Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Hug It Out, Bitch 

Like the rest of the world, I cannot help but be helplessly tickled by Jeremy Piven'’s star turn in HBO's Entourage. As master agent Ari Gold, Piven manages to embody the strange truth of certain powerful nutjobs: they simultaneously disgust and engage us. Revile us and seduce us. Offer us opportunity at the cost of our souls.

Gold's relationship to Eric (winningly played by Kevin Connolly) feels all to familiar to me. As best-friend-cum-manager to rising Hollywood star Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), Eric finds himself out of his league. He has no real world business experience to speak of; his main talent is his trustworthiness and his ability to influence Chase. As an experienced wheeler dealer, Ari knows this from the moment he sets eyes on Eric and is constantly seeking opportunities to use Eric, or to disintermediate him from the cash cow that is Vincent.

To me, the relationship Ari and Eric is the archetype of the scary/sexy dance between any individual and the powerful person who appears to have the ability to grant one's desires at the potential sacrifice of one's values.

Drop Down Into the Frog

The first time I found myself in this position was at a Shakespeare festival in New Jersey. I was a struggling young actor, longing to join the union and do real professional work. Summer repertory festivals are where young actors earn "points"
towards union memberships while building sets, running the box office, making coffee, understudying the union performers and IF YOU ARE LUCKY getting to get onstage and carry a spear and IF YOU ARE REALLY FUCKING LUCKY getting to speak a line or two of the immortal bard.

As it happens, this particular festival was notoriously poorly managed. The interns were brought on in droves, which ensured that there were lots of free hands to make things run and that the competition for the supernumerary roles was quite fierce.

The theatre took on an extraordinary number of female interns, too. (If you're not familiar with Shakespeare's plays it might help you to interpret this hiring practice properly to know that there are a VERY FEW ROLES FOR WOMEN.)

The festival had some great union actors to understudy. And it had great plays (natch) to watch and perhaps carry a few props onstage. What it featured in spades, however, was the deep imprint of its agingmegalomaniacalal director. A man who had
developed his own acting technique (classes with him were mandatory) that was very strange indeed. Young interns were asked to arrive in a field at the crack of dawn, stretch endlessly, and then to perform arcane breathing exercisedevelopeded by the
so-called master which involved a lot of glutteal flexing and the repeated barking of "SQUEEZE, RELEASE, DROP DOWN INTO THE FROG!" Frankly, the most tangible result of all of this was a tight ass and a ton of mosquito bites and some in jokes that have survived more than a decade of wear.

A few more choice details: we did three show repertory. This involves rehearsing a show, opening it, beginning rehearsals on the second show during the day while performing the first show eight times a week. The second show then opens after four or five weeks and then you run both shows in an alternating fashion. As those two shows alternate, you begin rehearsal on show THREE during the day. Finally, you are running a three show repertory, which looks like this:

Monday: "Dark House" = no show
Tuesday: Romeo & Juliet
Wednesday Matinee: Measure for Measure
Wednesday Evening: King John
Thursday: Romeo & Juliet
Friday: Measure for Measure
Saturday: King John
Sunday Matinee: Romeo & Juliet
Sunday Evening: Measure for Measure

Rinse. Wash. Repeat!

Now what is not obvious to the uninitiated is that after each *three hour show* (dear Will's shows were not designed for the MTV generation), the interns had to do a "change over". This means changing the set. In this particular season, on top of taking down lots of walls and wall coverings and what not, this also included unscrewing EVERY floor panel in the stage (roughly 100 in total) and flipping it over to reveal a different pattern (one for each of two shows), or removing each floor panel entirely (for show three), or screwing the DAMN THINGS BACK ON to return the stage to the proper floor for show number one. If a show started at 8pm and ended at 11pm, interns could look forward to completing change over by 1am. And for the bonus round? Wednesday and Sunday the set had to be changed over twice.

So, why did we put up with it? Because we were dying to be actors, we were dying to get into the union, we were dying to perform Shakespeare. The director had power. He had the union points to dole out. He gave you theatrical credits you could put on your sorry ass resume (if you were a male and got to actually go onstage).

Years later, a friend asked K. and I why we went there. She informed us that the summer theatre guide she bought for young actors described the place and finished its description with the phrase "RUN LIKE HELL" in capital letters. We didn't believe her. Then she showed us the guide.

