The Boogie Man is No Fairy Tale


(Note:  this blog post was originally written in conjunction with our Vet Visions and Voices art and music benefit.  The bit at the end about art and music will make more sense knowing the context) 

My parents grew up believing in the boogie man. For both my mother and my father, that faceless monster lurking under the bed and in the shadows trying to kill them was no fictitious character from a Grimm fairy tale. He was an all-too-grim reality. 

My grandmother used to tell us stories of being stalked like pray, in the early days of Nazi-occupied Vienna. She used to tell us of the eerie silence punctuated by shrieks of horror and gun shots which echoed down the empty dim streets. When the shrieks got louder, she explained, she grabbed my father, then four years old, and his brother and they hid in the closet. All they could do was wait and prey that theirs would not be the house chosen that night. They were lucky. Many of their friends, and my relatives, were not. This was my father’s childhood.

My mother’s boogie man was not from Vienna. My grandparents on my mom’s side of the family emigrated from Russia during the pogroms, systemic waves of anti-Semitic violence that lasted for decades. The ceaseless terror led to the deaths of thousands of Jews and the diaspora of millions. My grandparents came to Brooklyn afraid of everything, trusting no one. This was my mother’s childhood.

I was a young boy of 7 or 8 years old when my mother hit the mean New York streets. The omnipresent anxiety which had always lurked just beneath the surface of my mother’s skin had blossomed into full-blown terror. Threats were everywhere. Everyone was coming to take her away. They called it paranoid schizophrenia. I know it was the boogie man. She ran from him, the monster chasing her soul, the Golem from the pogroms, until the day that she died.

Many Vets join the service believing in a fairy tale too. The fairy tale of nationalism. They are told from birth that they are born under a great flag, founded by mythic fathers whose faces are carved into the mountains. They want to be part of this great fairy tale, one of the few, the proud. The armed services gives them that chance. Overnight, they go from joe schmo to GI Joe. They join to be somebody, to have their name etched into the fairy tale. They join to fight the boogie man. 

Something happens in the fog of war, though. The boogie man becomes unclear. You do nothing to stop a young boy you pass in your caravan, on Kabul’s dusty roads. Your buddies pay with their limbs and lives. You don’t make that mistake again. Every child becomes the enemy. You cannot afford to take a chance. And yet, they can’t all be the boogie man. You know that innocents have died by your hands. You stop trusting everyone and everything, including the mission. Why are we here? Who sent us? Who is the damn boogie man? Could it be…me? 

The horror that you are, or have become, the enemy is little different from the horror that the enemy is everywhere. It makes little difference if you are the one holding the gun, or the one staring down its barrel. When you play a central role in the horrific drama of war you become wounded in your soul. You have been betrayed by the myths that are meant to sustain you, the myth of community, and the myth of childhood. 

Art and music are powerful tools for re-writing the myths of our lives. They enable us to go beyond the symbols and myths we’ve inherited and tap into our deep personal primal symbols and myths. Art and music allow us to exorcise our anger and cultivate healing visions and melodies. When we share these creations we form new communities, bonded by our new myths and symbols. And in doing so, we may finally extricate our boogie man from our hearts and souls, and chase him back into the night from whence he came. 



As it is in Heaven...a Letter to Bono



On earth as it is in heaven

Those are the words of a famous idealist. Just like you, Mr. Bono.

"Heaven on earth, we need it now," you sang.

You get it. You understand.

"I was born," you proclaimed, "to sing for you."

No, this was not a boast, as so many wrongfully suggested. It was a recognition of the true nature of music. That it is a gift, received. And, as it is in heaven, a gift given. It seems you understand deeply, to your core, what music is. It is not, first and foremost, an opportunity, a commodity, or an industry. It is, as you sing so passionately, a gift. To be shared.

"I didn't have a choice to lift you up," you declared, "sing whatever song you wanted me to."

But it doesn't matter what you sing, what we ask you to sing, Mr. Bono, sir, if we can't get access to the music. Why, then, do you so vociferously condemn open access to music, and vigorously support an industry which serves itself best by restricting access to music, by reducing supply and fueling demand? Is that how it is in heaven? If God walked amongst us, would he want the gift to be given only to those who could afford it? Is that how a gift is defined? Is that God's intent? Is that how it is in heaven, Mr. Bono? The richer you are, the more the angels will sing for you?

