Cherish Your Time as an Individual

Matter cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be manipulated and transferred. Every piece of us is as old as the universe, though the particular arrangement of matter in you does not even date back a year: each atom in our bodies is replaced every year. You undoubtedly have an atom that is part of your body that was part of someone else’s body at some point.

Perhaps we all started as one energy and will all coalesce into one energy again some day, where negativity will cease, and we will exist eternally as one in nirvana. (“Life is a waterfall, we’re one in the river and we’re one again after the fall.” -System of a Down)

In the grand scheme of things, our time on earth is short. Some people take this to mean it is insignificant. They say, we are all one, and being an individual is an illusion. And that may be true. But don’t you think there is a point of us being an individual, for however short it may be?

What I’m saying is, if we exist for the rest of eternity as one energy, then we should cherish this short opportunity to be an individual. It is a stress on our being, or our collective being to be an individual, but that makes me think there is much to gain.

Exercise is stress that makes us stronger. Trials and tribulations grow us. The pressure of academics makes us smarter. Could the stress of being an individual for 80 years make each one of us a stronger puzzle piece, so that when we all finally come together to form the puzzle, the entire puzzle is stronger?

So yes, if you hurt others you are just hurting yourself in a sense. But that does not mean you should be a slave to others either. Use this opportunity as an individual to see what can be accomplished by one specific piece of the universe. In the end, anything you gain individually will be gained by all of humanity.


Music or Magic Spells: What’s the Difference?

There is that certain part of your favorite song that always seems to cut deep inside you. It makes you invigorated, it makes you cry, or it makes you laugh. You want to belt it out, and dance to the rhythm. I have been to a lot of concerts, and when that song that I am waiting for comes on, it is like being in a different world. Without any mind-altering substances added, standing there with the crowd as the booming music ripples through me, I feel it. The magic of music.

Magic is a weird thing. The definition seems tough to nail down. Many people from centuries ago would think the way I am writing this post, the way it is being transmitted to you, and the way you are reading it is all magic. Since it is not mysterious to us (well actually, I am not super well versed in exactly how all this technology works, but I digress) we do not consider it magic. It is not supernatural, it is technology.

But if I conjured a fireball in my hands, would that be magic? What if it was then explained by science, and we found out there is a legitimate explanation for how I did this? Magicians don’t really do magic, they perform illusions. But if magic is simply influencing things without a clear method; effecting the course of events with mysterious or supernatural means… well that would seem to fit the definition. I don’t know how magicians do most of their tricks, so it is mysterious to me. Even if it is slight of hand, could that not be considered magic, since it is still not very clear how the slight of hand was achieved?

My point is: what’s the difference between magic spells and music? I would say the difference is success rate and fine tuning. I don’t know any magic spells that work, but I know songs that work in some ways to do some things. There are songs that work to make me happy, or energetic, or pumped up, or relaxed. Is that so different than chanting a magic spell: and mysteriously influencing a person’s mood?

But we are all so different (like puzzle pieces) that the same song is not going to always work the same on every one of us. You might have no use for country, while a certain country song might make me feel like the world is my oyster. Why rely on snake oil placebo elixirs in a vial when we have real magic spells in the speakers?

In lore there are incantations and chantings that give life, sew death, change attitudes, and influence the material world. But is not much truth conveyed in tales and myths? Perhaps songs are a primitive form of magic. Music is certainly involved in essentially all worship in one way or another. We have songs for hope, songs for change, songs for sport, songs for play. Is it so far fetched to think that with a little fine-tuning we could create “spells” that work on almost everyone?

There are patterns of music that people like. Many of the top songs use a very similar arrangement of tunes. Pachelbel’s Cannon in D can be heard in countless songs, as this comedian points out.

So can you explain why Pachelbel’s Cannon in D hits a chord with so many music enthusiasts? If not, then this fits the definition of magical. It is influencing us through means that we do not fully understand. Another example is this mashup of 6 hit country songs, check it out.