The sad part was that we all knew at the time that we should be running like hell. But we were frozen in place. The summer had started. Where would we go? Could we afford forfeit the points? We knew damn well we were being abused.

Finally, after much renting of my clothing, an attempt to start an intern rebellion, and lots of other offstage theatrics, I quit. I swore to myself that I would never prostitute myself like that again just for "experience".

Add "NET" and Stir

Years later I was at my first Internet startup. I had moved from theatre to the business world and this job promised to be a key part of that transition. The environment was dynamic and lots of other creative folks with earrings around. No one cared that I had started my career as an actor.

The upside was that there was a lot of opportunity to do new things and learn. The downside was that were were inventing a business that we ourselves did not understand. And there were a number of players in our environment who were there largely for one thing: a big payout.

It was that crazy time where simply adding the words "NET" made things cool. Pitching Sprint? Sell them SPRINTERNET. Pitching Radio Shack? SHACKNET! Pitching a company called IGI? Sell them D.I.G.I.N.E.T, The Digital IGI Network! We were faking it AS we were making it.

A sample week from those heady days: I went from NYC to LA on Sunday and replaced an entire technology department (the Mac technicians resigned en masse when we went to a Microsoft platform) by Wednesday. I received a phone call on Wednesday to go to Silicon Valley on Thursday to do due diligence on a potential acquisition. On Thursday, I got a call telling me not to come home but to fly to Chicago instead Thursday night to pitch the Tribune business on Friday. By the end of that poorly planned week, I had flown four different airlines and conquered my fear of flying.

The net result of this environment (ha, ha) was experience. I worked all day, all night, all weekend. My pager went off at all hours. I hired 100 people. I fired 100 people. I went from recruiter to HR Director, to Operations, to Mergers & Acquisitions to client management. I ran a luxury car account. I given responsibility for one of the most successful consumer packaged goods sites on the web. When we won our largest client ever, it was handed to me.

The downside to this glamorous life? The fear and the mania caused by the power struggles of the super-caffeinated egos in upper management. When people left the room with one of my bosses, he slagged them so badly in language so foul that I shuddered to think of what he might say about me when I wasn't present. He knew that, I'm sure.

Also generating a lot of angst was the fact that our hiring and firing curves seemed entirely unpredictable to those not in the know about the gritty details of our revenue stream. Personally, I never knew when I would be asked to let someone go. I began to feel like this particular task often fell to me because I was basically a "nice guy" and it was somehow fun for my boss to watch me have to execute an order I agonized over.

Once the order was "fly to Colorado and fire the Managing Director." I flew out with a colleague under cover of night. We called everyone else in the office ahead of time and told them to meet us for dinner at a certain restaurant, but not to tell anyone else about our being in town. We landed, we called the MD and asked him to meet us at a restaurant. Lunch was over and the restaurant was empty. Then we took everyone to dinner, closed the office for business the next day and took everyone to Austin Powers to cheer them up. Three weeks later, we sold the office to another company. Taken as a whole, our shameful days there were Jerry McGuire as if it had been directed by Terry Gilliam around the time he made Brazil.

I think my boss thought he was toughening me up. Making me a man. Teaching me the way of the world. Perhaps he did.

In the end, it was a somewhat brilliant business. We really did things that had never been done before that time. On the other hand, it was equally a pretty skeevy business: too much of its major deals done at strip clubs, too many of its financial quarters engineered through "cutting edge accounting", and too many of its employees being fired as they hit the wall of burnout - having bled company colors for the entirety of their tenure.

When the time came for me to resign, I stood in front of this most feared boss trying to figure out how to say the words. I had arrived like Eric in Entourage - with little real business experience and my main attributes being trustworthiness, a willingness to learn and a deep desire to get things right and not to fail.

Like Ari Gold, my boss simultaneously intrigued and scared me. He always seemed to have access to knowledge that I didn't. Knowledge that I thought I needed to attain my goals. But I wasn't sure whose side he was one. I wanted to trust him. I needed to trust him for my own sanity. But still, I always wondered what went on when I wasn't in the room.

