Author Archives: John Donovan

About John Donovan

Hey folks! I am what many would call a young professional. My interests largely lie with art, the social sciences and music. I am interested in how to leverage relationships and connections in creating a better, healthier, happier world. I blog at modernwaysofliving ( Enjoy!

Sicario and Defining Strength: Laughing at all the wrong places

Did you ever go to a movie and wonder what the audience was thinking?

Sicario cast

Credit: Lionsgate

In Philadelphia, I had been to movies where the audience loudly booed.  Some of these are great to superb films — No Country for Old Men is the biggest one that comes to mind.  At the same time, booing at anything is somewhat of a pastime in Philadelphia.

Leaving Philadelphia and coming to the South, film-going audiences are generally more polite and genial.  However, I’ve experienced something arguably more insidious–inappropriate reactions at the wrong times in movies.  These reactions mostly go in the opposite direction and are overtly positive or outright jubilant.

My wife and I went to see the film Sicario at an advance screening last week and were disturbed and dismayed by the audience reaction.  In discussing this, I need to get into a few minor spoilers.


In Sicario, Emily Blunt’s character is a surrogate for the audience — an agent in over her head and often confused as to what is happening.  It’s a brilliant conceit to put the audience in the same position as the lead protagonist.  We are experiencing the horror that she is, step by step.  This includes confusion over the Spanish language, government/military verbiage, and what is happening at any given moment.

In the film, Blunt acts as a good counterpoint to the group she volunteers to serve with to fight the war on drugs.  She wants to get the job done, but doesn’t believe the ends justify the bloody, violent, unethical means.  It is a tricky balance that Blunt walks, but she pulls it off admirably.  The people she works alongside on the mission also do a great job in being despicable characters for the audience to reject.

Here’s the thing: despite Sicario being what the AV Club calls the “polar opposite of a crowd-pleaser”, the audience in this screening was highly pleased for all the wrong reasons.

They actively rooted against Blunt and for her morally bankrupt teammates.  Laughing and cheering was constant during the screening of the movie.  A movie that was meant to disturb and instill feelings of dismay over the futility of the United States War on Drugs instead made many people jubilant and energized leaving the theatre.  

An American crisis: confusion around a definition of “strength”

Walking out of the movie, a gentleman with a smile on his face summed up the overarching feeling in much of the crowd, “that girl was really in over her head, wasn’t she?”

She was, but it wasn’t a sign of weakness.  Her general unwillingness to kowtow to morally bankrupt, evil forces is admirable in the context of the film.  It is sad that people viewed these bankrupt characters as “cool” or “badass” in how easily they often were able to put aside any sort of moral fiber in their bodies to kill and torture others.

It’s a similar tough line that another drug-related piece of entertainment, Breaking Bad, walks.  There are many scenes in the show that are impressively staged and viscerally thrilling.  However, we can be seduced into rooting for a reprehensible man in the form of Walter White.  Breaking Bad–like Sicario–is brilliant in this way, making us reconsider what we think is valid and right when it comes to making morally bankrupt decisions.

We also see this with current presidential candidate Donald Trump.  His lack of a filter–and empathy–along with a pushy, bullying nature is viewed as masculine strength, when it’s anything but.

A larger problem manifests when people don’t engage with the material and laugh or cheer it off.

Good and bad is a series of greys

Put simply, I don’t feel as though many Americans can handle good and evil being a series of greys.  The nuance is lost. Physical intimidation and competency in killing is viewed as ‘strength’ and only a couple steps away from fascism.

It is the major problem I have with a movie like 300.  As a movie, 300 is very well made and pulls upon many reliable genre tropes like the underdog and revenge as motivation. However, its focus on Might Makes Right leaves a sour aftertaste.  There is no more emblematic symbol of this overarching ethos than Leonidas’ kicking of a Persian emissary into a well.  We don’t need to talk this through.  We need to be strong and kill whoever gets in our way.

Maybe this speaks to something bigger in the context of our country?  America is used to being #1 and being told we aren’t wrong.  American exceptionalism is at an all-time high during the presidential election campaign.  It is a horribly bitter pill to swallow to be told we aren’t good at something.  Sicario is that pill.  


Holidays? More like holidaze amirite??

Well, folks.  A few days ago was Father’s Day.

Traditionally, Father’s Day is a holiday focused on glorifying one’s father.  Let me tell you why I have a problem with this.

