Z Media Institute Blog

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

I am sitting in the living room of my generous aunt and uncle, Heather and Darrell Cunningham, and wondering how best to thank them and the rest of my family for affording me the opportunity to attend the Z Media Institute this summer. My aunt and uncle travel a lot, and they pooled their frequent flyer miles so that I could fly to Boston, and they even booked the flight for me. My mother gave me the additional $900.00 to supplement the $300.00 that I had raised myself to pay for my enrollment. My grandfather sent me a check for $200.00, which allowed me to pay my rent and afford missing an entire week of work. This in addition to their unwavering support and enthusiasm over my acceptance to the Z Media Institute 2010 has made preparing for this trip much easier than I had originally thought. I owe them more than just my gratitude. I still don’t know how, but I should think of some creative way to thank my family. A corner store greeting card will not do.


I originally heard about ZMI from Mike who had made himself familiar with Z-Net and their online courses in activism and radical theory. The concept of professionally produced online classes in radical politics that anyone with a web browser can access, moderated and edited by the people that brought us Z Magazine, South End Press, Democracy Now!, and with contributors like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein, Arudhati Roy, and John Pilger, sounded like the most positively revolutionary use of 21st century media space I had ever heard of. Just hearing Mike describe Z-Net to Danny and I made me feel a little bit better about our chances for changing the world and fomenting a real revolution here inside the American Empire. Basically I was salivating over the idea, but that wasn’t all, apparently there was also an actual school that people could attend and learn these things face to face with other activists and radicals; extremely intelligent and successful ones at that. Needless to say I was impressed, and the thought of ZMI kept buzzing in my head. Very cool.


I heard about ZMI exactly when I needed to. I had taken a semester off from school and had enrolled in classes for the summer and fall. I needed something that would re-acclimate me to an academic routine, but I also needed something to lift my spirit. The reason I had taken off from school was that the semester before I had suffered a nervous breakdown, the first that I can remember experiencing. I had pushed myself to my limit. I was working twenty to thirty hours a week at Seven Eleven, an occupation that I am becoming increasingly hostile towards (big surprise), I was taking a full fifteen hours at UNT including some very difficult and time-consuming classes, and I was interning at Rational Radio AM 1360 waking up at four a.m. every single day to drive all the way to Dallas (on my own dime) to work for free. All of this in addition to what little activism I could squeeze in between.


After working at Seven Eleven for two years the monotony and the madness of the convenience store enterprise and my growing agitation toward my wage-slave-owner (boss) was really getting to me. My classes at UNT demanded a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and the challenge that somehow I had to produce three short films on my own time and initiative. I barely managed to finish my films which I was not completely satisfied with (I still haven’t shown my family or Chas) but I fell behind in my Documentary Pre-Production class, bombed a couple essays, convinced myself that my professor was to blame (not true) and eventually crash-landed my unacceptable final project into a fiery ruin. Luckily my films were above-the-bar for the class, (not hard to achieve) and I managed to make an “A” in my African American Cinema class. I think that my positive repertoire with Dr. Benshoff and my acclimation to his teaching style helped a lot. So I failed another class, but excelled in all the others…again.


Of course I didn’t know this until the end of the semester, and at the time I was more stressed out and stretched thin than I had ever been. The Rational Radio internship was demanding a lot of my time and attention. Waking up at four a.m. everyday isn’t just exhausting for the rest of the day, it completely robs you of your night. I didn’t get to spend as much time with my friends and had to retire as early as eight or nine. I felt like an old man. I was anxious and tense all the time and hostile towards my roommates for being nocturnal and noisy, but I couldn’t expect them to abandon their living room activities every night indefinitely. Insomnia is just part of the radio business I guess.


My experience at Rational Radio was invaluable, and I do not regret Candice convincing me to come with her, but it was extremely taxing on my grades, my wallet, and my mental health. I should probably write a separate account of that experience. Suffice to say here, Candice and I both worked miracles for a dying independent radio station, injecting our young blood into their decaying enterprise, and we never received or demanded a penny for it. We did it for the experience and we did it because we believed in what they were doing, but as the station began taking on more water we both realized that they needed us a lot more than we needed them. In fact we didn’t need them, and we politely bowed out, but not before spending six months of our time, labor, attention, and substantial amounts of gas-money. (Denton to Dallas is about a forty five minute drive on I-35)


All of that was enough to have me running at or over full capacity. I was writing and reading tons of essays, slaving away at a bullshit but necessary occupation, losing sleep and hemorrhaging cash to drive to Dallas without a broken heater in the middle of winter, assuming all of the stress and responsibility of a professional radio position with none of the pay or benefits, and driving myself mad trying to figure out just how or when I was going to pull some actors together to help me pull three acceptable short films out of my ass.


And then I received more bad news than my soul was prepared to hear at the worst possible time for me to hear it. My mother had been laid off several months before and was keeping it a secret from the rest of the family. She was the one who was paying my rent since my school schedule didn’t allow me to work enough to pay it myself. Now we had no income and she was having a very hard time finding a new job. She had worked for JP Morgan Chase (much to my chagrin) for several years, climbing her way up the corporate ladder the hard way; without a college education, without hand-outs or favors from connected relatives, and as a working single mother in a patriarchal corporate culture of sexism and vicious competition. And now she would have to start all over from the very bottom…that is…if she could find a new job.


