Saturday, March 20, 2010

The More Separate We Are

Well, this is certainly the longest break I've taken yet between posts. I really do want to be more up to date with these things, and I certainly want to be less "heavy" with everything I write . . . but maybe not this time. To be fair, I don't think this is going to be quite as serious as the last entry - at least I'm not going to threaten any unseen force in this post.

I was musing earlier today about the state of my industry and more specifically the state of my career within that industry. The economy has obviously been a bit flat in the last year and a bit, and my industry has been no different. Looking forward, one can't help but look back. And so it was to the early days of my career toward which I cast my gaze, the heady days of being a very minor television celebrity back when cable meant a handful of people were watching, not the millions who watch their thousands of designer channels today. I often think about a very vivid memory that I have of one particular and rare day on set when I didn't have much to do and was therefore blessed with a day spent mostly watching others work. We were filming at a thoroughbred farm outside of Vancouver. It was beautiful warm day late in the summer and I was leaning against a fence watching the crew setting up a shot on the other side of the training track. From that vantage point I was struck by the notion that we were all a bunch of grown-ups being paid to play make-believe. Grown men and women (and me) rushed about lugging equipment here and there, setting up in arbitrary places to shoot random people saying made-up words so that other people could watch our enactment of a pretend situation written by someone else they didn't know. Millions and millions of dollars are spent on this form of entertainment when really folks could just get together and make-up stuff for themselves. It's cheaper and it gets you out of the house.

I think a lot about that tiny little revelation. Someone paid us to play make-believe. There's no real rhyme or reason to it outside of the focus groups and the pitches. Once you're on set, the director points to where he or she wants people to play make-believe, and then the director of photography points lights at the place, and then they film us pretending. No hard and fast rules (well there are, but I won't get into that). Funny old thing. I know I'm not the first one to have this thought - heck, that's why everyone thinks it's so easy to do (it's not, but I won't get into that either). I would, however, caution everyone to not get too smug about my revelation - you know, about actors being just a bunch of people who get paid to make believe . . . The reality is, that we're all paid to make believe when we get right down to it.

You see in the old days, we as humans spent pretty much all of our time just focusing on staying alive. I'm not just talking about caveman days either. During our hunter/gatherer days, we spent an awful lot of time hunting, and . . . gathering. Then once we developed into an agrarian society, we still spent most of our time tending our animals, tending our crops, you know - agrarying (not a real word). We didn't have time for much else. As time crept forward however, we realized that we could divide our labor, and the first specialists arrived, followed closely by the first referrals. With this division of labor, we could focus more on one job and make more time for our families and golf. With this division also came the barter system. If you give me some of your grain, I'll give you one of my cows . . . this one here, low miles, only tipped by a little old granny on Sundays. Eventually of course, the barter system developed some snags - what if the guy you're trying to buy that car from doesn't want a cow, low miles or not? Welcome the currency based system! I'll give you X amount of this unit of currency with an agreed upon amount guaranteed non-negotiable by the ruling government, and you throw in the floor mats. Brilliant right?

Of course, now that we had all this free time because someone else was going to provide you with your food at a cost, and that other person was going to build your shelter at a cost, you'd better fill it - probably by doing something to generate currency so you could have these things. But what should you do? You have nothing that these other guys want. They already have the means to provide food and build shelter. What could you possibly offer them? I know! Ringtones! And so it was that ringtones were invented.

Outside of the truly important things like food, and shelter, and health services, all else is really secondary - but you try telling that to my accountant. As time has progressed, so has our need to not only earn money, but to fill our time. If we no longer spend all of this time finding food and making shelter, and protecting ourselves from things with really big teeth, we discover that life is really long (if we're lucky) and that we have to fill it. All the better if those things make us feel important. Most of it though is arbitrary stuff. We speak languages that have evolved over time from grunts to grunts that represent a verbalization indicating a thing, to specific words to denote variations of things to poetic words that bring us to tears. We've developed letters and a written language to record our history. We've developed mathematics, and cultures, and industry, and huge scale economies, but nothing can really separate us from the fact that the basics remain the most important - food, shelter, health. All of these great advances could have evolved differently or not existed at all and we would still be here as long as we had food, shelter, and health.

We all spend a lot of time convincing ourselves that what we do everyday is so important and integral to the survival of the human race - if the Henderson report doesn't get filed, the world is going to END! We also convince ourselves that the way we live is so important that we go to war over it. So when my accountant is adding arbitrary notational symbols to determine how much of a certain value of a currency I need to pay to an arbitrary governmental system occupying a random geographical region I will try to see her in the same light as I saw that crew years ago - as a grown-up playing make believe, albeit a very real make believe that stresses me out every April.

We as humans have very much created ourselves as a species in so many ways and have created the confines we live in when all we're really doing is occupying ourselves as we take this journey. In creating ourselves we have also separated ourselves not only from our former ancient selves, but also from each other. We are so specialized, so separate from each other that we have lost the ability to really provide for ourselves at a base level. I remember having another revelation (I'm full of them) as a young man. At 2 in the morning, I distinctly remember sitting in my bedroom in my parent's house and realizing that I didn't know how a single thing in that room worked - I mean I knew the concept behind everything, but if I suddenly found myself in the past I wouldn't be making a fortune by "inventing" it. It got to the point where I understood that there was a graphite shaft surrounded by wood making up my pencil, but I was damned if I could tell you how they put it there.

Max Weber talked about the idea of the iron cage - the idea that our divisions of labor forced us into these cages separate from those around us despite giving us the impression we were free. The current economic crunch has illustrated this perfectly. People becoming homeless, physically losing their shelter because that very specific task that they perform has been reduced. That very specific task that fed their family, put a roof over their head, and provided health, was and is for most of us an arbitrary task of our own creation that is in effect make believe despite our need for it. I think this point is apropos in light of the health care debate in the States right now. Does one really want to hinge a health care plan on the arbitrary task that we carry out to generate income if the past has proven to us how untenable that task might be?

We're only ever as strong as that weakest link, and in a society of specialists, that link might be our separation from each other and our needs, not our wants. The truth is, we're all (well most of us) playing make believe, and that's okay. It's only when we let the make believe become our only reality that we find ourselves on shaky ground. The idea that our make believe is the only make believe can do very bad things to good people. We must also remember that but for a slightly different evolution in our cultures we may be totally different people who are pretty much the exact same people we are anyway - you know what I mean?