The absurdity of brands

The absurdity of brands

“They deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them.”

So said Camus of Sartre and Dostoyevsky.  (and the postmodern me am quoting him not from his text but from a wisecrack video.)

He could just as well have said so about apple fan boys and enfield fanatics; essentially, all consumers in the capitalist society. At least Sartre identified the absurd so beautifully. We consumers, feel the absurd, but are not brave enough to identify the absurd.

So when Dove talks about real beauty, instead of identifying the absurdity of a brand attempting at becoming the authority of beauty, we get drawn into the farcical dialogue about beauty that Dove hosts, empowering itself for the benefit of no one else.

Each quality that we use to define ourselves by – beauty, desirability, potency, intellect, etc – is subjective. And hence it is up for hijacking by brands by giving consumers a random objective yardstick to measure oneself with, in the form of a brand or a product. Enjoyment in soda. self-worth in cell phones and sneakers. Power in suits. Beauty in moisturizing soaps. Freedom in horse-powers. Sociability in beer.

There is no beauty. Or rather more accurately, there is no objective standard for beauty. There is no such thing as ‘beauty’ as it relates to an individual  (inside or outside). We simply exist.  It is a subjective judgement imposed by others, relevant to us because we let it become relevant to our lives . And hence we need objective validation. And hence we need brands.

We can’t change ourselves. When it comes to our personal lives, our identity, what comes naturally to us is resistance to change, to fight for status quo, to not make effort in getting out of our comfort zones. But the problems we face in our lives need us to move in certain directions. Since we can’t marshal enough mojo to change ourselves, we change what we associate with instead. Hence brands.

I don’t want to actually write everyday to get better. So I install evernote on my phone instead.
I don’t want to actually run everyday to get fitter. So I buy Nike and a gym membership.
I don’t want to actually work at my relationships, hence facebook.

Since when has an app, a shoe or a website become a necessity for us to actually do something? It hasn’t. But since we don’t actually want to do those things, but want to believe that we are the kind of people who would do those things, we need brands.

ibrand.

Travel Travel, Adopt a Camel

Travel Travel, Adopt a Camel

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Travel as a personal narrative

There are two things that give sense to our lives. One is the ‘anchor’ and the other is ‘change’. These two are the yin-yang of our personal narratives. ‘Anchor’ is things/ people/ places that gives you a sense of solidity about your identity. You perhaps are a Delhite. You perhaps are from the family of proud fishermen. You perhaps are child of very kind parents who have always been there for you. All these things ‘anchor’ us, about our sense of self.

And then you become a teenager. And you must ‘find’ an unique identity.  In an age when you can be anything, often we remain paralysed unable to let go of the possibilities. We are simply unable to kill all the rest of possibilities by choosing one direction. Instead we stay poised at that frozen moment in our personal narrative. We seek change, but are unable to make up our minds. And that is the ‘post-modern’ we. Modernity of 2oth century was about optimistic ideas of future and our roles in it. Post-modern 21st century is about a profound confusion and skepticism about our future and our role in it.

Hence we travel.

The avid travelers of today travels either because he/she needs an escape or because of the promise of bountiful enjoyment or  for its potential for changing ‘something’ in him/her. The first kind of traveler – the escapist – is at least acknowledging the reality that he/ she is escaping from. The second variety – is a sheep following herd, content with the ritualistic excess he forces on himself. It is a sad existence, but wedded to a ritualized fetish, it is anchored in some measure. The third variety – people who call themselves travelers and wanderers – they are the ones I am talking about now. I am talking about the people like me and you, who travel in search of meaning, in search of profound happiness, in search of a direction that is chosen for us. And if facebook walls and instagram feeds are to be believed, everyone today is this very traveler.

“It changed my life”

“It changed my life”, says your friend after his latest trip. And perhaps you should wonder how. Instead you are excited along with him. “Oh, I must do this trip”, you decide. You consult him and online blogs to chart out a pilgrimage taken up by hundreds of others before you. Like you would, they too took selfies with hills in the background. Like you would, they too obsessed over certain dish in a certain restaurant. Like you would, they too perhaps felt somewhat empty when sitting somewhere – thinking.. “this was supposed to be profound. Is this (stinging loneliness/ confusion/ ‘disappointment at the ordinariness of the supposed greatness of the scene before your eyes’)  it?” And before you could complete your train of thought, you take out your DSLR/ cell phone and take a ‘profound’ picture. Your friends on facebook get to know instantaneously about your nirvana. #nirvanaunlocked.

