Jason Porath

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Continuity

The last couple months have been extremely difficult, throwing new challenge after new challenge at me. The underlying difficulty of these problems has been that they’ve been inscrutable. How do you make sense of dementia? Of cancer? Of loved ones suddenly cutting off ties, without explanation? How do you make sense out of the chaos of daily life?

This has been on my mind a lot lately. And this is what I’ve got:

Making order of chaos — out of the non-understood — is the fundamental challenge of being human. Think to the evolution of human civilizations, and how we’ve established explanations for what our experiences. Sometimes it’s as ridiculous as “the sun is pulled across the sky by 4 horses and a guy in a chariot” or “winter happens because mother nature misses her daughter when she goes away for several months out of the year.” But they break down the unfamiliar into something relatable, something comfortable. Otherwise we are perpetually in fight-or-flight mode, constantly on edge.

To this end, we’ve established rule systems to pass down across generations. The most obvious ones are religion and science, but if you think of the task of rule systems as “give a series of explanations that make life as easy and survivable as possible,” you’ll find even more systems: nationality, ethnicity, even just local communities. Don’t leave the village, don’t eat pork, don’t talk to strangers. The “why” of each rule is different from system to system, but ultimately, they answer questions. The fewer questions in one’s life, the less stress, the easier life. These systems rewire your brain for comfort: you don’t just believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, you know it. Things continue, as they did before you and will after you. The rules persist. In a word, what we’ve created, to tame the chaos of an disorderly world, is a sense of continuity.

What’s interesting to me is the idea of broken continuity. After all, many, many rule systems have risen and fallen across human history. People are adaptable enough to rewire their brains from one rule system to another across their lifetimes. One can go from knowing there is no God to knowing that God exists and loves them in a matter of days. How do we deal with exceptions to the rules — how do our brains adapt to inconsistent rules, to broken continuity?

In thinking about this, I’ve found it’s helpful to think of rule systems as organisms in a process of natural selection. I’ll use Judaism as an example. Judaism was born out of a polytheistic religion, with its central god, Yahweh, declaring war on others like Ba’al Hadad and Dagon by making “I am the only God, there are no others before me” the central tenet of Judaism. By not allowing its followers to even accept the possibility of other gods — in fact, encouraging them to destroy other religions’ priests — Judaism locked its followers into its belief system. It then evolved various laws that kept its followers alive, like “don’t eat pork,” as food preparation was not advanced enough to make it safe.

And what of the cast-off gods? They were remixed, recontextualized, re-explained. Ba’al Hadad and all other gods in that pantheon were recast in Abrahamanic religions as Ba’al Zebub, or Beelzebub, lord of the flies — a demon in later Christian mythology. Dagon’s temples were subject to Jewish vandalism, with followers breaking statues’ legs into fish tail formations, as “dag” is Hebrew for “fish.” Gradually, the image of Dagon became so corrupted that he ended up being envisioned more as a Lovecraftian fish-demon than his original godlike state.

Then Christianity came along and took a different tack than old Judaism’s kill-em-all tendencies: recast them into the fold. Hadad, for example, was variously linked with the storm-god Teshub, the Egyptian god Set, and the Zeus. The nature goddess Eostre (and her associated rabbit-rich fertility holiday), was gradually folded into the larger tradition of Jesus’ resurrection, and Easter was born. Christianity’s very existence is arguably due to such inclusions — how else was it differentiated from Judaism than by its adoption of the idea of a resurrecting god? An idea that was echoed in many other religions. The ranks of saints swelled up with each new religion that Christianity would embrace, with old religions transformed into new states, and continuity was maintained.

(you can extend this idea easily to the concept of comic books as modern-day gods, and the relationship of comic book fans to continuity, but that’s a blog post for another time)

So, what does this all have to do with coping with a couple difficult months?