That wasn’t all. My mother and stepfather had split up again for reasons that have still not been fully explained (not that they ever are) and now that our household has only one unemployed occupant my mother would have to sell the house and move back into an apartment to cut costs and save money. Then I learned that my uncle had also been laid off, but with his A&M education and business connections he later found a new job, although at the time he was very stressed. I also learned that my grandparents had fallen victim to some very poor financial advice and had a lot of their savings. My grandfather still works, he is a distinguished professor at the University of Florida, but my grandmother didn’t have a reliable income and now she would also have to sell her house, the house I grew up in and cherished more than my own. This hurt more than the news that we would be losing our house which I only lived in for three or four years before moving to Denton, although my mother’s unemployment was by far the worse news…well, almost.


So two of my most important financial life-lines, my mother and my uncle, were now unemployed. The house of my childhood and the house of my adolescence were now gone. Our fragile and amoebic family unit had once again changed shape without announcement or explanation. And that wasn’t even the worse of it. My grandfather, my “Grampi”, one of my best friends in the world, the man who first showed me the world, and the Graham that I have the most respect and admiration for had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was having a hard time paying for his treatment, let alone dealing with the illness. All of this was more than I could bear.


It all hit me during my History of the Documentary class. The professor, although a nice and intelligent man, was a terrible bore and the class turned out to be dreadfully dull, although discovering the bizarre works of Dziga Vertov made the class worth the effort. It was towards the end of the semester with final exams and final projects breathing down everyone’s neck. After the lecture we were going to screen a Michael Moore film. We were at the point in the curriculum where we were discussing contemporary documentary filmmakers, of which Michael Moore is an obvious choice for discussion. I did not anticipate what was to follow because I’ve seen most of Michael Moore’s documentaries before and I tend to sympathize with his positions even if not necessarily his style of filmmaking.


The film was Roger and Me (2002) which was the only Michael Moore documentary that I had not yet seen. The documentary focuses on the town of Flint Michigan who’s prosperity and high standard of living during the 60’s and 70’s could be attributed to a very productive General Motors factory that employed the majority of the workforce and fueled the majority of economic activity in the area. The film documents what happens to that community when General Motors decides to cut costs by shutting down the factory that was the town’s life line. Naturally, the community of Flint Michigan plummets into depravity as the economic life of the town is outsourced to lower paid labor in the third world so that General Motor’s share price can stay competitive. There is much more to the film than that but this is the aspect of it that tore at my soul. A large portion of the film focuses on the personal stories of all of the people who’s lives were ruined and at some times tragically cut short by what free market economists call “externalities”.


Michael Moore knows how to pull at your heart strings. I couldn’t help but juxtapose everything that was happening to the people of Flint with all of the tragic things that were happening in my own life. All of the collective suffering of Flint Michigan poured into me and I saw every disillusioned tearful face, every foreclosed home and eviction, and every citizen rotting in unemployment as if it were my own family. Whereas Roger Smith, the CEO of GM, was the principal villain of this story, I projected all of the suffering I saw onto the conscious of Jamie Dimond, the (former) CEO of JP Morgan Chase who’s decision to layoff my mother employed similar logic. Unlike GM, however, JPMC was one of several financial institutions who’s fraudulent and corrupt behavior didn’t just affect the lives of an entire city, they brought the entire global economy to its knees. While most of us here in the states will bounce back (at least most of us that matter to the GDP) we will never be able to fully quantify the amount of human misery, suffering, pain and death caused by the financial collapse.


My family lost two houses, two sources of income, and any notion of financial security. My grandfather was also now facing a life-threatening illness that he was having trouble paying for. All of this occurred on the tail-end of a deflated housing bubble, a global financial collapse, and a mass media circus that has robbed us of the universal healthcare my grandfather, and everyone else on the planet, deserves. We lost everything, and JPMC received hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer bailouts, changed absolutely none of the institutional mechanisms responsible, and reported record breaking profits all across the board. Big fucking surprise, right? Well all of this was too much for me.


I started sobbing in choked reserve, trying not to call attention to myself. I mean this is a film class for God’s sake. How embarrassing it would be to be caught sobbing at a Michael Moore movie, and not even one of his better ones at that. I did not stay for the rest of the film. I grabbed my bag and slipped out the back as quietly as I could, red faced and gasping. By the time I got back outside I was an absolute wreck. I wanted to swallow a whole pack of cigarettes. I wanted to get in my car and drive straight into the wilderness. But most of all I wanted to hold my mother and sob in her chest. I felt myself literally reverting to a child-like state of terror and helplessness. I feared for the future. I wasn’t sure I had a future.


