Tuck your shirt in, act like a professional

If you were to ask me ten years ago what I’d be doing now, it wouldn’t involve copywriting, public relations, and corporate reputations. Back then my future was communes, arts bacchanals, and late-night graffiti runs. But here I am; button-up shirts, dress boots, the word “executive” in my job title. And even though the white collar pays, I sometimes feel like a fraud. Like, every weekday from 9 to 5.

There’s no guidebook laying out the path from fringe culture to mainstream professionalism. Or how to find career success without sacrificing your values. Google is clueless for “Top ten ways for a counterculturalist to succeed in the modern workplace.” So that’s what I’m going to start doing with this blog: I’m going to write the guidebook.

I want to get good at my job, truly. I’ve had moderate success as an artist and low-level communications professional, but for the first time in my life, I found something I want to get good at, something I can grow in. And though my career is particular, I think the lessons are universal. I’ll talk about what I’m reading, what I’m learning, and how I’m learning it. I’ll talk about my successes and failures. I’ll talk about the dumb shit people say, and the smart shit you can do to fight it.

Learning how to be “professional” when you came up through counterculture is sort of like showing up at a black tie gala wearing nothing but a Sex Pistols shirt and a strap-on. You’d have a good Vine clip but after your seven seconds it’s back to stealing wi-fi from your upstairs neighbor and wiping coffee grounds from the day-old bagels behind Dunkin Donuts. Which I’ve done more recently than I’d like to admit.

In other words, when you’ve moved into the professional world outside the normal middle-class pipeline, it’s tough. Really tough. Like, tough enough to make you miss living paycheck-to-paycheck. Which isn’t easy, but at least it feels holy, especially when it complements your countercultural credos: art for art’s sake, blessed are the meek, and other platitudes.jpg.

While lots of people have no other option but paycheck living, a smart percentage of artists and other creatives—especially those with college degrees and above-average work training—choose this lifestyle on romantic principle. At least that’s what was doing (or thought I was doing, anyway).

But as I’ve cycled through various jobs, ranging from the shipping docks of a stuffed animal warehouse to myriad offices washed in yellow fluorescence, I started to realize my romanticism was largely a mask for my fear. Because, if I’m being honest, the grown-up world of business is Pretty. Fucking. Terrifying. And I say this as someone with two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, a 401k, and a few good dress shirts.

This professional fear comes from an acute strain of Impostor Syndrome. As a nascent professional, I feel disingenuous more often than not. Partly because it’s also Pretty Fucking Terrifying to willfully let your ideas be challenged and changed. Especially if those ideas had a deep-rooted dogma opposed to any kind of mainstream habituation. As a teenager I took social cues from Karl Marx and Noam Chomsky, political cues from Adbusters and CrimethInc, and business cues from Black Flag and Minor Threat. Industry, infrastructure, finance, marketing, science, and commerce were nothing more than gated communities for the petite bourgeoisie (until I realized that even counterculture is a target market).

I’ll always be sympathetic to counterculture, but the ongoing conversation between it and the so-called mainstream has always polemical. When you come into these ideas as a teenager, it’s easy to become devout. And the longer you stay with your party, the harder it is to leave. Which is why many never do. But no matter what side you’re on, drawing such a hard line between Us and Them never helps with the long game. The more I learn, the more I realize that there are no sides in this game. Only positions and perspectives.

And lately, my perspective has been changing. For the first time ever, I’ve found something I want to get good at. Something that pays well. That I can build a career in. That I can learn from and gain influence in. That I can learn about and master. That I can use to actually help others. Some call it selling out. I call it growing up.

Growth doesn’t happen without some pain. And lately my pain has involved bringing my past ideas and beliefs to bear on my present “professional” goals. Some learn how to be professional from their parents. Others learn it from the system. And a few just have a knack. As a K-12 homeschooler with deeply religious parents, I grew up outside the system. Counterculture was my belief, identity, and eventually, a thin lifeline of small paychecks from low-level jobs barely keeping me on this side of student loan default.

In other words, I’m learning to be professional; to be “successful” in a practical sense. To bring my romanticism to bear on our culture of pragmatism, and to bring my pragmatism to bear on my idealism. How to preserve my values and fine new ones. And even how to build my skills, plan, and share.

And though I’m writing all of this as an informal documentary, I also know there are others out there like me, asking Google questions it can’t answer. I believe we can learn new things—even if they challenge our old ideas—and still preserve our humanity. So let’s get better, together.

