whose news? clean it up

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The last few days I’ve reached a new level of frustration with what is often called “news”. I pretty much only watch Al Jazeera English and a smattering of Swedish news these days. AJE is the only straight news sans fluff, sans glorifying ‘celebrities’ and that covers all of the world’s parts (not just western concerns). Swedish news – well – it’s local, so I kind of want to know about that stuff.

But online I follow loads of news, tech, music/entertainment, development, marketing/SEO/PR/comms blogs and sites… and I swear that the only thing that seems to appear across disciplines is the most asinine stuff that is not news and about which we should not care. I don’t even want to give it the time to write about it now except that it seems important in the sense that we are to blame for our own fake news dilemma. We begged for more bullshit, and we got it. So today when every media outlet put out ‘headline news’ about the “quiet” relationship forged by musician Grimes and tech ‘mogul’ Elon Musk, I started to get angry. I am silently screaming, “Who cares, who cares, who cares?!” It’s not news; no one should care… and it’s not quiet if it is the headline on every news, tech, music/entertainment and PR blog or site in existence.

For two days, I have seen too many articles about Donald Glover and his (Childish Gambino’s)  “This is America” single and video. Don’t get me wrong. I love Donald Glover. Yes, Glover is beyond talented; “This is America” is brutal and beautiful all at once. I’ve seen the backlash pieces (i.e. don’t make or expect Glover to be the anti-Kanye). But is this newsworthy? (Arguably this is more newsworthy than the aforementioned bit about celeb personal lives… or about royals having babies and getting hitched and BBC stopping EVERYTHING to report on such truly insignificant trifles; they would have done this anyway but it’s also a convenient way to ignore covering the shambolic state of Brexit.)

Why is this kind of frippery what we care about instead of real things? This is what our sweet tooth begs for, and the 24/7 news (infotainment) cycle, competition in channels and platforms, our inability and lack of desire to understand or grapple with complexity, the sad state of journalism today, too many other things distracting us – why not?

We gluttons of talent we don’t have, money we will never make, and elusive, ephemeral ‘fame’ prioritize these shallow displays over anything that actually matters. We think it’s normal to pay actors and athletes millions of dollars – we don’t even bat an eye at this insanity. We think events like the Met Gala last night, another thing that was plastered all over the headlines, are important. But I don’t even know what the hell the Met Gala is – and not one of these headlines told me. In fact, all they could highlight was what these ‘special people’ in attendance were wearing.

Meanwhile… I can’t even begin to recount what we ignore in order to find out what designer some personality du jour is wearing or breaking news on celebrity dating. Who has the attention span any more anyway?

outside the comfort zone: trials of marathoners

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“I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead. I repeat this like a mantra.” –What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

When I was young – somewhere in the febrile netherworld between adolescent and teenager, I dreamt that I married a marathon runner, which seemed ludicrous at the time. Bookish and living in libraries, it seemed highly unlikely that I would ever meet a marathon runner, let alone have anything in common with one. (It may or may not be worth noting that this dream-world marriage took place when I was quite young, and the dream ended with the young marathoner husband’s premature death at 30, which led to my grieving by riding around in a car with a group of gay male friends.)

In the many, many years since I had this dream, I have never married. I am well beyond 30 myself now. I have, however, been involved with so many triathletes and long-distance runners, and lately I wonder, being as obsessed as I am with how things intersect and connect, why this thread has woven its way through my life. I have had my other phases, unconscious and unintentional, such as the French phase, the Microsoft employee phase, and so on (most likely these ‘trends’ happened because the people you end up meeting are all part of the ‘web’ in which you are woven and the circles in which you travel. Being with a French Microsoftie would probably lead you both to more French people and more Microsoft employees). But through all of the various phases, it seemed these people who chose to push and exploit their own bodies to extremes reappeared everywhere. I had always imagined I would have nothing in common with these human-endurance outliers, but I suppose there are aspects of personality I relate to: grit, solitude, being drawn to extremes, obsession with transformation.

