I went to film school on the cusp of the digital revolution. The internet existed, but sites like Google and Facebook did not. Everywhere I went, there were free CD-ROMs in cardboard sleeves that offered a thousand hours of America On-Line (AOL) just for signing up. They made terrible stocking stuffers. 

If I recall, my Frankenstein PC had a Pentium II processor with 1 GB of RAM. To render a video file was usually an overnight process. I also had a special video card that allowed me to hook a VCR up to my computer. It cost me eight hundred bucks.

My camera was a SONY VX-1000. At the time, it was damn near top of the line in terms of pro-sumer electronics. It used Mini-DV tapes, which I have since found to be a terrible format--but back in film school, this thing was badass. It had zebra stripes on the screen to tell you if something was overexposed, as well as built-in neutral density filters to correct it. 

I could only afford this equipment because I worked for the telephone company when I first started going to film school. I worked as a service technician during the day, and then I took classes at night. In the meantime, I set myself up with some decent equipment so that I could make movies whenever I wanted instead of having to check out equipment from the "film cage" every time. I lived about forty minutes away on the red line, so I seldom made impromptu trips downtown.  

At a certain point in the curriculum, the next class for me to take was a six-credit whopper that was only offered during the day. Tech I, as it was called at the time (although I think the actual name of the course was Production I, but close enough) met four days a week for two and a half hours a day on the tenth floor of an old building downtown. One time I got to class early and threw paper airplanes out a screenless window for what seemed like miles. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I had reached a point where I had to decide between continuing to work for the phone company or go to film school full time. This would have to mean taking out student loans as well, as I knew that I could not afford to live in Chicago otherwise. I did have some savings, but I spent a lot of it on video equipment. Ultimately, I quit my job. To date, it remains the highest-paying job that I have ever had--which is kind of sad, frankly. I chose film school over the blue collar life of my parents, because that I had already seen. 

In Tech I, everyone had to load a Bolex camera in the dark. It was an A or an F kind of thing. There were a lot of assignments like that. Maybe not the A's so much, but it could be pretty easy to get an F. Lens flares are one example, which is to say that JJ Abrams never would have made it. I think this was a way of weeding out the people who were there for fun from those who were there to learn. By the third year or so, us learners were pretty much all that was left. 

Tech I taught the basics of 16mm film production, while also providing hands-on experience. Loading that camera in total darkness was a great exercise, but I can't say that it has ever come in all that handy. I wonder if the students there still use those old cameras, left over from making newsreels during the Second World War. The front had what we called a fully manual zoom, in that it required that the user rotates a turret with three different lenses on it: one wide angle, one standard, and one telephoto. On most of these old cameras, at least one of the lenses was messed up in one way or another. 

While some of the skills that I gained in film school have little value outside of the motion picture industry--or in some cases, history books--understanding the principles behind them I believe to be invaluable.


"...Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These are the rights that the founding fathers declared to be inalienable. Many of these men, of course, also owned slaves, and it would still be over a hundred years before women gained the right to vote.

This fundamental contradiction is at the heart of what it means to live in the United States of America. This, in large part, is what Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project are all about. It is about recognizing a broader reality, rather than simply painting over our past with the eye-catching hues of jingoistic mythology. 

If you were a slave in the American south, your own children could be sold off as property. Slaves could not own anything themselves, nor were they allowed to learn how to read or write. They had no liberty, and even their lives were not their own. For census purposes, they were counted as 3/5 of human beings, which is the closest that the Constitution ever came to addressing the issue of slavery until after the Civil War.

Even the Emancipation Proclamation was fundamentally an act of war. It was Lincoln saying, "End the war or I'm going to tell all of your slaves that they aren't your property anymore, and then we'll see what that does for your economy and your ability to fight a war. Let's see you reenact this." I'm paraphrasing, but that's the idea... and I like to imagine Abraham Lincoln with a squeaky voice.

That leaves us with the pursuit of happiness. 

To be in pursuit of something is to move in a forward direction, chasing something--in this case, happiness. In that sense, you could say that it is indeed about the journey and not the destination. You could also say that it implies a fundamental need for progress, not just on a personal level, but as a participant in a functioning democracy

America is supposed to be a place where people can improve the station of their lives through will and hard work. For many people, of course, this has always been a myth, and in this country's most formative years, slaves worked harder than anybody. I dare anyone to tell me otherwise. As we all know, their labor was never paid, nor is it even acknowledged in most history books that examine that period. 

A better future is only possible if we are fully aware of the road behind us. 

Over the centuries, America has been engaged in the relentless pursuit of a more perfect union, which is an idea that predates the Declaration of Independence. This path is called progress. It leads us forward, toward the realization of the lofty ideals upon which this nation was initially founded. 

We are not perfect, but we are steadily getting better. Living in this in-between is precisely what it means to be American. It always has been. Over the years, we have improved incrementally. It started by abandoning outdated traditions in favor of a more pragmatic path forward.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Equal rights, no matter your race or creed. The tired, huddled (or is it hustled?) masses, yearning to be free. It is the unwavering pursuit of these principles that defines the American experiment to ourselves and to the rest of the world. 

