Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Casual Heroism

I am writing this blog post from my brand-new home office, which is adorned with framed, autographed pictures I've obtained over the past year attending both the San Diego and New York Comic-Cons. Pictures on my walls signed by the cast of Arrow, Doctor Who and Mass Effect, are complemented by large-scale action figures of Superman and Captain America, smaller model replicas of the SSV Normandy, and a framed Rocketeer comic signed by Chris Samnee. Beyond my Comic-Con swag, my bookshelf contains my prized Daredevil graphic novel collection and a diverse assortment of other souvenirs representing various science fiction and fantasy franchises.

I like surrounding myself with heroic iconography, because I've always been enamored with the idea of heroism. I'm nearly thirty years old and still daydream about becoming a jaeger pilot or Iron Man on my daily commute to work. The creative work I've attempted has largely been based on the idea that people are capable of being extraordinary. I like to believe anyone can become a leader who inspires others to become the best versions of themselves, and create lasting positive change in the wider world. While I love watching and reading stories about overcoming galactic invaders or thwarting mad scientist plots, real-world heroism is just as prevalent and I have resolved in the past year to find ways to make a tangible difference on the personal, local and global levels.

I have found that heroism can be as simple as paying attention to your Facebook and Twitter accounts. Many of my friends have participated in a variety of charity races and events for causes that deep personal meaning to them, including the Lyme Research Alliance's Race for Lyme, the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, the Boston Children's Hospital Miles for Miracles program, and the MSPCA's Walk for Animals. Social media has also led me to charitable projects run by companies within my media and sports fandom, including DC Comics' We Can Be Heroes initiative, which benefits organizations working to end hunger in the Horn of Africa, and a charity auction run by Major League Soccer's New England Revolution where proceeds were donated to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Anyone who provides support to a cause that provides relief, care, and happiness to those who need it is a hero, but creating and leading a cause yourself is still possible, even if you aren't a genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist. I attended the INBOUND Marketing Conference this past September, and the closing keynote speaker this year was Scott Harrison, the founder and CEO of charity:water, a nonprofit that supports clean water projects in underdeveloped nations.

Harrison, a successful nightclub promoter in New York City, started to feel a profound sense of moral emptiness from years of living "selfishly and arrogantly." This epiphany made him pay to volunteer with Mercy Ships, which travels to the most impoverished regions of the world to provide free medical care. Acting as the ship's photojournalist, Harrison took close-ups of horrific ailments that are beyond comprehension in the modern world, with patients' bodies mutated in a way I didn't even know possible when the pictures were displayed. The majority of these ailments were due to the lack of clean water in these regions, as families had to spend entire days traveling to wells racked with parasites and bacteria, torturing their bodies by carrying 80-pound jugs on their back for miles.

Inspired by his time with Mercy Ships, Harrison sought to address a problem affecting one in nine people worldwide. Using his networking talents to acquire funds from angel investors and other sponsors to cover the costs of running the foundation, Harrison created a model where 100% of donations were allocated to clean water projects. The idea to use GPS technology to prove transparency in how donations were used was also an innovation that allowed charity:water's message to break through the noise in the nonprofit sector. Today, charity:water has raised over $93 million since its inception, providing clean water access to over 3 million people.

Scott Harrison's world-changing accomplishment didn't occur because of any natural advantages. He has a communications degree, like myself and countless others, and his sphere of influence didn't exceed the New York club scene. He is one person who was inspired, and had the will to see his idea to through to its fullest potential. His keynote at Inbound 2013 spurred me to take the first steps to actual leadership in my life, and work toward creating a Massachusetts chapter of Green Wish.

I first learned about Green Wish at San Diego Comic-Con, when I visited actor Raphael Sbarge's booth for an autograph. Sbarge, a prolific voice voice actor best known in video game circles for his work in Mass Effect, also plays a recurring character on my fiancé's favorite show, Once Upon a Time. All of the proceeds Sbarge collected from the autographs and pictures sold were going toward Green Wish, a nonprofit he founded in 2009 that creates new donation opportunities for green charities and projects in local communities. Once again, my interests took me in an interesting new direction, as months after meeting Raphael his message stuck in my mind and I studied Green Wish's mission and model online.