“I’m tryin’ to backroads it to Walmart!”

After spending two weeks in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, for the first half of July, I’m officially back in Chicago. At least, my body is. My psyche is still in the desert somewhere. On one hand, it feels like I was gone for a long time. On the other, it feels like I never left Chicago; this small Edgewater apartment, this noisy block where the cars bottom out on the speed bumps, this stupid cat who recently started snoring for some stupid reason.

I wrote a few extended meditations in the desert, but haven’t logged my various stray observations and favorite pictures and so forth. So, here we are—stray observations and some pictures. Enjoy.

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What I Watched in 2014. Including ‘Jack Reacher’ for Some Reason.

Though 2014 was a busy year for me, I managed to fill my downtime with regular doses of B- and C-grade media, and an occasional A-grade treat. And I’ve captured (almost) all of it in the below list that charts all films and TV series I watched during the year. There is a lot more TV and far fewer movies compared to past years, but as our culture increasingly consumes serialized entertainment, this seems a fitting shift.

And because I believe that media help us understand ourselves, others, and the world, I willfully ingested some absolute shit for the sake of social perspicacity (looking at you, Aaron Sorkin). Problem is, when you eat a lot of shit, your brain-stomach gets used to it, and you end up watching Crossroads for your final film of the year. But if I don’t watch Britney Spears movies, who will? How else will I know to drink Pepsi?

When I first started charting my annual entertainment consumption, I was in a strange cinematic phase. I was taking in Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, and others in the Criterion Collection canon like they were minor deities. I was also watching through decades of Razzie winners. So I got a bit of vertigo mixing the high and low like that. As I near the end of my 20’s, I also realize that I have lost a taste for sober existential flicks, but probably because my present life casts me in a leading role. To the point where I wish Bresson’s characters would settle down a little, stop being so hyperactive. Also to the point where I make stupid nerd jokes.

If the titles on this list seem random, it’s because I did most of my movie watching on Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon, and YouTube. Whatever was available was what I would watch. So some of these titles are re-watches and others are because there was nothing better on. And while I enjoy the convenience of these services, sometimes browsing their digital shelves makes me feel like I’m in the VHS section at Village Discount. Sometimes you pick what looks best, and sometimes you pick Jack Reacher.

Best TV from this year was True Detective, Fargo, and Mad Men. Shows like these make me feel not-so-bad about the death of cinema. I also splurged on the full Seinfeld boxset, even though DVDs look more antiquated by the day. Nobody’s streaming the full Seinfeld, so fuck it; disc it is. Favorite movie was Birdman. Also, Interstellar was really well done, even if it was Cosmology for Idiots. Also, the Carlos miniseries is awesome if you ever have six hours to kill. Also x3, Guardians of the Galaxy is a legit fun movie and shows how comic book movies should be done. Also x4, Chris Pratt’s six pack makes me believe that anything is possible. Worst-best movie was Mac & Me, and that needs no explanation. Brought to you by Skittles. Also x5, I guess I saw Battleship? I don’t remember anything from that. Or from most of what else I watched.

You’ll notice a lot of ‘classic’ titles on the list here, too. Stuff like Caddyshack, Airplane, Blade Runner, and other movies everyone is ‘supposed’ to see. Because my wife grew up in the boons of New England, she never got the chance to take in the essentials. So I was happy to re-watch as she got introduced. But in the end she still preferred The West Wing, so I guess I lost.