As Americans, we must work together to make our namesake Dream a reality, to be a country where people of all backgrounds can truly better themselves through their own labor, diligence and imagination. 

At the same time, we as a nation must do the same. We must collectively put forth the effort to become a more inclusive and better functioning democracy. We must not abandon the path of progress in favor of distraction politics or anything else that only serves to divide us. 

We are the United States of America, and progess means expanding access to voting booths, not restricting it. 

When this country was founded, only white, land-owning men could vote. Progress is the path that led us here, just as it must continue to lead us forward in pursuit of a more perfect union. 

We can and must do better. Ultimately, our capability for self-improvement defines us as a nation to a far greater degree than the imaginary lines that surround us.

Shameless Self-Promotion

I just noticed that the paperback edition of my book happens to be on sale right now. If you ever thought about checking it out, this is the cheapest I've ever seen it go for. (I have absolutely no control over any of that stuff, nor do I earn much from the sale. I just want people to read my work.) 


I try to conceptualize my goals in the same way that a martial artist chops through a cement block. They aren't striking the block, per se, but the space behind it. 

Whenever I set a goal for myself, I try to see the big picture first, albeit in soft focus. Only later do the details begin to emerge. For example, if I'm writing a song, I try to imagine what it might sound like as a fully realized compostion, and then I start to piece it all together. I can hear the vocal melody in my head before I know what the words are going to be. On the same token, if I am writing a book or a screenplay, I am a major proponent of outlining, as it allows me to see the big picture first... the space behind the surmountable piece of concrete. 

In life, I try to project where I want to be and then work out the specifics in terms of how to get there. The details are usually kind of hazy at first, but if my mind is focused on the future, then I find that it often makes the present seem a hell of a lot more manageable. 

It also seems to be helping with learning another language. I know where I want to be. Now I'm just taking the steps to get there. 

Digital Distractions

When I tell people that I don't own a cell phone, I am usually met with one of two responses. More often than not, people say, "Wow, good for you." Otherwise, they ask, "How?" as if there's some kind of trick to it. 

To that, I explain that I get by a lot like people did fifteen or twenty years ago. In fact, about twelve years ago, I did have a flip phone, but I never used it, so it didn't make sense to keep paying for it. Then I lived in Moldova for a year, where cell phones weren't quite as common, and I had no discernable reason to own one, as I rarely called any local telephone numbers anyway. After that, I lived in Micronesia for a year, where there were no cell phone towers. Those two years living abroad were enough to remind me that I didn't actually need a mobile phone to get by. 

It's not like I'm anti-technology or anything. In fact, I'm actually quite adept at working on computers and have built several PCs from barebones components. However, when I came back to the US from Micronesia, one of the first things that I noticed was how everywhere I went, people were staring at their phones. I'd ride my bike through the campus of the university where I taught and earned my PhD, and I'd see undergraduates completely missing out on the world around them because their attention was focused entirely on their smart phones. From my perspective, this seemed like a sickness that affected just about everyone I saw.

When I'd go to restaurants or bars, I'd see people sitting around a table with their phones out, not talking to each other. In class, when I was teaching, every once in a while, I'd see a student who was very obviously looking at his or her phone under the desk, which was rather annoying. As for me, the only times that I wasn't at home, I was either teaching, in a class myself, out for a bike ride, or playing music. In any one of those scenarios, if I had a phone, it would have been shut off anyway, so there would have been little point in owning one in the first place.

I've read that the average American spends about six hours on their smart phones every day, and that's not including when it's being used for work-related functions. That, to me, is crazy... far crazier than not owning a smart phone. That said, since I do not own one, it's almost like I have an extra six hours in every day compared to most people. I generally try to use this time to write, make music, and do other things that involve creating, rather than consuming. This blog is just one example.

If you look at all that I have produced over the past ten years, you can really see how this "extra time" has helped me to amass a pretty substantial portfolio of creative and analytical work. Besides, if people need to reach me, they can call my internet-based landline number or send me an email. I am not so important that I need to be accessible 24/7, though, and I tend to think that social media is a kind of sickness in itself. I see how it warps people's view of each other and themselves, creating echo chambers that can validate just about anything, regardless of whether it's even true or not.

This isn't to say that I won't ever own a cell phone. If I had to be reachable for a specific job, then I would certainly make myself available in a way that does not inconvenience my colleagues. In other words, I would get a phone if I ever had to for work. However, since I've never truly needed one, and because I can see the damage that they do to the interpersonal relationships that form the basis of our society, for the time being, I choose not to own a smart phone, as I think that in many ways, I'm better off without one.

On a side note, one of the many negative side effects that I've noticed with the prevalence of smart phones is that people seem less inclined to memorize things. For this reason, I made a point to give pop quizzes in the Film History class that I taught, as this is a skill that I think students should have, even if they do have virtually limitless information at their fingertips at all times. Besides, Film History is largely about understanding the connections between a series of facts, so it's kind of important to know all of the pertinent information.

Personally, I also prefer to use an old school paper road atlas when driving, as Google maps and other such services don't factor in common sense when providing directions. Furthermore, I think that the ability to memorize facts and figures is a handy skill to have, even if it seems like I only ever use it when playing trivia or teaching.

Update: I finally got a phone. It spends most of its time charging.