Superego says you must profoundly enjoy

The gaping void that you feel while traveling is not ‘your fault’. The trip was not supposed to be profoundly enjoyable/ transformative/ epiphany inducing/ crazy etc. Though you did think it would be. You thought so because, you are a product of 21st century upper class. If you were a Bangladeshi cattle smuggler, trying to enter India, you aren’t exactly wondering if ‘this journey is supposed to mean something’. The Bangladeshi cattle smuggler entering Assam knows exactly what the trip means – a certain sum of money if the trade goes through, humiliation and beating if Gau rakshak idiots find him.

You, a product of today’s society have been trained to seek enjoyment and happiness at all times. There is an ‘injunction to enjoy’ on you. Your superego, informed by the incessantly glowing and moving online feeds and walls, wants you to enjoy, be successful, be somebody.

Space-time v/s Bildungsroman

Human journey is not in space or time. Simply moving around through different places doesn’t give one intelligence or perspectives or contentment. Neither simply getting old will help one in getting wiser or feeling at peace.

We need definitive change once or twice in life. And at least one of it needs to be positive to be anchored and content in life. Traditionally one was initiated into key changes through rituals – manhood/ womanhood, marriage, birth of child, death. The only ritual guaranteed to a modern person is that of (and about) death. We have no rituals to inform us when we turn from boys to men. We might choose not to wed or have children. Even when we do, we tend to live life of another person – the ideal younger version of oneself. It is as if life for 21st century human is a rewinding spool, going back and burnishing the youth over and over again, until you snap and are forced to reckon with the reality of life. We could very possibly go through life without any real profound change to ourselves that we acknowledge and anchor ourselves with. So, a post-modern person remains in some measure – adrift – not completely being able to comprehend his/her course of life.

One of the most important skill-set that a person should be taught is about building his/her bildungsroman narrative of life.
Bildungsroman – in this context is this – Identity being built through experience one goes through while being among others. It is not the unhealthy narcissism, but a healthy self-awareness that guides one in anchoring the right things and changing the right things for one’s own well-being and growth as a human.

So what would help in building a healthy personal narrative, if not travel?

We come back to the yin-yang of ‘anchor’ and ‘change’ for the answer.

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What gives us an anchor through what we do? Routines do. Routines are essential to create solidity of time, to make life predictable and stable. To anchor life in your own control.

But routines must change every once in a while. We must have routines, but we must have new ones every few years. The solidity shouldn’t lead to stagnation. The routine shouldn’t imprison us. The routine is supposed to form the basis on which the life can take a flight from. The solidity of time, that a routine provides turns into a slowly accumulating cancer that works against your mental well-being if not refreshed every few years.

So if your routine is ‘not’ about planning, desiring, reading about – travels, then travel can be an immensely enriching experience. But what if travel is your routine? Not just the actual traveling part, but the whole mental state – from dreaming to doing to validating it online. The digital lifecycle of travel is now longer. and if you are living from one travel life-cycle to next, i doubt ‘travel’ can then produce moments of ‘epiphany’ for you.

To identify the right changes you need in yourself, then you need to head to everyday normality of other people. That’s where your change, your insight will come from.

What about travel that is indeed a ‘change’?

Change is about braving uncertainties. If your travel is ‘packaged’ to keep you in a bubble of comfort and expected experiences, then you are merely experiencing an amusement park experience. It’s not travel.

For travel to have an effect on you at a fundamental level, you must allow travel to be an unregulated experience. You must then step out of your bubble.

To truly travel, one must be ready for disappointments. You must be ready for uncertainty.

If you chronicle, validate your travel online, you often end up training your brain into thinking in a third person mode. While experiencing something, you train yourself to see it from the perspective of the future self – posting, applying filers, thinking of clever captions when posting… you never are traveling. you are only extending facebook/ instagram bubble that you are completely plugged into.
You can’t live in the present (or contemplative past/ future) if you live through a gadget/screen.

Must disconnect to travel. Must be willing to brave uncertainties for travel to have any meaning.