There is an official explanation for why we like certain songs: human brains like patterns but get bored easily. So if there is a pattern that changes slightly with each verse, our brains enjoy it because we eventually feel smart when we not only recognize the pattern, but can predict how that pattern will change slightly the next go around.

But still, someone just got inside our brains and influenced us, and we were powerless to resist. And playing the numbers, it seems certain types of songs are able to affect the masses; they know which spells will work. Taylor Swift must have some very powerful sorcerers working for her.

I know it happens to you too, you hear some crappy song once in the store, and then you are whistling it all day because it’s so damn catchy! It’s catchy because someone just cast a magic spell on you, and you go around spreading this spell to others who may also get the tune stuck in their head, for better or for worse.

Please share your thoughts below, I would LOVE to get a discussion going on this topic. But let me leave off by attempting to cast a spell on you all. This one is a calming spell intended to also elicit empathy for your fellow humans.

Exclusive Interview with Photographer Ben Mancino

I was thrilled when I got to participate as a gas-mask-wearing model for Ben Mancino’s photography project, Fears, Nightmares, and Dreams Collide. Now I am thrilled to present an interview with Ben Mancino! You won’t find this anywhere else, and you might just learn a thing or two about your new favorite photographer.


Award Winning “Shoot the Wild” Photograph by Ben Mancino

Ben Mancino is the 2014 winner of the Shoot the Wild International Wildlife Photography Award. Check out Ben’s website and like him on Facebook!

Joe: Tell me a little bit about your philosophy as an artist.

Ben: I believe that your fans should be able to afford your work, plain and simple.  They are the ones who turn your dream into a success. I treat customers the way that I would like to be treated by my favorite artists. My philosophy is to create art for myself and then share it for the world to see. I have always been my own favorite artist and I am a firm believer that there is nothing wrong with being your own favorite artist.

My friends constantly quote me saying “I don’t know… I thought it looked cool.” If I could drill one thing into people’s heads it is that you can capture an amazing picture with no underlying meaning, intent, or hidden message and it can still be AMAZING!


Joe: I agree that many have the drive to become an artist of one sort or another because they indeed are one of their own favorite artists. No one gets to the top thinking they suck. But what would you say to someone who thinks you are cocky or full of yourself when you say you are your favorite artist?

Ben: Well, I have only encountered this problem once in my life and it with one of my college professors.  He had us introduce ourselves one by one and share with the class who our favorite artist was.  When it was my turn I introduced myself shared that I was my own favorite artist.  He told me that it was an unacceptable answer and that I had to choose a different artist.  I saw two problems with this.  One, my professor wasn’t an artist so how could he understand the emotion and vision that goes into the artwork?  Two, he should be encouraging students to become their favorite artist by helping them hone their talents and skills to create artwork that they believe should exist in this world.  If Van Gogh has the right to be his own favorite artist, than I have every right to be my favorite artist. The same applies to every medium in the arts; in the music industry Beyonce has every right to be her favorite singer and performer because she controls every detail that goes into her work which is all a part of her artistic vision.  I just compared myself to Beyonce and Van Gogh but I think that you get my point?

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely have favorite artists whose work I love and respect (Martin Stranka, Martin Stavars, Alex Creo) I’m just my own #1 fan. I love to let my images speak for themselves but I am working on striking the balance between advocating my talent and avoiding overstepping my boundaries and appearing like a pompous prick.  I think that my pricing philosophy speaks wonders about who I am as an artist.  I cannot afford my favorite artists photography because their work is sold in limited quantities at a hefty price.  I like to treat my fans how I wish to be treated which is why I create affordable options (treat others how you would like to be treated, thanks Mom & Dad).  I also allow my fans to customize orders so if they want a specific photo on a t-shirt or greeting card, I can do that for them.  It makes my job fun and it makes my clients satisfied.

Whenever I meet new people I typically ask, “what is your name and who is your favorite photographer?”  The answer almost 99% of the time is, “I don’t have one” and the remaining 1% says, “Ansel Adams.”  To which I then respond, “It is nice to meet you.  My name is Ben Mancino, your new favorite photographer.”  It works just about every time.