It’s been about establishing a path to walk. As commonplace as it is for people to live with passed-down rule systems, I find myself without such an inheritance. Although I was raised Jewish, by Jewish law I was Christian (and by Christian law, Jewish). What with the preponderance of alternative religions in my childhood, accepting any of them as a real truth didn’t make much sense. Throughout my childhood, neither parent was on great terms with their families, and so I did not grow up with great sense of genetic heritage. Ethnically, I’m an indeterminate blank slate. Nationally, I don’t identify much as Kentuckian, and only reluctantly as American.

In short, I’m in many senses a series of broken continuities. Many are born with comfortable paths to walk down, roads more traveled. I feel that in many ways I was born out in the weeds, weaving wildly across all paths traveled in my journeys. It’s not that I’m entirely without direction, or that my life is unduly difficult, it’s that I can’t quite subscribe fully to any rule system, or commit myself to an established way of living. That’s not uncommon for anyone, especially in this day and age – I just feel it particularly acutely of late.

I’m weird. And I want to know what that means.

In this case, it means I can’t fall back on a pre-compiled set of wisdom. It means I get to pick and choose, compiling my own collection of answers and parables for my daily life. That’s exciting, although difficult when times themselves, as they have been recently, are difficult.

Then I Woke Up: The Old Man and the Magician

(this is a series of posts documenting my dreams)

There was an old man who lived on a largely deserted forested island. Every day he would jog for upwards of thirty miles around the island. He’d jog over bridges as they collapsed, often while walking dogs. He was constantly doing extremely dangerous stunts, jumping over chasms and giving the local wildlife rangers heart attacks.

He’d  do all this just to get attention – he wanted to prove he knew some really crazy magic tricks, and that was how he was able to do it. He had learned the magic tricks from a famous old stage magician who was  secretly his grandpa. Everyone thought the magician had died with no heirs, but the old man knew better. You see, the magician had been a family friend and had attended a big wedding many years ago. He had gotten incredibly drunk at this wedding… along with the mans grandmother. What nobody realized until years later was that the man’s grandmother and the magician had gotten secretly married at that wedding too, because they’d gotten so drunk. Because they were married, the woman learned all his tricks and passed them on to her grandson, who is now the old jogging man.

Eventually the old man got enough attention from the local park rangers that word got out about him. Eventually his story got to the Magic Castle, and they decided they would do a special on him. They were going to send their best young up-and-coming magician to learn his story and eventually do a televised show. Because of that, the island had become a tourist trap, with tons of lazy people showing up and expecting to have the whole story spoon-fed to them without doing any work. I was there, trying to follow the old man and the young magician, as they jogged around the island, up hills and over bridges. As I did so, tourists would yell at me and ask for me to explain what was going on.

And then I woke up.

Of Lizardmen and Indecent Proposals

So, you’re a Johnny-come-lately to this whole organizin’ business, and you want to know what it’s all about? Well, you are in luck – both good and bad – for I am here for you! Good because a plethora of information awaits! Bad because, well… it’s from me.

Onward!

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Fifty Shades of Green

A mailing list that I’m on was writing a Fifty Shades of Grey parody starring the Hulk. Here is my addition, for posterity:

In the dim light of the morning, he somehow seemed smaller. Softer. More tender. He tiptoed back into his lavender pants, which hung baggy around his skinny waist. As he gingerly fingered the doorknob, she whispered don’t go – and he broke into a full-body blush. All that was green mere hours earlier was a burning shade of pink.

Steeling himself against the doorjamb, he dared not look back, lest he fall back into bed once more. “What, are you mad at me?” she teased out in her sing-song voice.

“No. I could never.” He tilted his head across his broad shoulders and locked eyes with her from across the room. “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. And we can’t have that.”

And with that, he was gone, vanished into the streets without a trace.