1. Dream Team (1989)
2. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
3. Vernon, Florida (1981)
4. Red Scorpion (1989)
5. The Turin Horse (2011)
6. Battleship (2012)
7. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
8. Broken City (2013)
9. Pacific Rim (2013)
10. Spring Breakers (2013)
11. Top Gun (1986)
12. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
13. In Like Flint (1967)
14. Computer Chess (2013)
15. The Long Goodbye (1973)
16. Haywire (2011)
17. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
18. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
19. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
20. Her (2013)
21. Rock ‘N Roll High School (1979)
22. Orange is the New Black: Season 1 (2013)
22. Reindeer Games (2000)
23. The Act of Killing (2012)
24. The Octagon (1981)
25. Jack Reacher (2013)
26. Reindeer Games (2000)
27. Gray’s Anatomy (1997)
28. Psycho (1960)
29. Holy Motors (2012)
30. Warrior of the Lost World: MST3K (1993)
31. Double Indemnity (1944)
32. Somebody Up There Likes Me (2012)
33. The Kids Are Alright (2010)
34. Dirty Harry (1976)
35. The Great Outdoors (1988)
36. XXX (2002)
37. Galaxis (1995)
38. Twin Peaks: Season 1 (1990)
39. Twin Peaks: Season 2 (1991)
40. M*A*S*H (1970)
41. Airplane (1980)
42. Harold and Maude (1971)
43. Airheads (1994)
44. Passion (2012)
45. Archer: Season 4 (2013)
46. True Detective: Season 1 (2013)
47. The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1967)
48. Sherlock: Season 1 (2010)
49. Sherlock: Season 2 (2012)
50. The Station Agent (2003)
51. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 1 (1996)
52. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 2 (1997)
53. The Ambushers (1967)
54. Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012)
55. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 3 (1998)
56. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
57. Rapt (2009)
58. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 4 (1999)
59. Gravity (2013)
60. American Hustle (2013)
61. Static (1986)
62. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 5 (2000)
63. Parks and Rec: Season 6 (2014)
64. Don Jon (2013)
65. MST3K: Cave Dwellers (1984)
66. Homefront (2013)
67. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 6 (2001)
68. Peep Show: Season 2 (2004)
69. Crackhouse (1989)
70. Peep Show: Season 2 (2004)
71. Holes (2003)
72. Bob’s Burgers: Season 4 (2014)
73. Men in Black II (2002)
74. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
75. Mad Men: Season 7, Part 1 (2014)
76. Adventures in Babysitting (1986)
77. Over the Top (1987)
78. Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special (2013)
79. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
80. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
81. The Net (1995)
82. Game of Thrones: Season 4 (2014)
83. Fargo: Season 1 (2014)
84. Seinfeld: Season 3 (1992)
85. Seinfeld: Season 4 (1993)
86. Deadwood: Season 1 (2004)
87. Deadwood: Season 2 (2005)
88. Seinfeld: Season 5 (1994)
89. Deadwood: Season 3 (2006)
90. Seinfeld: Season 6 (1995)
91. Seinfeld: Season 7 (1996)
92. Orange is the New Black: Season 2 (2014)
93. Under the Skin (2014)
94. Seinfeld: Season 8 (1997)
95. The Mighty Ducks (1992)
96. Hardware (1990)
97. Seinfeld: Season 9 (1998)
98. The Frozen Ground (2013)
99. Bored to Death: Season 3 (2011)
100. Gross Point Blank (1997)
101. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)
102. The Naked Gun (1988)
103. Office Space (1999)
104. Lolita (1962)
105. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
106. Blade Runner: Final Cut (2007)
107. The Double (2013)
108. A Brief History of Time (1991)
109. The West Wing: Season 1 (1999)
110. The West Wing: Season 2 (2000)
111. Trailer Park Boys: Season 8 (2014)
112. Zelig (1983)
113. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
114. Black Sabbath (1963)
115. Futurama: Season 2 (1999)
116. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
117. Shivers (1975)
118. Slap Shot (1977)
119. Portlandia: Season 4 (2013)
120. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Season 9 (2013)
121. Kingpin (1996)
122. They Came Together (2014)
123. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
124. Snowpiercer (2013)
125. Office Space (1999)
126. Batman (1989)
127. Batman Returns (1992)
128. Last Action Hero (1993)
129. Changing Lanes (2002)
130. Event Horizon (1997)
131. Carlos: Miniseries (2010)
132. The Bad News Bears (1976)
133. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
134. The Omen (1976)
135. Scrooged (1988)
136. Mission: Impossible (1996)
137. The Burbs (1989)
138. Nebraska (2013)
139. Django Unchained (2012)
140. Futurama: Season 3 (2000)
141. Caddyshack (1980)
142. Interstellar (2014)
143. Days of Thunder (1990)
144. The Firm (1993)
145. Sneakers (1992)
146. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
147. Damien: Omen II (1978)
148. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
149. Birdman (2014)
150. The Drop (2014)
151. Black Mirror: Series 1 (2011)
152. Black Mirror: Series 2 (2013)
153. Jumanji (1995)
154. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
155. Mac and Me (1988)
156. Society (1989)
157. Crossroads (2002)

A Thank-You Letter to the Packard Foundation

Have you heard of Vasalgel? It’s a new contraceptive technology for men that’s recently been making news rounds at The GuardianThe Daily MailThe Daily BeastThe New York Times, and others. The short version is that Vasalgel is a safe, non-invasive, non-hormonal, and completely reversible form of male contraception. And if you don’t believe me, read the long version here.