I attended a conference recently, in Boston. The conference was called "Rethink Music." You may know about this conference. Your dear friend and manager Mr. McGuiness was there. He spoke passionately, echoing your words, and the words of many within the music industry, against "piracy." The mantra was oft repeated that those who "pirate" do not value music. The obvious implication is that those who can afford to pay value music more than those who can't. Allow me to respectfully disagree. In fact, it may well be that the opposite is true.

On any given sunday, as I'm sure you know, Mr. Bono, anyone can walk into a church and hear a priest share her gift, to a congregation eager to receive. You see, they are born to preach to us, those priests. They don't have a choice to lift us up. And, on any given sunday, Mr. Bono, the pews are filled with rich and poor alike. You can look around any church, from humble shacks in impoverished nations and communities, to grand cathedrals in the wealthiest cities, and see the comfortable and desperate, sitting side by side. Kneeling side by side. Praying side by side. All there, to receive the gift. When the sermon is over, when the priest has done her level best to lift us up, inevitably a cup will be passed around. We will be asked to give back. For sure, those wearing their sunday best will be able to give more than those in rags, those desperate for someone, a gifted one, to give them hope, to hear a reason to live for one more day. In fact, the more desperate they are, the less likely they will be able to give anything at all. They likely don't even know where they will sleep that night, or how they will eat. Would you say those poor souls, Mr. Bono, those most desperate to receive the gift value the gift less than those with enough comfort and means to be able to give back? Is that what God would think, Mr. Bono? Is that on earth as it is in heaven? Should the churches and synagogues and mosques...all holy temples...charge admission at their gates?

In any given ghetto, as I'm sure you know, Mr. Bono, you will find the sights and sounds of urban, or rural, blight.

"Broken glass is everywhere," Stevie Wonder sang about these Village Ghetto Lands, "starvation roams the streets. Babies die before they're born," cried Mr. Wonder, "infected by the grief."

The statistics are not pretty. The odds are long against survival or well-being, in the ghetto. Addiction. Prostitution. Jail. Early death. Such is likely your fate, in Village Ghetto Land. In this sad scene, in every ghetto, lives a young girl, 11 maybe 12 years old. She is just beginning to come of age. And she is lucky. She has discovered her local public library. She has begun to find not just escape, but solace, in the greatest hearts and minds who've ever put thoughts and feelings to paper, authors who were born to write for her. They didn't have a choice to lift her up. In this way, she is learning how to tutor her mind and nurture her heart against despair. She is learning to conquer even the worst fate. She is learning that, no matter the circumstances, there is hope, and the hope is in her. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. She pulls another book off the shelf, parks herself in an old wooden chair and reads for hours on end. And she never pays a dime for any of it, Mr. Bono. While this little girl is learning to save her own life, there is a debutante, a rich socialite, sipping a fruity cocktail on a sunny beach somewhere on the opposite end of the world. The young woman, living la dolca vita, has cracked open a Harlequin romance novel that she shelled out $25 for on, as she escapes into a trashy fantasy. Would you, Mr. Bono, argue that the young girl in Village Ghetto Land, the one voraciously consuming book after book for free values books less than then the debutante reading a disposable novel with disposable income, leading possibly a disposable life? Should we do away with libraries altogether, and replace them with bookstores, where people truly "value" books, like the rich socialite? Should knowledge, and hope, be imparted only to those who can afford it? Is that on earth as it is in heaven?

I am from your beloved New York City, Mr. Bono. And it is, indeed, a spectacular place, worthy of the praises you sing for her, and about her. It is a grand playground, and, despite the protestations of conservative pundits and politicians, the very embodiment of the American dream, with the broad glorious spectrum of humanity on full display, and generally peacefully coexisting. It is a place of extremes, a feast for the senses, with tremendous appeal especially for those with an inclination towards aesthetics, for those with artistic sensibilities such as yourself. It is, in many ways, the best of what humanity has to offer, a grand experiment where exploration and tolerance are valued equally. I understand why you love her, as I do. But, as it is a place of great human triumph, it is, equally, a place of abject despair and unimaginable tragedy. I know, Mr. Bono. You see, my mother was a bag lady, a woman who lived and, tragically, died on the unforgiving asphalt streets of New York City. I would use the less pejorative "homeless" to describe her. But she wasn't just homeless. She was a bag lady. All the images that term conjures for you are likely true, in her case, Mr. Bono. Sleeping on park benches. Eating out of trash cans. Weathered skin and matted hair. Filthy tattered clothes that wreaked of neglect. Rotted teeth, where teeth remained. And crazy. No, I don't like that term any more than you do. But it sugar coats her life less than "mentally ill," and gives a more accurate impression, I believe, of how she experienced the world, and how the world experienced her.