In my opinion it has been way overdue since we have had an iconic photographer that is widely recognized by the general public.  I would like to earn that spot.  You do not need to be considered the “best” in order to be the favorite.  My slogan is, “If I am not already your favorite photographer, you have not seen enough of my pictures yet” which always gets a reaction out of people.

Joe: Can you expand on your “It looked cool” philosophy?

Ben: I sell my art to everyday folks instead of only focusing on elite art collectors because I am a no-bullshit kind of guy when it comes to art.  If I cannot look at a piece of art and enjoy it for aesthetic purposes, then I am not going to buy it regardless of the story behind it.  If there is a good story behind the art; good job, you’re a story teller, not a fine artist.

My high school had an art and literary magazine called, “The Labyrinth” which held annual meetings where student members would critique and vote on anonymous artwork/poetry to be selected for the publication.  One year I submitted a photo of my cat that I casually thought looked “cool.”  As the students surrounding me tried to dig deep into the photograph one of the students said, “The artist was going for the Mona Lisa in cat form.”

That was the moment that I realized that nobody in the world (not even an art historian) can interpret a piece of art from the thoughts of the artist.  Since it was anonymous, I couldn’t just speak up and say, “Well actually, I thought that it was just a cool picture of my cat.”  I felt like I was the deceased artist and the student was the art historian formulating her own interpretation which was then adopted by everyone else in the room.  Despite the interpretation being completely off, I now call the photograph, “Mona Lisa Cat.”


Joe: I was lucky enough to appear in your last series, “Fears, Nightmares, & Dreams Collide” which included a gas mask, red balloons, and levitation.  It seems to have provoked quite a response, what made you choose to do this series?

Ben: Where to begin? I was always fascinated by photography involving balloons, levitation, and gas masks.  I came up with the idea for the series one day when there was a power outage. I closed my eyes and let inspiration from the past create visual scenes using all three themes.  I sketched out about eighteen ideas that I wanted to re-create in photographic form.  I ordered an air soft gas mask that day and made a status on my facebook asking if anyone would like to model for a new series that I was planning.  I received over 11 responses within a few hours which was amazing.

A few times my friends and I had to climb a mountain, including the shot where one of my models (little brother), Greg Garvey, is “levitating” with a plane in the background that looked like a shooting star. He said the funniest thing to me one time, “I always thought that photography was really planned out, with fancy lights, and models, and not like, “GO GO GO, GET IN THE CAR! WE NEED TO CHASE THE SUNSET,” give a few instructions, and manage to capture the perfect shot with a plane in the background on the third try.  And yes, I did really get the shot on the third try, it was incredible.


Joe: Why the red balloon?

Ben: People always ask why the red balloon? So here I am to clear that up for all of those curious folks out there.  Imagine the series with any other color balloon… I don’t think that the “fear” factor would be present.  Sometimes I even get freaked out a little by the pictures and it makes me extremely proud to know that I can provoke that reaction within myself by looking at my artwork.  So the red balloon decision was based on artistic aesthetics rather than a deeper psychological message which may make a few people sleep a bit easier tonight.

Joe: It makes me think of the song 99 Red Balloons, which I believe had something to do with panic starting a nuclear war. The red balloon had nothing to do with that song?

Ben: Nope, not at all.


Joe: What is one of your pet peeves?

Ben: There is something about idolizing an artist whose work you will never be able to afford due to their pricing that leaves you feeling unsatisfied.  I never want people who appreciate my art to feel that way. The way I see it, the Mona Lisa has thousands if not millions of replications in the form of postcards, t-shirts, posters, etc.  If anything, the Mona Lisa has increased in value.  I like to think of my photographs in the same way.  The photograph is a masterpiece in itself, and therefore it should be made accessible to anyone who appreciates it enough to purchase it.

Joe: How do you go about pricing your prints?

