Are Shopping Malls Our Modern Day Cathedrals?

Perhaps the word “hate” is a a little strong: I actually really @$%&# detest shopping malls with every living fiber in my being. God, why the hell do people hang out in these places? So depressing, so shiny and gleaming, so, so bland… Someday, maybe 500 years into the future, when space aliens descend onto Earth and ask what these building represented for the societies that built them, will they assume that our Malls were the equivalent of the Medieval cathedrals that one finds leering over most European towns? Were our ancient Gods those of mass consumerism? If so, the Gods we prayed to were petty, vengeful ones at best; clearly created by our primitive monkey-brained ancestors since they were so blindly ignorant of science, learning and independent thought.

The saddest thing about shopping malls is that they are almost unique in their uniformity. The only other edifices I can compare them to are International Airports: you could be anywhere on Earth and still be completely unable to identity what country or city you’re in when you arrive at an airport. They’re all literally indistinguishable from one another. Airports’ only saving grace is that they almost universally guarantee a trip on an airplane to a new and exciting destination, like say, Pittsburg. Plus: Cheap, Trashy, Paperback Novels. Nothing beats reading John Grisham’s latest legal page turner while waiting around for your flight to deplane and restock up on generic honey roasted peanuts. Heck, every airport at least has bar in it where you can watch the little luggage carts run around on the tarmac while you sip your overpriced beer. In the end, everyone’s just passing through to somewhere else more important.

Not so the almighty Temple of the Shopping Mall. Just like airports, they’re completely homogeneous in appearance and facilities. Blindfold me, spin me around and then magically deposit me onto the ground floor of any mall in the world and, besides the native dress of the patrons, I’d be at a complete loss to geographically situate myself where I was in the world. Take a gander at the following photos below of four shopping malls: (1. St. Paul, MN, 2. Miami, FL, 3. Houston, TX, 4. San Diego, CA)

Would you be able to identify in which cities these malls are if I hadn’t told you?

Ha! In fact these malls aren’t even located in good ol’ Murica at all, Suckas! They’re actually photos taken in 1. Dubai, 2. Bangkok, 3. Sao Paulo, Brazil & 4. Bristol, UK. But in the end, what damn difference does it make? They all have the same insipid architecture, the same globalized chain stores, the same fluorescent lighting, the same cheesy music piped in from hidden speakers: an empty tableau of nothingness. You’re everywhere and nowhere at once. Malls represent the death of human culture. Westernization completes its innocuous spread across the earth like so much silent, colorless, odorless chlorine gas creeping into the enemy’s trenches at daybreak. They’ll be asphyxiated before they wake…

The patrons who stroll these halls apparently have nothing else to do with their lives besides…spend money on junk made cheaply in China and Bangladesh that they don’t really need. Some folks work their asses off all week only to spend their free time wandering around like automatons in the local mall. Their greatest (or only) discernible pleasure in life being to spend the same money they slaved all week making. To what end? How many pairs of shoes do we really need? Jeans: 2 pairs really should do you for a whole year. How much do you really need to be happy?

Don’t even get me started on the food court. Is this really where you want to be eating? Endless buffet steam trays of sugary, syrupy, deep fried pigeon meat spewed out by the same international fast food chains you can find in the same shopping malls all over the world. I guarantee you: there’s a really cheap and delicious family-run Eritrean restaurant somewhere in your town. Spicy, buttery, fragrant, and connected to a culinary tradition probably thousands of years old. Why not take a walk on the wild side and inject some cultural stimulation into your life? You might just avoid ending up an obese diabetic.

Whenever I’m feeling in a particularly bad mood (which is usually brought about by being forced to see a movie at the local shopping mall multiplex), I always find solace in this website DeadMalls. Here you can peruse through myriad photos galleries of once great, thriving retail paradises, now decaying and empty of people. No more clogged parking lots, no more escalators bringing people up one flight of stairs because they’re too lazy to walk up themselves, no more security guards rounding up rebellious teenagers. Just…blissful silence. Ah, to gaze at these montages makes me feel like I can breathe again- perhaps there’s hope for humanity after all. Or will the space aliens rebuild these great edifices in an attempt to seduce us puny humans into blindly worshiping their cruel masters once again? Only time will tell…

So, are Malls the death of human culture? Do you avoid going to the mall like the Black Plague? What is about them that inspires such hatred?

