written by David Donnelly 

There you are at the checkout aisle in your grocery store. You are killing time looking at your smartphone when you see it in the corner of your eye: your two favorite celebrities are cheating on each other. I can’t believe it, you think to yourself, they were the perfect couple. In an instant, you are reading what you know may not even be true, but is too tempting to resist.

There are good reasons why tabloids are placed in the checkout aisle. They appeal to our boredom, voyeurism, and short attention spans. Even when we only hastily flip through them, ads still resonate in our brains. Digital technology and 24-hour news cycles only amplify our exposure to advertisements. We are perpetually hunted for our time, money, and ultimately our minds.


But what we often forget, is that with every decision we make about how we spend our time and money, we are casting a vote that shapes popular culture. Pop culture is a reflection of our shared values; it determines the quality of our media content, and the kind of companies and ideas we support. It is a compass that reveals our direction as a nation.

So when we tally our votes, what does it tell us about our shared values and our future? I see hit shows marketed as “reality” rewarding adults for being insulting and manipulative by giving them platforms for wealth and fame. I see a digital minefield of tantalizing click bait, appealing to our gullible and compulsive nature. “This miracle drug will make you lose 20 lbs in a week!”, “25 celebrities who look insane at 50!” I see gossip and entertainment being marketed as “news.” I see acts of terror shamelessly exploited on endless loops for ratings. I see kids who associate self-worth with the popularity of their selfies.

It’s easy to place blame on the “media” or “Hollywood,” but to do so would be irrational. We cannot blame content factories for making profitable content. They give us - the consumers - what we want. We can only blame ourselves for creating the demand. But what is produced for entertainment is now bleeding into our democracy. It is no coincidence that the man very likely to become the Republican Party nominee tweeted a photo implying his wife is more attractive than his opponent’s. As consumers, this is the election that we demanded. This is the election that we deserve.

Our passive, escapist popular culture is designed to distract us from our own lives. In moderation, this may have benefits of stress relief. But dependency upon this makes us weak. Our attention spans are shrinking, making it harder for us to think critically. We are now conditioned to put off our problems by indulging in someone else’s, and we are becoming more anxious and procrastinating more often because of it.

The time has come to wake up from our commercial slumber and ask ourselves: Does our popular culture reflect our potential? It is our obligation to be conscious of the relationship between our consumer behavior and our future. The impact of our popular culture is not confined within our national borders; it is also our greatest export. We must treat our daily decisions as votes for the values we want our society to espouse. We must vote for the content that encourages critical thinking, civility, and empathy; content that challenges us intellectually and emotionally; content that we want to represent our civilization to future generations. 

As a nation and as a species, we are threatened with a variety of complex problems and are guaranteed to face problems that we don’t yet know exist. Culture, the reflection of our values, can be our greatest ally or enemy during these struggles. We can vote for a culture that helps us forget about our problems, or a culture that inspires us to rise above them.

Papaw written by David Donnelly

The following is inspired by the music of Jean Sibelius and my experiences filming the orchestra rehearse his 3rd Symphony.  This is one of many stories detailing the impact classical music has had on my life.  

The rehearsal hall used by die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie (DKAM) in Bremen, Germany is connected to a middle school.  Students are regularly invited to stop by and sit amongst the musicians on stage.  I look around and wonder where this music is taking them.  I know where it takes a time when the world was perfect.  

Most of my childhood memories involve my Papaw.  He had the Popeye-like forearms of a mechanic, one bearing a Navy tattoo in blue ink as deep as the seas he voyaged.  He was a handy man who conducted his magic in a meticulously organized workshop filled with an array of odds and ends.  I would watch in amazement as complex puzzles were solved with a tool, a part, or simply sheer determination.  He was a fixer of all things broken; an invincible superhero armed with a swiss army knife and a smile.             

My childhood hero, Raymond Abner.

My childhood hero, Raymond Abner.

A handy man must be prepared to fix anything.  To keep the workshop stocked, we sifted through every flea market and yard sale we could find.  On Friday nights, we’d map out the next morning’s routes.  The first people to arrive are the most likely to find the best deals, so Papaw would wake me at the crack of dawn to hop in his lime green 73' Chevy wagon.  My hands couldn’t get to those shiny chrome door handles fast enough.  I was always ready for an adventure with my best friend.                  