In the United States, for almost every holiday, we use family as a rallying point.  Think about it: Nearly every holiday (with the exception of “adult” holidays like St. Patrick’s Day or Mardi Gras) revolve around family, in its marketing and in its promotion.

But what if you didn’t have a family?

I have a family, but I don’t.  If that makes sense.  I have a family in the traditional sense, but I grew up in a broken home around rampant drug abuse and often untreated mental illness.  This environment I grew up in has made me all the more appreciative for a relatively mundane home life.  One that doesn’t result in random blowups or  the late night visits from intoxicated family members.

Father’s Day and holidays of its ilk twist at a thorn in my side.  It is a thorn that will likely never go away.  It is also one that gets worse through the use of social media, which I sometimes feel digs that thorn even deeper.

At the same time, it’s something I’ve tried to use as a strength, providing courage and advice where I can to those who have faced (or are facing) similar circumstances.  Going off the fantastic book “Leading With a Limp” (among others) and through my increased faith in a higher power, I’ve found we can use our weaknesses and those wounds that simply won’t heal as strengths to help others.

Instead of using holidays to glorify and cherish that which we care about, why can’t it be a standard?  Rather than New Year’s Resolutions or “diets”, why not adopt a new lifestyle?

This focus on a single day or week (or month) to appreciate that which we have is a larger issue.  It is also one that is truly disquieting for this blogger, particularly when it comes to the holiday season.

The “Look at Me” Generation: How Social Media Can Erode Relationships

Facebook Thumb

By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Full disclosure: The writer is a Millennial.  Carry on.

Millennial — “Generation Y, also known as the Millennial Generation,[1] is the demographic cohort following Generation X. There are no precise dates for when Generation Y starts and ends. Commentators use beginning birth dates from the latter 1970s, or from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.” (Wikipedia)

I have heard from folks (including a few relatives of mine) that millennials are selfish and truly don’t understand the way of the world.  That they’re entitled and often don’t believe in the value of hard work.

I highly disagree.

On the whole, I believe millennials to be highly compassionate.  Many of the millenials I’ve met put a greater focus on service, family, and friends than gaining accolades at the workplace.  Perhaps this is where this misguided notion comes from.

Rather than the “me” generation, I have instead realized that millennials are the “look at me” generation.

Inspired by a recent interview of Aziz Ansari by the AV Club, I have wondered if technology has been ripping us apart rather than bringing us together.  Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram promise an experience in bringing people together when they instead have people fused to their computer monitors, often being envious of others and wondering/worrying about what they’re *not* doing.

The intimacy and spontaneity from personal interactions is not replicated through digital contact, nor will it ever be.  More so than ever, advance planning and weighing is now a prerequisite for interacting with others.  Facebook is particularly guilty of providing too many choices, eventually leading to potential decision-making paralysis (A New York Times article had an interesting take on choice and its ability to paralyze in 2010).

Further, social media has often acted as a funhouse mirror wherein people attempt to show a side of themselves that should be private, rather than public.  It is now an unwritten rule that on social media, we should show our best side and be inherently positive.  Those who complain repeatedly on social media or talk about how bad things are going for them are often ignored or worse.

This leads me to a particularly ugly use of social media.  A few days ago, a video went viral that contains a woman berating a Dunkin Donuts employee and basically verbally holding them hostage in order to get free things.  The woman repeatedly mentions how she believes the video will make the company look bad.  Quite the opposite.  Link via the Consumerist. Beware – the link has NSFW language.

While I have my problems with social media, it must also be noted that there can be some great things.  These sites provide an invaluable service in connecting individuals to potential resources they may not have otherwise known about.  Twitter, in particular, is incredibly powerful in providing information in realtime and has helped cultivate the Arab Spring and many other forms of large scale organization.

Social media is incredibly powerful and we must be careful in wielding its awesome power.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”  — this quote was used in a superhero film.  It could as easily been used when describing social media.

The Family is Blood: The Harmful Concept of Family in the United States (And Elsewhere)

On this Valentine’s Day, let me pose a provocative question:  What is family?

The past couple of years, I have greatly considered what the concept entailed.  Speaking on biological terms, family is a group of individuals connected on a genetic level; simply, a nuclear family.  However, this definition is in turns inaccurate and insensitive to those who have been adopted by others or live in a “nontraditional” family.

Leave it to Beaver Family

Further, the idea that family can’t be questioned or criticized –no matter what–is prevalent in many households.  It is also an idea I was raised with.  And it can be an exceedingly harmful one.