Be A Man

Lately, every time I log on to Facebook, I see something like this:
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Or this:
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Or this:
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Without fail, these are posted by (intelligent! progressive! amazing!) women. Now, these are not bitter, hardened man-haters by any stretch of the imagination. Each has legitimately and honestly entered into relationships (or tried to) and been disappointed. Yes, it takes two to tango, but if you’ll put some faith in my judgements and their representations of their situations, the fault has almost uniformly laid with the men.

And again, a disclaimer – not all men are immature jerks! I don’t think I am one, although maybe that’s a sign I’m deluding myself. In any event, there are certainly enough jerks out there that nobody would argue the premise that it’s a real problem.

Each of my aforementioned female friends is expressing what I’ve come to think of as the “Ugh, Men” mentality. Such expressions are hardly uncommon. Wade onto an online dating site and read a couple womens’ profiles: inevitably, you will come across a long list of “don’t message me if”s that point to the root issues: narcissism; materialism; preoccupation with sex; obsession with their own bodies; a general lack of substance; inability to read (or write).

And many times, when I’m out with these friends, they turn to me, and ask, why? What’s the deal? What the fuck happened?

It’s always been a difficult question to answer. For one thing, having a penis does not make me an expert on the history of masculinity. For another: I’m not a good representative sample. I’ve never been comfortable with my gender’s roles and expectations, and have always been sensitive to the frustrations of women. The “Ugh, Men” mentality has hung around my neck like an albatross knotted to a noose.

And so I wouldn’t really answer, and I’d suffer the prevailing wisdom – which is to blame it on genetics. “Men are just wired that way.” “They can’t help it.” “That’s how they are.” Despite how reductionist, patronizing, and patently wrong that argument is, I’d accept it. Nobody ever seemed to give the matter any more thought.

Until recently, when a gathering of events conspired to give me a new perspective: not the least of which was the publishing of an article entitled All The Single Ladies, which explored the modern-day crisis of unmarried women. However, buried in the article (a scant few paragraphs in an otherwise exhaustively long piece) was a brief discussion of the twin crisis of “unmarriageable” men. How men are on the decline, economically, sociologically, and politically.

So I got to thinking. What the fuck happened? A couple things came to mind:

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1) Male Gender Roles Have Not Been Updated Since The 50s
Over the past several decades, women have seen an explosion of possibilities. While not every door is as open as it could or should be, many more are open than in years past. The same isn’t as true of men – while there’s been a small amount of movement, we’re stuck in a weird in-between place. It’s peppered throughout daily life in small ways:

– Careers. How many male cheerleaders have you met? Housekeepers? Househusbands? Kindergarten teachers? It is only a matter of time until someone accuses them of being a pedophile.
– Tastes. Not allowed: ‘chick flicks’, romance novels, anything related to fashion, or dancing in any way that engages your hips.
– Clothing. Dress well, but not too well – then you’re metro. Nothing too girly, or you’re gay. And if you need to carry around anything, it better be in a backpack or a valise. Purse? Fannypack? Forget it.

Now, how hard is it to imagine a female truck driver? Or a woman who likes action movies? A girl who wears button-up shirts and pants? Nobody bats an eye.

At the same time, the 1950s cultural expectations remain: for men to be breadwinners, to open doors, to pay for meals, to buy flowers and pop questions, to pursue and to woo. Understand: I can see no other cultural definition of what it is to be a man. Everyone seems expected to step up to the one-size-fits-all role of provider – a role that is increasingly difficult to fulfill.

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2) Male Prospects Are Dwindling
As the afore-linked article points out, men are, statistically speaking, on the decline. We’re less educated at a time where you need a college degree even to work at McDonalds. We’re competing for jobs at an increasing disadvantage against women. More men than ever are in prison. Fulfilling the gender role of provider is that much harder when you can’t afford your own place, when you make less than your partner, when you’re falling behind.