Truth about ‘being human’

Truth about ‘being human’

Salman Khan is not merely an alleged criminal, a terrible actor or one of the most influential and loved people in India. He is a new archetype for the 21st century India.
He is an archetype that answers a quintessential Indian yearning.
Unfortunately the yearning reflects how pathetic and infantile humanity can be.
When infants, we believe that we are at the absolute center of the universe, where all our acts deserve recognition and appreciation. To grow up is to grow out of this belief.
The ‘Salman Khan as an archetype’ answers the yearning to be forever an infant. To forever enjoy consequence-less freedom.

People refuse to see the bad in him. The ‘true fans’ of this horrible person get readily offended and aggressive when someone speaks ill of their ‘bhai’. When someone points out facts of his monstrosity – allegedly killing homeless people, making his driver a scapegoat (what a ‘hero‘!), allegedly killing a harmless animal, domestic abuse, intimidation…. – the fans shut their ear holes and eye holes.They rage with blindfolds on.

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They see him getting away with alleged homicide and general assholery. And they rejoice in him getting away with it.They idolise his nonchalance. They refuse to see the injustice of it all. They badly want to believe in him. His PR stunts with ‘Being Human’ are enough for a lot of people to rationalise his criminality. They say that he is ‘dil se accha’ (with good heart) as if they have spent years living with the man to know him inside out.

Why should they get so protective about a person, who already has all the protection he needs? They are not related to him nor will they benefit from him in the real world. They are more likely to die under his drunken driving next than to have a drink with him.

They want to believe that they too can get away with their infantile adventures. They want to believe that they too can be successful and fabulously rich without trying, without merit. Salman, for them, is the beacon of hope for someday achieving consequence-less power, for being the ultimate marzi ka raja (king of his will) 
This explains his appeal but not the love he enjoys.  The source of love for him is in our shitty culture. He is the anti dote to forces of modernity and liberal progress. He is the patriarchal Übermensch. What’s more, he makes patriarchy cool. He treats women like shit in real life and everyone for that matter in his films. See how he looks at (or more likely, doesn’t) other characters in his films. His gaze is vacant or at best disinterested. Some say it is bad acting, I say it is his personality. People don’t love bad acting. People love his personality. It is cool to not give a shit about anyone else.

In his films, women are mere pretty props. I guess, he can’t appreciate the reality of relationship and hence can’t succeed in any. The time he had to deal with a real relationship, he ended up physically and mentally abusing Aishwarya.
This is something that the millions of young men identify with. People have grown up in a culture where men do not talk to women. Women forever remain alien to men. Men forever try to ‘control’ the women. And as women become more and more powerful in relationships, men are increasingly confused and angry. The patriarchy identifies with Salman’s confusions and acts of terrorism. They see him as the unfortunate one, the one who is innocently charged of abuse, where it is a man’s right to be abusive. They want to believe that patriarchy will prevail.

Hir films are patriarchal utopias; damsel in distress, macho heros. He takes off his shirt to cover bodies of objects called women. To deal with the problem of modern feminism, his characters are the wronged ‘tere naam’s.
Of course he is suffering. The poor misogynist.

The mysterious woman

The mysterious woman
I often see people staring blankly ‘in’ the face of a beautiful person…  Sometimes the gaze makes you wonder, are they really ‘leching’?  Not to condone such behavior, but it makes you wonder, what is going through these people’s heads?

They aren’t even conscientious of their act. It is as if they are not there. Their vacant gaze seem to come from the wall behind,  as if they have merged in the background and they are nothing but a pair of eyes, the only connection between here and a world inside their heads. uncanny.