Green Wish's method for supporting local environmental nonprofits is to establish partnerships with local retailers, by providing the retailers with community-customized donation cards to be sold at their registers. The funds generated by these cards are then collected by Green Wish and distributed to the approved nonprofit organizations. Retailers that participate receive a variety of financial and promotional benefits, making the partnership a win for all parties. Green Wish's other programs, such as live events and the recent EEK-O-Halloween drive that is modeled on the annual UNICEF Halloween coin collection, require low involvement on the part of the "target audience" but can yield large rewards toward continued environmental sustainability in your neighborhood.

I am incredibly excited about creating a Green Wish chapter here in Massachusetts, because it is a tremendous opportunity to utilize the leadership skills and creative thinking strategies developed by my marketing and communications education, in order to improve the quality of life in my community. However, the core reason I am taking on this project recalls a thought Raphael Sbarge considered prior to founding Green Wish, which is, "what can we do to protection [a child's] journey in a world as vast and complex as ours." I am hoping to start a family in the near future, and my reply is that I want to set an example for my children, that empathy and consideration for others and your environment is a responsibility of being human. I want to teach them that while fictional heroism is thrilling, real heroism is perfectly ordinary.


I am currently seeking board members for the Massachusetts chapter of Green Wish, including a Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer. These are all volunteer positions, but are a fantastic opportunity to enhance a marketing skill set through work in creative direct marketing, public relations, and event planning (with a highly flexible time commitment), all while making your neighborhood a better place to live! Please leave a comment below if you are interested in learning more.

Additionally, I am participating in the "September" campaign for charity:water, which is working to complete water projects in underdeveloped regions of India. My goal is $450, and I will be matching all contributions up to my goal with a donation to the American Lung Association. You can donate to my campaign here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Building a Diamond Edge

When I was in high school, my grades were always best during wrestling season. Afternoon workouts five days a week, followed by meets on weekends, not only forced me to organize my time, minimizing potential study procrastination, but the regular exercise provided a rush of energy that fueled my focus and motivation for my schoolwork.

Amateur wrestling is one of the most balanced total workouts because rather than building a specific muscle or skill set, equal emphasis was placed on endurance, flexibility, and strength. While I was never able to build up enough real offseason discipline to become a powerhouse, champion wrestler (I also blame my twiggy wrists), I did value the energy and mental rush I gained from these workouts and tried to build a similar regimen when I first entered college. Intermittent attempts at Tae Kwon Do, dance, and intramural sports helped me stay in shape, but it didn't recreate the intensity, structure and competition that kept me motivated through high school.

I feel a major problem with adult fitness is the lack of choice once you leave your undergraduate university. Recreational sports are often difficult to find due to distance, scheduling and structure issues, and a large portion of rec sports are low-intensity, like softball or kickball. Gyms, for many, are limiting - costs are high, there are also time and distance issues, the actual setting can be uncomfortable, and you have to pay extra for structure, in the form of a personal trainer. Running is often the sole option, and no one enjoys running. Runners may values its benefits, but actual running is a miserable experience.

The other problem with adult fitness is of course, adult life. Most people's work days, including commute, account for about 12 hours of the day, with 6-8 hours reserved for sleeping. If you work in marketing or the entertainment industry, like I have, those numbers go up. If you don't make enough money at your office job to eat healthy, you rely on "office freebies" to eat - usually deli sandwiches or pizza. Aging complicates these problems as well. I got through full-contact youth sports relatively injury-free, but I still have a thyroid condition, a chronic lower back problem thanks to a particularly harsh Oom Yung Doe instructor in high school, and knee pain and instability that apparently has no actual cause.