I’ve been following Vasalgel’s progress for a few years and I’ve been excited to see their project gaining traction. In their most recent progress update, they announced a new grant award from the Packard Foundation and asked subscribers to send thank-you letters to the foundation for their support of Vasalgel. Normally I wouldn’t do this, but male contraception has a huge uphill battle to fight. So I wrote a thank-you letter (printed, stamped; real old-school) to the foundation’s director of population and reproductive health, Tamara Kreinin (The David & Lucile Packard Foundation 343 Second Street Los Altos, CA 94022), and I’d like to share the letter with you now (below).

Male contraception’s uphill battle starts in the social thickets. Here are your alpha males who think the penis does as the penis does and, hey, if a baby’s made, not my fault. And here are your pee-shy policy makers who prefer to defer all questions of reproduction to women (while at the same time doing an excellent job inhibiting women’s reproductive rights). And here are your political pedants who’d rather spend billions on chemicals and laws to curb ovulation than on finding a way to turn sperm ‘off’ for a while, which conceptually seems like it’d be far more simple. But what fun is birth control if it’s not increasing cancer risks, causing permanent reproductive damage, and upsetting psychological balances? Especially if it happens to women and not me in my Ford F-450 on my way to the gun range where I can compare calibers with my bros.

This is why I support Vasalgel and will do what I can to bring this product to market. Other dudes—those who have hetero sex and those who don’t—should do the same.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Ms. Kreinin,

I’m writing to thank you and the Packard Foundation for your recent gift to Vasalgel. As a proponent of reproductive rights, I’ve been following Vasalgel’s progress for a number of years and it’s incredibly exciting to see their project gaining steam.

In Vasalgel’s mailing list update from November 5th, they announced their grant award from the Packard Foundation and invited mailing list subscribers to thank you personally. Because of the positive life changes Vasalgel promises to deliver, I’ve become a vocal supporter of their project to provide a new, safe form of birth control and destigmatize male reproductive rights. And as a potential future user of their technology, I want to do everything I can to help bring their product to market. If that starts with a simple thank you, count me in.

I’ve been married almost five years and birth control is always a concern, especially due to the financial stresses that would materialize if we were to unexpectedly conceive. I hated seeing the damage ‘the pill’ was having on my wife—from severe mood fluctuations to loss of sexual appetite—and as we all know, condoms are a bummer. She’s since switched to an IUD which has so far been effective, though we’ve had countless conversations over the years ending with a depressed wish that there existed a simple, effective male birth control solution. When I first heard of Vasalgel, I wanted to know where to sign.

It has been really exciting watching Vasalgel’s success in the lab. With continued financial support from organizations such as yours, Vasalgel will be able to continue cutting through the red tape and bring their product to market. And I’ll be standing first in line, looking forward to worry-free birth control a new era of reproductive rights. The Packard Foundation benefits, and so does humanity. It’s a win-win. Sex needs only chemistry, not chemicals.


With Gratitude,

Benjamin van Loon
Writer, Marketer, Married Guy

Freedom From Religion

Pleased to announce that I’ve placed in the 2014 Brian Bolton Graduate/Older Students Essay Contest, offered by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The essay had to answer “why ‘Religious Liberty’ does not mean the right to impose your religion on others,” and though I played by the rules on this particular submission, I’m glad to see my literary conservatism pay off. I still owe $499 for my fall semester at NEIU, so the $500 award seems almost providential. Also, I’ve now received scholarships from a Muslim foundation, a Jewish foundation, and a secularist foundation. What does this make me? Mega PoMo? Broadcast-ready on NPR? Do I need to start wearing a cape?

I can’t post the full essay here, but I’ll post a snippet and then provide a link to the full version once FFRF posts it next month. And the snippet:

The First Amendment establishes freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and most importantly, freedom of religion. In emphasis of this importance, the amendment opens with the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses that state, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Thomas Jefferson sums up the implication of these clauses in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, that with this rule in place, there is erected “a wall of separation between Church & State.”