Yes, a certain amount of this is due to a societal shift to push things later in life. We’re living longer than we ever have before. Whereas one might get married at age 13 in agrarian times, and age 18 in the days when you could get a good job out of high school, nowadays it’s 22 before you’re out of college, and often upwards of 30 before you have a well-paying job. But even taking this into account, women are (at least massively anecdotally, as in, practically everyone I know) more ready to settle down at 30 than men are. One could simply attribute this to the biological clock, but humor me for a second, and assume there’s reasons beyond genetics.

My take? When a modern-day guy is staring down the huge expectation of providing for a family, with no ability to carry through on it, what does he do? Some tackle it head-on and lose themselves in work. Some get depressed and stop trying. Some decide the whole game’s rigged and try to get around it. Some get thrown in jail. And many wait it out, with the understanding that they’ll be able to provide when they’re older, better situated in better jobs. These guys often enter a prolonged adolescence, where they focus on themselves and the things they can control (their bodies) rather than those they can’t (providing for a family).

To me, the poster child for all of this is the comedian Louis CK. A recently-posted and oft-reposted blog entry posited that the surging popularity of Louis CK’s comedy is due to his striking a nerve with today’s society, and that nerve is shame. I tend to agree. Louis’s comedy is usually about his own perceived inadequacy and incompetence. He’s a well-meaning man who’s lost and confused in a rapidly-changing world, unsure how to satisfy the needs of those around him.

The world changed and he didn’t.

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3) Male Role Models Are Virtually Non-Existent
Watch primetime network TV and count the commercials and programs that portray adult men as morons or children. You will quickly run out of fingers upon which to count. In most circumstances, but nowhere more than in sitcoms, these men are paired with a wise girlfriend/wife/love interest, to temper their seemingly-inborn idiocy. In mere decades we’ve gone from father knows best to father knows nothing. Homer the Greek to Homer Simpson.

In all seriousness, who are men to emulate nowadays? Don Draper of Mad Men, serial adulterer alcoholic from fifty years ago? Walter White from Breaking Bad, a teacher who turns to dealing meth after proving unable to provide for his family? Barack Obama, a man so drowned in political and moral compromises that he’s disappointed nearly everyone in the country? Chris Brown, who beat his girlfriend to a pulp? Jack Bauer? Justin Bieber?

The only man who seems to address this is Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club. Obviously, Tyler Durden is not a role model, but he did capture the frustration of a “generation of men raised by women.” Palahniuk is the best thing we have to a mainstream Susan Faludi. And best thing? This ostensible forefather of the future Men’s Liberation movement, author of one of the most macho books in modern history, is an openly gay man.

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(apologies to Jean, whose forced repeat viewings of Mulan may make this image intensely painful)

4) There’s No Instruction Manual
Here’s where it gets personal.

During the heyday of the Women’s Liberation movement, many of the most vociferous feminists laid the groundwork for decades of confusion. Common courtesies like holding doors were painted by many as assaults on the strength of women everywhere. As ludicrous as that sort of hyperbolic vitriol may seem, its effects linger to the present day.

When I started dating, everything was a mystery. Do I pay? Go dutch? Offer to pay? Hold doors? Hold bags? Hold my tongue? Then and now dating often felt like walking through a field of invisible tripwires; playing a game whose rules I do not know, but whose punishments I soon would. Looking back at my parents’ marriage, I feel that my father was just as lost as me. The rules he learned growing up didn’t apply anymore. We are generations of men without direction. Chivalry is dead, and its replacement is late.

It quickly became evident that every person I encountered had their own, wholly different set of rules (duh). With each woman I met, I was never sure what I was up against, what preconceived notions she might bring to the table, how our base assumptions about gender might differ. Common sense wasn’t such a commonality.

Everyone reacts to this realization differently. Some stick rigidly to their worldview and find only people that fit neatly with that. Others date around in order to see what they like. Others still develop chameleon-like personas to ingratiate themselves. The accepted wisdom from movies seems to just ‘be yourself’ (although perhaps a more pliable, open-minded version of yourself), and love will find you.