Given our history, I found myself facing two men in one. The first man was someone who had given me opportunities that in effect compressed what seemed like 10 years of business experience into three years. The second man was the guy for whom I had done a heck of a lot of dirty work - including closing down the division that had originally hired me. The second man was the boss who compulsively flirted with my wife when he called and found out I was not home. Together, these men were the person in whose service I had needlessly lost countless hours of sleep due to various cockups beyond my control. The physical toll of all this was visible in the 15 plus pounds I had added to my frame during those three years.

I stood in front of him, all of these contradictorimpulseses flashing through me and then...I cried uncontrollably. And he reached out his arms. And we hugged. And I meant it.

Yes, he had done some things I found very, very hard to stomach. But through it all, I still felt somehow that in the final analysis he had as good to me as he knew how to be. He trusted me. He gave me opportunities I felt I had not earned in any way. Did I do things I thought were wrong at his instruction? Yes. Whose fault was that? Mine.

He didn't say, "Hug it out, bitch." But he might as well have. And we did. And I was grateful.
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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Ballet and Push Ups 

Last week's "Putting Out for the Planet" post requested by my friend Mark was admittedly on the darker side. Perhaps as a result of that, a reader named Frank suggested in the comments that I should write about "ballet and push ups".

At the time, I didn't think it was a particularly helpful suggestion for saving the planet, but it occurred to me later that it might be a great help for my recent bout of writer's block. So I decided to take it up as a challenge.

Therefore without further ado I hereby present the second in a row of "On Demand Posts" as requested by readers of The Evangelist humbly entitled, as per Frank's request, "Ballet and Push Ups".

In the last post, I suggested that my subscription to Real Simple magazine was a clear sign of my being a metrosexual. (Perhaps this inspired the suggestion for this post?) I used the term metrosexual because it had been (until recently) the best term I knew of to describe my general lack of affection for the American heterosexual culture.

I have never been much interested the traditional trappings of that style of "manhood" which includes - centers on, really - bars, sports, and Maxim. While it amuses me somewhat to see it portrayed faithfully on Entourage as the silliness it is, I have never been able to stomach the company of those who embrace it without any sense of irony. (And no, The Man Show was not in truth particularly ironic gloss on the subject. It's just two guys who are smart enough to
know what gets attention selling - and endorsing - the hetero culture back to its primary consumer under the protective guise of belabored humor.)

When I think about how I ended up so out of touch with the mainstream, it occurs to me that perhaps it did all start for me with ballet. Or at least with Mikhail Barishnakov. When I was a child and saw him dance on TV, it seemed to me that he'd achieved every kid's dream: he could FLY. He didn't need anything to do it, either. No machines, no gimmicks. The man could just launch himself in the air and fly enormous distances.

I desperately wanted to be able to do that. I would leap around the kitchen hoping that I would somehow gain the ability to do what he did. I didn't particularly grok anything else about ballet. Not the plot, not the music. I just wanted the ability to fly like Barishnakov.

While I never did learn to fly like Mischa, I found that as I grew older that I was only fleetingly able to care much about the traditional "boy" pursuits. I liked playing sports in school. But I didn't find watching someone else playing them to be particularly interesting. So watching games on TV was not high on my list of things to do. Frankly, I preferred to do anything else. The truth is, if I was going to watch a sport at all, it was most likely to be Olympic figure skating.
By the time I got to high school, I was pretty comfortable in my status as a geek far removed from "cool" male society. But high school changed me in some fundamental ways. I went to a Quaker school and somehow mid-way through, I began to switch grooves. I grew into my body. I got contacts. And I found the alternative music scene.

Some interesting things were happening in the popular music culture in the 80s in terms of male imagery. All of groups within the Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music-inspired New Romantic movement (Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, New Order, Orchestral Maneouvers in the Dark, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Cure...), not to mention the more mainstream Duran Duran, Prince and Culture Club began leaning into and, in the case of Boy George, moving pretty far beyond the 70's androgeny made acceptable by David Bowie, the Dolls and many others. My personal style influences began with Adam Ant (I grew a tail), moved through a Billy Idol style of pseudo-punk (I had the spiked hair, the dangling cross earring, and the spiked leather bracelets), and then became a sort of cross between Prince/Robert Smith androgeny and Bauhaus/Peter Murphy Goth.

