic and the inability to work out for even a few hours of the week will watch and marvel at those who have put in countless years for their moment in the sun. With our ass firmly on couch or chair, we will watch them with awe, admiration, national pride, respect, and perhaps a little bit of lust.

Yesterday I, like thousands worldwide (probably mostly men) just had to click on the alluring figure of a 19-year-old happily warming up before a hurdle race. What made her so appealing was not just her looks, but the context of the competition: she is obviously healthy, vibrant, youthful, energetic, enthusiastic, radiant, and above all, athletic.

But the sexualization of female athletes has long been controversial. There are two kinds of discrimination that women can face in sports: limited access to funding, resources, exposure, etc. and inferior treatment (like having to fly coach when the guys are going first-class) and the kind that focuses on an athlete’s physical appearance more than her physical prowess. This phenomenon is apparent when athletes who are not top-ranked in their fields get inordinate media coverage (and all the perks that entails) while the less photogenic champions are largely ignored.

In my opinion, women should have the same rights and opportunities as men in sports as they should in every area of life. But I can’t say that the glorification of their natural beauty is a bad thing — and even if it was, I don’t think that will ever stop our species from celebrating it.

In the original games in Ancient Greece, as you may have heard, the athletes often competed naked (imagine that!). Says this Wikipedia entry: “The festival was meant to celebrate, in part, the achievements of the human body. Olive oil was used by the competitors … as a natural cosmetic, to keep skin smooth, and provide an appealing look for the participants.”

In ancient Sparta, both men and women often exercised in the nude, and young women as well as young men may have participated in the Gymnopaedia (“Festival of Nude Youths”).[94][95] 

Glorifying healthy, natural beauty is hardwired into our genes. I myself find these representations of kick-ass chicks way sexier than the hard-partying, designer label-flaunting, makeup-caked versions we are usually bombarded with, the kind of skin-deep frivolity that is held up as the gold standard of modern women. I also like to see women in the spotlight for something other than auto-tuned pop music, Hollywood credits or getting knocked up at 16. Role models of successful, smart, do-gooding women of all shapes and ages are even better, of course.

But if a woman can throw a mean left hook, throw a javelin or complete a long-distance swim while still looking amazing, well, I think it’s just one more reason   to praise them. My husband brought home the latest issue of Maxim magazine and I was mesmerized by the two-page spread of gorgeous Olympians from around the globe who will be competing in London. Just wow.

A woman should not be defined by her looks, nor should they become a huge discussion (as they frequently do in politics) unless the said woman is a model. A competitor in the Special Olympics is just as, if not more so, worthy of recognition as a stunning tennis player. But I think part of a woman’s self-confidence comes from looking her best, on and off the field, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Whether you want to call it natural beauty or healthy sex appeal, we can all develop it by eating right, kicking detrimental addictions and working out a little harder.

I love a well-muscled woman and a health-conscious man, someone who obviously appreciates their body and treats it right, someone who can age gracefully, run a marathon, climb a mountain, kayak a river … a healthy, active, competent person is so much sexier than a couch potato who drinks too much and pops pills. And while I did feel a little prick of envy checking out these paragons of perfection, it was followed by increased motivation to get my ass in gear and try to be, like the Olympians, the best version of myself I can be.

America the Ambiguous

A few days ago, us Americans oohed and ahhed over environmentally damaging fireworks displays (personally, I’d rather be able to see the stars at night), barbecued with our families and celebrated our independence. I am proud and grateful to be an American, but a little less so than I used to be, back when I wasn’t aware of all the problems this country has.

I love the country — the physical land itself. I can only imagine how glorious it was a couple centuries ago, before its forests were devastated, rivers dammed, lakes polluted and scenery blighted. I love the ideals and philosophies that the Founding Fathers based our constitution and government upon. I love certain things the country still stands for: entrepreneurship, equality and progress.

But I can’t mindlessly retort, as many do, that this is “The Greatest Country On Earth.” We are not the only country with great ideals, progressive people and high standards of living. In fact, the U.S. fails to crack the top 10 of “The Happiest Countries in the World,” and fails short in areas such as health care, education and work/life balance.

Of course, we are a lot better off than many other countries, and I don’t mean to frivolously cast aspersions. But I can’t blindly be obedient, either. Every person should love their native country, but what about North Koreans? At what point can pride and patriotism justifiably become criticism?

Republicans, Democrats, and — what the hell, why put a label on yourself — “The Others” think there are some serious problems with our current government. Tea Partiers, Occupiers, and anyone that isn’t solely fixated on Fox, CNN, MSN and Yahoo can see that we are more and more becoming a country ruled by the CEOs and for the CEOs. Our rights are being subtly and insidiously undermined to the point where you don’t know if you should be seriously freaked out, or carry on as usual. Paranoia or Prescience?

And at what point do you abandon trying to change the system from within and just give up and defect?

Here is a list of cultural differences between the U.S. and European countries. Interestingly, one point made is that “Few Europeans would mind rational criticisms of their country’s government, while a good deal of Americans find them offensive or disrespectful … some Americans go as far as regarding criticism of their government as a personal attack. Europeans are only too happy to hear other people criticizing their own politicians or their country’s problems.”

Here are some things I personally prefer about Europe: the food, architecture, culture, lifestyle, 4-6 weeks mandatory paid time off vacation, shorter work weeks, siestas, less chemicals and pesticides, multi-party systems, more enjoyment of life, less emphasis on job and work, trains and other public transportation, ability to walk and get around a city without a car, labeling of GMOs, bidets, free university education, dress style, sensuality, daily rhythms, aesthetics, coffee and wine, multilingualism, celebration of soccer, and just general outlook on life and beauty of the landscapes (natural and manmade).

To which I’m sure, some red-white-and-blue-blooded Bible Belter will surely scream, then get the hell out! To which I reply, if only I could, I’d take the next plane.

(Oh, and a fellow blogger just wrote a related post, comparing America to the uncool kid who, love him or hate him, is still the center of the world’s attention, and, in some respects, still Number One.)