A Slightly Odd Thought

Thoughts are more susceptible than most things to being, at the same time, reasonable and helpful and bizarre and unhelpful, according to the angle they’re viewed from, how the light hits them. 

In discussing whether I might actually be mad, trying to do the quite possibly impossible thing I’m trying to do, the teenage therapist and I seem to agree that the jury is still out.   Clearly, the most sensible thing to do is find something to do that brings in money.  If it’s something that also brings personal satisfaction, helps others, is enjoyable and challenging — that’s great.  But given the choice between earning a living or being in a constant state of turmoil over a ridiculously challenging thing requiring a good deal of self-reinvention while not bringing in a groosh or a kopeck… most people, on every shade of the elusive sanity spectrum, would choose the former.

I am ambiguously blessed, at the moment, not to have to occupy myself with the vexing question of how to pay my bills.  Five years ago I inherited enough money to support the average person three to five years.   Not lavish years, mind you, but average years for the average person living a modestly middle class life.  I have always tried to keep my expenses low, my options open for working the fewest hours in a conventional job.  Five frugal years later I still have money, riding on the “free market” roulette wheel like the trillions scooped off the slanted table the last time the richest and cleverest gamed the system prior to the “collapse” (or wholesale fraud, if we want to be more accurate) in 2008.  For the moment I am not worrying about that, though, of course, I probably should be.   My not worrying is another tick on the side of the ledger the jury may lean toward when deliberating over my relative sanity.

But here was the slightly odd thought that snuck up on me the other day.   I’m working strictly on marketing now, as much as I can, focused on presenting the workshop in a light that will make it hard for public school innovators in the de Blasio administration to resist.  This marketing work is also necessary for interesting and recruiting the best possible people to work with me on the program.   I’ve spent many hours removing all self-deprecation, self-doubt and frustration when I describe the program.  I’ve eliminated all references to the likely impossibility of my task.   I focus, when I can, on how well the program I designed works for its intended purposes.  

I am making my language terse, yet natural.  In the first minute I now summarily answer the most obvious questions: who I am, what brings me to the room and why this program is so important and valuable.   I am isolating the talking points, keeping them simple and rotating them, repeating each one enough times for the message to hopefully sink in.  You want to involve children in their education, make them eager partners in their own learning?  Give them a stake, let them learn what fascinates them and let them teach each other.   You really want children to become creative problem solvers?  Put them in a room full of art supplies and technology, with an exciting end-product they can enjoy, and adults who set things up then take a back seat, and watch what they do.   Etc.    

The odd thought, yes, I’m coming to it presently.  I’d been stuck for a while trying to complete the pitch.  I need to be able to present a snappy and memorable show during the structured yet natural twenty minutes I will get to pitch it some day.   Improvisation in a sales pitch is foolishly risky business, as I’ve learned in a gently brutal manner.  Wrestling with the technology to make the AV (I reveal my age with this anachronistic reference to “Audio Visual”)  side of the presentation has been an added frustration.  Every added frustration makes the mountain I have to climb steeper.  The fucker is already almost vertical, any steeper and I’ll have to find or design special shoes to allow me to walk upside down.  Another of five dozen, sometimes ridiculous, workarounds so far.  

But this week I was finally able to negotiate the last technical hurdles with the program I’m using to create the pitch (a total of five hours winning over ever more supportive and expert tech support) and it gave me the ability, at last, to record version after version and watch them back.  Recording myself was a useful bit of advice I received a few weeks ago when the very idea of watching my sluggish progress set my teeth on edge.  Being able to finally see my work played back eliminated the rehearsal-to-myself motivation problem, and the equally vexing one of finding someone to do me the favor of watching each version and helping me assess my snail-like progress.    

“Wait,” you will say, “you supposedly have an organization, a non-profit founded in the Spring of 2012.  Why do you still need to find people to do you a favor?  Call a meeting and….”  Shut the fuck up, would you, fuckface?  

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, ignore this well-meaning yet provocative clown and my client’s outburst as well.  My client suffers from acute Founder’s Syndrome, a well-known condition that eventually afflicts the CEO of virtually every one-person organization.     

Anyway, now that I can work on the pitch and watch it in progress it’s much easier to see transitions that are bad, points that are not made clearly, glitches, clumsily worded talking points and so forth.  Clearly this is the work of a committee, a team, but since I have neither, it’s taken way, way longer to complete.  Now that it’s finally not so difficult to see and fix weak points I’ve made good progress the last week and it’s now virtually done.  I’ll be presenting it to a successful non-profit entrepreneur on Tuesday and once more have the benefit of his experienced feedback.  He has mastered a pitch that is successfully selling a once one-man program related to mine.   My pitch is ready now, 48 hours before the meeting, though I plan to polish it a bit more, if I can. 

