Category: News

As a creative professional, I’m fascinated by how the news and culture can serve as a way to inspire creativity and examine new trends. Here I share some of my thoughts on the news and the zeitgeist.

The Aaron Hernandez Story: Sympathy for the devil?

If you have read my blog before or you’re one of my friends, then you know I’m a die-hard Patriots fan. I have a throw-back Tom Brady jersey that I wear every single Sunday during the season, and I refuse to clean it because of my superstition that they will lose if it goes in the wash. Of course, this is silly, and a representation of the absurdity of being a sports fan. Yet I enjoy the ridiculousness of fandom, and rooting for the Patriots connects me to my hometown in Clinton, Massachusetts. While there is so much I love about sports, especially rooting for New England, it becomes difficult to rectify supporting my team when that love collides with a murderer. Of course, I’m talking about the Aaron Hernandez story.

Continue reading “The Aaron Hernandez Story: Sympathy for the devil?”

Why Donald Trump Will Make US All Wear Virtual Reality Headsets

Ever since Aerosmith’s music video for “Amazing” featured virtual reality, I’ve been excited for the technology to become, well, a consumer reality. After Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2-billion in March of 2014, the hype behind VR caught a major tailwind, and the technology was deemed the next innovation that would revolution daily life. It only seemed like a matter of time before I was rocking an Oculus Rift and hanging out in digital space with virtual Elon Musk.

But now that virtual reality headsets have been on the market, it’s shocking to see that VR sales are actually expected to lag behind the holiday sales of virtual assistants like Amazon’s Echo. In fact, according to Reuters, “brokerage Piper Jaffray will cut its 2016 estimate for sales of VR headsets by 65 percent to 2.2 million units in an as yet unpublished report.” So why is virtual reality having a slower start in the marketplace than expected?
Christopher Mims, a technology columnist at the Wall Street Journal, raised doubts on virtual reality in March, saying the technology isn’t ready for prime time. “As new, highly touted headsets arrive this year, how much content will be available, and how deep will these experiences be? The short answers: not much, and fairly shallow.” Mims is suggesting that the lack of content has contributed to VR’s slow start.
While software could be a reason to delay the emergence of VR in America’s living room, I think it’s a bit overstated. For example, I remember saving my allowance for an entire year as a 10-year old to buy Nintendo 64. When the console was finally released, there were only two games, Mario and Pilot Wings, and I played them more than I would like to admit. However, to get a sense of why VR’s having a tough time barging into the prime time, it’s important to look again to science fiction, the medium that perpetuated its rise in the first place.

I recently finished “Ready Player One,” a science fiction novel by Ernest Cline, which is being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg, and it’s set in an American future where a virtual reality utopia can be accessed through a technology similar to Oculus Rift. In the novel, the popularity of the virtual world (called the Oasis) can be explained by technological innovation and a need to escape bitter realities of an American dystopia. For years, science fiction writers have discussed a similar moment where virtual reality would become so appealing that it will overtake the allure of the physical world—or provide a better option. “Ready Player One” suggests that virtual reality became popular not just because of technology but because their planet and social lives were in tatters.

I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Cline’s America and the direction of our country today. The reason that virtual reality is lagging behind in sales is not that we’re lacking technology or even that the hardware is too expensive; its simply that we’re lacking a catalyst, a reason to lose the appeal of the physical world and jump blindly into a virtual one.

Unfortunately, the catalyst that will push virtual reality into the American living room is not technological but political. The election of Donald Trump will be the spark that creates an exodus from the physical world into the virtual. Donald Trump has tweeted that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese, and his cabinet picks perpetuate the idea that his administration will dismantle Obama regulations that were deemed important to curb global warming. Trump’s pick for the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has sued the EPA countless times in his career and was a main opponent against the Clean Power Plan. Pruitt will be in charge of protecting the environment after serving as the “key architect of the legal battle against Mr. Obama’s climate change policies,” as pointed out by the New York Times. During the Trump administration, there is little doubt our environment will be at war with its inhabitants and policy makers.

Sunset at Half Dome

Many Americans will crave an escape from the decay of our physical world in addition to our decaying sense of equality. If Trump moves forward with a Muslim ban, his deportation of millions of illegal immigrants, and his continued onslaught of the media, then Americans will need an escape from the images of America losing its democracy. It will be too tough to watch. For instance, see the quote from “Ready Player One” below.

America will need a model, a “Real Player One” virtual utopia, where cities, economies, ways of life, inclusive communities, and imitations of our national parks can exist in a virtual space that feels so real we can almost taste it. America will need a place where empathy and truth can flourish. America will need an alternate reality, an almost mirror to itself. Children will grow up saving their allowance not to buy a Nintendo 64 like me to play Mario; they will save their money to buy an entrance into an old America where the dream still existed.

