What Really Matters

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

– Oscar Wilde

Everybody – except maybe comedians – wants to be taken seriously.

I don’t mean that they need or want – except maybe undertakers – people to attend their every utterance with a solemn look and a furrowed brow.  They just want others to judge them not by their beauty  or intelligence  – or lack thereof – but by their inner truth, by who They Really Are.

The woman who has put on 100 pounds since her wedding day yet can’t comprehend why her husband has developed a roving eye, the formerly adventurous young man turned beer-swilling, pot-bellied couch potato and can’t imagine why his wife no longer idolizes him: both are examples of the syndrome.

So too are supermodels who want to be admired for their brains rather than their looks or brainiacs who want to be seen as sex symbols instead of Nobel Prize winners.  All of them – all of us, really – routinely forget that while things are not always what they appear to be, neither are they as different as we might like to think they are.

That’s a circuitous and philosophical introduction to my Question Of The Day.  I’ve been writing a blog for six years now.  One of the joys of having your own blog (or your own magazine, as I did from 1984 to 1995) is that you can write about absolutely anything you find interesting, which is exactly what I’ve always done.  From the very first issue of Lookout, people would complain whenever I strayed from their particular field of interest: those who wanted to hear me ranting and raving about politics were angry when I wasted time talking about trivial things like punk rock; meanwhile, the punks complained that I never found space to write about their band yet could go on for pages and pages about boring stuff like the environment or education.

25 years later little has changed; the difference now is that most people read my writing on the internet and instead of bothering to complain when they disapprove of something, they do a quick click over to the next website.  Meanwhile, I’ve written dozens (hundreds, even?) of thoughtful, hard-hitting articles about politics, the economy and the human condition, only to learn that the surest way to attract lots of readers is anything involving celebrities and gossip.

A few days ago I published the most widely read and commented-on story in my entire blogging career: it centered around the outraged reaction of some hardcore Green Day superfans to a couple paragraphs by Aaron Cometbus that they felt unfairly characterized them.  The only story I’ve ever done that got close to that much attention was an offhanded commentary about Bret Michaels’ hair and/or what might be hiding under that unsightly do-rag of his.

What do I make of this?  Simply accept that my true calling is to swap tittle-tattle and stir up meaningless controversies?  Or redouble my efforts to be thoughtful and profound, despite having seen where it’s gotten me so far?

Am I the journalistic equivalent of the beauty contest winner who actually wants to end hunger and bring about world peace?  The pop punk band that keeps trying to introduce a fourth or even a fifth chord into their otherwise catchy little ditties?

I’ll admit I’m less inclined these days to undervalue the world of superficial appearances or to overvalue the life of the mind, not because I assume one or the other is more or less important, but because the two are ultimately one and the same.  We don’t see it that way most of the time, but only because we’re looking through a dualistic prism that tells us nonsense like “Looks don’t matter” or “It’s what’s inside that counts.”

Of course looks matter.  They matter immensely.  Trying to pretend – or fool oneself into believing – that they don’t has been the source of endless disappointment, conflict and mental illness.  That holds true whether you’re talking about who you fall in love with, the sort of work you devote your life to, or the esteem in which you hold other people or yourself.

“At age 50, every man has the face he deserves,” said George Orwell, and while I wonder how he figured that out (having himself died at 46), I suspect it’s true even if you cut “at age 50” from the equation.  Yes, a pretty, unblemished young face can mask a malevolent disposition, but not for long and only if you don’t look closely enough.

I think people make the mistake of believing that “growing up” (or growing old) means to accept, even revel in encroaching physical decrepitude while cultivating “higher things” like truth, wisdom, inner beauty, that sort of crap.  In my opinion, this will never work, and by that I don’t mean it’s possible or even desirable to look 18 or 21 forever – well, maybe; let me get back to you on that one – but that the minute you start thinking you can trade external for internal beauty, the minute you think that the two can even be separated, you begin to lose both.

The same goes for “settling down” or “acting your age.”  You don’t have to keep going out to dance clubs or punk rock shows or jumping out of airplanes in your 80s (though by all means do so if that’s what you enjoy) but you do have to bring the same sort of excitement and enthusiasm to whatever new passions engage you, whether it’s chess, knitting, or trekking across Antarctica.

So what does this have to do with Aaron Cometbus, Green Day, or legions of crusading superfans? Only that they are pursuing their passions, despite the disapproval of others, in the face of those who sneer, “Don’t you have anything more important to get excited about?”

And what I’m saying is that what’s truly important is the getting excited part, not what it’s about.  Yes, I’d wonder, maybe even worry a little, about someone whose interests never moved beyond Bret Michaels’ hair or Billie Joe Armstrong’s new Twitter account, but the ability to have interests, intense, abiding ones, no less, already gives that person a vast head start over the  quietly desperate masses who spend their lives wandering through the cloistered, claustrophobic rooms of their soul, methodically turning out the lights.

14 thoughts on “What Really Matters

  • February 14, 2011 at 10:05 pm
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    Maybe people don’t find your other topics as well-written as you think, and they don’t really care to comment on your writing because of it. Maybe people think you’ll engage in better conversation on a shallow topic because most of the time you seem to be just kind of a whiner.

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  • February 14, 2011 at 10:20 pm
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    Maybe!

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  • February 14, 2011 at 10:27 pm
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    I dunno, man. I think that people just like to talk about shit on the Internet that’s fun. I mean, if they had serious opinions about a subject, wouldn’t they write their own bit? Also, in my experience, people tend to only express disagreeable shit and not really express when they agree. Maybe you’ve got an audience that mostly agrees with you except for the occassional topic which you don’t see to really care that much about.