Are Countercultures Exploited For Profit?

(Photo Credit: jimmyweee via Flickr)

Regarding his friend Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road, William Burroughs was quoted as saying, “it sold a trillion Levi’s, a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road”. Sadly, what begins as a cool, alternative subculture, often get appropriated by the capitalist powers that be. “Cool” at least since the middle of the 20th Century is a product that is quickly mass produced for public consumption. I mean, everyone wants to be “cool” right? Nobody wants to be “square”. You’re not invited to the party, Loser. The problem is that coolness and hipness are sold to us as being attainable through the acquisition of accoutrements: the right clothes, the right alcohol, the right music, accessories, car, neighborhood, books, tattoos etc etc. Simply purchase the correct brands and Presto- you’re an instant creative non-conformist! Revolution in a can.

Where being an outlier, artistic outcast was once looked down upon (basically you were just a bum), by the latter-half of the 20th Century, it started to become all the rage. No wonder nowadays many underground subcultures try to keep their events a secret. I remember when Rave culture first started to become big in the Bay Area. Imported from the UK, raves became gatherings where you had to receive an email, that then led you to a random spot (like a gas station), where you then finally found the address of the out the way industrial warehouse where the music was going down. Unlike their Hippie forebears, who were more than happy to create massive open music festivals to advertise to the world their own brand of social revolution, it always seemed like Ravers didn’t want their events to even be found out at all. Once that happened, there was always the risk that the drunken frat boy crowd catching wind of it and ruining the party for everyone. For some, the less  people clued into the subculture, the better.

Just like On The Road was used to sell a lifestyle, albeit one that America in the 1950’s needed a good reefer-laced dose of, alternative societies still to this day get commodified by corporate America all too quickly. Just head down to your local shopping mall (if you dare). There’s sure to be a chain “alternative” store in there somewhere, selling 80’s Metal T-Shirts, suspenders and combat boots. Even Starbucks can be considered to be some sort of riff on the neighborhood “artsy” coffeeshop, where intellectual writers might meet to discuss their latest novel (sans the tobacco-stained walls and graffiti covered bathrooms). Music genres that were once original and rebellious, from Jazz to Rock, now find their way into into obnoxious car commercials. Nothing like hearing the anti-authoritarian anthem of your youth blaring back at from in a Cadillac advert. Grrrrr…. Seems like Punk and Hip-Hop still maintain an edge on all of this though. Maybe they’re still too misunderstood or threatening to get watered down by marketing executives- for now anyway. I just couldn’t see a muzak version of NWA rapping “Fuck Tha Police” being quaintly piped-in through the speaker system of my local Cheesecake Factory…

Just remember, no matter how many pairs of Levi’s you buy, no matter your brand of espresso machine- you’ll never be a Beatnik (or anything else for that matter). It’s mindset, it’s a way of life- not a carefully crafted amalgam of perfect looking fashions that you found on the internet. You gotta live it, or don’t even bother. You know what being “hip” is? Having the confidence to be, to do, and to think, for yourself. Create something new, inspire people, do something different with yourself. Don’t believe in everything you’ve been told by the authority figures in your life, nor buy the junk they try to sell you. Image means nothing. It’s not easy to be somebody who stands out from the crowd, but search out the truth for yourself. Find it within yourself, find it outside yourself, find it on the road…

(Photo Credit: Angus MacRae via Flickr)

Where Superman Explains How “None Of It Matters…”

(Photo by Ben+Sam)

