These days, everyone wants results really fast. There’s a microwave mentality to everything, like you can click a button and make things happen. Nobody needs things in a little while. They need things right now.
That’s because we live in a society that promotes the end result more than the process that gets us there. Nobody cares about the time that goes into the work being done, just that it’s actually completed.
Think about the discussion we have about higher education. College is valued for the job it provides upon graduation, not by how it might encourage a person’s intellectual and social development. All we care about is the degree and what university it came from, not what went into earning it.
Pop culture sets the trend. In music, acts like Kanye West— a proto-millennial if there ever was one— have provided us with an aspirational narrative, this idea that dreams can come true, you just have to believe in yourself. The self-help section of a bookstore is littered with stuff like this.
But that’s bullshit. Yes, dreams can come true. But they require more than just a fool-hardy belief in yourself. They require diligence, perseverance and tenacity, too. Most of all, they require discipline. There’s no magic wand to wave, just hard work. Consistent and sustained.
We don’t glamorize that part though. Success stories are all we care about. History books have no room for second place. So instead we focus on the star of a championship game, not the team who loses, nor the season-long struggle of getting there, or the off-season the players spent in the gym or the fifteen years of experience that prepped them for that.
Why? Because that work isn’t sexy. It hard. It’s not interesting or enagaging. It’s boring and takes too long. Nobody has time for that.
Technology has allowed us to live life through snapshots, highlights and headlines; we take small pieces, devoid of any context, and make them everything. The buzzer-beating shot that wins the championship. An entrepreneur who sells his start-up. The teary-eyed musician or actor accepting his/her trophy at an award show. We get the final score without actually watching the game.
This plays out on a much more practical level, too. It’s Instagram selfies and Facebook status updates where everything seems perfect. Hey, look at everyone and their exciting and incredible lives. Everything is great, all the time.
“We just had a baby!”
“I just got a new job!”
“Look at me, I’m on a beach!”
“Check out this amazing meal I’m eating!
Nobody wants to tell you about their struggle. Their slow slog to the top. How work is killing them. How much debt that vacation put them in. How they argue with their significant other. How they’re lonely. How that meal at that super trendy restaurant was sub-par. It’s much easier to eliminate this stuff. Why bother with trivialities?
There are no shortcuts in life, though. Those snapshots of perfection don’t just magically happen, and for every highlight, there’s a low one too. Nobody stands on stage accepting a Grammy just because they believed they could. Sure, a delusional belief in oneself may start and end the story— that some’s really basic “life” stuff— but in the middle there is just hard tedious non-glamourous work.
We need to do a better job at acknowledging how much time and effort goes into things— learning to love that process, too— and focus less on the end results. It will make us more productive and we’ll find our lives more rewarding. So maybe you didn’t win a Grammy. That’s cool. Playing music is fucking exciting though. Don’t be bitter. All good things in due time. Just remember your love to play and keep going!
Growing up, assuming you came from a decent home, you probably watched your parents haul off to work every day so they could put food on the table, clothes on your back and a roof over your head. Or some variation of that theme.
But it probably never felt like your parents were stuck in an existential malaise, longing to run off so they could find themselves. They weren’t stricken with the “why me?” disease that it seems everyone under the age of 30 has now.
That’s because things were different then. Baby-boomers came of age at a time when the idea of having a job at all was a big deal. They stayed employed at their companies for long periods of time. By the late 90s, the economy was booming and companies took care of their employees. Having a career meant you were secure.
But in the past twenty years everything has changed. Kids now aren’t taught to find careers. They’re taught to find their ‘passions.’ Then they’re encouraged to pursue them.
Except the world doesn’t bend to everyone’s beckoning whim— it doesn’t really give a shit about your passion— because it needs people to do normal stuff like collect garbage, police streets, put out fires and process applications at the DMV.
Which makes it hard. Torturous, even. Here you were, told that you were awesome and that you wouldn’t have to settle for a life of mediocrity, and that’s all you’ve got. That sucks.
Years ago, when someone was a ‘creative,’ they were off in their own space. If they were successful, if they’d made it, you might have heard about them through word of mouth. Maybe you saw them on television or in a magazine.
But they weren’t posting on their Facebook feed, or updating their Twitter timeline, constantly telling you about their really cool life. They weren’t digitally showing you whatever it is they were working on while you were sitting in your lowly cubicle, making you feel like a failure.
Spectating has become a full-time job in and of itself— looking at other people’s LinkedIn pages, their Facebook page, their Wikipedia page— and now we judge ourselves too often by what we haven’t done, instead of what we have.
And so by age 30, if we haven’t done X, Y or Z, we’re left unfilled. There seems like there’s so much life out to be lived, and we’re called to it… whatever ‘it’ is.
The myth of entrepreneurship doesn’t help, either. The American fantasy that you too can make your dreams a reality, all you have to do is try.
But that’s not reality. Reality is that bills need to be paid and life has to be lived, and no matter what you’re doing these days, there is no respite. Your parents left an office at 5 PM and their work was over. It did not begin again until they walked in the next morning.
Now, it’s almost assumed that whatever it is that you’re doing, you must love it. Otherwise you wouldn’t be answering email at midnight and sleeping with your phone in your bed.
So as you get older, and have spent years plugged into this matrix where everything is work work work— where your mind is never able to turn off— you age a lot. Maybe not in physical years, like in the sense that you’re 60. But you’re 30 and you’ve somehow managed to squeeze double the amount of work into that period of time.
You’re old. Mentally.
Your parents didn’t have to deal with this sort of thing. Rest assured, they had dreams and goals just like you. But they may have been able to spend a few hours on the weekend or in the evening entertaining these pursuits. And they weren’t answering email in the process.
