Disney or Paris?

I recently came back from my first four-day vacation with my family at Disney / Universal in Orlando. It was a lot of fun.

On our last day, I was eating lunch with my three kids at The Three Broomsticks, the favorite haunt of witches and wizards at Hogsmeade (the town next to Hogwarts in Harry Potter, for those few of you who didn’t read all those books and see all of those movies). Our section of the restaurant suddenly hushed when three sparrows dive-bombed across the hall and perched on the fireplace.

Everyone started tittering and pointing, asking, “Are those birds real?!”

So much of what happens at Disney and Universal is about making fantasy seem like reality.   So, in that world, one has to notice three sparrows and wonder if they we real. If they weren’t, it was an impressive effect and a fabulous little detail. And if they were real…well, when was the last time people stopped to notice three sparrows and have a conversation about them?

What is real, and what are the stories we create?

At Epcot, strolling between the pavilions representing France, Mexico, China, the United States and Morocco, it is easy to critique the whole experience as a poor facsimile of the “real” countries. But is it really that different? True, the cheap bangles and jewelry at Epcot’s Morocco pavilion are mostly made in China, but these days so are the cheap bangles sold on the streets of India (or Morocco, I assume.).

Better, how do I make sense of my recent shopping trip to an outdoor market in Hyderabad where I found a nice white blouse that I was considering buying for my wife, until I noticed the label: Eileen Fisher. The stall was stocked with returned seconds of clothing from the United States, Indian-styled clothes made in Bangladesh or Thailand or Pakistan that didn’t hit U.S. manufacturing standards and had made their way back to a street market in Hyderabad.   It kind of makes your head spin.

In a globalized world, what is real and what is fake?

My kids wanted to know whether the French brasserie at Epcot was “like a real French restaurant” and my wife and I were stumped. Yes, it looked and felt mostly like a French brasserie, especially the fresh baguettes, which were delicious, the décor, which looked right, and the staff, which was all French. The real question is, isn’t the “real” French brasserie just a rendition of something that once was? A brasserie in Paris is “real,” of course, and it is also an emblem of a fading, more homogenous France, a whiter, more upper-middle class version of the “real” France of today. Today’s real France is a traditional brasserie, but it’s also an Algerian pastry shop with a French twist; it’s the swanky 6th Arrondissement and the hard immigrant life of the banlieuesIn the end, Epcot’s France is just as unreal as a France where most people pretend that the Africans and Arabs who represent an increasing portion of the French population can persist indefinitely on the periphery of Paris and on the periphery of French identity.

This same story is playing out everywhere. Last week Chris Rock wrote a blistering essay in the Hollywood Reporter on how white Hollywood is. It’s an incredible read – honest, wildly smart and incisive – and it paints a tough picture of a supposedly progressive city. There are far too many quotable lines in Rock’s essay, but just to give you a feel for it:

But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A., you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist…just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else….

You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true? The odds are, because people are people, that there’s probably a Mexican David Geffen mopping up for somebody’s company right now. The odds are that there’s probably a Mexican who’s that smart who’s never going to be given a shot.

Find 10 minutes to read the Chris Rock piece, and you won’t look at movies the same way again.

The tug and pull of the next century is going to be between the possibility of connection – with products and information flowing seamlessly from anywhere to anywhere – and the increasing ease of creating a fantasy world that isolates and separate us. And it’s the most powerful and influential who are both the most global and who run the risk of complete separation from anyone unlike themselves (where “like themselves” means uber-rich.)

[For kicks: in another story out of L.A., the mega-millionaires are forming a sort of homeowners association that is striking out against the billionaires, including a Saudi prince, whose 70,000 square foot homes are, supposedly, ruining the neighborhood.]

And so we find ourselves back at the American pavilion at Epcot, which is next door to the Mexican pavilion but has no hope of capturing the story of the nearly 1/5th of Americans who are Hispanic. Is Epcot’s American pavilion any different from Ferguson, a town with a 94% white police force and a population that is 67% black?

After a while I ended up feeling like Disney or Universal aren’t any more real or fake than anywhere else, and, if anything, Disney wins for being upfront about being a fantasy world that is trying to create fantasy. In fact, for some things, like Harry Potter, Disney is actually more real than other places: there is no more real representation of Hogsmeade, or Diagon Alley, or Gringotts than in the pages of a book, on the big screen, and in a little corner of Orlando.