Mr. Bono, I'm sure you can easily imagine how painful life was for her. You are a man of great compassion, and gifted imagination. And I'm sure you can imagine, as well, how painful her life was for all those who loved her deeply, including and especially her children. My mother, Ellen Glick Haley, died on November 5th, 2005. Her death, as I'm sure you can imagine, brought no solace to those who loved her most deeply. As her youngest son, a boy of just 7 years old when my mother stopped being a mother and began her violent decent into madness, I grieved long and hard from her passing. I grieved for the tragic woman I knew intimately, and the loving mother I knew only too briefly. In the dark months that followed her death, I saw few signs of hope. Grief seemed to only provoke more grief. Her life was tragic and senseless, and the depth of this inhumanity seemed permanently branded in my heart, impossible to ever escape. Mercifully, light shone through the darkness one fateful evening. The light of a melody, inspired by a dream.

I had never been particularly musical, Mr. Bono. My father was, and is, a visual artist, and I largely took after him. But a dream of a wolf, while in the depths of my despair, inspired me, to the chagrin of my neighbors, to howl when I felt the most angst and sorrow. And one day the howl became song. And I was overjoyed.

I didn't think I would know joy again. And it came not from words of solace from friends and family, not from tears, nor from Prozac. It came from a song, from a melody. A primal human howl that seemed to alchemically convert the leaden weight of my despair into golden, resonant tone. Like you, Mr. Bono, I found grace inside a sound.

Here, then, was the silver lining in the dark cloud of my mother's life, and death. Music. And I could not get enough of it. On the advise of a friend, I hunted for artists and melodies, not only to take in their gift, but to teach me how to buff and polish my own. I began a routine of using any and all internet tools at my disposal to find those musicians who were out there, singing to me, and for me, including you, Mr. Bono. And when I found a song that connected, I needed to have the song, not just to listen to and heal from, but to learn from as well. You see, Mr. Bono, I amassed a vast library of songs in my ipod, and then, almost every day, sang a duet with the greatest singers in the world in the privacy of my own studio, a cheap warehouse space I shared with friends. That space became my temple, where you, and the other ministers of music, sang for me, lifted me up, from the library in my ipod. I imagined, while I sang, that I was Bjork, or Hamilton Leithauser or, perhaps most frequently, you. I felt how you moved your body as you sang, how you formed your mouth and positioned your tongue, how you didn't just sing the lyrics, you felt them. And, in this way, I not only healed from my grief, I learned to be a better singer, and artist. I learned from the best, and, outside of the cost of the ipod, and the pocket change for the studio, it didn't cost me a dime. Because, Mr. Bono, like so many millions, I "pirated" all of my mp3s. I was poor, and desperate, and eternally grateful to this amazing technology that not only facilitated my healing but accelerated my growth. Would you still say, Mr. Bono, that I valued the music any less than those how could afford it? Should I not have access to a vast affordable library of music, Mr. Bono? Should I be forced to pay admission to hear you sing to me, to enter your church? Is that on earth as it is in heaven?

The music industry, of course, agrees with you, Mr. Bono. And I found out first-hand, how serious they are about protecting their "property." You see, I was one of the lucky few sued by the RIAA for piracy. To them, my actions were not just a crime but a high crime, to the tune of $250,000. As an employee of MIT at the time, I suppose my actions were fairly easy to trace, and the scene of the crime high-enough profile to garner the industry the kind of publicity they coveted. The shock of the penalty, I'm sure, was meant to serve notice to all that punishment for "high crimes" such as mine would be served swiftly and severely. It mattered not why I acquired the music. They are not motivated by compassion, Mr. Bono, they are motivated by profit. Their own. You know this to be true. And you know my story now, Mr. Bono. I'm curious whether it has changed your mind in any way. I'm curious whose actions seem like the greater injustice: mine, or those of the RIAA. Is the vast open access library of Limewire, as you would suggest, less like heaven on earth than itunes, where only those with means can hear you sing? Do you still believe we should charge admission to enter the church, and the library? Do you still believe that access to knowledge, joy, and hope are luxuries for only those who can afford to pay for it? Is that on earth as it is in heaven?