I was raised with the idea that family came first; the family is blood.  In other words, if a family member was hurting, we should support and prop them up.  On the surface, this is completely sensible ideal to possess.  But what if family is harmful?  What if family does something that simply cannot be supported and must be called out, rather that supported?

In order to effectively love each other, we need to criticize and accept criticism, at the same time being able to discern when said guidance or criticism is harmful.

This is an extremely tough balance to strike.  Here, loving others effectively without harming requires a delicate touch.  An effective image is the idea of resetting a bone in order to effectively heal someone’s body.  Sometimes we have to be honest and wound someone  in order to effectively heal.

Further, looking at oneself in the mirror and accepting failure is an extremely hard concept to consider.  We must be honest with ourselves before we are honest with others.  This requires self-reflection, an act that is often neglected in the generally extroverted culture of the United States.

If we want to love each other, be direct, be truthful, and be supportive.  In a healthy way.

Art is Big Business!!!??

One of the hardest concepts for me to digest and understand over the past couple of months is the uneasy relationship between art and commerce.

The key question: how can one be true to oneself and produce art without being concerned about the business side?  Further, how is art sustainable without losing one’s creative flair and passion for what they are doing?

DJing in the Atlanta area made me realize this tension.  For all intents and purposes, it is hard to strike a balance, playing music that is more creatively adventurous, while becoming financially self-sufficient.  But, as with any creative pursuit, one must have faith that it will eventually pay dividends, whether those dividends are monetary or not.

I have always had an admiration for artists who are able to construct pieces of art that are uncompromising and willing to go to places others are not.  That are able to shine a light on truth and give an additional perspective to something that has gathered dust.  But, once again, is it possible to follow this track, remaining financially viable?

In my opinion, art is currently at a crossroads.  This couldn’t be more obvious than in film.

In the 1970s, there was the auteur period.  Directors were king and many nearly had as much power and clout as the studios.  Only in the 1970s could relative unknown Michael Cimino make the ambitious film The Deer Hunter, then be given countless amounts of money to make the bomb Heaven’s Gate, nearly bankrupting United Artists.

The 1980s were reactionary in a way, putting a greater emphasis on constructing blockbuster films and franchising.  However, films like Back to The Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Empire Strikes Back are pieces of pop art.  These types of films effortlessly balance adventure and entertainment with adept storytelling and some interesting insights on the human condition.

The 90s, aughts, and 10s have continued this trend to diminishing returns.

Watching the film Prometheus about a year ago reminded me of this uneasy balance.  The film starts out as an interesting treatise on faith and humanity but ends up being a b-movie gorefest best experienced in an MST3K-esque format.

But that’s the thing, what is the balance?  Is there a balance that can be found between art and business without sacrificing either?

In my opinion, Christopher Nolan is an excellent example of a balance between art and commerce.  The ability to make entertaining films like The Dark Knight and Inception that also pose larger intriguing philosophical questions about life.  But Nolan is a bit of an outlier.

So, where is this line and can it be somehow defined or crystalized?

Punk Rock and How it Influenced My Entry into Public Health…And How it Continues to Influence Me

Everybody has influences in their life.  Their parents, their friends, pop culture.

For me, it was–and continues to be–punk rock.

I currently work in health communication.  Working in health communication is all about focusing on how to make health messages more impactful.  Many studies have shown that there is a dearth of research that gets into practice.  In other words, many resources are spent and used to create impactful things…Without an impact being created.

Communication is a large reason for this.  Many ideas are brilliant in their creation and potential use, but are simply never used or maybe not even known about.  Effective communications and branding can also make an ineffective program get a better reputation from outsiders (i.e. DARE).

I grew to enjoy punk rock as an adolescent.  As a teenager (and even when I got older) it represented an outlet.  There are more than a few reasons why.

Accessible and Immediate

In my opinion, punk rock is rock in its simplest form, undistilled and raw.  Punk is also incredibly accessible and immediate.  Anyone with a guitar can play a punk rock guitar riff.  And in many ways, that’s what has made it attractive to me.

The only main musical rules of punk are loud, fast, and accessible.


Punk often appropriates previously used musical tropes into a new package.  The Jam is a perfect example of this.

The Jam is one of my favorite punk acts, often using mod fashion from the British Invasion (think The Kinks, The Beatles, The Who) and soul to new ends.  Peter Weller and the rest of the band were huge mod fans, all it takes is a look at their third album title All Mod Cons.