They certainly weren’t idle, watching what their old high school friends are doing, making themselves feel like shit in the process. Heck, they probably had to go to their office just to use a computer at all.
So being unsettled and wanting more out of life is not a millennial problem or a hipster problem or a ‘whatever new word marketers are using to describe young people’ problem. It’s really a problem of being ‘plugged in’ all the time, and never being given the freedom to shut off.
Because society has a problem with leisure. The idea of sitting around doesn’t sound sexy. Winners never quit. Go hard or go home. Always be closing. Or some shit like that.
You need a break. Just retire. Then start on something new. You may fail. But ultimately you’ll thank yourself later.
After what seemed like an endless stream of promotional hype, 50 Cent’sAnimal Ambition, finally hit stores and streaming outlets yesterday (June 3). His fifth official studio record, it comes almost a full five years after his last LP was released, and if it sounds a little dated, that’s probably because it is.
In a series of interviews at XXLMag.com, the producers who worked on the album described what went into making each song. The overarching theme was that very few of them knew what was going on with the project until it was actually time for it to be released. Over the course of five years, one of the producers had given up on making records altogether.
According to the interviews, Charli Brown Beatz made the track for “Don’t Worry Bout It” in 2008, sent it to 50 in 2009, and didn’t hear the song until it was on the radio in March. Another producer, Frank Dukes, who made the track for “Hold On,” had sent over the instrumental five years ago, and wasn’t aware of the song’s existence until 8-9 months ago. Steve Alien’s beat for “Everytime I Come Around” is also roughly five-years-old.; so old, in fact, that by the time 50’s label came calling he had ditched beatmaking, and couldn’t even find the files.
The decentralization of the recording business has been good for many things, but it’s been particularly bad for record producers. The hip-hop genre has been affected more than most. Many hip-hop beatmakers craft their beats on their own, then send them out as instrumentals or half-completed ideas— occasionally with demoed choruses on them— in hopes that an artist will like the tracks and record songs to them.
Advancements in recording technology have put the power of entire recording studios inside of a laptop, allowing artists to make records on their own, without any input from the producer i.e. the person who made the music. The songs get finished, cataloged in a folder or on an iTunes playlist, and filed away until they’re ready to be released.
The producer doesn’t know the fate of the song until the very last minute, when the artist’s reps either call to due their due diligence— pay for the beat, get the files so they can mix the finished record— or worse, when they hear it on the radio or the internet.
So what happens is that the producer has no control over his/her material, and is essentially at the mercy of the artist. If it’s someone like 50 Cent, whose career is very calculated and might not release an album without the proper set up, the producer is left waiting in the wings until the album is released. Their material has been used, but they won’t get paid until the very last second. In this case, they were waiting five years.
Now, historically 50 Cent has worked with a lot of new producers, and having a beat on one of his LPs— at least in his earlier years— could be life-altering. Outside of the producer fee itself, it could lead to a song deal, publishing deal, maybe work with another artist. 50 Cent is far from the industry’s most trendsetting artist these days, but he’s still 50 Cent. People are undoubtedly paying attention and to work with someone of his caliber is still great for discography-building.
But 50 Cent lucked out in that the beats he wanted from these producers were still available. And there are probably songs that 50 tried to put on the album’s final tracklist that he couldn’t, because the producers sold their beats to someone else, or worse, couldn’t even find the source files.
That’s to say nothing of the hundreds of songs that he recorded in the five year span between this LP and his last, songs that are now sitting idly on a hard drive somewhere, the producers of them still toiling away night after night, never knowing that they had a 50 Cent song somewhere under their belt.
This scenario repeats itself endlessly in hip-hop, with rappers who are signed to labels amassing huge catalogs of songs to beats they’ve never paid for. The producers have to just bide their time, cross their fingers and hope someone at a company finds it within reason to give the green light for an artist’s project to come out. Then, they need to hope their song makes it onto the final tracklist. It’s a nail-biting experience, and unless you’re sitting on some money, it’s hardly sustainable. If luck is on your side, one day you get a random call about some beat you emailed to an artist or his A&R rep five years ago, and you’re in business. Otherwise, you’re entire career is working on spec.
The music industry has always been a place where the unexpected happens— entertainment industries are like that; one day the phone magically rings and your life can change— but right now it’s the real wild west. If you’re looking to plan out your music career, it’s impossibly difficult. You’ll just have to cross your fingers and hope something sticks.
What would you say if you learned that one of Hollywood’s biggest directors, someone responsible for billion dollar movie franchises that explore things like space travel and alternate dimensions, doesn’t have email or a cellphone?
You’d probably think he was a bit crazy. But, maybe he isn’t.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Christopher Nolan, the auteur behind Interstellar, the Batman trilogy, as well as Memento and Inception,explains his reasoning, and it kind of makes a lot of sense.
“I’ve never used email because I don’t find it would help me with anything I’m doing,” he says. “I just couldn’t be bothered about it.”
That’s it. Read it again. Christopher Nolan has never set up his own email account because he basically doesn’t see a use for it. Eureka! This guy may be on to something.
Email is one of the greatest modern inventions, but anyone who has spent the greater part of their day answering emails with 78 different people cc’d, many of whom are only tangentially connected to the issue at hand, all of them offering one sentence replies that amount to— what, exactly??—?knows that despite its usefulness, it can also be one of the biggest time wasters in human history.
To wit, imagine all of the great things not being done, tasks not being completed, attention being diverted, ideas not being fully formalized, because people are spending their precious time— the only resource in life that they cannot get back— with this digital form of communication that can often not amount to much.