Well, I was not content with simply ‘being myself’. I wanted to be more. Better. I was hellbent on being an ambassador for my entire gender.

I know how ridiculous that sounds. But realize that I grew up surrounded by women who, almost uniformly, were frustrated and disappointed by men, and that weighed on me heavily. As a self-defense mechanism if nothing else, I needed to show that not all men are monsters. I poured decades into proving that men come in many shapes and sizes, that we are not unfeeling cretins, that friendship and worthwhile relationships are indeed possible.

It was not honest with myself but it was not a lie. I genuinely was, and continue to be, completely platonic friends with a large number of women. Their well-being and feelings were, and continue to be, of paramount importance to me. I never hid any wolven ambitions, nor did I conceal some sort of bare-chested, narcissistic “true” personality. My interactions were, and continue to be, honest. They just were not as honest as they could have been.

As you could guess and my closest friends could attest, my ambassadorship sometimes made me miserable, usually in the context of my relationships. It was not a daily misery by any stretch. 99 minutes out of 100, I was happy with who I was and how I was acting. And yet, I found myself avoiding relationship situations where I would have to be the jerk, because I could never bring myself to be the jerk. I had to make sure that my partner was provided for in every possible situation, and take the blame for every problem to which I could conceivably tie myself.

I couldn’t usually communicate my unhappiness. Sometimes this was because I couldn’t be honest with myself, like being upset about being treated in patronizing manner – an ambassador would see that she meant well. Sometimes this was because men simply are never taught good tools for communication – we have to wing it. Sometimes it was simply because I am a man. And men are supposed to be able to take it. And take it. And take it.

And then one day, I woke up, and found I couldn’t take it anymore. From men who give the entire gender a bad name. From women who roll their eyes and say, “ugh, men.” From society’s expectations of me. And most of all, from my expectations of myself.

So I sat. And I thought. And I wrote this blog entry.

So what the fuck happened? I couldn’t tell you, exactly. But I’m glad it did. Feels like a step forward.

Edit: After re-reading the post, I worry that some might think I was saying that I had been some kind of perfect boyfriend, a paragon of virtue – no. I had a large share of failures, many of them abject and terrible, and many due to my inability and unwillingness to communicate. Just making that clear.

City within a city

The first thing you notice is the sound. It’s the air hundreds of feet up being chopped and diced to pieces, as surveillance helicopters endlessly circle the camp. It sets the tone – a soundtrack that never goes away, just gets drowned out momentarily.

That sound is the filler for in the gaps between events at Occupy LA. Even tonight, when the city is supposed to evict the camp, the happenings of note are few and far between. A chant here, a march there. A lot of waiting and wondering. There’s a lot of down time. Everywhere people are milling about, relaxing, shooting the shit. It could be a block party, except for that sound.

The police keep the pace slow. It’s not until 1am that the riot gear shows. They take 30 minutes to walk halfway down a city block. 6 hours of standing and staring later, they leave. It feels like a message.

But for those long hours in the middle of the night, traffic cut off for blocks around city hall, this tent city is a modern-day Brigadoon: an island in another world. Traffic lights continue endlessly cycling, disconnected from their raison d’etre, from the city in which they have a function. Trees become forts. Bus awnings become lookout points. Even just standing in the emptied street of this car-choked metropolis has an intense psychological effect. Everything transformed to a different purpose than its design. You question the why of things. Another world seems possible.

A human fence of black and kevlar keeps this alternate reality from spilling out to the rest of the world. It idly stands there, murmuring amongst itself, wordlessly denying passage. There is a psychological weight to its presence. While the occupiers organically form and reform into new disorganized shapes, everything about this man-fence screams order. Each link is spread out at even intervals. Outfits, posture, expressions identical. It’s a man-made thing. Built for what purpose exactly? No one knows for sure. For now, for hours, it merely watches.