Ben: Whenever I ask my friends how much they think a product of mine costs, they usually begin with, “I don’t really buy art so I have no idea where to start”. My friend unintentionally nailed the problem on the head.  It isn’t rare for someone not to know the price of art.  It is sold everywhere, by different artists, at different prices, and how can you really keep track of all the various factors that add up to the total price?

Typically fine artists believe that lower prices reduces the value of their work.  I believe that low prices will mean that more fans can enjoy my work.

Joe: You talk a lot about individual “consumption” of your art, but I know that you have also been featured in magazines, and won at least one photo contest. Do you have a vision for how your art might be distributed in terms of more commercial methods, for instance to be used in advertisements, or magazines? Would this fit with your idea of offering affordable art work, or would you feel like you were “selling out” in some ways?

Ben: I personally don’t see making commercial negotiations as “selling out.”  I just tried to imagine what “selling out” would look like and I imagined my prints being sold at WalMart.  I wouldn’t mind selling my books there… but fine art prints being sold at WalMart isn’t my style. I want people to come to my shop to get an exclusive product that they can’t find anywhere else.

If Nikon asked me to use one of my photos for an advertisement, you can bet that I would say yes under the right agreements; meaning that I would retain full ownership of my photograph. Since I shoot with a Nikon and love the brand, that deal would align with my values. If Olympus asked me to use a photo, no offense to them, but I wouldn’t let them use a photo that I took with a Nikon camera, it just wouldn’t make sense.  As long as I negotiate offers that align with my values, I will be able to sleep at night.  Since I am trying to reach new fans and build a wider audience, I think that increasing the use of my photography in advertisements and magazines would be extremely beneficial towards my goals.

Joe: Photography seems to be ever more competitive as practically everyone has a camera everywhere they go.  How do you try to differentiate from your competition?

Ben: To be honest, I do not view the photography industry as competition.  I have been taking pictures since I was in seventh grade which equates to over a decade now.  I have always picked the camera up for myself, so regardless of the industry trends; I will still be here taking pictures.  I see the world in terms of photographs waiting to be captured and that is what drew me into photography in the first place.  I remember browsing on Getty Images, PhotoBucket, and Myspace searching for photographic inspiration in my early teens.  I finally reached a point where I decided, “I want to be able to take a picture of anything I want, and have it look exactly the way I want it.”  I ended up getting my first camera, a Kodak Z740 on December 25th, 2004 A.D. and the journey began from there.

Joe: Have you ever had a vision that you wanted to create through photography, but simply could not get right? In other words, can you talk a bit about coming up short when you were not able to capture something to your standards, or the way you envisioned it in your head?

Ben: Yes, of course! There are always limitations to each idea; the fun part is working around these limitations and letting the idea evolve.  For example, one of the images that I had envisioned from my last series involves the mask emerging from the water with fog in the foreground.  Every time I waited for the local lake to produce steam, it wasn’t enough to create the effect that I was looking to capture.  I looked into buying dry ice for the shoot but I want to make the photo look as authentic as possible.  Whenever I cannot re-create a vision I store the ideas away for a later time in my career when I will have the flexibility and resources to create them.  So in a way, I deal with it by extending the deadline for certain visions and in the meantime I come up with new projects and ideas so that I’m not stuck on the same idea for too long.


Humanity is a Puzzle, and We are the Pieces

In my humble opinion, a good analogy to describe humanity is a puzzle. When put together, a puzzle becomes one; it forms an image that cannot be gathered from any individual piece of the puzzle. The end goal of course is to have one complete puzzle, but what makes it a puzzle? If it were a photograph or a painting, it would be one cohesive entity. The unique thing about a puzzle is that it is made up of individual pieces that must fit together in order to form the larger image.

And that makes us, each individual, a puzzle piece. As pieces, we are not whole when the puzzle lies apart, deconstructed. We desire to fit in seamlessly with the pieces around us. But we need not host the entire image, we are only each a small piece that makes up the entire image. Do not confuse being an individual piece, however, with being expendable.

You see, every puzzle piece is unique. No other piece can take its place and still form the proper larger image. A puzzle is incomplete if even one of the pieces is lost or destroyed. This makes the individual pieces as important as the larger image. The larger image cannot exist without the individuals that make it up.