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Average faces in different countries, CC 2.0
Why does a person fly away momentarily out of the real world when their gaze land on the face of a beautiful person? It is as if their gaze is always in search of a portal to their inner world. And it gets unlocked only by the sight of a beautiful face. Why else does one compulsively checkout faces of others in a crowded subway? We are forever in search of the key to our flight.
An average face in the  sea of variety.  A plateau in the hills. A smoothed pebble in the real world of rocks and sponges. and so on.
My theory is,
A face with conventional beauty is beautiful because the others can project their perspectives on such faces without jarring the reality.  The average face very well may be of an average person. But given such a  canvas we can’t help but paint it with mystery and possibilities.
We welcome people with beautiful faces in our conversations or smiles because their face is the ultimate screen for our fantasies to play out. The welcome is an appeal to authority. In a manner of speaking, through these screens, we try to communicate with a higher power. We perceive the audience to be bigger than it is, wondering who else behind the screen might listen to what we have to say. We want them to remain mysterious, so we listen less and talk more or see without listing.
And that’s why ‘dumb blonde’ was born.  Dumbness is quite democratic.  Dumb people exist among all races,  all genders,  all cultures and so on.  But dumb utterance by a person with beautiful appearance is jarring. It crashes you back from a reverie to the real world with a certain unpleasant thud.

Food as love / food fetish

Food as love / food fetish

1. Food as love

“Jevan zala?  Kay khallas? ”
(Did you eat? What did you eat for dinner?)
Phone lines across the world are clogged with concerns of lovely people. In absence of real intimacy,  families and lovers resort to questionnaire of food intake and bowel movements. In absence of touch they want to ensure the mortal vessels of the their loved ones are well taken care of.
The questions are  not an exercise in inanity. They are expressions of love.

2. Food fetish

Idle chat at office lunch tables,  conversations with acquaintances…
Across the world, (perhaps the upper middle class world that is not currently being destroyed by wars and proxy wars) people are filling the space between burps and bites with conversations of food and restaurants.
Incessantly.
The virus of foodieitis is spreading faster than Ebola. Everybody see themselves as foodies. A virus that hollows out the brain of thoughts about anything but indulgent excesses. For the afflicted person, excess is desirable. excess is exciting. excess is a way of life.
Food doesn’t cure hunger; it affirms their identity; it renews their unnatural desire towards consumables. It a love affair gone too far, too weird.
and yet, because it suits the new economy, it’s the new virtue for the herd with low expectations. Consumption has become art. connoisseurs are the new pandits of this ritual of junk workship. It is narcissism projected inwards. (to the stomach.)
3 years ago, everybody wanted to be a photographer. Now everyone wants to be food porn maker. Food that looks out-of-this-world and very well might be, in all probability made from cardboard and motor oil.
Food that never satisfies, but yet that never ceases to be desirable.
Food that mothers warn about to their children.

Stop bitching. Start acting.

Exhibit A

Have you seen posts like these on FB lately?

What are they about?
A person witnesses some ‘wrong’ act. He/ She promptly takes a picture of the wrong act. He/she hurries to upload it to social media in an effort to shame the person in question.
Earlier, a photograph of a car’s number plate did the rounds online. apparently, the guy driving the car had spit on the road. and so on… all misdemeanors that should ideally be sorted in ‘real world’ of flesh and bones through polite conversations.

Exhibit A-
Here, a grey haired gentleman opened a door to a cafe for two other gentlemen. The other two gentlemen supposedly did not say ‘thank you’. Were they too busy? Were they in a serious discussion, the sort where you forget the world altogether? Do we know anything about them at all? No. We don’t.
All we have is this one photo that the indignant-FB-guy (IFG) took without asking the two people in question.

and look at the reaction – It ranges from ridiculing these two strangers to turning this non-incident into a symbol of all that is wrong with India.

“whn ppl do that to me I say ‘You’re Welcome’ loudly.
.OMG ##### the man has the biggest HORNS on his head……..what did you expect…..Cattle class !!”

As an Indian, I always wondered if its the sheer number of bodies perpetually jostling around us, which make us immune to so many civil and civic sensibilities… but then I think of Japan, which is even more congested than us, bowing their butts off..”

Lovrd this. The so called educated forget basic courtesy and need to be publicly shamed

I know them. They share the same name: “Most Indians” “

What does it tell you about how these online people see themselves? 
They are ridiculing strangers for a misdemeanour that they did not know for certain if it happened or not. But one serious breach of manners and ethics went unnoticed.
No one is asking IFG, if it was right of him to take a picture of stranger without their permission. Is it good manners? Is it ethical to invade privacy like this?

Secondly, see how quick we distance ourselves.
me who knows better v/s most Indians, the cattle class. 

On social media, even I am a theorist and intellectual. So obviously, there are a few ones who dissect the incident, albeit in a congratulatory tone. 