Before email, if people wanted to stay in touch with someone, they called them on the phone, mailed them a letter or maybe even saw them in person. Because these things actually required some effort, there was perhaps much more thought put into them beforehand. To mail a letter required not only a pen, some paper, an envelope and a stamp, but it also meant physically walking over to a mailbox, too.
Now, nobody thinks twice before firing off emails at every hour of the day, and it’s essentially a given that you will see notifications on your smartphone, which is tethered to your side like a siamese twin, lighting up at all hours of the night. Yes, there is precious, really important correspondence in your inbox, waiting for your attention.
But how much of this correspondence actually amounts to anything? Very little of it. I’d argue that deleting at least 50% of all your email would yield the same exact things in both your professional and personal lives.
Let’s not be mistaken— surely, some of it is important, because email is so ingrained into the fabric of how we live now. But a lot of it isn’t. Particularly as it pertains to work, a lot of email correspondence you get looped into, without even trying.
Sadly, we’ve taken those work email practices into our personal lives, too. So it isn’t that uncommon now to have long email conversations with family members and friends, where by the time you’re ready to respond, there’s a trail of 59 one-sentence replies you have to scroll through just to figure out what the original question was.
But, Mr. Nolan doesn’t just stop at email. Perhaps because he doesn’t want to be bothered by email notifications at 3 AM, he doesn’t have a cellphone either.
“It’s like that whole thing about ‘in New York City, you’re never more than two feet from a rat’?—?I’m never two feet from a cellphone,” he explains. “We’ll be on a scout with 10 people and all of them have phones, so it’s very easy to get in touch with me when people need to.”
The key words in that statement are the last four.
When. People. Need. To.
Imagine that, using the phone only when needed. Well, it’s not a very abstract concept. The way phone companies used to work, before cell phones and unlimited plans, they’d charge you for every call you made. Many grownups today can probably remember the days when their parents would open up a phone bill at the end of the month and harangue them about how many calls they made (“But mom, I was just talking to my friends!”).
Even mobile service, up until the past few years, was built around the idea of the minutes plan. You only had so many minutes to use each month, so you probably thought a little more about how you utilized that time. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the days of waiting until 9 PM— off-peak hours!?—?to make a phone call. Now, not so much. You might have a 4-hour phone call in the middle of the day. Why? Because you can.
Similarly, with expanded data plans, proliferation of lightning fast wireless networks and powerful processors that have turned our handheld devices into miniature desktop computers, we’ve taken the time-wasting we might have done at our desk, right along with us wherever were are. Ultimately, that’s why Mr. Nolan doesn’t have one.
“It gives me time to think,” he says. “You know, when you have a smartphone and you have 10 minutes to spare, you go on it and you start looking at stuff.”
He’s right, we do. And that stuff tends to cloud our thoughts, occupy our mind and keep whatever it was we were looking at swimming around inside our brain. This stuff is not always essential to completing whatever tasks are at hand, or even the act of living itself.
So, maybe it’s time we all gave hyper-connectivity a second thought. Not disconnect completely, but pull back just enough to rediscover who we truly are, what we think about, and what our ideas really mean, when we’re not distracted by someone else’s.
If it works for Mr. Nolan, who has been nothing short of prolific, if not visionary and progressive as a filmmaker, maybe, just maybe, it’ll work for us too.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was supposed to be a lifelong failure.
Born in 1875, he flunked out of Phillips Academy, failed examinations to get into West Point and due to a weak heart, was discharged from the army. His brother loaned him some cash to open a stationery store, but his business quickly went bust. From there, he went to work at his dad’s storage battery business, and in 1900, 25-years-old and recently married, he was pulling in a whopping $15 a week. Three years later, one of his other brothers gave him a job at his gold dredging business, but then that company fell apart. Burroughs subsequently shuffled through a series of jobs selling electric light bulbs, candy and Stoddard Lectures. Anything to keep the lights on.
None of these jobs changed his lot in life. Burroughs was, ostensibly, still a loser. “I had decided I was a total failure,” he said. And indeed, he was. That didn’t stop him from trying, though.
Burroughs soon found a company looking to hire an accountant, and not knowing anything at all about accounting, bravely applied for the job and got it. He was lucky that his employer knew even less about accounting than he did, but he didn’t last long as an accountant anyway. He then tried his hand at the mail-order business, landing a job at a company and quickly advancing to the head of his department. Then his wife gave birth to their first child.
With another mouth to feed and the entrepreneurial bug in his veins, he decided to go into business for himself. This was probably among the dumbest decisions Burroughs ever made, because he had no startup money and when it was all said and done, he shuttered the business while deep in the red. Luckily, the mail-order company he’d previously worked at offered him an opportunity to come back, and it was at this point that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ life could have gone in two very different directions.
“I would probably have been fixed for life with a good living salary,” Burroughs said. “[But] occasionally it is better to do the wrong thing than the right.”
With his business gone, and perhaps having erred in declining to return to his old employer, Burroughs now had no job, no money, and also had another mouth to feed?—?his wife had just given birth their second child. Needing food, he pawned his family’s belongings, applied for any jobs he could find and waited for God to send him a sign that all was not lost. And then, finally, he landed a gig as a lowly sales agent for a pencil sharpener company. It was there, as legend has it, that while other agents were out trying to sell pencil sharpeners, Burroughs finally sat down at a desk and changed his entire life.
“I knew nothing about the technique of story writing,” said Burroughs. “[But] had good reason for thinking I could sell what I wrote.”