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  • February 14, 2011 at 10:48 pm
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    So true! My youngest daughter is constantly bitching at me to get out of the house & “go do something!” Yet when I say I’m going to Green Day concerts, or the Troubador for Emily’s Army, or up to SF for a show, she’ s in my face telling me how weird it is that I do this(with her father)! I go apeshit & scream & dance around at shows, why not? It makes us happy, it’s a good time, and we’ve met some awesome people! If you did something when you were younger, & still enjoy it and are able to do it, do it! If everyone took Aaron’s words to heart, there would be so many sad, boring, dull, unhappy people around.He makes it sound like because we’ve “gotten older” we should’nt be passionate about things supposedly only for the young. Maybe we should stop all young people from going to the Jimmy Buffet shows, or shows from bands that I saw when I was younger because it’s not “appropriate for them”! His was a good read, but I do take issue with that bit of it.

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  • February 15, 2011 at 4:50 am
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    I can’t stand to look in the mirror
    ‘Cause I get better looking each day

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  • February 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm
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    I’m guilty of this. I’ll read a post of yours and think, “Right on, man.” But I really have nothing to add beyond that, thus I don’t comment.

    It’s easy to comment on gossip and frippery; it’s easy to have an opinion about it.

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  • February 15, 2011 at 9:32 pm
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    It’s no secret that the internet thrives on gossip and controversy, and if your goal were to attract a lot of comments then you could engineer it by turning your blog into the equivalent of a tabloid, but I’m guessing that isn’t what you want to do, nor would any of your readers want that. Please keep doing what you do.

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  • February 15, 2011 at 11:55 pm
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    Larry, I think that your writing is excellent. I wish the anonymous commenter would back up his/her statement by sharing their identity. I think that when people act out of jealous and say things that aren’t true, they do it in secrecy because they know they shouldn’t be doing it! Plus, if they don’t like this blog, why not go read another? Sounds to me like THEY’RE the whiner.

    I take you seriously as a journalist. It’s nothing personal that your recent post brought about the most comments; it was just that it was a hot button issue, plus I’m sure it was linked from other sources and people who don’t normally visit your blog did on that occasion.

    And the sad truth is, the majority of people out there are miserable and enjoy complaining, there is no better way to bring people together. I promise you that if you posted an article about how you watched Tre evolve as a drummer, it wouldn’t attract half the people that it did for your last post. The reason? Your last post hit home; it was personal. When people get offended, they have to retaliate. Plus, if you wrote about his drumming style, it would be too boring and positive for them to grasp.

    All in all, I think that your last post was really just a big therapy session for groupies, and that’s why it drew so many comments (kidding, kidding, kidding).

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  • February 16, 2011 at 12:39 pm
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    I don’t comment mostly because I either agree with you or feel you’ve summed up your points pretty well.
    I really dig Aaron’s work but have neglected (life of freelancer, no money in February) to pick up the new COMETBUS. I’m not particularly concerned with Green Day if only to mention on the side that my Bay Area pals have always said they were nice people and gave back to their communities. Good for them.
    At least they’re not Aerosmith. Why are they still around?

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  • February 16, 2011 at 12:41 pm
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    PS- your REPLY section does not recognize the URL for my website. The Error message says “Bad Address”. Well listen, nobody’s perfect Larry!

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  • February 20, 2011 at 12:42 am
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    I very much agree with the idea that one needs to never give up, as well as being passionate about something. But equating looks or appearance with the inner self? The worst person I know, who lies, manipulates, and cares only about money and getting their way no matter the cost, is very handsome, has almost no lines in his face @ 63, and can charm almost anyone. He is a sociopath. Yet one of the kindest, most considerate, giving person I know is obese,wrinkled, and dresses rather messily. People are just too complex to make such neat, simple equations. Perhaps you should try and get to know more people whose appearance causes you to judge them harshly. And, yes, I have had to amend my assumptions after meeting people I would otherwise not expect to like, too.

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    • February 22, 2011 at 2:06 am
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      Barb, I apologize for not having been successful at making my meaning clear.

      I never meant to suggest that all good people will be conventionally good looking, or that all photogenic pop stars and models must therefore have souls as pure as the driven snow.

      And obviously, if wrinkles = ugliness, then pretty much everybody over the age of, what, 35 or 40, must be evil and getting worse by the day! Including me!

      No, the beauty I was talking about was something far more ineffable than what Hollywood or the fashion mags identify – often, if not usually mistakenly – as beauty. And it’s not always easy or even possible to identify it in words or pictures, but we know it when we see it, if we’re looking closely enough and not blinded by what someone else has convinced us beauty should look like.

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  • March 11, 2011 at 10:47 am
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    Different topics attract different audiences, especially with search engines cranking. That needn’t be a reflection on the writer. Lookout mag and columns influenced a generation of punks. Agreeing or disagreeing with your words, you set minds to work and inspired more kids to write. Here’s to excitement, enthusiasm, and keeping the lights burning. Thanks for all you do and have done, Larry.

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  • May 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm
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    Larry, it is obvious I grabbed one tiny thought and ran with it. Could it be I am oversensitive? You actually have quite a lot of different ideas and thoughts in this one, and I came to back to reread this one after catching up on a few I had missed. Thoughtprovoking. Thanks.

    Reply

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