Lately I have been trying to understand the desire and resolve to run in this way, to these distances and at such extremes of human capability or need. It was not a burning question, but things kept popping up to return the question to the forefront of my mind. First I read about a sedentary academic who eventually began to run 100-mile marathons. His article led me to read Scott Jurek’s book Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. Not a great book nor high literature by any stretch of the imagination (one of my “filler” books really) but nevertheless peppered with cliché tidbits and the odd literary quotes that add some texture as well as a how-and-why journey to the motivation behind this kind of lifestyle:

  • “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” —ERNEST HEMINGWAY
  • “Not all pain is significant.” (from painscience.com: “It’s the difference between engine trouble and trouble with that light on your dashboard that says there’s engine trouble.”)
  • As Thoreau, an American practitioner (though he probably didn’t realize it) of bushido and a pretty good distance walker himself, wrote, “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers . . . simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
  • Stotan sessions “beautiful and painful . . . underneath it all there was a sort of sound philosophy based on ‘Let’s improve ourselves as human beings, let’s become more compassionate, let’s become bigger, let’s become stronger, let’s become nicer people.’”
  • “You only ever grow as a human being if you’re outside your comfort zone.”

Then I thought, well, Haruki Murakami has written about his own running in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. His insights weren’t much different from any other long-distance runner’s except that he often creates parallels with his writing:

  • “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.”
  • “In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”
  • “So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.”
  • “Each person has his own likes. Once when I had a chance to talk with a sales rep from Mizuno, he admitted, “Our shoes are kind of plain and don’t stand out. We stand by our quality, but they aren’t that attractive.” I know what he’s trying to say. They have no gimmicks, no sense of style, no catchy slogan. So to the average consumer, they have little appeal. (The Subaru of the shoe world, in other words.)” (I liked this one just because it highlights functionality and personal preference – what works versus what looks flashy. I have always, after all, driven Subarus.)

But eventually I get some clarity from these readings and others – everything from personal reflections and essays to the more scientific and clinical approaches, such as an article on whether or not ultra-marathoners feel less pain, thanks to the Twitter feed of Al Jazeera English news anchor Peter Dobbie (yes, this kind of stuff comes from everywhere, doesn’t it?). Of course they don’t feel less pain – it’s psychological really – so it comes down to brain over pain (as the article states: “theory of pain catastrophizing and how that might be translated into pain management when you are 40 miles in and everything feels bad”). It all ties together so that these symptoms, if not catastrophic or apt to do lasting damage, can be assessed as non-critical discomfort rather than critical pain, can be overcome with some of the psychology, the tying the effort into a greater good, a philosophical drive toward being greater.

Someone asked me the other day about why I think our mutual acquaintance runs in insane ultra-marathon-type events. (Sure, in this case, she just wanted to find excuses to talk to me about the acquaintance, but I treated it academically, as I do with most things.)

She asked: “Why do you think he does it?”

Impersonally, I replied, “I don’t think it’s something anyone who doesn’t do it can understand.”

I have recently read several books to try to gain insight into marathon and ultra-marathon “thinking”. I told this ‘interrogator’: “I cannot claim to understand the pathology.”

She exclaimed: “So you think it is a pathology!”

Me: (haltingly) “Not in the strictest sense, no. But as a deviation from what most people do, yes, it is a pathology in that sense.”

Some exchange/banter followed about the insanity of it, but I started outlining (at least for myself) what I think defines the reasons why (if we must understand or seek understanding):

  • The people who do this kind of running often also tend to think it is as crazy as non-runners do … in the sense that they push their bodies beyond the limits of what a body should be able to do. Pushing beyond physical limits. Feeling more alive than ever while also being almost dead. This drives the process, the motivation and desire to continue.
  • An ‘extreme’ runner is not doing it because s/he thinks it’s “normal” or “middle of the road” even if it becomes normal for her/him.
  • The opposing forces of isolation/solitude, as long-distance running is a solitary activity, and community/camaraderie built with a group of others who find this ‘insanity’ to be a worthwhile pursuit.
  • The opposing forces of feeling control while also feeling out of control (i.e. “I can undertake this unfathomable feat; I can’t feel my feet/hands/can’t stop vomiting – can I go on? Can I do this?”)
  • A unique/unusual sense of accomplishment from doing something that most other people cannot do, even if they did not find it insane to consider.
  • Added bonus if the running endeavor can be connected to some concept of “doing good in the world” (a charity component, etc.)

“…and I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world.” -from The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner: Stories, Alan Sillitoe

I engage in my own form of marathon, which has nothing to do with running, and it tests resolve and endurance, too. It is my test for whether someone, in coming up against me, is built to last. The drive to run, but not running from something, cannot be entirely dissimilar – it is a constant test of tiring but continuing, reaching an outcome, elated and exhausted, but facing the demand to get up and do it again, insane or not.

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

It is still raining in Tokyo

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As I fell asleep last night the meteorologist on Al Jazeera English stated, “It is *still* raining in Tokyo.” A deliberate pause and emphasis on “still”. I was half asleep, but it is amazing how a simple statement like, “It is still raining in Tokyo” immediately jolts vivid memories into the active mind.