So, in 1911, at the age of 35, with years of failure burning him up inside, Burroughs began penning the story that would eventually become A Princess of Mars. Embarrassed that his pursuits would be considered childish— because what sensible 35-year-old man with a family thinks about Mars??—?he didn’t tell his wife or friends that he was doing it. He just did it. When he was done, knowing absolutely nothing about publishing, he blindly sent the first 43,000 words to a magazine called The All-Story. To his chagrin, an editor there, Thomas Newell Metcalf, took a liking to the story, and helped him shape it up. Metcalf suggested he add another 30,000 words, effectively making it into a complete novel, and after that, he’d publish it. Burroughs agreed and in February 1912, the first part of A Princess of Mars began being serialized in The All-Story.
Burroughs was paid $400 for the rights to the story. Today, that would yield him, the struggling businessman with a family to feed and nothing but failure on his resume, a grand sum of $9,664.13!
Though this was a decent amount, even back then, it wasn’t enough money to drastically alter the direction of things. Burroughs was still working a job that didn’t match his expenses and it wasn’t until he landed another gig, at a business magazine, that the course he was on really started to shift. While employed at that job, which finally earned him a decent wage— certainly enough to maybe relax a bit— he spent his nights not out drinking with buddies or his holidays vacationing in the Caymans, but rather, toiling away in obscurity, shaping the sentences and paragraphs of the novel that would introduce one of the most iconic characters in the history of all popular art— Tarzan of the Apes.
The rights to the first Tarzan story were initially purchased for $700 and even though he’d gotten more money for it, Burroughs, like most artists, doubted that the yarn was very good at all. He was surprised that it sold. But his popularity as a writer was growing and from then, he would continue to get more and more money for his stories. Still, it wasn’t quite enough, and with no royalties earned from magazine sales, he decided that books were the next logical step.
According to Burroughs, every major book publisher in the country turned down Tarzan of the Apes. For some reason— maybe because Burroughs didn’t have enough Twitter followers or Facebook likes— they didn’t think there was a there there. But a clairvoyant editor at the newspaper The Evening World?—?the Buzzfeed or VOX of its day?—? saw Burroughs vision and began serializing the story. The serialization lead to other papers doing the same— I think we call that aggregation now, except nobody gets paid for it?—?and with its popularity among readers at a fever pitch, the publisher A.C. McClurg & Co., which had initially told Burroughs to effectively go fuck himself, came back and asked to publish it as a book.
Tarzan’s popularity proved to be explosive, going on to sell millions of copies and being translated into more languages than human beings are even capable of speaking. Heck, even aliens know who Tarzan is. The books— overtly racist as they are; remember this was the early 1900s— were eventually turned into comics, radio shows, movies and other merchandise. Burroughs, after all his years of failing, had finally found something he was good at. And he was not a dummy in the least— he knew how to turn a nickel into a dime. It’s just that before Tarzan, he’d rarely had a nickel to start with.
Throughout the rest of his life, whether he was looked down upon as a cheap, racist genre fiction writer or not, Burroughs, who was never a critical favorite like an Ernest Hemingway or even a Rudyard Kipling for that matter, would prove that for whatever he lacked in literary ambition, he made up for in being nimble and adept as an executive.
Some of his moves include becoming the first American writer to incorporate himself as a business, retaining licensing control of his characters, and flooding the market with ancillary media products and merchandise when he was explicitly told that doing so would destroy the market for them. If you look now, that is the Hollywood franchise business model at work, but back then it was considered a real risky move.
Further, he went above and beyond simple copyright protections and trademarked Tarzan and his other characters, so that when he was dead and gone and the copyrights to his stories had long-expired, Edgar Rice Boroughs, Inc. would still be raking in the cash. But wait, Edgar Rice Burroughs was also a self-publisher, too. Long before Amazon gave anyone the ability to do it at the click of a button, when frankly, it was hard as fuck to do, he cut out all the middlemen and took to publishing his work all by himself.
He was savvy at other things as well. Look closer and you’ll see that he was something of a real estate visionary. Early in his career, armed with just a little bit of cash from writing, he dropped a lot of his money on a parcel of real estate in California, snapping up 550 acres of land and a ranch that he appropriately-named Tarzana. Eventually, he began subdividing the land for residential purposes, in what was, at the time, supposed to be a planned all-white community. In retrospect, this surely sounds completely insane, but this was the early 1900s and almost all of Southern California back then was being marketed as a place for white, native-born Protestants. And now, well, Tarzana is… Tarzana. But with, thankfully way more diversity and way more celebrities, so that kinda worked out for Burroughs after all.
Why am I telling you this though?
For one, I want you to imagine that there a time in life when a publisher would place nearly $10,000 of value on a fictionalized story from a largely unknown writer. And I want you to consider that there was not just one publisher like this, but many. I know that people once rode horses to work, killed their own food, and occasionally married their cousins. But I’m just saying, wrap your head around the economics of this for a second, because it’s nuts.
I can’t think of any other industry besides writing, maybe because I am a writer, where the value placed on the work has shrunk to the point that it has. Most people who write, no matter how good they are, can’t get paid at all, let alone get paid $10,000. In fact, it’s mind-boggling how small the pool of money, even for good writing, there is these days.
Now, surely some people are still paid well— in fact, comparatively-speaking, I’m paid decently-well, and definitely want more?—?but most people, presumably, aren’t bringing in $10,000 for a story about… anything. And that was Burroughs’ first story ever! It got him out of poverty.
Not today, though. Today, A Princess of Mars would maybe net Edgar Rice Burroughs $100, if he was lucky. A publisher would probably ignore his emails for months and then after being pestered for the thousandth time, the publisher would write back and tell him, unpublished writer that he was and all, they had no budget and offer to publish it for free.