The not knowing claws at your mind. Beats into it like the steady chopping sound of helicopter blades. I’ve faced down masses of police in many countries and many continents, but the situation is never so real as when it’s in your back yard; when it’s transforming your home into an alien landscape, and your neighbors into combatants. It’s easy to be brave for an hour at a time, but eventually you get tired and you need your family, your bed, your security. Holding your ground for days, weeks, months, forever? I don’t know the right word for it.

Tomorrow the papers and blogs will write the story of tonight. Catch it, box it, categorize it. All throughout the tent city, reporters roam, picking out their pictures and words with the discrimination of a trained chef choosing ingredients. To tell the story they want to tell.

This is the story I want to tell:

Once there was a city within a city. It was filled with vigor, and hope, and life, and disappointment, and despair, and the entire range of human existence. The people who lived there wanted desperately to make a better world. Though no man could know the way, though they had no power, though naysayers belittled them, they kept trying their best. Their words made them powerful enemies, who sought to end their new world. And then, one day, the walls closed in on the city, swallowing it whole.

One day. But not tonight.

Generation Daria

Her: “I can’t believe you like [that actor].” Or “[that TV show].” Or “[that song].”

How many times have I been on this first date?

Sometimes she’s a librarian. Sometimes a homebody. Always with the hierarchy. TV lowest. Movies lowish. Books above it all.

Life’s disappointed her. Sometimes her family has. Sometimes her job has. Eventually I will, too.

Sometimes I fail as a platonic ideal. Sometimes I can’t be platonic.

I say artistry is difficult. Good taste is like a good compass. It gives you direction, but can’t help you climb a mountain.

She’s never been one for mountaineering.

(this was a piece of 100-word flash fiction I wrote years back and never published. I’m up late, can’t sleep, figured I’d polish it up and put it online)

The Fox and the Crow

Here’s another storyboarding assignment. This one, we were given a fable, and told to make a faithful modern interpretation of it. The rules were:

  • The characters don’t have to be animals, but they must maintain the characteristics of the animals given.
  • The story must be faithful in spirit and in moral to the original – no fractured fairy tales.
  • It does not have to be slavish to the original dialogue, and there’s plenty of room for re-interpretation.
  •  Try to flesh the story out.

So I’m going to present my storyboards without comment, followed by the original fable prompt. Then I’ll talk about what worked and what didn’t.

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The Baby and the Balloon


As one of the first assignments for a storyboarding class I’m taking, we had to make a scene based on the prompt that a baby loses a helium balloon and a grown man wants to get it back for the baby.

The restrictions were as follows:

  • No dialog
  • Must have a clear beginning, middle, and end
  • Stakes must be raised throughout
  • There must be no way out for the protagonist

I was one of two people to actually complete the assignment, and although I had a huge number of technical mistakes (due to not understanding the format of the medium), I thought I’d still put it up here. I’m going to post the pictures, without explanation, and then provide a description of the scene, afterwards – as people are supposed to be able to glean everything from the boards themselves. Granted, the boards are supposed to have some description and sound effects on them (a fact I neglected, as I misunderstood the “no dialog” edict as much stricter), but hey. See if you can follow.

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On China

Since I’ve come back from my trip, a lot of people have asked me, “how was China?” I’ve struggled to answer each time. Usually I just said, “complicated.”

We in the west get a lot of the ‘what’ about China, but little of the ‘why’. In other words, we hear a lot about China’s totalitarian edicts, its sometimes-brutal crackdowns, its nonexistent copyright laws, and almost never does the reporting outlet even make a stab at the reasoning behind these things. We don’t hear about what the average people – not the shills employed by the Chinese government – say and think about it. Or what they think about each other. Or what their daily lives are like.

I’m going to try and write about China from a ‘why’ perspective, but realize – I’m a privileged white guy. I spent less than two weeks there. This is probably best ingested with a couple grains of salt. Maybe a brick.

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