I was suddenly walking in a downpour in Tokyo, perhaps the only one on the busy street without an umbrella. It was September, hot and even more humid.

The Limited Portfolio: “Continues to demand the immediate release”

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I watch way too much Al Jazeera English. I suppose this is because I like a constant stream of news. How else would I know about the coming clown shortage?? I don’t have a TV and AJE streams live 24/7 online. I can just let all the day’s bad news filter directly into my brain to create hybrid reality-fiction nightmares and wonder when I wake up what really happened and what my brain concocted from what I half-heard.

Watching as much as I do, I have been seeing the anchors repeat every half hour for the past 110 or so days that, “Al Jazeera continues to demand the immediate release…” of three of their journalists from Egyptian jail.

I understand their point and how seriously they are taking the matter, but after a while, the wording sounds like such an urgent plea for something that just isn’t going to happen. Can you really “demand” something that you are “continuing” to ask for after… ten, forty… one hundred days? And adding in “immediate” on top of that… it threatens to sound almost comical even though there is nothing funny about it. But that is how I dissect language. After a while, these words designed and put together to create a more powerful meaning can be taken apart and reflected back on themselves to show how naked they are. It is not that the speaker does not mean them every half hour of the day for almost a one-third of a year. And it is not that the speaker should not be repeating something – we can’t be allowed to forget the fates of these journalists who were just doing their jobs.

At last everything comes down to “continuing”.

Everything is on a continuum, and you have to continue to change, grow and evolve to become and be more. I suppose this is why I so seldom rest, why I keep taking on more and different work, studies, projects – I want to keep evolving. I have given this a lot of thought lately, surrounded as I have been by creative artist types. Those who took a corporate job to get some corporate work in their portfolios and managed to limit that experience to two or so years are doing great – they moved on when they got what they needed and moved forward. They continued – and expanded. Those who have continued on, doing the same designs day-in, day-out, have stagnated. And the longer that sameness goes on, the less chance there is to evolve. It is perfectly possible, as illustrated in repeating the same words verbatim day after day, to continue to do the exact same thing. Continuing can embody either path.

But the portfolio – figurative or literal – that continues in the same way forever – it cannot be expanded on.

 

Statelessness: You don’t understand citizenship

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I have written before about the misunderstood and taken-for-granted nature of citizenship. In many countries, you can be born somewhere and live there your entire life and still not be a citizen. In some countries, your citizenship will be stripped from you when you leave the country for some period of time. It is potentially a more fluid state of being than one imagines. As I have argued before, most people don’t think about it until something happens that forces them to.

I just watched a documentary on Al Jazeera English covering the stateless citizen problem in Greece for the Turkish minority there.

One woman has spent more than 20 years as a stateless person – born in Greece, her citizenship was revoked when she went to Turkey and married a Turkish man, but she cannot get Turkish citizenship without a Greek passport to give the authorities. She is not legally allowed to work in Turkey – she only has a residence permit – so survives on her husband’s pension. She was not able to travel back to Greece to attend her own father’s funeral.

The laws in Greece have shifted throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, but many of these displaced people have been unable to find their place or legal recourse through any of the changes. One such change in the law was to implement a process by which former citizens could reclaim their Greek citizenship – but the process was more like naturalizing a foreigner who was becoming Greek for the first time, which struck most people as discriminatory. The thinking being – a person who has lived in Greece all her life is not a foreigner, and should not have to declare that she is for the sake of getting her nationality back.

As I wrote above – people don’t think about these things until something happens that forces them to. In an article in The Guardian, writer Kamila Shamsie describes, based on her own experience migrating to the UK, the uncertain citizenship journey. First, when a person moves to a new country, s/he assumes that the path is laid out clearly. If she just follows the rules, she is on the right course to achieving citizenship. It’s just a matter of time.

But, as I, the Al Jazeera story and Shamsie point out: immigration and citizenship laws are in constant flux. You might be staying in the country of your dreams legally – for now – and have a good handle on what you have to do and be, following all the steps to the letter. But by no means is that the end of it. Until you have the new nationality confirmed, in your hands, you are not home free. Something can always change, making the feeling of settling down and finding a comfort level almost impossible and out of reach. As Shamsie wrote: “I wasn’t prepared for the mutable nature of immigration laws, and their ability to make migrants feel perpetually insecure, particularly as the rhetoric around migration mounted.