Mr. Bono, I want to be perfectly clear: I do believe musicians should be justly compensated. I'm sure the angels do not go neglected in heaven, and in today's world, heaven on earth means paying musicians a fair wage for what they produce. And, for sure, open-access vehicles like peer-to-peer networks and bit torrent sites do not pay musicians a fair wage. But should compensation come at the expense of broad open access? Is there not a strong social imperative for the angels to sing for us all? Would it not be wiser to focus our energies on a system that accomplishes both noble and essential goals of broad access and fair compensation, instead of simply spending our resources on punishing those who don't put money into the collection cup? After all, Mr. Bono, the system you have supported, the music industry's model, has traditionally not only restricted access to music, but is hardly fair to most musicians, with controlling contracts and unfair compensation being the norm, rather than the exception. There are inequities and imbalances in both systems. Neither are sustainable. Neither are ideal.

Heaven on earth. We are getting closer. New music distribution models are cropping up every day, models which purport to broaden access and compensate musicians fairly. It is my opinion that we still do not have heaven on earth, as far as music is concerned. Those models that are fair to musicians do not necessarily expand access to consumers, and for many of the "freemium" models, artist compensation leaves a lot to be desired.

On earth as it is in heaven, Mr. Bono. What would an ideal music distribution model look like? How would it work? What would make God smile, and the angels sing? I pose this question to you, Mr. Bono -- one of our most passionate and committed idealists. I have some ideas. I suspect it may even be remarkably easy to do. Who knows?  Perhaps heaven's gate stands not in Gotham, for all her glory.  Perhaps you will find it parked instead in the humble environs of Albuquerque, New Mexico.   


Ian Mentken (currently living in Albuquerque, but once, and always, a New Yorker).





The Social Medium is the Message



I awoke this morning from uneasy dreams and found myself transformed in my bed into a gigantic insect

Wow, bummer dude, sorry to hear that!  :-(

This may come as a shock, since I am developing a social media platform, but social media makes me uncomfortable.  Not because it enables and/or facilitates some form of connection between people, communities and (for better or worse) organizations and businesses.  The problem, for me is this:

Social media products, like Twitter and Facebook, not only facilitate connection…they DEFINE it.  I can present myself to the world more easily with these products, but my presentation will be formatted, and branded, by these conduits of experience.  Life, as defined by Facebook, is largely white with shades of royal blue.  It is funneled through tight chat spaces and littered with cheesy icons.  Liking something (or someone) is expressed with a click, and friendship is defined by it.

That the medium defines the experience is a phenomena not unique to social media.  It is true for any medium.  As one of the great thinkers on the subject, Marshal McLuhan famously said (my father, the biggest McLuhan fan, will be very proud of me for writing this):

“the medium IS the message.”

Meaning, to quote Wikipedia (paraphrasing McLuhan):

“The form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived”

If, then, the message is social connection, and the medium is Facebook, Twitter, etc., these products are defining what connection means.  In many ways, connection is being industrialized, and therefor homogenized, through social media.  This is, it can be argued, a necessary evil.  In order to communicate with each other, we have to share a language, and the narrower the parameters of that language are, the more accessible it will be.  But who defines the parameters of this language, and what are the criteria for determining them?  And is the loss of depth of experience, in the service of broadly shared experience, on balance a good thing?  Should we not be hyper-concerned about the presentation and definition of the medium, especially as it pertains to social interaction and connection?  Are we all in danger of having the great breadth of human experience be forever funneled into tight chat spaces, littered with cheesy icons, and tinged with hints of royal blue?  Will our unbearable lightness of being be stuffed into tubes branded“f” or “t,” and squeezed out onto a ticker?

As I design yet another social media space, I think about these things.  I think about what a great responsibility it is to define the way large swaths of humanity interact with each other.  I think about how to strike the right balance between broad outreach and depth and variation of experience, both personal and shared.  I hope all the lords of our social media kingdoms are equally consumed by the weight of this responsibility.  Lest we wake up one morning, in the not too distant future, and find the new gospel is now no more than 140 characters, and glory is now forever expressed by, and reduced to, a mouse click and an emoticon.