Virtual reality sales simply need a push, and Donald Trump is just the bully to do it.

Seinfeld in 2016: What I Learned from Watching all Nine Seasons for my First Time

I’m going to admit something embarrassing: Up until this year, I have never watched Seinfeld. Every time Seinfeld came on television in the 90s, I would change the channel as quickly as if I had just accidentally stumbled upon a network that consistently showed dentists drilling into teeth without putting their patients on novocaine. For whatever reason, I hated the show, and I would much rather watch reruns of The Simpsons or anything on Nickelodeon (Doug, Rugrats, All That) or reruns of Nick at Nite shows. Perhaps I was too young; perhaps I didn’t understand the jokes; perhaps Jerry’s voice just annoyed the crap out of me. Whatever it was, I never really watched an entire episode of Seinfeld.

Years later, I fell in love with Curb Your Enthusiasm, and through that show, I began to grow an superficial interest in Seinfeld. (Larry David is hilarious and awkward and brilliant.) Plus, I had a neighbor in Miami who just loved Seinfeld. He used to quote lines to me all the time, and they would float over my head. For instance, we were out to lunch one day, and I pulled out my wallet. Back then–this was when I was in graduate school–I had a gigantic, over-stuffed wallet. It was packed with papers, cards, business cards–pretty much everything but money– and I began to think it was hurting my back. When I put the wallet on the table to ask him what he thought, he burst out laughing and called it the Constanza wallet. Of course, I didn’t catch the reference.

The George Wallet
The Constanza Wallet

Perhaps it was an interest in Larry David, perhaps it was a frustration with not being able to catch cultural references, but whatever it was, I knew I had to watch all nine seasons of Seinfeld in 2016. Over the last several months, I have embarked on a mission to watch every episode in chronological order. I have vowed to begin to understand references, and I have sworn that no matter how annoyed I became with Jerry’s voice, I would get through the series. Strangely, as an adult, I found that I loved the show–how can you not?–and I wanted to share with you some of the aspects I had been missing out on. Some of this might be a recap for you; some of it might be new. But this is what I learned from watching all nine seasons of Seinfeld.

1. George Constanza Gets Extremely Dark

In the episode “The Invitations,” George Constanza’s fiance dies after licking a bunch of envelopes from cheap wedding invitations that George, of course, buys. The death was shocking, and it was amazing how dark George became in the episode. We saw himself as a man who was heading into a marriage that he didn’t want to partake in but couldn’t stop from happening, and when his fiance died, he almost rejoiced–or at least remained completely indifferent–to the death of a woman he was about to spend the rest of his life with until the end of eternity. This episode didn’t seem like it came from a mainstream television show; it seemed like it originated from the mind of a brilliant French short-story writer who wanted to pursue the themes of love and existentialism. What was most shocking was the reaction that all of the actors had when they heard she died. They all just went and had some coffee.

Perhaps this statement from Jason Alexander will shed some light into the decision to kill off his fiance:

“I couldn’t figure out how to play off of her,” [Jason Alexander] said in a “Howard Stern Show” interview Thursday. “Her instincts for doing a scene, where the comedy was, and mine, were always misfiring. She would do something, and I would go, ‘OK, I see what she’s going to do, I’ll adjust to her.’ And then it would change.”

2. Elaine Benes Was Sex in the City

For a mainstream show on a national network, Elaine Benes’ character was truly a progressive woman. Of course, she was famously a part of the masterbation game–where the four friends wanted to see who would crack first–but she was also unashamed about her life that wasn’t traditional in terms of marriage, monogamy, or career. She was clearly ahead of her time–or perhaps our world was too far behind–for mainstream television. Elaine contrasted to many of the other female characters at the time, and Brigit Katz at the New York Times wrote the following:

“While Elaine’s TV contemporaries—say, for example, Rachel from Friends—were getting bogged down in humdrum will-they/won’t-they romance narratives, Elaine was cycling through partners almost as often and usually as dispassionately as her BFF Jerry.”

I never really thought much about Elaine before watching the show, but after learning about who she was, how independent she was, how real she was, I couldn’t help but find her to be, perhaps, my favorite character on the show. I also started watching Veep before Seinfeld, and I have come to think of Julia Louis Dreyfus as one of the funniest comedians–and skilled actors–out today.

3. These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty

If you said that line (“These Pretzels are Making me Thirsty”) before I started watching Seinfeld, then I would have stared at you and waited for context, for reasoning, for logic. The entire gag would have flown over my head like a humming bird moving onto the next flower. But now I understand. In one of the funniest moments on the show (at least for me), Kramer reveals that he has a line in a Woody Allen movie, and it’s “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” Each one of the crew give their take on how to say the line. Of course, George is in the midst of car-parking fiasco, and he turns the bit of dialogue into a moment that reveals his frustrations with life, love, and success, simply by the way he says the line.