A worthwhile book to check out is Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by journalist Eric Schlosser- it always had a big impact on me. I’ll admit it, before reading that book I still had a nostalgic craving once in a while for those mini-cheeseburgers at McDonalds (I think this had some connection to childhood). A happy clown, the Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese- they were all created to seduce children into eating this slop- and make them customers for life. But Oh Lordy, after reading Fast Food Nation, I NEVER ate fast food again. No need to get into the specifics about industrialized meat production- I’m sure you can use your imagination here. Also, a pretty interesting read regarding the mass production and homogenization of pretty much everything in our modern world today: from suburban housing to chain stores. The more efficient our economy gets, the more mass-produced and devoid of identity our landscape becomes. The car-driven modern areas of Atlanta look the same as the modern suburbs of Los Angeles, of Silicon Valley, of Houston, and well, just about everywhere is becoming the same as everywhere else. Frappuccino anyone?

More than giving me a Clockwork Orange style bodily revulsion to junk food, the passage that always stuck in my mind more than any other was the chapter that detailed a marketing conference in Colorado where Christopher Reeves was the guest speaker. This was after his tragic riding accident that had left him paralyzed from the neck down. Prior to his speech, the audience heard from numerous marketing gurus, motivational speakers and house-flipping experts, but it was Reeves’ powerful speech (and Schlosser’s description of its effect on the audience) that still stays with me to this day:

“As the loudspeakers play the theme song from Chariots of Fire, Lowe wheels Christopher Reeve onstage. The crowd applauds wildly. Reeve’s handsome face is framed by longish gray hair. A respirator tube extends from the neck of his blue sweat shirt to a square box on the back of his wheelchair. Reeve describes how it once felt to lie in a hospital bed at two o’clock in the morning, alone and unable to move and thinking that daylight would never come. He thanks the crowd for its support and confesses that the applause is one reason he appears at these events; it helps to keep his spirits up. He donates the speaking fees to groups that conduct spinal-cord research. He has a strong voice but needs to pause for breath after every few words. “I’ve had to leave the physical world,” he says. A stillness falls upon the huge arena. “By the time I was twenty-four, I was making millions,” he continues. “I was pretty pleased with myself. . . . I was selfish and neglected my family. . . . Since my accident, I’ve been realizing . . . success means something quite different.” Members of the audience start to weep. “I see people achieve these conventional goals,” he says in a mild, even tone. “None of it matters.”

His words cut through all the snake oil of the last few hours, calmly and with great precision. All of those in the arena, no matter how greedy or eager for promotion, all 18,000 of them, know deep in their hearts that what Reeve has just said is true – too true. Their latest schemes, their plans to market and subdivide and franchise their way up, the whole spirit now gripping Colorado, seem to vanish in an instant. Men and women up and down the aisles wipe away tears, touched not only by what this famous man has been through but also by a sudden awareness of something hollow in their own lives, something gnawing and unfulfilled.”

(Photo by Mike Lin)

Ouch, I don’t think you can be human and not feel something reading that passage. I think our culture often pressures us into pursuing these conventions goals as the be all end all of our puny existences: a degree, a flashy car, the model girlfriend, a prefabricated house in the suburbs. All of these things can be nice- but it’s kinda like drinking a spoonful of Draino: sure it cleans you out- but it leaves you feeling hollow inside…

What conventional goals are you grinding it out for day-to-day? I’ll be the first to admit I get caught up in bullshit that in the end is completely meaningless. Were I paralyzed or blinded tomorrow: losing my temper in traffic, feeling crummy about work, comparing myself to other people- it would all really just amount to a hill of beans wouldn’t it? Appreciate your life, your health, your friends and family, the lover you wake up next to in the morning, a roof over your head- it may not be there forever. In fact, I guarantee you it will not all be there forever- not even Superman.

(Photo Credit: Cia Gould via Flickr)

Jose Mujica: The World’s Humblest President

(Photo Credit: By Vince Alongi via Wikimedia Commons)

“A president is a high-level official who is elected to carry out a function. He is not a king, not a god. He is not the witch doctor of a tribe who knows everything. He is a civil servant. I think the ideal way of living is to live like the vast majority of people whom we attempt to serve and represent.”

