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Individuality is everything. When I die, put these words on my tombstone. But before you do, be sure I'm cremated.

Ah to be a kid again! Remember those worry-free days? As a child, my thoughts took the form of daydreams, heady imaginings, idle fancies, call them what you will. I remember in the seventh grade, my most persistent concern was how to wear my hair the next morning, whether to blow-dry and spray my bangs in place or part to the side with gel. But then something happened. Actually it happened before I was 13. As a fifth grader, the teacher began assigning us homework. Suddenly our after-school focus was no longer exclusively on fun but had to make room for the 2 hours of busy work including grammar, algebra, essay-writing and Bible studies we were made to do each night before bedtime. How could I enjoy myself even while at soccer practice when I had a test the next day? But at least as children most of us get the basic tasks done for us. Our meals are prepared, room is cleaned, we are practically dressed and taken to and from school so we can spend our childhood without these cares. 

This changes in adulthood, for some earlier than for others. For me it was in college, actually before. As a high school senior I got a job waiting tables. Soon I began chipping in with expenses, making and buying my own food, cleaning up after myself with a thoroughness that would have impressed our housekeeper had she not moved back to Guatemala. Suddenly there was so much stuff to do. And still I had my schoolwork! The phrase used to be "I think, therefore I am." This is by the French philosopher Descartes, who must have had a lot of time on his hands. The motto in the harried modern world seems to have become "I fret, therefore I exist."

Something else happened in elementary school. I went to parochial school, where students wore uniforms. The boys dressed in blue corduroy and white collared shirts and the girls wore plaid skirts. We had to sit in rows and recite in unison at the teacher's prompting. We had to memorize poems. If there is a better way to make a child not appreciate Robert Frost than by making him commit "Stopping by Woods" to memory and regurgitate it on command as he stands in front of his snickering classmates, I have yet to come across it - though I'm sure the nuns will devise a newer brand of torture if it exists. "And miles to go before I sleep" indeed.

As my worry grew, my individuality was taken from me. And individuality is everything! One of my favorite passages in all of literature reads: "There are those who barter [individuality] for security, those who repress it for what they believe is the betterment of the whole society, but blessed in the twinkle of the morning star is the one who nurtures it and rides it, in grace and love and wit, from peculiar station to peculiar station along life's bittersweet route."

The morning star is the planet Venus appearing in the east before sunrise. It is also used to designate Jesus, and ironically, Satan. Hey, both dudes were consummate individuals.

How many of what we do is conditioned by society, influenced by others? All the pastimes and pressing engagements. What we eat for breakfast, the clothes we wear. Our political beliefs, and morality. We watch the shows our friends watch, raise our kids as our parents raised us (despite our efforts to the contrary). Chances are you got your hairstyle from a magazine or celebrity, whose perfume you've also made a mental note to at least give a spritz (I've thus far resisted Johnny Depp's Sauvage but don't know how much longer I can hold out). You read what the tabloids tell you is a must-read. Maybe it's LA, but everyone around town seems to drive either a Range Rover or a Mercedes, as if these were the only two vehicles on the planet. Every guy is pasty, exercises in ill-fitting athletic Ts, and sports a paunch. And what chick under the age of say 40 isn't trying to mimic Kardashian's unnaturally full lips and bulbous backside?

Does individuality even exist anymore or has everyone resigned themselves to a cookie-cutter existence? How to live authentically in an age of mass-hypnosis and the relentless assault of our attention by marketing schemes? How to be truly who you are meant to be, the best version of yourself, without cutting yourself off from others completely and being like an island isolated at sea? This is the question of all questions.

Start by ceasing to think what others want you to think. It all begins in the mind, and ends there as well. Don't watch the news. Yesterday my father sends me this e-mail, its title: "example of mainstream media distorting news coverage." Beneath it my father writes: "The media have their own agenda so they will distort their coverage accordingly. It's called 'mind fucking.'" 

Not the most enjoyable topic to consider on a Sunday afternoon. Indeed his words gave me indigestion. 

Without clicking on the link I wrote: "Because it sells." 

Dad's reply: "The liberal media have an agenda and damn the facts which conflict with their agenda. In this case, all but Fox News were against Trump. To show a black woman urging the rioters to 'take it to the suburbs' would demonstrate the potential that blacks are a threat to middle class suburbanites thus influencing the vote of both white liberals and educated blacks who vote Democrat."

To which I wrote: "The media airs what appeals to viewers, that is, what titillates. And this is usually violence and controversy. Since news shows overemphasize shootings and bombings and catastrophes, they give the false impression that these unfortunate events are all that occur when in fact tragedy constitutes a small fraction of the events of everyday life. This coverage, skewed to what evokes one’s fight or flight mechanism and activates stress hormones, gives a distorted picture of reality. Fox News especially, since all they seem to feature are blustering hotheads talking about some version of how the sky is falling. Until programs such as these devote at least a portion of their coverage to such things as people lending a hand to their neighbors, trying to be better individuals, dealing with personal travails and other such seemingly non-noteworthy features, which actually form the bulk of daily life, they can justifiably be accused of distortion. Such coverage as I see it is really not worth the sane and healthy person’s time. Which is why I do not watch the news."

And neither should my dad, because though he'd never admit so much, the media was definitely activating his stress response by making him afraid. Race riots is the fear du jour.  (I'm not afraid. And neither should you be. Because we're all black. We all hail from Ethiopia, so many sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, or Lucy if you believe anthropologists.) News and shows and the advertisements that bracket news and shows and are interspersed throughout, sometimes subtly via product placement and a casual line of dialogue endorsing a convenience item, are subtly and not so subtly conditioning you on how to feel, how to think, and how to live your life. Leaving aside the fact that being stressed by catastrophes is unhealthy, and purchasing whatever you are told to purchase can quickly leave you without a pot to piss in, who in her right mind wishes to be a follower? 

Have some originality, for Godsakes. God knows I try. I listen to Sarah McLachlin. Heard of her? It's unlikely, if you're a heterosexual male. I run 30 to 50 miles a week. I did not grow up with anyone who ran this much. I picked up the habit on my own for the health benefits, the challenge, the enjoyment. I run barefoot without having any barefoot running friends. I have written a half dozen novels. I do not know anyone in the literary field. None of them have sold, likely because I do not know anyone in the literary field. Or because they all suck. I wear my hair long and use hoop earrings in each ear despite the constant urging of friends to quit being stuck in the 80s. (Actually, I started wearing hoops in the 90s.) But I look like a heavy metal reject because I feel like it, because having short hair requires too much time and maintenance, and maybe because I simply do not wish to fit in. Your appearance is a statement to the world. I'm not saying I'm perfectly original. Everything I think or do has been inspired or influenced by others, maybe not in my immediate social sphere but via what I read or (yikes!) what I see on TV on the rare occasion that I watch it. But I'm aware of this influence and conditioning as it happens, and so I can choose to adopt the next fad or, far more frequently, leave it for the sheep. May you not be among them.

Scientists say that the unconscious mind, the part of your psyche that you are not aware of, perceives everything. Every license plate number you encounter on the road, every word uttered in that crowded restaurant, every product placement item in that show you binge watch on Netflix. The more you expand your consciousness by becoming aware of your surroundings and your inner environment, the more you become in touch with the subtle forms of conditioning ever-present around you, and you finally break the mold. Then, when you give in to societal pressure, you do so consciously, which is to say, of your own free will. Thus you maintain your individuality and authenticity even while seeming to fit in and be like everybody else. 

Whatever you choose to do or not to do, I strongly advise growing your hair as long as you can and going without shoes as often as possible. I promise you'll thank me.


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