All of this extra anxiety was piled on top of my usual daily dose of doom and gloom over the collective agony of planet Earth. Genocide, ecocide, ethnic cleansing, illegal occupations, extraordinary renditions, kidnapping, torture, assassinations, and just good ole-fashioned civilian casualties as well as the always looming possibility that the destruction of the biosphere has already passed the tipping point and that the species is collectively fucked. This is what happens when your daily media diet consists of obsessing over human rights violations on the other side of the planet and then pensively meditating on what you can do about it from the comfort of your first world privilege. But this time the headlines hit closer to home, much much closer, and my heart just couldn’t take it. That’s when I thought “I wonder if this is what a nervous breakdown feels like?” And I immediately drove to my mother’s home (for the moment) in Plano and she welcomed me and comforted me like only a mother can. She knew what I needed, and I needed her to know how much I love her, and how scared I was, and how sorry I was, and how helpless I felt unable to do anything about it. She understood.


And now the good news!


All of that is in the past now. Both my mother and my uncle have new jobs. My mother and my grandmother have found new homes. My grandfather is now cancer free, and my semester from hell is over. Although I’m glad that my mother has found a new job, I’m disgusted that she is now working for Citigroup, but at the same time there’s a part of me that’s not surprised. Where else is she going to work? This is what she’s done for the past decade or so, and the fact that my college education now depends on Citigroup continuing their economic racketeering is no different than the former situation with JPMC. We’ve traded one group of oppressive wage-slave-owners for another. Welcome to the job market.


At least the wounds are healing now, and I must say that I think my reaction to the situation was more emotional than logical. It’s not as if I wasn’t aware that these things happen all over the world, financial crisis or not, but this time the oppressed mass was my family, and I guess I didn’t know how to deal with it. It’s hard enough just trying to have a conversation with my family about capitalism at all, but now my same words sound like I’m trying to explain their own suffering to them, like I know better than they do how much it hurts and why. Nobody wants to hear that. But like I said, it’s all in the past now. After my finals my mother and I decided that the best thing for both of us would be for me to take a semester off, pick up some more hours at the Seven-Eleven, start paying my own rent (since my mother couldn’t afford it anymore), and just hope that things get better, which they did. Part of me is glad that all of this happened. The suffering and soul searching was kind of cleansing, cathartic almost. Everyone needs a good sob every once in a while.


This is the condition I found myself in when Mike told Danny and I about Z-Net and the Z Media Institute. This was after I had recovered from my nervous breakdown the year before. I was catching up on six months of sleep and soaking up a lot of great literature that I couldn’t afford to look at during my semester from hell. I finished about a dozen books during my hiatus, most of which I had already started, but it felt great to pursue my own studies for a while. I may have taken a break from going to class, but as far as I was concerned my education was still in-session. I finally finished Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, a brick of a book that I covered in highlighter and scribbled notes. I even managed to sneak a bit of fiction into the mix. I had been trying to finish Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for years. I’ve read the first third of it three times, putting the book down and forgetting the plot every time. But this time I finished it and found it delightful.


I was really enjoying my 2010. I think that the break was exactly what I needed and I could feel my mental and physical health returning. I was able to nurture my meditation habit again and to continue practicing beginner’s yoga. I was eating better and more often. I hadn’t had a cigarette in months and still haven’t since. I started drawing again and picked up a few of my pet projects. And of course, I now had the time to continue the activism that I had neglected the semester before. Candice had done an excellent job of fostering a new Campus Anti-War Network and building support for an alternative student newspaper which we are in the process of producing now. Things seemed to achieve equilibrium once again.


Now I find myself preparing for another journey. It feels like it’s half education; half vacation. Although I fully anticipate that this trip will be the most educational, intellectual, and academic experience of my college years, I also know that the radical-minded lefties at ZMI will undoubtedly have a much more inviting and participatory approach to the classroom than the corporate McSchools of the Texas higher education system. I’m almost positive that there will be no grades, more involvement, plenty of opportunity for student input, and a completely respectful no-stress learning environment. Not to mention; I’ll be spending the entire week with several dozen committed revolutionaries and radicals with similar perspectives, questions, and problems. For once, I won’t feel like the lone crazy in the room.

There is another dimension to this trip that will enhance the vacation side of the equation: the beautiful weather. I have lived in Texas all of my life, and I’ve never gotten used to the weather. I recently made a tough decision to shave off all of my head-banger hair in favor of surviving the Texas summer. Woodshole Massachusetts, the village where the Z House and the ZMI is located, is a part of Cape Cod and borders the Atlantic Ocean. I’m packing for cool weather, sea breezes, light rain, and frequent walks around a community absent of strip-malls and acres of parking-lot wastelands. New Englanders may just call it home, but for us south-westerners it’s paradise. At least I hope it will be.


In conclusion and anticipation, I have no doubt that my upcoming week at the Z Media Institute will be the most educational, exciting, relaxing, healing, and rewarding experience of my college years. I hope I’m not setting the bar too high, but no matter what I think that this trip is exactly what I need right now. I expect to come back a changed man, an evolved activist, and a satisfied customer. After all, I did pay good money for this trip, but considering how much vacation homes in Cape Cod cost to rent (as much as $1,000.00 a week) I think that they made us a pretty good deal.



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