On paper, the separation seems like it should work, but two centuries later the amendment is still contentious. Though we’re reading the same law they ratified in 1791, its words are weighed, conveyed, and parlayed according to an entirely different historical rule—and under our present paradigm, religious liberty is what’s at stake.

Stay tuned for more soon.

Everything Loose Will Land

“Tip the world on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”

Once said Frank Lloyd Wright, famously smug. In his mind was the teenage City of Angels, then and now a sprawling metropolis of traffic jams, cultural piracy, and media cacophony. Angelenos had no innate culture but for those rootless scraps landing from elsewhere, and so emerged the LA style of denuded cool. It was a raucous period extending from the end of the 1960s into the early 1980s where there emerged a new context formed by accord between art and architecture and contest between commerce and creativity. The dynamics of this period are what curator Sylvia Lavin explores in ‘Everything Loose Will Land’ at the Graham Foundation’s Madlener House in Chicago, Illinois.

The exhibit arrived in spring 2014 in Chicago after an inaugural 2013 appearance in LA (obviously), at the Mak Center’s Schindler House, and an interim show at Yale’s Paul Rudolph Hall Exhibition Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. And for a exhibit documenting the emergence of an aesthetic common language from a place without one, that Lavin’s curation appears in Chicago—a city connected to LA by federal governance and not much else—adds a hint of irony to the show’s coy celebration of creative cross-pollination between art and architecture.

Included in the exhibition are 120 drawings, photographs, models, sculptures, and multimedia-miscellany from names like Judy Chicago, Frank Gehry, Cesar Pelli, Denise Scott Brown, Maria Nordman, Coy Howard, Craig Hodgetts, Ron Herron, and many others. The Madlener House, a 1902 mansion designed by Frank Lloyd Wright-contemporary Richard E. Schmidt, and present home to the Graham Foundation, hosts the exhibition on its main and second floors. A cardboard sculpture of Bloxes greets you in the main foyer. It has no explicit connection to Lavin’s exhibition but implicitly comments on the malleability of retrospection; a tongue-in-cheek welcome to how ‘Everything Loose’ celebrates the varied.

The works are arranged into four distinct categories—Environments, Users, Procedures, and Lumens—which the brochure copy declares as four triggers “that caused architecture to coincide with other art forms as it sought to engage in this new cultural logic [emergent in 1970s in LA].” It’s not immediately obvious that this is the intention for the exhibit’s organization, though whatever feelings of disarray one senses walking through the rooms is likely postmodern reverb from the aesthetic discord of 1970s LA, emanating from many pieces as a dull glow.

In Lumens, on the second floor of the gallery, a five-foot-tall blue plexiglass pane, designed by Cesar Pelli and Victor Gruen Associates, reflects Connections, a geometric glass and wood sculpture by Frank Gehry and Richard Serra. Behind that, Billy Al Bengston’s Tubsteak, iconoclastic and psychedelic, lacquer on formica. On the northern wall, four flatscreens with obscure footage by Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, John Whitney, and Eric Saarinen (son of Eero, who introduced the 20th Century to extraterrestrial architecture). In the room on the opposite side of the wall plays a film by Environmental Communications, originally installed in 1977 at LACMA.

The first floor is dedicated to Users and Environments. Unlike the white walls of the upper floors, the main floors pop with the fluorescent pinks and golds of painter Judy Ledgerwood’s Chromatic Patterns installations. These are floor-to-ceiling paintings reimagining baroque window screens against two-dimensional drywall, and much like the Bloxes, separate but complementary of Lavin’s selections. Collages by Ron Herron (Archigram), one-off catalogs and publications by Judy Chicago and Leon Koren, event posters by Morphosis, and handwritten notes from artist and architecture studios, present a multi-sensate visual mediated not only by materials (large plastic bubbles guard ephemera in appropriately space-aged fashion) but also by time itself.

Lavin calls the “cultural epistemology” emergent in 1970s LA a product of looseness and a “precise model city of the future.” Her exhibition highlights the interchange between the visual and architectural arts that, at the pinnacle of the postmodern era, established contexts for new cosmopolitan languages, apparitions, and celebrations. ‘Everything Loose’ suggests that culture, like matter, does not disappear; it lands.

[This article was written for the 2014 Frieze Writer’s Prize, which I am proud to add to my growing list of contests lost. I hope you’ve enjoyed my failure.]