Around the same time, the girl who was my best friend (Hi, Amy!) came out. This confluence of events crystallized something. I was very protective of Amy and wanted to support her. People would wonder if you were hanging out with someone who was gay if you were gay, too. And I began to think rather confrontationally about the issue: what if I were? Would that change something? If it would, then take a long walk off a short pier, buddy.

So I began to remove any conscious signals of my sexual preference. At the time, it didn't take much. My earring was on the left, which was a signal in that culture that I was straight. (This particular signal varies from generation to generation and state to state.) But I could easily confuse that by balancing it with an ear cuff on the right side. A little carefully applied eye liner helped, too.

When the time came to choose a college, I chose Vassar. Notoriously liberal and willfully gender confused, the largest event of the year after Founder's Day was undoubtedly the Gay People's Alliance "Homo Hop". Since gender preference signals were muted at best, the safest assumption was that everyone was bisexual until they specified a preference to you. Many of my classmates assumed I was gay. But I didn't care. And neither did they.

Since I initially pursued a theatre career after college, I didn't have to worry too much about macho American culture ("Push Up World" as we might call it in deference to dear reader Frank.) But I'm a pretty big guy. So while on occasion I was called a fag in public it was always muttered under someone's breath. No one dared to say it to my face.

When I found that my survival job was cater-waitering, I discovered that it was advantageous to pass...as gay. All of the guys who controlled the booking and had the highest paid parties were gay. And it was no fun for them to have an uncomfortable straight guy around while they were in their element.

So I needed to pass or I wouldn't get the best jobs. It wasn't hard. I referred to K. simply as my "partner" so as not to accidentally lead anyone on. And then I "played Mary" with
the best of them. Only after I knew someone really well would I "come out" as straight. This led to my having following conversation with a co-worker:

Tony: Um, Jim. I need to tell you something, but you can't tell anyone else.
Jim: What? You can tell me anything.
Tony: I mean it.
Jim: OK! Spill it!
Tony: Jim...I know this is going to come as a surprise. But I'm...straight.
Jim: Ha, ha, HA! You are NOT.
Tony: I know this is hard to believe. But I am.


Jim: You're kidding, right?
Tony: Nope.
Jim: Are you SURE?
Tony: Uh, yeah. I mean, I live with a woman. We're probably going to get married.
Jim: STOP!
Tony: I'm serious. Now you understand why you can't tell anyone.
Jim: Of course! I get it. I won't tell a SOUL. But look. Have you at least TRIED being with a man? I mean, because if you haven't maybe you're not 100% sure about this being straight thing.
Tony: Well, no. I mean, I've had offers. But when push came to shove, I didn't feel like pushing or shoving.
Jim: So you're sure.


Jim: This is really blowing my mind.
Tony: Yeah. I know. I'm sorry. I had to tell you though.
(Needless to say, this story delights gay friends. They have had more than their share of traditional coming out conversations and naturally are amused to hear about the shoe being so clearly on the other foot.)

It was only years later when I entered the corporate world that I fully encountered "Push Up World" for the first time since high school. And I HATED it. The talk about beer and getting drunk. And endless talk about sports. And cars. And how wonderful the administrative assistant's ass was who just happened to be walking by. (It's not that I didn't appreciate her ass. I just didn't need a 30 minute monologue on it.) The "refined" version of this style of conversation I would hear frequently was a "who's is bigger"-style conversation about the best kinds of WINE. Conversation about any subject in the world does earn the adjective "cultured" when the not-so-subtle subtext is how much can spend on the pursuit in question.

I began to experience uncontrollable urges to subvert this culture. Standing in a group of guys admiring another guy's suit, I'd say exactly they would have said if they were admiring a woman's wardrobe: "I'd fuck him." Awkward pause. Shuffle. Laughter. After a while, I got a reputation as a bit unpredictable, funny, and clearly left of center. Real assholes avoided me. The merely misguided would get the point and play more by my rules.

So given my personal history, when the term "metrosexual" surfaced a few years ago. I thought, "FINALLY, a word for a straight man who doesn't buy the hetero worldview. What took so long?"

But then, this weekend the New York Times blew up my identity by introducing a new term: GAY VAGUE.