Time passed.

My teenage years brought with it a desire to fit in.   I embraced all things “brand new” and “brand name.”  Friday nights were spent at the movies with friends, instead of plotting out weekend yard sale strategies.  Even the wagon that was once a gateway to adventure became a hindrance to my new social paradigm.     

When I saw that junker of a wagon waiting for me after school, the bullies and mean girls with perfect hair laughed.  Rust had chipped away at the shiny chrome, and the faded green looked like a dying fern in need of water.  I rushed to that wagon with my head down and cap pulled over my eyes.  I let my body sink deep into the seats, swallowed by cracked leather and humiliation.

I agreed to another Saturday morning of crossing off addresses from newspaper clippings.  I didn’t have the heart to say no to Papaw.  As we rummaged through the half-broken items on some other person’s lawn, a teenage girl came out of the house to help her mother. I recognized her immediately as my classmate.  My very popular, very beautiful classmate.  And I was sorting through her junk.  From that point, I started making excuses why I couldn’t go to yard sales anymore.  

Time passed.

I didn’t recognize the frail figure in front of me.  The Navy tattoo that was once the anchor of a family was now cracked like worn leather.  His eyes swelled when he saw me.  I tried to ignore the IVs and my mother’s tears.  All I could see was my best friend who fixed things that were broken.  I wanted to fix him but I was helpless.  He didn’t say anything.  Neither did I.  We both knew it would be the last time we would see each other on this earth.   

The summer before my junior year in college, I got the call.  Jolted.  Jaded.  Confused.  Time had new meaning.  The five hundred mile drive felt like five hundred years.  It was fitting that my Papaw passed away on the Fourth of July.  He served his country.  He served his family.  And he was my hero.   

I look around the rehearsal hall.  I see young faces.  I wonder where the music takes them.  I know where it takes me... It’s early in the morning.  The grass is still damp with dew.  I look outside the window and my Papaw is waiting for me in that lime green Chevy wagon.  My hands can’t get to those shiny chrome handles fast enough.  He smiles and grips the wheel with his Popeye like forearms.  I hold my head high.  

There’s no other place I’d rather be.             

Marked as Fragile by David Donnelly

A lot of people ask me why I dedicated so much of my life to making documentaries focused on the world of classical music.  Below is just one of many transformational experiences that describe my unexpected relationship with this music.

Marked As Fragile

It felt like winter was never going to end.  Empty trees.  Empty apartment.  She took everything.  My laughter, my smile.  I was paralyzed by my vulnerability.  I had forgotten how to live alone.  

She called and left messages.  Something was missing.  I didn’t answer because I knew what it was; a single box, duct taped and marked fragile.  Inside was five years of memories.  I didn’t want to give them back. 

Friends told me that I’d feel better with time.  The people that loved me the most went to great lengths to “take my mind off things.”  It was always the same.  “Here, have a drink.  Or ten.  Meet my friend.  She’s single.”  I welcomed the distractions. 

The actual apartment referenced in this story.  Photograph by David Donnelly. 

The actual apartment referenced in this story.  Photograph by David Donnelly. 

A restaurant opened in my building.  It was an escape that was only an elevator ride away.  A musician began coming in for late dinners after rehearsals.  I didn’t have much of a relationship with classical music at that time.  Then I met Paavo.  When he talked about music I saw a passion for life that I once had.  I wanted to feel that again. I needed to go beyond the surface of distraction.

Paavo would frequently recommend music.  Sometimes I liked it.  Sometimes I didn’t.  His excitement in describing each piece made me curious enough to give it a chance.  One night after dinner he handed me a CD.  It was music composed by a man named Arvo Pärt.   Later that night, I sat in my empty apartment, closed my eyes, and listened to the violins cry.  

Memories I had been harboring were plucked to the surface with each chord.   I thought of the first time I fell in love. I thought of the last.  I remembered how much better things smell when you live with a woman.  As the echoing of the bells slowly faded, so did my loneliness.  I never met this man named Arvo, but I was convinced he wrote this music just for me.

I played it over and over until I could think of only one thing; a tiny box in the corner marked fragile.  This time when I looked at it I smiled. 

The next day I called her.  She had left something at the apartment.

I was ready to give it back.