Punk rock, quite plain and simply gets to the point.  Quick.  It’s even better when it uses humor.  Just like The Rezillos.  One of the greatest debuts of all time.

Impactful and Powerful (visceral)

Historical points of view/Storytelling

Punk rock is often unpleasant, intentionally so.  It often pushes truth to the forefront and doesn’t sugarcoat.  Rather than ignore, punk rock often brings injustice into the light.

I also truly believe the only way we can move forward is often when looking towards the past.  Punk rock has some amazing songs focused on a point of view unlike any other, that of the disenfranchised or misunderstood.

One of my personal favorites is “Little Boy Soldiers” off of The Jam’s Setting Sons. It tells a heartbreaking, harrowing story of British youths who go off to war with noble intentions and leave forever changed.  Absolutely amazing lyrics.  Pure angry poetry.

Righteous Anger

Speaking of anger, much punk rock is focused on righteous anger, fighting for those without a voice.

An extremely formative band during my youth was The Clash.  My pick for greatest punk band of all time, The Clash is a perfect amalgam of straightforward rock, catchy hooks, excellent lyrics, and a belief in the potential for something better.

This wasn’t summed up in a better fashion than The Clash’s song “The Magnificent Seven”, detailing various forms of corruption and injustice, including but not limited to police corruption, alcoholism and overall ignorance.

In my humble opinion, we should all use punk rock as a compass.  It has many virtuous values that have guided where I have gone and continue to go.

Punk rock: Not just for punks.

The Disc Jockey Promo – Memorial Day Eve 2012

A little late, but this is a promo my friend and I put together for my DJ gig last month the day before Memorial Day. And, no, I cannot wear the horsehead at all times. It simply isn’t sustainable.

Tons of fun to make…And on an awesomely small budget. Peeps for more info —

Student Loans and the New Debt

One of the more sobering things one can do is put all of their investments and debts into the website  I recommend it, just to take a zoomed out view of their finances.  Spoiler: It isn’t pretty.

As a child of the 1980s, I have come to terms that I would be in debt.  We are the generation that is tasked with being the metaphorical cleanup crew.  The environment is severely damaged and our economy is in dire straits.  Just like many previous generations, we are being held responsible for our previous generations mistakes.

The difference for our generation is the fact that we live in an age with debt that we can’t control.

I’m talking student debt.

student loans - google

Student loans, as described by Google

For the most part these days, organizations that give school loans are no different than pawn shops or other businesses that prey on desperation.  They target those who have no other choice, but to beg at their door.  We come from a generation where familes and communities are frayed and distrusted, where there is no advice for the young, naive, and uneducated and individuals must go into tremendous amounts of debt.

As a youth, I was never given advice in terms of financing.  I was just told by my parents that “everyone goes into debt these days”.  While that is true, it doesn’t make it right.

Just like other predatory lending practices, the school loan application process is remarkably painless and has few barriers. Entrance counseling is mostly a scared straight session focused on stating to potential students that they have a debt they need to pay at some point.  Exit counseling mostly is an attempt to get contact information so these organizations can hunt you down, if need be.

This is particularly a problem with graduate degrees in fields that pay less (here’s looking at you, MPH and MSW, among others).  How is it justifiable to charge rates far beyond what an individual may ever make on a salary basis in their lifetime?

How has education become a rite of passage for the entitled?  How can individuals who have a heart for the underprivileged, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden help them if they can’t help themselves?  Schools have now become an assembly line for the creation of a new underclass, a grouping of educated, impoverished individuals.  Further, loans have created a new generation of indentured servants, some working at jobs only because they offer loan payment plans, even if it is toxic in nature.

I am still very happy I went to school and every experience I have had has been beneficial from a personal and professional standpoint.  That being said, we can’t make education perpetuate poverty and inequity.  Education is meant to be the great equalizer.  I don’t know if it is right now.

I have met the 20,000 pound gorilla on every youth’s back and it is student debt.  The New Debt.

My Foray Into DJing

All art, in a way, builds off previous art.  DJing literally reinterprets and reappropriates previously recorded material.  As the superb film 24 Hour Party People attests, this is one of the few times in music the *medium* was first praised (skip to 1:11).