Now I've argued with a gay friend (Hey, David - you got a mention!) about this article because it appeared in the same issue with the NYT Magazine article on the conservatives who oppose gay marriage. Some folks feel that the two articles are contradictory: the style article says straight men are more comfortable with not having to so clearly signal their sexual preference because being gay is not a stigma and the magazine article says the reason there is a sea of opponents to gay marriage is because they believe that homosexuality is an aberration and needs to be stamped out.

Personally, I see the articles as clearly reinforcing each other. The anti-gay marriage folks claim that gay people have a specific agenda: since they cannot procreate they have to recruit. And they believe that homosexuals recruit others through a concerted campaign to make "the gay lifestyle" acceptable. And the haters point to entertainment like "Will & Grace" as both the proof of the "gay agenda". I'm certain these people feel that trends like gay vagueness are FURTHER proof of the "danger" they perceive.

In any case, I felt that the gay vague article hit on something that resonated with me far more than any of the articles on metrosexuality: that some men do not accept the need to brand themselves as traditionally masculine and do not care about sending "the wrong signals". All of the text on metrosexuality focused on shopping and clothing. (And yes, I'm a clothes horse. In truth, K. calls me her "peacock" because of my wardrobe.) But the shopping focus of the metrosexuality articles and references trivializes any larger philosophical issues. This first article defining gay vagueness, while still pretty darn trivial, at least begins to bring some more interesting ideas to the pop culture dialogue. And in truth, I suppose we probably wouldn't have had gay vague without metrosexuality to pave the way.

In any case, I'll say in closing that I'm pleased that the NYT article has started some dialogue about shifts in American male hetero culture. It's not really a huge deal for me. But I have to admit that it is nice to see a little representation in the media of the lifestyle I have lived for a long time. Unlike actually being gay, being gay vague actually is a lifestyle choice.

Frank, I hope you liked your post.
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Monday, June 13, 2005

My Absence/Putting Out for the Planet 

I’ve been struggling to come back to The Evangelist for weeks now. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them was clearly a lack of motivation. I lost momentum and got caught up in reading the huge information flow that I seem to consider necessary for my existence.

For whatever reason, I am a compulsive information hound. It started years ago. Probably the first attempt to manage it came at age fourteen. I was in boarding school and I decided to subscribe to the New York Times. I thought, “I’m living away from home. I’m an individual being now. I had better subscribe to a newspaper so I know what’s going on in the world. After all, I’m no longer living in The City. I’m in the WILDS OF PENNSYLVANIA.” I had no idea what I was in for. The flood of articles began. I couldn’t make it through the paper each day, so I began piling the daily papers up so I could “get to that article later.” This quickly threatened failures of our room inspection, so I began just saving the section that had the article and it still didn’t help. The paper had too damn much interesting in it and I had homework to do. Finally, after several months of the grey fluttering deluge, I relented. I subscribed to Newsweek instead. That solved the problem pretty handily. For high school, anyway.

Some years later, when I went to grad school/conservatory, the problem cropped up again. I subscribed to Newsweek, The Nation, Utne Reader (an attempt to get more info with fewer subscriptions) and the Quality Paperback Book Club. Around that time I began to try to rotate my subscriptions so as to continually try new things, but not get overwhelmed.

That strategy worked for many years, but then suddenly during the Internet boom I discovered that there was so much I wanted and (felt I) needed to absorb. This got me to an all time high where I was subscribed to Business 2.0, BusinessWeek, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Internet Standard, TimeOut NY, and Wired ALL AT ONCE. I was getting a lot of free subscriptions, which allowed me to rationalize this infoglut, but it was a lot even for me to handle.

So recently, I found myself determined to pound down some more sources and I returned to focus on my current subscription list: BusinessWeek, The New Yorker, Real Simple , Topic (a GREAT new magazine! Subscribe now!) and The Week. Real Simple has been fun, but I’ve decided not to renew it. I kept hoping that they would realize that I and my fellow metrosexuals were reading RS and shift the content, but they haven’t. (Calling all magazine publishers: there’s a market for an RS type magazine for men. I promise.)

So all of this explains PART of why I haven’t posted in ages. The other reason, which is the primary topic of this post, is depression with the state of the world. You see Elizabeth Kolbert published a well-researched, three-part article in The New Yorker (here are links to parts one, two, and three) about global climate change.It’s well worth your reading…if you’re prepared to be depressed. I don’t recommend it if you have children because the outlook for the world after the middle of the coming century is extremely bleak. That is for humans. For Mother Earth, it looks like she finally might be ready to start the global washing machine and cleanse herself of these nasty parasitic humans.