Its like an online group of bullies, trying to bully someone who is smaller than them, not present at all!

Everybody relishes in this online distance – I can safely be a voyeur and a judge! I am omnipotent and always right!

What do you think should be a pre-digital, pre-cowardice reaction to the incident? Wouldn’t it be easier to go over and ask for that ‘thank you’ that you think was a right response?
It’s quite certain that IFG wanted to ‘teach a lesson’. Everybody online feels that way, so I don’t blame him. But why not teach a lesson there and then. Wouldn’t it be more effective?
Or was IFG too scared of a possible altercation afterward? Or did he think that he would receive more satisfaction if he posts it online.

Why am I bothering to write about this at all?
I don’t mean to disrespect IFG or commentators. But I am worried about a growing trend of voyeurism and cowardice. We are so afraid of interacting with other people, that we would rather take their picture from safe distance and post it publicly, than go and talk with them and try to understand them. We are so afraid of interacting with other people, that we are becoming less and less human-like.

Why is it a worrisome trend?
Do you remember reactions of people who were passing by naked limp bodies on the street that fateful morning in Delhi’s winter?
Do you remember the incident in UK where a person was busy taking picture while he could have saved a man’s life?
and there are so many other such stories.. it just fills me with hopelessness. and it feels even worse when I resort to blogging about it.
And there is really only one thing we need to do to change things. To react at all time. question the wrong. Talk. Help. Prod. Call someone. tap on the shoulder and say thank you/sorry. whatever.
But we must REACT as and when a reaction is due. A delayed online reaction for self-gratification will be the doom of our civilization. I am not exaggerating here.

In real life, often we have immediate costs and uncertain gain. We chose online because it gives you immediate satisfaction with seemingly no cost.
If we converse with a stranger in real life, there is a risk of having to waste hours if the stranger turns out to be a bore/ danger of a psychopath… versus the possibility of pleasure in conversation and learning new things. We are increasingly choosing to converse online since you can shut out anytime online, but if the conversation is pleasant, one can take it forward.
Similarly, even about social consciousness – India is starved of volunteers who do actual work, but there is no dearth of online campaigners.

and worse of all, in times of distress. Honestly ask yourself: The last time you saw someone in distress, what did you do? Did you help the person? or did you walk away after telling yourself some comforting fiction? (‘There might be someone else who is helping her/him’, ‘there are already people there, what is the need for me?’, ‘I really shouldn’t get involved in things like these. It might be dangerous’)

Long term scenario
Imagine our dependence on law and authority that this kind of behavior will necessitate. Imagine the sheer terror as people relinquish reactions and stop even acting in self preservation. We are becoming so fragile and wary of danger. We are increasingly less alive.

Answer to all current questions
Questions like – increasing safety concerns for women, increasing feeling of purposelessness, increasing distances in relationships and even the prevalence of bad manners…
Answer to all these question is in a shift of our behavior.
We have to consciously make an effort to react with action, thought and empathy right when it is due. 
If you see someone throwing trash where he shouldn’t. Help him be better.
If you see someone trying to harm someone else. raise an alarm/ call police/ use your brain.
If you see someone in distress. You better help him/her. If you don’t, you are just as responsible for his/her plight.
If you see someone who doesn’t appreciate your good manners, tell him what you think of it. Don’t worry, no one’s going to bite you. most of us are quite decent folks. (scared and with different world view, but decent nevertheless).

If your action is to only post about it online, it really is an exercise in narcissism. It is not a benevolent act. It is a selfish act where a person could have been helped, instead you chose to victimize him and derive pleasure out of this public shaming.

Here’s a little chant that you could memorise and tell yourself at all times – ‘React! React! React! React! React!… 108/42/786 times (depending on your religious inclination) and repeat.
If we all react when it is due, the world would surely be a much more safer, kinder, confident place.

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Originally published here.

The N-generation

The N-generation

Just read a post from the crowd-sourced diary of narcissists – thoughtcatalog.com

The post is called ‘Why I’m Trading A House And Salary For A Motorcycle And Map
Please read it, because this blog post is a reaction to it.

Let me quickly summarise here the intent of the post anyways. Its a self congratulatory essay that crowd sources validation for a seemingly ‘crazy’ idea of the author. And apparently there is a moral to the story. Curious thing to note – the gratification is pre-action – the author has not actually done anything of note yet. He plans to. Maybe. and that is why this post is such an important artifact defining the current times.

