The Power of Stories

I’ve always told myself that I want to be a writer. A friend of mine asked me a while back if I thought I honestly still wanted to be a writer, or if maybe I’d just become so comfortable with the idea of talking about being a writer that I wasn’t interested in finding a new vocation. Since then I’ve tried to ask myself, “What about stories are so important?”

I love video gaming and have since I was little. Now I’m growing up and games are too; recently I’ve picked up two new games: Bandai Namco’s Dark Souls and Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City. I’d looked forward to both of them for months, but I’ve found no interest in playing Dark Souls, while I had to dig for the self-control to stop playing Arkham City and write this blog. They’re two completely different kinds of games with two completely different objectives, but the key difference between them for me is story.

Dark Souls lacks a real story of any kind. Its objective is to provide players what my friend calls “the thrill of pure gaming,” with no frills or nonsense to keep people from jumping right in to hardcore gameplay. Dark Souls is a good game. Arkham City, on the other hand, layers story and character development into every second of gameplay from the very beginning as players find out that an entire section of Gotham City has been walled off and turned into a survival-of-the-fittest-style no-man’s land for criminals, “Arkham City.”

An image of Batman standing over Arkham City.

Emotion and story are everywhere in Arkham City. Provided by batmanarkhamcity.com

As I sneak up on a group of 10 inmates on my way to confront the Joker, they start to talk about their lives inside the walls of Arkham City, how they fight for survival, how they fear persecution from other inmates, or confrontations with the Dark Knight himself. The inmates, who I used to pound on without a second thought, now have a soul. And now I’m thinking about ways to avoid the conflict altogether.  This is what takes Arkham City beyond a good game and makes it into a great experience.

As far as TV is concerned, it’s almost impossible to fit the words “Battlestar Galactica” into a conversation without instantly turning off 95% of the non-nerd population (Admit it: if you haven’t seen the show, you were already tempted to skip this paragraph.). Even so, I’ve never seen a better written show that so strongly portrays the “right” of both friends and mortal enemies, the paradoxes that tend to escape rhetoric and enter into our real lives every day. “Battlestar Galactica” portrays a society fighting EVERY SINGLE DAY for survival, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They are hounded by an almost invisible enemy that threatens to destroy them at every turn, but more often than not it’s the infighting between allies that threatens to undo everything they’ve worked for. (Sound familiar, USA?)

There's always more than one influence, more than one answer. Image from Wired.com.

What the show DOES that our news media and constant Facebook bickering fails to do is remind us that there are no simple answers, and the more we bury ourselves in our own idea of what is “right,” the more we hurt others. The power of story hard at work.

So why do we seem to have higher standards for our fiction than our reality? My Facebook has been peppered with posts from various friends supporting “Occupy Wall Street,” “the Tea Party,” “We are the 99%,” “We are the 53%,” and varying other social change groups, each of them picking a target to demonize as a way to gather support for its ideology. The 99% are being robbed by the greedy corporations and 1% of Americans making over 250K a year, the 53% are being robbed by the lazy 47% that is unwilling to go find a job and pull itself up by its bootstraps… Each side seems to tell a story that simply villainizes other PEOPLE trying to make their way in the world, even when condemning others for precisely the same crime.

Our world is shaped by stories, the ones we tell as well as the ones we’re told. Stories can spur us to action or cool our heads, send us to far away places or bring us home. Some stories are accurate, some are biased, and some are pure nonsense. But as long as we accept ANY ONE STORY as our truth, as long as we disrespect the views, pains, and struggles of the people around us, as long as we bury our heads in the sands of our own dogmas, we will continue to fall victim to the same hatreds and violence plaguing our world today.

-Josh

The Future of Occupation

Protesters outside of a bank in Rockford,. IL

I went to the Occupy Rockford protest yesterday. As much as I’ve talked about the Occupy movement the past couple days, I thought it was a little ridiculous that I hadn’t seen any of it first hand. At noon protesters stood outside of the Chase Bank building in downtown Rockford holding signs and chanting. The group started small, but steadily grew throughout the day.

For the most part, everyone was pretty jovial and upbeat. The weather was gorgeous, sunny with a slight breeze, and honks from passing cars every couple of minutes seemed to rejuvenate the crowd. If there’s one thing I learned out there, it’s that this movement is truly a popular one; bus drivers, ambulances, beat-up Toyotas and fancy BMWs alike all sounded off in support of the protesters. Plenty of people simply drove by, but others slowed down to read signs, or gave thumbs-up on their way to/from their destinations.

I talked to a couple protesters to get information about what they thought on the movement. Adria Rybarski, a woman in her mid-20s working a local bar to make ends meet, came out wearing a red “The Flash” hoodie and holding up a sign reading “End Corporate Greed.” “Lots of people are homeless and it’s not their fault,” she said as she looked out at the passing cars. “The banks are taking away their homes, and they’re losing their jobs because corporations are closing, and I just think it’s wrong.”

I asked if she had a couple ideas as to how to “end corporate greed,” pointing out that many critics of the Occupy movement cite its lack of direction or concrete demands. “The main thing is that money needs to be taken out of politics, plain and simple,” she responded. “If anything, big corporations should not be treated like people; they should be treated like the corporations they are and they should be taxed accordingly…everything needs to be more people-oriented; the government exists for the people and not the other way around.”