I'm fast approaching 30 (I figure reminding myself often enough will lessen the psychological blow when it actually happens) and in a quest to retain my boyish good looks and body shape I spent several months searching for a workout that would improve my cardio health and keep my weight controlled while minimizing impact to my joints, time and wallet. I found the answer, as I seemingly always do, within pro wrestling.

Diamond Dallas Page was one of the most memorable wrestlers from my youth, first as a sleazy heel World Television champion accompanied by his bombshell valet Kimberly, but later as arguably the most disciplined main event talent in World Championship Wrestling. A meticulous match planner with relentless energy, Page had many of the best matches of the late 1990s with Randy Savage, Bill Goldberg, and Sting. Page's story is even more impressive due to the fact that he didn't even start competing in the ring until he was 35, proving that age does not necessarily inhibit athletic ambition.

Following his retirement from the ring, Page developed his own workout regimen, a modified form of isometric yoga called DDP Yoga. I initially dismissed this workout as another fad, until I came across an article on Deadspin which detailed Page's work to rehabilitate notorious backsliders Scott Hall and Jake Roberts with their drug and alcohol addictions. I was shocked at the progress both Hall and Roberts had made upon reading the article, having understood them as lost causes in the decade plus I've followed their stories through the wrestling media. Further testimonials on the DDP Yoga site have shown the program had significantly improved the health of people with significant physical disabilities, including war veterans, using a fitness program which emphasized minimal joint stress. I knew then there was no excuse not to attempt the program.

I purchased the most basic package (Pack 1) for $70 (far less than recurring gym payments, obviously), which included a poster featuring the different movements, a DVD with six different workouts, and a program guide which provided additional nutritional information. Following the introductory "Diamond Dozen," which demonstrates the proper common movements in the workout programs, and a breathing demonstration, there are four different workouts on the DVD, each focusing on a specific target - energy building, weight loss, abdominals, and the gluteal muscles.

None of the workouts is longer than 30 minutes, which immediately fit my criteria of getting results from a minimal time commitment. The key to performing all the workouts properly is maximizing your "dynamic resistance" - clenching and tensing the proper muscle groups and working through the various yoga/tai chi-style movements as if you are holding invisible weights. The most striking element of the Energy and Fat Burner workouts is how deceptively simple they appear. I passed through both of my first respective attempts with minimal strain, besides the pushups (again, damn you stick wrists)! However, the more often you perform the workouts (sticking to the plan outlined in the program guide) the more you "feel" the activity, both through your heart rate and sweat production. The only workout program on the video that I would deem "advanced" is the abdominal workout, which requires an intensity and increased flexibility I have not attained yet. However, it is also the shortest workout on the video at less than fifteen minutes.

The element of the program I most appreciated was having one of the video participants demonstrate the "modified" positions, which allowed me to move to a position that placed less pressure on sensitive joints and muscles while still being able to work through the various movements effectively. I was also pleasantly surprised that many of the cool down exercises were actually the same core exercises prescribed to me by my physical therapist when my back problem first arose, making me continue an activity I had previously ignored for years.

Thanks to the DDP Yoga program, combined with healthy eating (provided by my fiancé's grocery organization and prodigious cooking), and vitamins, I lost 13 pounds in the first month and a half of the program. My focus and energy levels during the day also returned during this time. I will admit I have lapsed in the past two months, only performing this workout sporadically, and while I haven't regained most of the weight, I have been noticeably more lethargic in speed of motion and thought. I plan on returning to DDP Yoga very shortly, with the clock ticking down to both my 30th birthday and wedding, and also to gain the mental sharpness I need to undertake some large personal projects, which I will also be detailing in this blog soon.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Lyrically Motivated

Success in any venture can be influenced by a multitude of factors, such as natural talent, personality, existing connections, or simply luck, but all of those elements are influenced by the ability to generate and maintain motivation. However, motivation, in my experience, is the most difficult trait to not only maintain, but make a core part of your overall personality.