The author is an adult. (atleast 30 years old. Also the fact that he owns a house that he can sell. and in his words “I’ve officially notified everyone who works in my office“.) But not quite. (the entire article. Also, he mentions the word ‘motorcycle’ gushingly 6 times.)

Some of his gems.
1. “People are legitimately awesome!”
This realization came to the author when he saw people encouraging him.
yes sayers = awesome.

2. He has a plan where he will

“try to be a coffee farmer in Jamaica with a man named Thunder, attempt to build houses in El Salvador, and try to work at a Sky Diving school in Utah”

He plans to try. these awesome hipster things in third world countries/ state.
He is planning his facebook feed, not his life. 

3. “They said they wanted to follow my blog.”
He is building viewership for a reality show that has not even started yet. The objective of the project is not traveling. It is the spectacle, it is the image. That is why he already has an idea about what he will do in his travels – farming in Jamica with Thunder! planned!
Where is the uncertainty? The author has already read ‘the alchemist’, ‘Siddhartha’ and such. He already ‘knows’ what he will learn.

He is already far into the future where he will write his illuminating experience. In the future, he will be looking back at social media mentions and pop philosophy books to inform his eyes about what to see, ears about what to hear and mind to what to experience.

4. “sharing dreams that they had and plans they wanted to make”

The N-generation wants to make plans. Not necessarily execute it.The thrill is in the plan and in the acknowledgement that others know of your plan. If there were no others, there would be no plan, no thrill.
The joy is crowd-sourced. The plan is cowd-approved.

5. “off the cuff speech about following dreams”
a. Appearance of spontaneity is important. (off the cuff) For a generation that is neck deep in images, the biggest concern is about authenticity. Hence ‘get real’ black music. Hence clinging to brands for identity. Hence organic. Hence ready outrage.
b. Author mentions casually about his ‘speech’ (college kids?) where he exhorted them to follow their dreams. Obviously, the author places himself firmly at the center of the universe. Has he achieved anything? Has he created anything? No. He is merely planning to try to build houses in El Salvador. may be.
Why is he going all TED on poor college kids? Isn’t ‘following dreams’ a tried old message that everyone hears about 1548435024 times a month at least?
Has his ‘following dream’ served him any good? why should he talk on the subject?
Its not about the students or the institution. Its about his image of him sharing his wisdom in an institution.

6. The prof. who coordinated his little talk “emailed me and shared so many awesome things that she was doing and things she wanted to accomplish.”

a. He finds needs validation. from his coworkers (“come into my office with tears in their eyes”) and more importantly, a professor – an authority figure. Obviously, he subscribes to the educational authority. That is why he is maybe planning for a PhD. For quite a few confused souls, PhD is an excellent break (atleast in their heads before they enroll for the course) to postpone their life – to push confrontation with life’s issues even further. To evade adulthood.
(Maybe planning – that deserves a separate post altogther. Something that I am guilty of too.)
b.  In author’s narrative, the prof. rushed to share her accomplishments and wishes with him. Because in his narrative, the authority has been subverted. In his world, now he is the authority in whom the prof. wants validation.

8. Then the author meanders through old lame complaints before getting here –When a person bottoms out they start from zero. They get to recreate the rules.”

Our generation is in desperate need of ‘bottoming out’. We want an antihero who would bring down the ‘system’. But as TLC says, the problem is not the system, the problem is you. (Read the blog cautiously. Very insightful stuff, though cloaked under a high amount of sarcasm, smarty aggression and American references that we might not always be aware of.)

We don’t want to build incrementally or bring in a revolution. We want to ‘recreate the rules’.

9. “So to everyone who is just now inheriting the world…”
Inherited the world. INHERITED.

10. “We’re going to create something. We’re not hippies. We’re something new that has yet to be determined.”

We are desperate to build an identity. But we just can’t choose. So we start with exclusion. ‘we are not hippies.’ We are afraid of concrete realities. Hence we are ‘something’s. We are ‘new’ and ‘creators’. Everyone is an artist.

30 and still a man-child. that’s the N-generation.
Narcissistic

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Originally published here.