-Jose Mujica, President of Uruguay (2010-2015)

Wow, what a f’n refreshing breath of unpolluted air this guy is. Often given the nickname “The World’s Humblest President” or “The World’s Poorest President”, Mujica broke the mold on how a head of state should behave. Although no longer the president of his country, his example, values, philosophy and governing style should be adopted by all political leaders- from all sides of the spectrum. Too bad Mr. Mujica was only in office for 1 term (I believe the Uruguayan constitution has strict term limits for their Presidents), for I believe he could have done a lot more for his country and the world. At the very least, Uruguayans have had a political leader that they can hold their heads up and feel proud of.

Here are some groundbreaking facts about his term as President:

  • He donated 90% of his salary to charity (mostly to poverty organizations and small entrepreneurs). The 10% leftover put his monthly income on par with the average citizen of his country.
  • He forsook the opulent Presidential Palace. Instead he, his wife, and their three-legged dog lived on their ramshackle flower farm outside the capital, Montevideo.
  • Driving himself independently in his 80s era Volkswagen beetle, Mujica was known to pick up hitchhikers around town.
  • Mujica would usually just dress in casual clothes, rarely wearing a tie. When he went abroad, he would fly economy.
  • He legalized marijuana and same sex marriages, making Uruguay one of the most socially progressive countries in Latin America.
  • He left office with a 70% approval rating. The economy was in good health, salaries rising, less corruption, and the political stability of his country is the envy of his neighbors.

     (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jose Mujica has certainly had a life worthy of a Hollywood film. And like Nelson Mandela, he spent many years in appalling prison conditions before gaining release and becoming an elected politician. In his youth, Mujica joined the revolutionary Marxist “Tupamaros” guerrilla group. The Tupamaros  were named after the Inca King, Tupac Amaru, who resisted the Spanish. Hmm, Tupac Amaru: sounds like a rapper I heard of once… Now I’m not saying everything they did was great or justified, but he and his cohorts did dedicate their movement to helping the poorest in their society. A string of bank robberies, shootouts and kidnappings brought them funds to continue their insurgent war and distribute food and money to the slum dwellers. But their violent tactics soon turned popular support against them, and an army crackdown and subsequent right wing coup d’etat saw the Tupamaros either all killed or imprisoned.

Mujica was put into the worst of the worst conditions during his incarceration, and even staged 4 daring, yet unsuccessful escape attempts- most notably when he and 100 fellow prisoners tunneled out of Punta Carrenas prison. Despite all this bravery, Mujica was soon recaptured. He was even shot 6 times in a confrontation with the police, yet somehow survived. His years in prison were often in unsanitary solitary confinement, and his bed was an empty metal horse trough. According to Mujica himself, he ended up suffering from hallucinations and other related forms of paranoia during these times. All in all, he was to spend a total of 13 years in prison before finally being released with the restoration of democracy in Uruguay in 1985. “I’ve no doubt that had I not lived through that I would not be who I am today. Prison, solitary confinement had a huge influence on me. I had to find an inner strength. I couldn’t even read a book for seven, eight years – imagine that!”

Upon his release, he renounced violence and peacefully entered democratic politics getting elected as congressional representative in 1994, and then a senator in the 2000’s. He handily won the office of the President in 2010. As his country’s head of state, Mujica was notably more calm than his guerrilla days (he was in his late 70s by this point). He worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of the most desperate in society and to break the violence of the drug cartels by legalizing marijuana. In perhaps his most prominent moment on the global stage, he addressed the UN General Assembly in 2013 and urged his fellow humans to eschew an existence shackled to material consumption by trying to return to lives based on simplicity, human relationships, love, friendship, family and adventure. Why the heck aren’t more politicians around like this guy?!? Jose Mujica: I formally nominate you to be the official President of freethinking slackers the world over!

(Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)

What’s Jose Mujica doing now? I’m trying to find some info on him post-retirement, but not much has come up. He occasionally does some interviews, and as far as I can tell, he just enjoys his simple life on his farm with his beloved wife and three-legged dog. Good for him: A Life Well Lived.