A group of protesters outside of the Chase building

There are plenty of people out there who want government to change its focus a bit. Take Kelly McKee, a short five-foot something, 24-year old spitfire with a college degree and no job. I asked her what brought her out to the protest, and she said, “I’m just as pissed off as anybody else…I went to college and thought, ‘Oh, now I’ll be able to get a job,’ but that’s not the case… trillions of dollars have been lost to banks that are ‘too big to fail,’ but the people are too big to fail, the school systems are too important to fail. That’s why I’m out here today.”

I asked her what the goal of the movement was, and she said, “We have many, many demands, and our first one? Get the money out of politics…we get minimum wage that’s like, $8, $8.50 an hour? How much do they make? Like, $800 an hour…800 to our 8.50.” Now given, after a little bit of research, I found that Congressmen don’t make $800 an hour...your average congressional representative at the federal level makes $174,000 dollars a year, which metes out to around $83.65 an hour. This means they make at least 10 times more than your minimum wage worker in Illinois. With 22,000 people making $0 an hour in Rockford (which equates to an official statistic of 13.1 percent unemployment), $83.65 may as well be $800.

With that kind of disparity between Washington and the working-class, it’s pretty easy to understand why protesters like Kelly are “pissed off.” People want their “American dream:” better schools, more affordable health-care, higher wages, and they understand all those things take money, money held by the increasingly-reviled “1%.” On a personal level, I can agree that this disparity is terrible for our nation’s growth and prosperity, and something needs to change. But when it comes down to HOW to make those changes…well…

A protester holding a sign that reads, "A Job is a Right, Capitalism Doesn't Work!" next to a veteran holding an American flag.

Some might see the sign and the flag in this picture in direct opposition, while others see them as complementary forces. Critics scream that the Occupy movement is socialistic, that the poor are trying to rob the rich of the money they have no claim to. Staunch conservatives  like Shawn Hannity have called the movement “un-American.” When the divide between what people consider “American” is this broad, that’s a sure sign there’s a serious problem.

I won’t pretend that I have the answers. Yes, I believe that the system is broken; it’s ridiculous that there’s such a vast disparity between the wealthy and the middle-class, and I don’t think it’ll get any better unless we change our system of government as well as our definitions of success and societal responsibility. But does that mean I think my student loan debt should be forgiven like some have ventured? I entered into college knowing what the system was like and my responsibilities; how can I stand up against corporate bailouts if I’m asking for one myself? I feel the best way to fight is to lead by example, so I’ll make tough decisions and cut my spending to make ends meet like our government is supposed to. But I can make that statement because I have a family to stay with and a job to pay my end…what happens when you don’t have those resources?

I think that, for this movement to be truly successful, for this entire country to be successful we need to think about the future instead of the present. Most all of us are feeling the squeeze of the economy right now and desperately want relief. But we need to make decisions that will have long-term positive effects, not just bandage the problem and let politicians create good sound bytes for ad campaigns. As a nation, we need to pay our bills. We need to create jobs. We need to help our neighbors. We need to pay attention to government. We need to get involved. We need to make tomorrow better today. It’ll be the kids like this guy that suffer otherwise.

Child protester with a shirt that reads "Wall St. Broke My Piggy Bank."

-Josh

Supporting the War: Personal Steps to Better America

Protesters from Occupy Rockford
Protesters for the Occupy Rockford march on October 11th, 2011.



I may not have made it explicitly clear yesterday that I’m pro-“Occupation,” whether it’s Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Rockford. My father and sister, as well as a couple friends of mine went to the march here in Rockford today, while I decided to man the keyboard instead. In the midst of my indirect call to action, I forgot to point out all the good that the movement is doing to simply raise awareness and solidarity within the American people. Even if the movement comes and fades without inspiring a single concrete change, for a brief moment people were able to find solace within each other. That alone makes the movement worth it.

Regardless of whether you’re for or against the protests going on around the country, we have to acknowledge that our country’s system, OUR SYSTEM, is broken. We repeatedly provide bailout money to companies that would otherwise fall apart because our economy depends on their existence. News spends more time covering the latest celebrity babies and dating scandals than the governmental changes affecting our nation. Corporations making billions of dollars in profits use tax-code loopholes to pass more profits to stockholders. Governmental representatives spend more time playing party lines then trying to effectively govern. In the midst of all this, the middle-class American citizen takes the screw.

So, the $100,000 dollar question: how do we fix our broken system?

Gandhi said that we should “be the change we want to see in the world.” He was a smart guy, and I’m going to go with his instinct and suggest a few ways we can make small, personal changes that can ripple into big shifts in our nation.