Between Kolbert’s reporting and everything I’ve been reading about the “peak oil” theory, it doesn’t seem like there is much to look forward to on a macro scale. It would appear that pretty much simultaneously the following three catastrophic things are going to happen more or less simultaneously (on a cosmic timeline, not necessarily in the same year or decade):

1) We are going to begin to exhaust the earth’s available resources of oil.

No matter how you feel about oil, you must recognize that the planet has only so much of it. It’s tempting to think that it will last forever, but you know in your heart of hearts that just isn’t possible. Logically speaking, at some point we will have hit the midway point in what oil is feasibly recoverable from our blue marble. (We may figure out how to get beyond that threshold to hard-to-recover oil, but still it is a fundamentally exhaustible resource.)

Why does this matter? Because pretty much all of what we define in modernity is the product of oil. Not just the obvious, like the gasoline that powers every moving vehicle from motorcycles to airplanes. But the power grid is fundamentally dependent on oil. So are many, many other things you think of as unconnected. Including Vaseline. (We have to have a little humor here, but that’s true, too.)

So what happens when we hit the midpoint? Supplies become unable to meet the ever growing global demand.

2) The global economy will begin to respond to oil scarcity.

Inevitably, economies will begin to plummet. Those that can get oil will survive for a while. Those that don’t will begin to spiral. This is going to start wars around the globe to defend, keep or acquire oil resources, depending on the side you are fighting on. (I’ll leave Iraq out of this discussion. But the implications are obvious. The Pentagon has created and published scenarios about the coming oil scarcity. But don’t take my word. There’s plenty of journalism available on the Web through reputable sources on that story.)

3) The atmospheric changes we have wrought will raise the oceans globally.

Ironically, our love of fossil fuels is also creating the third leg of the impending forces of doom: global climate change. After you read Kolbert’s articles, you’ll get a pretty good sense of why I’m worried. It’s not just that the planet “gets hotter”. It’s that global warming is a reinforcing and self-accelerating cycle. Essentially, we’ve toyed with the forces of entropy by heating the atmosphere. It melts the icecaps, which raise the oceans, which return to the depths pieces of continents that were formerly underwater, which increases the size of the oceans…it goes on and on. And each reaction spurs another reaction which continues to heat the atmosphere and destroy life as we know it.

So, given this sorry state of affairs I’ve fall off the old blogging horse. And if you follow, understand and agree with any part of my train of thinking, it’s not so surprising is it? But I was hanging out with some lovely folks on Memorial Day and K. and I were talking about all of this and my dear friend Mark said, “But there MUST be something we can do, right? We can’t just sit back and let this happen.”

I have obviously been feeling pretty Eeyore about it all, so I could not come up with much beyond “Well, I recycle and I vote. But other than that, I’ve pretty much given up. We’re not having children, so I figure I’ll enjoy life and then hopefully we’ll miss the worst of the cataclysm.”

Given that Mark’s delightful 11 month old was toddling around our legs as this conversation took place, he said, “Come on! You can do better than that.” Now as it happened, our new friend B. was with us. B. is being courted by a rich enviro. So I said, “Well, I think B. should marry her suitor and then we can collectively participate in saving the planet by influencing his decisions on how to spend his money.” I promptly coined this strategy as “Putting Out for the Planet.” (Conveniently for me, only B. was going to have any putting out to do. But you know. It was a holiday weekend and I wasn’t feeling up to any whoring about myself. Perfectly happen to volunteer others, mind you.)

While we were all chuckling and amusing ourselves with my handily volunteering poor B. to save us all with her feminine wiles, Mark was not having any of it. He said, “You need to write a post on your blog and ask your readership what I can do to help save the planet.”

So that’s where you come in dear readers (if there are any left after my hiatus). Mark and I both desperately want your ideas. Why? Because otherwise, it’s all up to poor B. How can we all put out for the planet? Because this is a collective effort if it is going to succeed.

So please leave any constructive action-oriented comments below on how Mark (and all other interested parties) can help save the planet. We need all the help we can get.
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