The reason I am explaining this is that some seem to view individuals as unimportant and worthless. I wholeheartedly disagree. Without individuals, there is no humanity, so how can you say that the pieces which make up the whole are unimportant? What many mean is that any one piece is not important for the larger structure to come together.

Again, I disagree. Something will be missing in the larger picture if we do not treat each individual as the important, unique puzzle piece they are. We are all connected, or at least the potential for us to all be connected exists. As individual puzzle pieces, our ultimate desire is to become one.

This is akin to what many religions believe happens after death. The reason we cannot imagine paradise, heaven, or perpetual bliss is because we are coming from the perspective of a puzzle piece, and the ultimate reward is to exist as a puzzle, all put together with no missing pieces.

I see this as the source of hate, jealousy, fear, regret, doubt, and insecurity. We are uncomfortable existing as puzzle pieces when we know our ultimate and complete state is as one puzzle. But we are comforted when we connect to other puzzle pieces around us. It feels right to love. It feels right to be connected to those people around you with whom you fit.

We desire to be part of a group, but the group needs the right pieces in order to exist. The parts must not be random, there are specific pieces that fit into other pieces. This is what our lives are about, understanding our own shape as a puzzle piece so that we may find the pieces with which we seemlessly fit, doing our part to complete the puzzle, and become whole.

And when you are a part of a group, a loving family, a tight knit cluster of friends, you feel a glimpse of that joy that comes from being whole. Of course the entire puzzle may not be constructed, but we relax and feel in control when our own section starts to form. And darkness overcomes us when we try to force two pieces to fit together, when they are not meant to.

So remember, do not destroy or damage other pieces, as the whole picture will then be unable to come together. Each puzzle piece is important, including yourself. Connect with those that you fit with, but do not force a connection when it is wrong. In time you will all be one, but the puzzle must be naturally constructed.

And when all the pieces fall tightly into place and we exist as a puzzle, as one, we will all forget what it felt like to be a piece of a puzzle, and live on endlessly as one, unfathomably content because we are complete.

2015: The Year of Writing

A new year can be invigorating. It can afford the opportunity to sort of wipe the slate clean, and start fresh. You can be motivated to organize, and set some goals. Unfortunately the classic “I’m going to go the the gym,” goal represents how most New Year’s resolutions go. You go to the gym for a week (maybe), and then slump back into the old ways.

Well many of my old ways aren’t so bad in my opinion, so it is just a matter of adjusting. Resolutions and goals do not have to be life altering or unrealistic. I wonder if some people would continue going to the gym if their goals were more realistic, like going once a week to start–that’s not so hard.

So my goal is to become a billionaire author and voice of a generation. Just kidding, that’s the five year goal, gotta give myself a little time after all. But last year I wrote a book, which I have been editing. Within a month I want to finish editing it, and send it to a couple small publishers to see what happens. I also have a couple other fiction projects I have planned out and begun to work on. I am really excited about writing books, so why not use that energy to propel the projects further.

Now that I know I can write a book, it will make working on the next one even easier because there is light at the end of the tunnel. I know my hard work is not doomed to be set aside on a table; I can finish writing a book, and have. That means I can chip away at it without fear of incomplete manuscripts piling up.

Before, I have felt slightly trapped in limbo in terms of my goals. I like writing, but I was trying to focus on blogging and government mostly. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and for a long time I held onto the notion of entering politics. These days it is like I have awoken from a bad dream. I’m going to keep blogging, but focus mainly on writing fiction, instead of spreading myself too thin with other fruitless and time consuming activities.

But as a reader, there should be some fun posts to look forward to in the coming month. I am going to team up again with my photographer friend Ben Mancino for an interview, live a couple weeks on a strict food budget, and maybe talk a bit about the magic of music, how songs aren’t so different from spells.

I’m excited and invigorated, and I hope you are too! But the good news is, I’ll be here when you need a solid injection of positivity, or at very least distraction.