“You’ll get good exposure,” they’d say. Which is hilarious, because well, try paying your rent with exposure. Edgar Rice Burroughs would have taken on a thousand other jobs to stay afloat, and probably wouldn’t have ever written anything at all. In the process, millions of people who had the opportunity to revel in countless hours of enjoyable, life-affirming entertainment borne from one guy’s creative imagination, would never have gotten the chance to do so.
Now, let’s be clear, Burroughs is not some perfect ideal of creativity. A lot of his writing was not a creative expression but a money play, because back then, obviously, there was a lot of money to be made in writing. But few artists who create for popular audiences aren’t at least partly motivated by money, if not when they start, then at least as their careers progress.
To wit, the rapper 50 Cent’s most celebrated work, and perhaps one of the most historic album’s in the history of the entire hip-hop genre, states its intent right in the title— Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Try getting Leonardo DiCaprio in a movie without any money. Heck, try to get J.K. Rowling to write a new book without an advance! You need money to do this stuff. You just do.
Another reason why I want to highlight Burroughs’ story is because it shows that you can fail at many things, but eventually, if you land on something that hits, you can use your failures to propel you forward. One could reasonably suggest that watching his brother’s businesses fail, and then his own businesses fail, gave him some sensibility about the level of control he wanted to retain over his creations, what kind of other businesses he wanted to get into, and further, how to be cagey in all of this, so that he didn’t get taken advantage of. Creative people are rarely good at business, so you almost have to fail a lot to know what to do. Burroughs, by the time he was on the precipice of success, probably benefited a lot from thirty-something years of failure.
There’s also, of course, the part about Burroughs engaging in something perceived as childish, something immature, something that all reasonable people would assume is giant waste of time. Here he was in his mid-30s, with a wife and kids, staking his and their future on ridiculous stories about Mars and a guy who was raised by an ape. Some people know what that feels like, hanging on to childish pursuits, in the hopes that they will one day pay off. In the case of Edgar Rice Burroughs, you can see that— well, times were obviously different then— but there’s something to be said for clinging to a dream.
Finally, there’s one aspect of it that probably won’t get noticed, but should be. And that’s mentorship, education and guidance, which in media and many related creative industries these days, is very difficult to find. It’s practically unheard of.
The fact is, had the editor Thomas Newell Metcalf not reached back out to Burroughs with some suggestions, offering him ways to make his story better and turn it into a more complete idea— remember, he’d only submitted half of A Princess of Mars at first?—?the story would have never even existed at all, and neither would have Edgar Rice Burroughs.
“Had he not given me this encouragement,” he said, “I would never have finished the story, and my writing career would have been at an end.”
Burroughs was a person who, at that point, had failed at just about everything, and given his history of being a loser, was probably no more than two seconds away from chucking his unfinished manuscript, and his legendary writing career along with it, in the trash.
Luckily, someone saw something there, offered to help, then paid him to keep working at it, and I think buried deep in that very simple gesture, there’s a lot we can all learn.
Roger Ebert loved words. He loved movies. He also really loved life.
That much I gleaned from watching Life Itself, the acclaimed documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams), which is based on Ebert’s 2011memoir, and is actually streaming on Netflix now.
Rogert Ebert passed away in 2013, and for this documentary James received an extraordinary level of access. Short of seeing Ebert actually die, there is a lot to work with here. It’s very intimate, very personal, and at times, very humorous.
Ebert himself is alive for most of it, and he talks to the camera through a text-to-speech feature on his Apple laptop. The rest of it is narrated, with words taken right from Ebert’s book, and as a person who hasn’t actually read the book, I found a lot of the prose to be beautiful and wistfully romantic. I mention this because the movie would not be what it is without that narration. It’s like a drizzle of oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, tying everything together rather deliciously.
As for structure, Life Itself tells the story of how Roger Ebert came to be, and uses standard documentary style, mixing old clips with interviews from friends and family, plus new footage of Ebert, as he deals with his myriad health issues. This approach might initially seem formulaic, but it actually works quite well here, moving the film along at a fairly brisk pace, despite its 2-hour run time.
While the movie is fairly sentimental, it’s not a posthumous public relations campaign to present Ebert as an angel. It seems fair in that it shows him to be a prodigious talent, but also paints him ruthlessly competitive, a bit of egotist, and until he’s married at age 50, sort of an overgrown child. He’s also legendarily combative with his longtime television sparring partner Gene Siskel, whom he doesn’t even appear to be friends with. Watching outtakes of them arguing and insulting one another is particularly demonstrative.
There are other uncomfortable moments. In one instance, another legendary critic, Pauline Kael, is discussed. I’m not enough of a scholar on what the real relationship was like between Ebert and Kael, nor do I really care that much, but at one point, Chicago newspaperman Rick Kogan very bluntly says: “Fuck Pauline Kael.”
James’ decision to include that part illustrates a type of animosity that existed?—?and I think still exists?—?between critics who thought movies and movie criticism should be a utility, serving the needs of masses with simple gestures like thumbs up or thumbs down; versus high-minded, intellectual and personal, perhaps serving the needs of only a select, artful group of people.
It’s an interesting conversation that happens a third of the way into the film, and I think it’s actually an important one, because nowadays, when there are fewer film critics than ever working at the professional level, and cultural criticism itself is being shed from established media institutions like so many other people’s salaries long forgotten, who can imagine a time when the business was healthy enough to support that kind of debate?
There are other sobering parts of the film, like watching Ebert, this blue collar guy from Chicago, rise up the ranks and become impossibly famous, despite the fact that he was a recovering alcoholic, significantly overweight and spent his life waxing poetic about other people’s art; which is kind of what we do all day on the internet now, except many people do it for free and it is largely terrible. That we’ve let our new technology overlords build businesses around the latter and not the former, that part is even more depressing. But let me not digress too much.