Motivation levels influence every element of daily activity, and the weekday work routine can grind that level down to zero. Following a nine-hour work day, bookended by a combined two hours of commuting, I personally don't want to do anything other than aimlessly read soccer blogs and play Mass Effect 3 (I've beaten the game twice already, but I need to finish my Renegade, Cortez-romancing games are bad for you, you guys). I'll admit that lack of motivation is the core reason I've only updated this blog once since October 2012, and why my fully outlined fantasy comedy/noir novel has been stuck on page 40 since January.

Yet, particularly in my professional field, living in a market where stable creative marketing jobs are scarce, it's not enough anymore to punch a clock and go home. Achieving the visibility needed to become a financially successful creative marketer requires you to be "on" until you are sleeping. I know four people, all of whom are more advanced in their marketing careers than I am, who also run their own startup firms* and blog regularly.

The next set of posts I plan on writing detail the steps I have taken to try and grow consistent motivation levels, and the one I am highlighting today is finding role models in unconventional channels - artists who have carved their own niche through creativity, hard work and willpower, and carry an inspiring message.

Outside of work, my major interests are in comic books and pop culture. When it comes to those interests, the best site in terms of editorial quality and content diversity is ComicsAlliance, and that site led me to the fantastic world of YouTube musicians.

I've always admired musicians and songwriters because of the multiple intelligences and imagination required to make truly vibrant music. Musicians need to not only be master linguists and imagine the complementary nonverbal tones and beats necessary to create memorable music, but they have to have a confidence and stage presence that connects with audiences at a universal level.

My personal problem with popular music, though (and this is obviously not a new complaint) is that it's too manufactured. Record companies recycle the same songwriters constantly, and the goal of these writers is to apparently ensure the song can fit in a movie trailer. These companies' influence over what airs on major radio stations guarantees their chosen artist becomes popular due to sheer overexposure. The lyrics are so thematically indistinct and artificial that to me it really just becomes noise. Even musical instruments are disappearing. YouTube musicians, despite working in a largely uncharted channel, I feel are taking music back to its roots, letting their creativity run wild in a way that isn't present on the radio dial.

One of the most prominent YouTube musicians and the personification of the channel's vibrant creativity is Lindsey Stirling. I first found out about Lindsey when her Zelda Medley was posted on ComicsAlliance, which led me to track down her other music videos. A classically trained violinist, Lindsey has taken the instrument out of the narrow confines of classical music and into the realms of rock, electronica, dub step, and even nu-metal. Drawing inspiration from video games ranging from Skyrim to Just Dance, as well her own original compositions, Lindsey has parlayed her 2010 quarterfinal appearance on America's Got Talent into a worldwide touring schedule and six-figure record sales without major label backing.

I attended one of Lindsey's concerts this past winter and it's easy to see why she's developed a hugely devoted fan following (nearly every Facebook post she makes has multiple marriage proposals in the comments, in multiple languages) and nearly three million YouTube subscribers. Literally a bodily-kinesthetic genius, Lindsey is self-taught in a hybrid of ballet and club dance, effortlessly floating across the stage while flawlessly playing one of the hardest instruments to master. Her show is a confluence of amazingly detailed costuming, choreography and stage production, creating one of the most enthralling live performances I have ever attended.

Beyond the uniqueness of her music and live performances, Lindsey Stirling's obvious appeal as a role model for motivation is the intensive work she put into growing her personal brand. Acting as her own agent, location scout and seamstress, Lindsey independently produced a tremendous body of musical work, cultivating the needed connections to create professional quality music videos in a variety of evocative settings, while crafting her own costumes and compositions. Her connection to her fans has also not wavered despite her success, holding question-and-answer sessions before her concerts and spreading a message of personal confidence to young adults as a motivational speaker.