  • Bank locally. Woohoo, Bank X has over 54 million ATMs you can use for free? Considering you use maybe three of them 95% of the time, a comprehensive network of “surcharge free” ATMs doesn’t help you much. Besides that, banks like Bank of America are starting to impose $5/month “debit fees,” fees you have to pay simply for using a debit card. Really, BoA? I call bulls***. Let’s take the “too big to fail” companies out of the equation by putting money into local credit unions and banking institutions. Many of them have accounts that reimburse foreign ATM fees to a certain cost, and can have better interest rates on savings accounts and loans.
  • While we’re at it, take “too big to fail” out of the system entirely. Can you imagine what would happen if Wal-Mart one day walked up to the government and said it needed money? What choice would we have but to do another Fannie May/Freddie Mac/Detroit Auto Industry/Wall Street bailout? I know first-hand it’s expensive to shop locally (the local grocery story I shop at can be SIGNIFICANTLY more expensive than Wal-Mart), but the more we invest in ourselves, the more that investment can come back to rejuvenate our own economies. The less we rely on the big international players to take care of us, the stronger we can become.
  • Turn off Jersey Shore, turn on the news. I think I could even support watching Fox News or Headline News over drivel like “Jersey Shore” and  “I’m 16 and Pregnant.” Instead of listening to the same Top 40 (which ends up being the same 7 songs all day anyway), flip over to NPR or another talk radio channel. Maybe you’ll learn about an activity in the community you’d enjoy, or trip over a program that you end up loving. (NPR’s “This American Life” and “World Café” are both fantastic programs, BTW.)
  • Go to a City Council meeting. Most of the power to change your day-to-day life comes from legislation enacted on the city, county, and state levels, but everyone pays attention to the sweeping, generic politics of the federal level. Even if you just read the minutes, find out if you can take the opinions you’ve formed to a platform where you can make some real change in your world.
  • READ about the other side of the battle. Often we load up on rhetoric from our own side of the debate, watching a news article or program every so often from the other side without  truly LISTENING to what that person is saying. I challenge you, pick up a book written from the opposite side of the aisle and TRULY read it, making notes and trying to understand/sympathize with the opposing point of view. You’ll be better off for it, I promise.
-Josh

Occupation Isn’t Good Enough: Problems with the “Occupy” Movement

The “Occupy ____” Movement is sweeping across the United States at a breakneck pace. I’ve heard of an Occupy Denver as well as an Occupy LA in the last couple weeks, and there’s even an Occupy movement starting in my hometown of Rockford, IL. People are unhappy, and they want to let the world know. Congratulations, Occupation: you have an opinion, and you’ve let Congress know. It’s not good enough.

For those of you who’ve been living under a rather large rock for the past three-some weeks, the Occupy Movement was started by a protest on Wall Street titled, coincidentally, “Occupy Wall Street.” Protesters want change in the financial system and are unhappy with the massive amounts of American wealth held by the ridiculously small percentage of American people. The movement has since caught fire and spread across the country, inspiring others to express their unhappiness with the American financial system and disparity between classes.

Source: FirstPost.com

Thus far it seems that to Wall Street, the Occupy Movement has been akin to the “Occupied” sign seen on an airplane: a bit inconvenient, but not the end of the world. And why would it be anything else? Trading days haven’t stopped or slowed, stocks rise and fall with a flip of a coin as they have since the American debt ceiling “crisis,” and I’m guessing stock brokers can’t really hear the chanting of the unhappy masses from 40 floors up in their wood-paneled offices. Besides that, nobody has stepped forward with concrete demands or objectives, and thus far the only named, specific group I’ve heard take repeated, consistent heat from protesters is the NYPD, instead of specific brokers, politicians, or organizations.

Huffington Post’s Tracey Vitchers wrote today that the movement hasn’t made specific demands because it no longer desires current institutions to remain in power. I’m more apt to believe that people are too busy enjoying feeling the power of camaraderie in the “trenches” of social warfare. We may live in a democracy, but regardless of our votes, Congress seems to have spiraled out of control and left the “common man” feeling cheated and underrepresented. The Occupy Movement is doing a great job of reminding people that they have a voice, but an all-talk, no-thought state of mind is precisely what got us to this point in the first place. Without serious plans, open-minded discourse, and the means to make changes, we have nothing. After all, knowledge may be power, but it’s not enough when you’re fighting against laws and guns.

Occupation in itself doesn’t actually DO anything. Our nation needs change beyond a political slogan, and true change requires action. We as an American people need to wake up and realize we can take action in our lives and government. Egypt realized it, and we can too. But without a serious mindset, concrete goals, or the determination to see the movement peacefully through to the end, the Occupy movement runs the risk of either burning out completely or blowing up to violent proportions. People will grow tired if they don’t feel that they’re making real progress.  

What needs to be done to fix our “problem?” 99% of America isn’t privy to the exceptional wealth that the 1% hold, so Wall Street has been occupied; do protesters want the stock market shut down? Do they want to increase taxes on the wealthy, increase government allotments of money to the poor? Do they want Donald Trump and others to beg for their lives as pillagers ravage the streets of Martha’s Vineyard? If protesters are waiting for someone else to fill in this answer for them, they run the risk of falling for the same trap that created this government everyone’s so unhappy with.

I believe we can make this country a better place, and I believe now is the time. But if someone DOES come out of the Occupy woodwork with an “answer” to the problem, I certainly hope it doesn’t involve violence; people are angry and may simply waiting for an excuse to put their fingers on triggers.

-Josh