I use the word sobering to describe Ebert’s journey because in this day and age, in this winner take all and then take even more and more and more type of political and economic climate that we’re living in, I just don’t see that level of opportunity out there for people like that. And that’s sad, because in a way, that’s a lot of what America still really is.
While I watched this movie, I couldn’t help but keep thinking: if Roger Ebert was a 20-year-old today, what would he be doing? Maybe he’d have a Medium publication or a Tumblr or a WordPress site where he reviewed movies. But maybe after he wrote 100 of them and watched them get buried by a Facebook algorithm, or observed how people just look at a silly number on Rotten Tomatoes to make their decisions about what movies to see, he’d just as soon as throw in the towel and become a bus driver (not that there’s anything wrong with driving a bus; maybe it’s even more helpful than reviewing movies).
That should take nothing away from the film itself, which paints a portrait of a complicated artist as a young man, but one who eventually grows up to become a wiser, more mature, more loving one, too. There’s a lot of love in this film; from his friends and family, but especially from his wife Chaz.
I think the thing that Life Itself illustrates the most, however, is just how powerful and meaningful the act of writing is, for when Ebert’s health problems rob him of his ability to speak, he’s able to still use the written word to convey what he wants to say. Maybe, as the film quietly suggests, the loss of his voice actually empowered him, made the words count that much more, have more meaning.
A non-writer might find this concept novel in its own right?—?“isn’t that cute?”?—?but a writer, or anyone who really endeavors to dig deep inside themselves to find some sort of more everlasting truth, might identify with it on a level that is hard to really put into words. In fact, I’m struggling to write or even think about this movie now without tears welling up in my eyes. It touched me that much.
If you have some time, check it out and you won’t be disappointed.
Ebert himself might have given it two thumbs up.
My mother died too young.
She was 49-years-old and the only things I really have to remember her by are my unreliable memories and printed photographs taken when she was alive. There are no home movies. There aren’t even that many photos. Hundreds, for sure, but not the large treasure chest one could amass these days, armed with a smart phone and any reason in the world to take a picture.
This saddens me deeply.
I scroll through my phone now and look at all the pictures and videos on it. There are so many, and while so many of them are useless, many are also not. In one instance, maybe I took fifteen photos of something or someone in order to get the one photo I wanted to upload to Instagram. But in the midst of those fifteen moments, I can find— by looking at all of them— a far greater portrait of a real memory, one that is larger and more comprehensive than the one I initially chose to let other people see.
My mother passed away before I had access to that sort of technology— technology that we sometimes take for granted— which allows us to effectively record our life right as it’s unfolding.
When she was alive, I didn’t have that. I’m not the only one, and I’m sure it pains other people the same way.
To most people, the idea of someone wearing odd-looking spectacles with the ability to creepily record things that they don’t want recorded is unsettling and scary. I get that, I do. But there’s also a part of Google Glass that I think either some people were too shortsighted to see, or maybe Glass just never did effectively (I never got to really mess around with Glass, although I’d have loved to).
And that was this idea of being able to almost seamlessly capture and record your entire life— without having to whip out the phone— so that one day, maybe when the life you had isn’t the one you know anymore, you can go back and, even if only through visual cues, somehow relive it through your own eyes again. Maybe you can’t touch that person you were with, or talk to them or have them smile at something you said, but you can at least remember a time when you could.
This is important because memory, which can be flawed, is the fabric of who we are.
These days, there’s lots of moaning and groaning about technology. Something so great has become sooo annoying.
There’s talk about digital vacations, social media diets and how we should put our devices away and start living again. You go to a concert and people aren’t so much watching a performance as they are recording it on their phone. This troubles some people, and rightfully so— it is a little troubling. Maybe it’s better to not do that. Maybe everyone should live in the moment and feel it and cherish it and hold onto it for the great moment that it is.
But maybe that’s the moment we hope lasts a lifetime, and maybe capturing it will help us remember it when it’s gone— or heck, help someone else remember it when we’re gone— so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being almost goofily-tethered to the device in order to make that happen.
I think about other people who aren’t around a lot, too. Things we did together. Places we went. Conversations we had. Laughs we shared. Meals we cooked. Love we shared. But I don’t always have a record of it. Not in any real or tangible sense. They are just thoughts in my head, memories.
And sometimes I want to relive them, see those people again, feel those things again, rekindle that flame, reignite that energy. I can’t and it sucks.
Maybe if I’d have had a smart phone years ago, if things were easy then like they are now, with images being instantly saved forever in the cloud, I’d still be able to hear my mother’s voice. I remember it, sure?—?but I can’t hear it. I can’t see her move. I can’t reasonably revisit what it looked like for her to be alive.
All I really needed then was a smart phone, the greatest invention of all time.
I’m in the process of compiling a bunch of old blog entries I did for a popular music website into what may eventually become an anthology.
As I’m reading through the entries, which were written from the fall of 2007 to the late winter of 2009, I can see that I was discussing a lot of things that, frankly, we’re still discussing today. Either some things never change or I was really ahead of the curve. I want to say it’s the latter, so I can feel good about myself, but it’s probably more of the former.
However, what I’m really noticing, besides being a veritable Nostradamus, is that I wrote a lot about music that I can’t even remember listening to. For example, there is one entry from 2007 about the producer/artist Terrace Martin, who is getting all sorts of acclaim now for his work on the recent Kendrick Lamar LP To Pimp a Butterfly.
I’m reading this entry, and I can see that I was favoring Terrace Martin’s LP Signal Flow; in fact, I went so far as to call him the best producer in hip-hop at that time, and implored his label, Warner Brothers, to start paying some him some attention. My pleas only went so far.