From a perspective as an aspiring novelist, this scene spoke to me clearly about writing dialogue. It was all about inflection; it’s all about the way the character moves around the room; it’s all about how he runs toward the window at the cars below who are honking for him to get back to work and confront his failing and miserable life that translates into meaning. It’s a moment of brilliance, but it’s also a moment about meaning and language. What we say can change so drastically by the way we say it.

4. The Last Episode was Horrible

Seinfeld last episode
Seinfeld last episode

Out of all the seasons, I loved seven and eight the most, and I did think that season nine took a step back. It was still a good season, however, but the finale, well, was pretty terrible. I expected a great show like Seinfeld to end in a way that was spectacular. I expected there to be something incredibly hilarious, some twist of fate that brought two worlds together in a way that no one could have seen coming, but instead, the final episode was a recap, a walk-down-memory-lane as all the characters came back to serve as expert witnesses to testify how terrible Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine are as people.

Of course, everyone must have been wanting Jerry and Elaine to admit finally how in love they were with each other. (We almost had it on the plane.) The television audience must have been craving for them to embrace each other, look each other in their eyes deeply, and say our existence is better now that we’re together. Well, it didn’t happen, and the show ends with them all in prison. (Sorry for the spoiler alert.) While the last episode was pretty lame, I admire them for not giving into the pressure, to the idea, that life should only be seen as a epic voyage to love and marriage. Of course, my life has taken that route, and I’m grateful for it, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s lives have to be that way. There are other narratives to a personal journey, and there are other ways to live.

5. A World of References Have Been Opened

In the end, if I was going to write about all the different things that I learned from watching all nine seasons of Seinfeld, then this post would be so incredibly long, and I would be forced to spend more than a couple days writing this thing. But if I had to sum up what I learned in one final point, it’s that a world of culture almost opened up to me overnight. I now understand the puffy shirt and what my friend means when he makes fun of my overstuffed wallet. I understand what it really means when someone has an incredible desire for a calzone, and I, yes, finally understand the larger appeal of “No soup for you.” But ultimately, I was able to watch a series of actors so attuned with their characters, and that feels like it only comes once in a decade on t. I just feel bad it took me this long to realize how much I was missing.

What Kanye West Meant on Ellen about Bullying

I have been down on Kanye West since his narcissistic antics turned him into the mad genius who seemed to put himself on the same platform as God, but after watching Kanye on Ellen, I changed my opinion about him a bit. If you have not seen Kanye on Ellen, then I suggest you watch the 8:00 minutes of entertainment below, but if you don’t have time for that, then let me sum it up for you. Kanye went on a rant, where he started reciting Rakim and talking about everything from fashion to Mark Zuckerberg to ending bullying. Ellen sat there quietly, allowing him to continue to rant, knowing very well that the video was about to be as viral as chicken pox in a third grade classroom. What I found was that what may seem like an absurd mad lib from a man who had lost his mind actually was quite beautiful and profound, and I wanted to try to share my interpretation of something he said about bullying.

Yes, some of the other headline grabbing quotes might catch someone’s attention, but what I found interesting was that Kanye was trying to say that he called the CEO of Payless, a shoe store that is typically known for cheaper shoes. It’s clearly not where “cool” kids shop; in fact, I remember being made fun of for wearing shoes that came from Payless and not the incredibly expensive Reebok “Pumps.”

This seemingly random fact occurred during the rant about how Kanye wanted to change the world, and at first, it seemed really out-of-place. I asked myself: “Why the hell is he talking about Payless right now?” From what I understood, Kanye was trying to draw an analogy between his music and his clothing, specifically his shoes. He was setting up that his music and his shoes come from the same skill set, the same voice, and there is only one art for him that transcends all of his medium. So, the shoes and the clothing he makes should be as artistic as his music.

I don’t know anything about his clothing, and I’m not a fashion blogger, but I know he is successful and that people see Kanye as an influence. The next part is what struck me: He mentioned that he wanted to call Payless and talk to the CEO because he wanted to impart all the wisdom he learned from high fashion and apply it to the cheaper shoe store. He was saying that he wanted to end bullying though it.

Huh?

Well, clearly that seems like it’s from left field, but when you think about it, it’s not actually that bizarre. My interpretation of the Kanye rant, specifically when it comes to bullying, is that by using style and his brand to create an affordable shoe, then he’ll be putting children on an equal playing field. While it could still be lost in translation, Kanye is saying that clothing and brands can be made to equalize and eliminate differences.