How Being a Cheapo Will Change Your Life


(Photo Credit: Filipe Fortes)

I think I’ve always been a penny-pincher. No shame in admitting it, I don’t see what the problem is. Sometimes, it’s just really hard to justify dumping out precious life-sustaining greenbacks on trivial material things I don’t really need. I remember how my Scottish Grandma, who came from a family of coal miners and lived through the Great Depression, would always chide me for tearing the Christmas wrapping paper on my presents as a kid. She’d actually try to save it and use it for next year! Waste Not, Want Not. Her attitude always left an impression on me, even though as a 6 year-old I simply for the life of me couldn’t fathom where she was coming from. Could be because myself and my family are all immigrants from different countries, but I’m constantly trying to find new ways to cut corners on food, bills and entertainment.

(Photo Credit: Keith Cooper)

Our society is a without a doubt an extremely image oriented, money driven, mass consumption culture. Every moment and every hour we are constantly bombarded with images, advertisements, radio jingles, billboards and internet pop-ups trying to get us to part with our hard-earned dollars. Clothes? Clothes are so expensive! Heck, so much stuff that you can get on Ebay or thrift stores. And you can’t take that Mercedes Benz with you to heaven when you die, can you? And what is it about a Mercedes Benz that is so much more special than a used Honda (besides social status among other snobby people)? Both transport you from point A to point B in exactly the same manner. Your luxury, 3-Ton Tuna Boat SUV? You’re sitting in traffic just the same as the poor bastard sitting next to you, though I bet the TV commercial depicting it (and you) triumphantly scaling Mt. Everest looked pretty exciting at the time. I HAVE TO HAVE IT- RIGHT NOW. Yeah, it might make you feel high and satisfied for a little while, but then, just like a hit of that cheap crack cocaine, the happiness soon fades…

(Source: Katrine Theilke)

OK, I’ll concede that some of you guys out there buy flashy cars because that’s what some flashy women are drawn to. You probably even got some sex out of it. Could you still have gotten some nookie with one of those Kim Kardashian clones without the shiny rims? In my experience, the best women out there in the world (and there’s plenty of them) aren’t gold diggers. They’re the ones that actually are attracted to guys with a sense of humor, intelligence, personal self-worth and creative talents. Be at ease with who you are, learn how to make sushi, be a freestyle MC on stage: what member of fairer sex could resist you?

But you know what living within my means has really given me? Freedom. The freedom to do what I want and pursue the projects in life that stimulate me intellectually and artistically. Wasting money on expensive clothes, fancy dinners, the latest smartphone, going clubbing and paying $15 for cocktails- get tha fuck outta here! My crappy old model cell phone transmits calls and texts just fine thanks, and I don’t have a monthly $100 bill to go along with it. Owning a car, ouch. According to a AAA study, that’s on average $8,698 a year. Paying gas, taxes, repairs, new tires, insurance etc etc. Now times that by 10: almost 90K! What could you do with an extra $90,000 in your life? I know in many parts of American you simply have no choice but to drive (I think I’ll another blog post about that later), but at least try and live close to your work, school, a supermarket etc. You’d be surprised how it really ain’t that bad to walk, ride a bike, or take a bus a short distance. Fresh air, a little exercise, smell the flowers, ya feel me? Driving too much is linked to all sorts of health problems, not to mention poor sleep, psychological stress and lower quality of life. Plus the fact that we’re all slowly killing the environment one safari trip to the post office at a time.

The best things in life are free my friends (or pretty free): Some bourbon sipped in the warm summer evening, watching the world go by in cafe, playing guitar with your friends, camping and grilling in the great outdoors, playing frisbee on the beach with you dog, some wacko, alternative theater cooperative’s latest offering down at the weirdo artists’ squat, binge watching Netflix while necking with your honey. Hell, grow some weed in your yard, then you don’t even have to pay for it. Save your pennies for a backpacking trip through Central America: you’ll have life-changing adventures and memories that will last you till your deathbed.

If you have to choose between breaking your back for a tuna boat SUV- or memories, which would you prefer?