And the world outside? Increasingly, it is the world of those sparrows in Hogsmeade. The birds were definitely real birds. The world around them is both completely real and completely the narrative we choose to see.

The identity monologue

I had the misfortune of being floored by a minor, but extremely unpleasant, illness for about 10 days earlier this month.

Nothing like an abrupt change in circumstance to give a bit of perspective.

What I noticed, especially because the illness came on so fast (and showed little sign of getting better for a little while) was how an abrupt change in how I spent my time totally flipped my perspective.  Home-bound, practically quarantined, counting the minutes (because I was absolutely miserable) for 72 hours (= 4,500 minutes!), I felt powerless, and time shifted for me.   My life is often regimented and tightly structured, nearly down to the minute, which is my way of trying to be productive and fully engaged and present on multiple fronts.  Going from optimizing my commute and my Inbox and meetings down to the last minute to watching a two-hour movie and then another, waiting for time to pass and watching the clock not move, left me feeling miserable, unproductive and, temporarily, powerless.

It reminded me of a day I spent over the winter, an exercise called “everyday barriers” that all Acumen staff participate in.  It’s something the Acumen Fellows undertake as part of their training.  Like our Fellows, each Acumen New York staff member came to work and then left everything in the office except for $5 in cash and a round trip Metrocard.  We were to spend the day in New York City and come back with suggestions for how to improve public services.  It’s an exercise in what we call “moral imagination,” cultivating the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and to see problems from a new perspective.

Having talked to Acumen Fellows who had participated in this activity in the past, I recalled profound stories of connection, as well Fellows gaining a much deeper understanding of the challenges of being a poor person in New York City.  I recall a Fellow telling a story of a woman who walked everywhere with a giant box filled with papers – they were all of her identification, phone bills, records, etc. because the woman had gotten sick of getting to the front of a long line only to be told that she didn’t have the right paperwork.  Fellows experienced what was and was not working well in the provision of New York city public services, and the day served as a jumping off point for discussions about identity, empathy, and social change.

To me the most surprising part of the exercise came right at the beginning.  After about an hour of walking, feeling pretty relaxed, I started to feel a bit hungry and thirsty, and it hit me that it was 9:30am and I had 8 hours to spend in the city on a cold day with nowhere to go and almost no money in my pocket.   While part of my plan was to go to new neighborhoods, suddenly the very familiar parts of the city started to feel different.   The glass windows of a coffee shop or a high-end clothing store felt like they had “keep out” signs flashing at me with my empty pockets, big parka and heavy boots.  The transformation in my experience of something as simple as walking down the street in an upscale neighborhood was profound and shocking.  How could a shift happen so quickly?  I bought an apple for 50 cents and trudged on, making my way to a church (where the music was uplifting), a homeless shelter (for lunch), and then taking a massive trek (that turned out to be a wild goose chase) to an employment center in Queens, with a lot of time in the NYC subway noticing how everyone except for me was in an iPod / newspaper / book bubble.  Time passed differently, and most of New York City felt like it was for someone other than me.

How can the experience of self shift so quickly?  The troubling notion is that we have a silent but persistent “identity monologue” going through our heads, an active but unconscious process of defining and reiterating our own identity.   (I guess the Buddhists would call this “ego.”)  The humbling part is that the constant process of self-(re)definition actively colors my sense of self and how I interact with the world, and what’s surprising is how fragile and mutable it is.  Just think of what it felt like to lose power in Hurricane Sandy (or whatever natural disaster is closer to home for you).

The positive side of this realization is around mutability.  As quickly as my outlook darkened when I got sick, it started to improve three days later once I got out of bed, and within a week I was mostly back to normal.

I’ve had times in my life when I’ve been stuck, where a situation, or where I was living, or a crummy job was sucking the energy out of me, and where it felt like there was something fundamental and permanent about my situation.  Making changes at moments like that can seem like too tall a hill to climb, partly because of the story we are telling ourselves about ourselves feels big, real and permanent.

It is none of these things.

And it is wildly freeing to know that even one small change in our circumstance can begin to change our whole outlook; and that changing your circumstances can change your outlook and perspective (not the other way around).