Lindsey Stirling is arguably the most successful of YouTube-grown artists, but she is far from the only one breaking through the musical glass ceiling online. I first heard of Adam WarRock as a result of being an unabashed, enthusiastic fan of Chris Haley and Curt Franklin's "Let's Be Friends Again"** webcomic (to the point of wishing I could be their 18th century Europe-style patron so they could create awesome stuff forever). Haley and WarRock (real name Eugene Ahn) co-host the Gravity Falls Gossiper podcast, where beyond talking about the cult Disney Channel show they carry a thoughtful, compelling and often hilarious dialogue about "life and stuff." During a particularly tough time for me mentally, listening to those podcasts got me through the day with a smile, and led me to check out the Adam WarRock catalog in earnest.

A former lawyer who decided to pursue his musical ambitions as a career, Adam WarRock has toured the country as a pioneer of "nerdcore" rap, composing critically acclaimed songs about offbeat pop culture ranging from the X-Men and Firefly to Futurama, Game of Thrones, and Parks and Recreation. What's most impressive about him, beyond his prodigal lyrical talent, is the sheer volume of creativity that pours out of his head. Producing new, free music every week, WarRock has amassed song production in the triple digits in the space of a few years.

I went to the Adam WarRock concert at Comicazi in Somerville last week, and despite the unusual and intimate setting (it was definitely my first time attending a concert surrounded by action figures) it was the only concert I've been to where a smile never left my face. One of Eugene/WarRock's greatest strengths as a performer is his ability to make you feel like you're his best friend even though you've never met. Between songs, he told amusing stories about his friends and past performances with the ease of a seasoned standup comedian, keeping the crowd rapt with attention even when not rapping about "that Hawkguy dude" or ""the Kingslayer".

Beyond his tireless work ethic, what I admire most about Adam WarRock is his advocacy in pop culture as a positive force, especially for young people. His song "Tell Me" is a reassurance to young adults that they should be proud of their interests and to protect them with integrity, which is difficult in a culture where bullying is becoming increasingly invasive and harder to avoid. During the concert he also spoke about how comics and comic shops can create a supportive community for all groups and orientations, which was evident by the friendly atmosphere and frequent regular events at Comicazi.

I am not a musician, beyond a few fractured attempts at playing the guitar in college, but it doesn't mean you can't find sources of motivation outside of your typical aptitudes. The drive, success and positive messages of people like Lindsey Stirling and Adam WarRock has played a huge role in my efforts to effect change for myself, and reinforced my belief that just because you have external and internal challenges to your success, it is not impossible to overcome them and achieve the fulfillment that you want.

*Since I mentioned the startups of people I knew in this post, I thought I would note them here and help with some awareness-driving:
  • The Paper Compass, a creativity coaching and consultancy run by my former graduate professor, Brenna McCormick. You can vote for her and Thomas Vogel's SXSW Interactive panel here.
  • Tidal Strategies, a social media strategy firm co-run by Christine Turnier and Jessica Krywosa, both of whom were a tremendous help in initiating me in the world of higher education marketing.
  • Rogue Social, based in Rhode Island and offering services in PR, social media and events, run by my childhood neighbor and pop culture blogger, Adri Cowan.
**"Let's Be Friends Again," or some form of it, returns to regular posting on September 4th. I'm looking forward to my wedding more, but this is a close second.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Dark Matter in Cultural Collaboration

I have been very disappointed in myself for not posting on this blog since October, particularly since I feel like I have an enormous backlog of topics I want to cover. I have posts half-written in my head about Big Data and its impact on creativity, reviews of documentaries on the creative process starring some of my favorite auteurs, lessons learned from my recent job transition, and even more comic think-pieces. However, even with a lot of milestones and changes going on in my personal life, I've had the time to write all of them, but not the motivation to sit down and sketch out an organized piece.

Unfortunately, the one topic that's spurred me to write immediately is one that might force me to shut down the email account associated with this blog. While browsing my usual news networks last night, I came across the news that Dr. Stephen Hawking pulled out of the Israeli Presidential Conference, joining the "cultural and academic boycott" against Israel. I was so infuriated and disgusted after reading that article that I felt the public thought inhibitors in my brain break and I rushed to my computer.