So, I think there are a lot of ways to poke holes in his statement. By calling for uniformity in style, then why not just call it a uniform? If you give everyone an affordable shoe, then won’t it lose its mystique and go out of style? If you give a kid an affordable shoe with mass appeal, then won’t the differences in hats and other products still continue to create separation?

There are a lot of holes in what Kanye was saying, but I was taking him so literally. It was almost as if he was trying to figure out a way to break up social structures through style and shoes, which has often been unintentionally and intentionally used as a means of class separation. I didn’t think that he was saying that if we can just change people’s shoes then we can end bullying. But I do think he was simply saying the it’s possible to use influence and fashion in a way to make more people feel included and a part of a community, rather than excluding so many. Well, I hope he puts his money where his mouth is instead of asking Zuckerberg for his.

In the end, Kanye could be oversimplifying bullying, ignoring the psychological condition of the bully and the larger complexities, but I don’t think it’s so crazy to suggest that affordable fashion and style can create more equality in education. So I guess what I’m trying to say is before you judge Kanye’s “rant,” keep in mind that the smartest person in Shakespeare’s plays was often the fool–the clown who seemed to be saying the most off-the-wall comments but who was actually speaking with a great deal of truth.

Mental Health and Family: New Essay at Narratively

Last week I had my essay, “How to Get Your Paranoid Mother into the Poisonous Ambulance,” published at Narratively — considered a top 50 website by Time Magazine. Besides having the capability to tell my story on such an incredible platform, I was lucky enough to have the piece accompanied by illustrations from Danielle Chenette, an animator, illustrator, and printmaker originally from Millbury, Massachusetts, living and working in Chicago. I love her illustrations, and it really helped capture the theme of Mommy Dearest, which was the editorial focus of Narratively for the week leading up to Mother’s Day.

This publication was special for many reasons, but it ultimately marked a completion of a difficult journey within my writing. If you haven’t read the piece, then let me fill you in a bit. It’s the story of when I hard to return home when my mother was off her medicine and missing in Massachusetts. She has bipolar, and for most of my life, our family has had to handle the ups and downs of the disorder. It was November, 2013, and I flew home to try to convince my mother (with the of my brother) to voluntarily head into a hospital with a higher level of care to help her find equilibrium.

Illustration by Danielle Chenette
Illustration by Danielle Chenette

Well, writing this essay — and even that above paragraph — is truly monumental for me, because it marks a major transition artistically and personally. For most of my life, I’ve kept my mother’s illness a secret, but I have often felt the need to write about it. In fact, it’s almost been a compulsion, and I’ve told versions of this story before, but I’ve never told it in the memoir form and put the stamp of truth upon the pages…until now. The story of dealing with mental illness is so important because most people keep it a secret. But why is it such a secret? Why are we so embarrassed with the imbalance of the mind? How do we tell the stories we so desperately need to tell?

But even a harder question: How do we tell those stories without hurting the people we love? That question has always stopped me from truly writing the way I needed to write. I always felt that I was going to hurt someone when I told these stories, but in the piece, I didn’t hold back. I had a wonderful editor during this process who pushed me to tell the truth in a way that was authentic and real.

In the end, I wasn’t just afraid of what my mother would think about the stories — or other members of my family — and I wasn’t afraid that people would judge my mother and think of her in a negative way. To provide a bit more insight, here is what I wrote on Facebook when I shared the story:

I almost didn’t share my essay that was published on Narratively yesterday to my personal Facebook page, because it’s a personal story and ultimately people will recognize the individuals involved…potentially judging them negatively. So I asked my brother what he thought (since he is in the story), and he pointed out that hopefully more good will come from sharing it than bad. Well, I hope that’s the case. Mental health shouldn’t be something we hide and ignore. I hope it’s something we can embrace while learning to empathize with the individuals who are suffering.

Illustration by Danielle Chenette
Illustration by Danielle Chenette

Only one person (at least that I’m aware of) criticized me for sharing this story, and this person was actual a member of my family. I don’t really talk to her anymore because of her attitude toward mental health, but she wrote on the Facebook post with the intention of shaming me for sharing a story about my family that she deemed personal. But there were so many other people who wrote to me either on the Facebook post or through a private message expressing how much they valued my courage in sharing the story. In fact, someone I greatly respect wrote: “Silence killed my mom. Thanks for sharing, Joseph Lapin.” So I just wanted to say thank you to all the people who read the piece without judgement and with compassion. It means the world.

Why is mental illness still such a stigma? Why are we scared to share that our minds can become just as sick as our lungs or our cells? I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m suddenly more confident than ever to tell my stories. Hopefully I’ll find a way to answer some of the above questions along the way.