But that’s okay, I guess, because honestly, for the life of me right now, I can’t remember a damn thing about Signal Flow. Almost nothing about the album comes back to me. I even went and listened to some of the songs again, and it really does not feel like something I’ve actually ever heard. Now I’ve obviously heard it, and at one point was telling other people?—?in writing, no less?—?they should hear it, but it’s just not something I remember.
I started thinking about this, wondering why exactly something I once supported and probably listened to quite a bit, was not fresh in my mind. And then it came to me?—?none of the music I actually have from that time period is accessible to me anymore. It was all sitting on computers I no longer use, or hard drives that are no longer active, and to hear it again, I’d have to go back in a time machine and re-download it all. Who the hell wants to do that?
Part of the problem with digital music, to me at least, has been that for the life of the digital music experience?—?let’s just say, after the year 2000?—?it’s been a big mess. Sometimes I look at iTunes now and I have twenty versions of the same song. And then there are other songs I can’t find, because around 2011, I started heavily using Spotify, and there, I’m somewhat limited to what’s actually on the service.
I know I can have the songs I’ve downloaded come up in the Spotify browser, but for some reason, maybe just pure laziness, I’ve never actually gone forward with doing that. I think one time I tried it for a while, and the fact that songs were coming up on my mobile playlists that I couldn’t actually play, because the files weren’t also on my phone, really annoyed me. So I just nixed that idea.
But beyond that, there’s also music that I’ve listened to and compiled in playlists on YouTube, too. I feel like I’ve been using YouTube as a music player since long before it became trendy, and if I go back and look at some of these playlists now, a lot of the songs, some of which were unauthorized remixes and mashups and such, they’re all gone. So it’s like I sat there and meticulously put something together that I can’t even listen to anymore. What was the point?
There was certainly a time period, which many of us for one reason or another like to pretend never happened, but most certainly happened, and it was from around the years 2003 to 2009, when the internet was a free-for-all for downloading music. I mean, jesus h fucking christ, you could just type any album name into Google with the extention .rar and find it on a blog in two seconds. And nobody even cared!
Everyone remembers MegaUpload. And in those years, it was either torrents or file storage lockers or peer-to-peer networks like Soulseek?—?remember Soulseek?? —?where you could download pretty much anything you wanted, at will. You could reasonably scan someone entire’s hard drive and attain every piece of music they owned in the span of 2 hours. You still can, but it’s just far less explosive than it once was, because the internet cops are much more thorough nowadays, and the big record labels now love the internet, whereas before they kinda pretended it didn’t even exist.
The point is, with access to all that music, pirated music that was gotten via the internet and listened to while you were likely actually browsing the internet, there was something lost in the transaction of those acts. It was like, here, you have all the world’s music at your fingertips, and you didn’t pay for it, so it doesn’t mean shit, and you’re not going to sit with it and really embrace it, because since there was nothing really involved with getting it, why would you?
And I say this knowing that I have hard drives literally filled with music. Terabytes and gigabytes of storage space used up to contain these little mp3’s that are 3-minute vessels for some poor person’s hopes, dreams and most intimate thoughts.
I mean, do you really know what it means to make a record? I’m not talking about some little bleeps and bloops that someone pasted together in Ableton Live and didn’t know what to call it so they uploaded it to Soundcloud and tagged it ‘experimental.’
I’m talking about someone sitting in a quiet room late at night, all by themselves, practicing one guitar riff or one piano arpeggio ‘till their fingers get sore and they’re staring at the time, wondering how the hell they’re going to wake up to go to school in the morning.
I’m talking about someone having a messed up life and all sorts of pain and struggle and things they can’t ever talk to anyone about, and sitting there with a pen?—?or heck, nowadays, maybe a Google Doc open?—?and writing their deepest, most confessional thoughts in some type of melodic form, so that when we’re feeling some kind of way ourselves, we can put our fancy $300 headphones on and ride the subway listening, thinking: “Someone else out there feels the way I do too!”
A record is still a record. But man, we’ve really devalued it to the point where it doesn’t feel like one anymore.
The fact that I can’t even remember listening to this Terrace Martin LP, which I once enjoyed so much, kind of bothers me. I feel like that a lot now, about many albums. And that’s why I’m writing this. Because I have thousands of CDs and vinyl LPs, and I remember almost everything. I remember the garbage stuff, like things I bought for 25 cents at the Salvation Army, and I remember the good stuff, like things I cut school to go purchase on their release day.
Surely, I don’t remember everything I own, but I don’t think I can look at any CD or record I own and think, gee, I never even heard this before, where the hell did I get this from? Can I say that about the digital music sitting on those hard drives? Absolutely. In fact, if I was to go browsing through them right now, I’d venture to say almost 90% of the music I downloaded?—?for free, at that?—?I never even listened to! It’s all just sitting in a giant folder, and I wouldn’t even know it’s there unless I actually go open that folder and then start opening the subfolders.
Do you see something off about that? I do. And it seems silly to crow about this now, when digital music is so ingrained in the fabric of everyday life. Like, if you can think of a song you can almost hear it instantaneously these days. But that accessibility, that ease-of-use, it makes the music so disposable. You don’t hold it, so you kind of don’t care about it. You may legitimately connect with it, but once it’s gone, it’s very difficult to reconnect with. Because it’s not physical. In a way, it kind of doesn’t exist. It’s just temporarily there. It’s a momentary experience, something you feel in one moment, but likely don’t feel the next.