The Israel/Palestine conflict is (almost literally) the hottest-button topic in world politics and blanketed in a thousand shades of grey. As someone whose formative years took place during the growth of the Internet and is sharply aware of the damage online brain leakings can cause, I'd like to make clear this is not an opinion piece on that issue, and this post is not supporting one nation over another. I would feel exactly the same way if it was an academic and cultural boycott against Palestine, India, Pakistan, North Korea, or I don't know, Micronesia.

Dr. Hawking, beyond his reputation as the most brilliant theoretical physicist and cosmologist in the post-World War II era, is also the world's public face for advanced science in popular culture. I grew up watching Dr. Hawking's likeness on The Simpsons, Futurama and most recently, America's most popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Along with Carl Sagan, Hawking's books (both children's and adult) and documentary specials paved the way for other "celebrity scientists" like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku, helping make daunting subjects like physics more accessible to the public than ever. Hawking's role as the figurehead for all of popular science is, to the world at large, a far greater part of his legacy than his resolution of the black hole information paradox.

Despite Dr. Hawking's obvious brilliance, by joining this boycott he has failed to recognize what was obvious to high school graduate Stan Lee, that "with great power comes great responsibility." Science, and in my opinion especially physics and cosmology, should remind us that there are exponentially greater forces in the universe than what we experience on Earth and as a unified species, we have so much more to strive toward understanding. Science is supposed to appeal toward collaboration among all of humanity in order to build a more livable and enlightened world. Hawking has now utilized his position as the world public's scientific ambassador to endorse shutting off a nation from knowledge sharing, the most basic and essential tenet of the scientific process.

The exclusionary attitude of this boycott is not only the basest and honestly, most obscene form of hypocrisy from a man in Hawking's position, it runs counter to the nature of modern scientific advancement. One of NASA's central figures in the mid-20th century was Wernher von Braun, the "Father of Rocket Science" and developer of the Saturn V launch vehicle used in the Apollo missions. He was also a highly decorated military officer during World War II, and it's fairly easy to guess he didn't work for the Allies. The International Space Station (key word International) is a joint project among the American, Russian, Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies, not exactly a set of groups with complementary agendas. It has been noted in multiple media outlets that the technology that allows Dr. Hawking to communicate is based on work by Intel's technical team in Israel. BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, a biotech firm that's developed an encouraging treatment for ALS, which Hawking has suffered from the majority of his adult life, is also based in Israel.

The basic idea of intercultural relations building knowledge in the global community is hardly new, and dates back to the dawn of civilization. Our modern understanding of mathematics and algebra was cultivated by Arabic cultures in the pre-Rennaissance era. A quick Google search revealed this timeline site which reveals major advances in multiple disciplines originating all over the world dating back to 2400 BCE. You can crack open any history textbook for countless other examples, which makes the concept of "cultural and academic boycott" all the more blasphemous, and Hawking's tacit approval of it all the more disappointing.

The timing of Dr. Hawking's announcement could not be worse, as there is an ongoing struggle in the United States to prevent the marginalization, and in some cases outright exclusion of the scientifically accepted theory of evolution from classrooms. The controversy over the Louisiana Science Education Act has become the most prominent battleground among leading minds for ensuring that all children and young adults are given complete access to knowledge that forms the basis of chemistry, physics and biology. Does Dr. Hawking realize the damage that could potentially be done to that effort, now that one of the world's most recognized scientists has now essentially said that knowledge exclusion is acceptable?

Science, as well as all academic thinking and creative thought, is wholly dependent on open collaboration. No political agenda should ever impede humanity's search for greater knowledge, as a healthy and sustainable cultural dialogue is imperative for humanity as a whole to thrive. I would think that's something that would be universally understood, and it's a terrible shame Dr. Hawking and other figures involved in this boycott do not.