This past Sunday, I DJ’ed in the city of Atlanta for the first time outside of friends’ houses or my own bedroom.  I became interested in doing so based on both the support of my friends as well as the pursuit of my passions.  Being a DJ combines many things that intrigue me — how to best connect people, utilizing emotional intelligence, and the art of improvisation.

It also is just plain fun, both through promotion and the actual DJing.

Due to some awesome friends and a pretty great turnout, I will be performing last Sundays of every month, starting 3/25/12 as The Disc Jockey.  The only equestrian DJ with improv experience in the major Atlanta metropolitan area.

The Disc Jockey - The only human/horse hybrid DJ in Atlanta

The Disc Jockey - The only human/horse hybrid DJ in Atlanta

DJing at Noni’s was truly a one of a kind experience, allowing me to live on a tightrope, judging the feeling of the crowd in determining my next actions.  With the exception of some minor preliminary planning, the entire set was improvisational in nature, playing upon my previous experience taking improv classes at Dad’s Garage.  It even played upon my previous experience in Japan, having to communicate largely through nonverbals (horses can’t really talk…much).

In the future, I will be publishing my playlists on spotify both under my username thisisthemodernworld and the site ShareMyPlaylists.

For this past Sunday’s playlist (Spotify needed): 

The Disc Jockey rides again on 3/25/12.  8pm-12am @Noni’s!/events/316777651714369/

“They Live” and the Occupy Movement: What is Social Justice?

The golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. – Keith David, They Live

If I were picking a favorite film director, it would most likely be John Carpenter.  In terms of film, my tastes run from the very peaks of cinema to the absolute depths, with a love for art and trash.  I completely, utterly appreciate attempts to make the most cohesive piece of art possible, but I also highly appreciate those that are able to entertain.  John Carpenter is one of the rare directors able to do that, balancing an artist’s hand with the panache of a modern-day P.T. Barnum.

Starring then-professional wrestler Roddy Piper, They Live is a scathing comment on the neglect of the working class in the United States, managing to wrap this message within the context of an alien invasion with aliens masquerading as politicians and those in positions of power. With They Live, Carpenter is able to sneak in jabs at Reagan’s conspicuous consumption obsessed culture while also making a piece of pulp science fiction entertaining to those who don’t even agree with the politics on display.

I recently watched They Live on Netflix and came to the realization the sheer amount of anger brimming under the surface.  Anger towards the incompetent, the greedy, and–perhaps most of all–the complacent.  They Live is, first and foremost, a comment on those individuals who let the world become one focused more on people being defined by product, rather than the moral integrity that inherently makes a person a person and separates us from the animals.

Roddy Piper and Keith David, They Live

A pair of black sunglasses changes everything...

That They Live got through the major studio system is a pretty major miracle (even if Carpenter had box office clout at one point, it was long gone here).  Even more so than that, the film represents an early warning shot to a current sentiment — fatigue from corporate greed and the resulting Occupy Movement.

For me, one of the more fascinating recent narratives has been the Occupy Movement.  What began at Wall Street amongst a small, but devoted group of  protesters has expanded nationwide.  Along the way, the Occupy Movement has fought for the idea of social justice, attempting to remove the barriers of injustice and greed and make many of these hidden barriers more apparent with sit-ins, protests, and commentaries, among other things.

This isn’t how many–including many of those in the media–have framed this pursuit, however.  To many, the Occupy Movement hasn’t been clear enough and represents some of the dregs of society — those who simply don’t want to work.  Others use codewords which imply entitlement or laziness resulting from substance abuse or other factors.

While this isn’t entirely untrue, it’s also simplifying what is being done on the ground.  The formation of any movement has growing pains; birth is always painful.  Occupy has largely been interesting in solidifying and clarifying their vision in moving forward to action.  Some of that action has already occurred in places such as Georgia, where many Occupy protesters have started organizing sit-ins at properties foreclosed on due to subprime and other unethical practices.

In defining the vision for social justice, much responsibility needs to be placed at the feet of the people themselves–those loans they decide to take out, where they choose to live, what they choose to eat, etc.

But we must also remain cognizant of the fact that not all Americans (or people elsewhere) are born with an equal shot, despite what we are told at a young age.  Redlining, gentrification, food deserts, cheap addictive and calorie-rich unhealthy foods, and predatory lending practices are all very real things.

Simply put, the Occupy Movement is more than youthful naivete.  Just like those black sunglasses in They Live, Occupy is bringing light to problematic policies and waking up the populace.  Well, at least those who are able to cut through the static.

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