That’s sort of depressing to me. I want my musical moments to matter to me. I want to be able to hold them, to remember them, to know they actually happened. I want to one day be able to look back and say, you know what, there was this sound that I heard, and I can hear it again, and I can feel that way again, because I remember it, and it still feels the same.
That’s what people make records for. And that, my friends, is something we’ve really lost along the way.
“I’m just over it.”
“Today’s been rough.”
“I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
“I’m ready to quit.
If I told you these words came from people who are following their dreams, doing what they love, what they were put on this earth to do?—?would you believe me?
But it’s true. Those are statements right from the mouths of people who don’t need to find their passion, but have found it and are actually doing it. And they’re tired. Man, are they tired.
That’s the thing nobody really tells you when you’re at the starting line, or worse, haven’t even entered the race yet. That it’s a really long journey. That it requires a lot of commitment. And that there’s a strong chance you’ll probably burn out before you make it to the finish.
It’s funny, when you’re not doing what you want to do, you spend all day thinking about doing it. And then when you’re doing it, you realize, holy shit, this is really difficult. I don’t know if I can make it.
But there’s something about that, and I think we all do it. It’s this thing where we try to rationalize the suck. We make excuses for it.
“I shouldn’t complain because I’m doing what I love.”
“At least I’m not working at McDonald’s.”
“It’s okay because I’m not like everyone else?—?I didn’t settle.”
On some level this makes sense?—?you probably shouldn’t complain?—?but fuck it, you are a human and you are here on this earth right now inside this body that is yours and you have a mind and you think for yourself and you have feelings and your feelings are telling you that whatever you are doing right now, even if it’s your dream, fucking blows.
Okay, it blows. And you are entitled to feel that way. You don’t need to be working in a sweatshop to hate what you do.
But after that’s established, then what?
I guess maybe you won’t make it. A lot don’t. And that’s okay. Quitting is cooler than most people say it is. Only losers say things like: “Winners never quit.” Real winners say: “Gee, this looks like a losing fight. Obviously, I should give up.”
It’s like boxing. What boxer wants to throw in the towel? None. That’s why they have people in their corner. Smart minds who can identify when a fighter is getting the shit kicked out of him and is probably going to die. And they stop the fight. They quit for them. It’s okay. They take the L and they live to fight another day.
The point is, even your passion can be a torturous grind. And you can find that it doesn’t really give you what you thought it might. You can be in it to win it, and still lose. And that’s when you either double down and get more serious, find a way to make it work, or you just bail.
Either way, I think you come out okay. You either really win, or you win by default. Addition by subtraction.
Make sense? I think it does.
I wasn’t an expert on all things Glenn Beck when the email from a Rolling Stone editor arrived in my inbox two weeks ago asking me if I’d be interested in interviewing him.
I mean, I was aware of who he was, but I’m not much of a cable news addict, so my mind wasn’t polluted with a bunch of prejudices about him based on things he’d said in the past.
The idea was simple enough?—?Beck and rock musician Andrew W.K. had announced that W.K. was going to have a talk radio show on The Blaze, and I would interview them both about it.
The only catch was this: Beck didn’t want to do it.
It was understandable. Given his history with Fox News, it was doubtful a left wing rag like RS would give him a fair shake anyway. It’s also just really difficult to get people to do interviews these days. You’d be surprised how little sway the mainstream media actually has.
It seemed like a challenge but one that was not altogether impossible to pull off. And Medium actually is the reason for that.
A few years ago, a largely-unknown writer on Medium?—?Srinivas Rao?—?had his work randomly discovered by Beck, and it was through Rao’s experience with him, having his book discussed on his show and later even appearing on it, that I knew Beck was more approachable than most writers would tend to realize.
With all due respect to Rao, it wasn’t like he was some big dog. In fact, he was more like an everyman, and the fact that Beck plucked him from obscurity and chose to highlight his work?—?which was certainly worth reading and talking about?—?was kinda cool to me. It made me feel like you could still be a little guy in this country and win. His book turned into a bestseller!
So, I suspected that most people who might ask to interview Beck were just doing it wrong. I learned this much was 100% true after I called his publicist and wrote him an email outlining what it was I was trying to do.
I explained in very plain terms that I wasn’t a political journalist, didn’t have an agenda and wasn’t looking for Beck to fit into some neat little narrative that I already concocted. It wasn’t a ploy to make him look bad or good. It was just the opportunity to have a candid discussion.
After some more back and forth (and I’m definitely simplifying this here), he finally agreed to do it. A week later, Beck, Andrew?—?who was calling in from Rio, where he was performing with Marky Ramone?—?and I, were on the phone. It was a good, thoughtful, free-flowing conversation. Not a debate?—?not a my philosophy vs. your philosophy?—?but an opportunity to share ideas.
However, there was one quote that wound up on the cutting room floor, and I wanted to share it here. Toward the end of the conversation, we were discussing how to exist and act in country right now which has a lot of unrest in it, even if that unrest isn’t specifically on your doorstep.
Let’s just take a step back and say, what is it that I can learn, what is it that I can do better, what is that, quite honestly as a Christian, I am commanded to do? And what I’m commanded to do is love one another, treat anyone who everyone deems your enemy with love, not with hatred. There’s far too much hatred, there’s far too much anger. And that is going to lead us into a very dark place. I can’t control the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson. But I can make a difference in my own community and say, “Okay, when you see people burning down cities, don’t let that put enmity between you and them.” Don’t find anger there. Let’s find reconciliation. Let’s find solutions. Let’s find joy and love and more importantly, let’s be the first responders when they need help. When someone needs help, let’s be there. Let’s help them. Let’s love one another.
I think that’s good message. Idealistic, but good. One we all probably need to hear.
Read the rest of the interview here.