Now the slightly odd thought, after one last bit of set up.   I ran the short new segment by Sekhnet the other day.  It contained my freshly written “who am I, why am I here, why should you care?” rap.  She was distracted from my short personal and professional message by the flash of oddly unrelated animation on the screen.   She was right to be distracted, I could see at once.   I set to work making the proverbial enormous changes at the last minute.  Had I presented that first version to the social entrepreneur I’d have lost him in twenty to sixty seconds and he’d be bracing for a wasted 20 minutes with a clearly mad person with a single good idea and a hundred bad ones. 

Several hours of concentrated work later I had a 49 second animated clip that I can actually link to this post (later) explaining who I am, why I am here and setting up why my program is something you should check out.   These simple questions had been impossibly ticklish ones for me to answer.  I knew the new version was pretty good.  Ran the less than minute by Sekhnet.  “I like it,” she said, after a little laugh at 0:20 where I’d inserted a little bark of levity, “it really shows how much work you did developing the program”.   Went back to work, tweaking a couple of things I noticed while showing it to her.  I fixed several other small weak links in the pitch.  

At the end of a very productive day I stood at the mirror shaving.   As I watched myself I noticed a small twinkle in my eye.  In that small moment of satisfaction I glimpsed an entire universe of truth and I had this odd thought:   it’s easy to have ideas and it’s morally satisfying to have ideals;  living them is the hard part.  I don’t personally know many people working as hard to live their ideals directly, to see their unique ideas mischievously afoot in the world.   It is hard, maybe impossible, work, but it’s the best work I could hope for, it occurred to me in that moment.  I am also blessed, by pure luck of circumstance, to be free and able to pursue it for as long as I have been.  

I pushed aside the thought of all of my more successful friends, figuring out how to live well doing things that are also important, or sometimes not;  pushed aside the often odious comparisons that come so naturally to all of us here in the Free Market.  

I am free, the twinkle in my eye reminded me, and lucky to be doing important work for which I am uniquely suited.   I’ve learned to savor the small but crucial moments of reward that are invisible to most people.  This could be a sign of madness, of course, seeing these tiny, isolated moments as a blessing, but I prefer (in the custom of all madmen) to think not.   It’s crucial to drink fully of every life-sustaining moment of reward we feel in order to persevere in any difficult undertaking.  I’ve learned to suck every drop of  juice from these rare and subtle moments of reward one must be vigilant to enjoy. 

If my life is harder, harder to explain and less materially sustainable than the lives of many people I know — these are all part of the price the world extracts from those who dream of a more merciful society and struggle to make these dreams real in the world.   There is a price to be paid for being different, clearly, and it’s not just a theoretical price.  Part of that price involves the occasional questioning of your sanity.  

It was an excellent moment in front of the shaving mirror, even if, at the same time, a slightly odd thought.

Technology as Sodomite

My program, a theory I tested that worked better than I’d hoped (be careful what you hope for), depends on the simple user-friendly, beautifully integrated technology of the macBook, circa 2011, to put kids’ stop-motion animation together.   This technology allows eight year-olds to take hundreds of frames from the SD card of a digital camera and quickly select and input them into a program that automatically puts them into a folder on a laptop computer.   This easily located folder, which can be customized to use any frame as an icon, can then be opened and selected frames dragged into the simple to use program where the frames are edited to make the finished animation.  In another program the kids make a soundtrack, and drag it into the animation with ease.  It’s simple and direct and kids are happy to teach other kids the programs.

It’s true, as my father said, that I’d complain if I was hung with a new rope.  Keep that in mind.

I listened to a friend’s good advice about buying a new state of the art macBook pro and stop struggling to do all these workarounds on multiple devices– emailing an image from the iPad to include as I create my pitch on the one computer I’ve updated to the latest operating system, play it back on the new iPad.  I need to make various marketing materials to get the program up and running as a business.  It made sense to get the new computer, put everything I need on its solid state hard-drive and not be hampered by technological challenges on top of the challenges already stacked up for me to overcome.  I bought the new macBook three weeks ago.

The Devil, of course, loves the details– calls them home, his playground, an aphrodisiac.  The details drive Old Scratch into a frenzy of creativity.

Apple, like all large corporations, is in business to make the largest possible profit.  This is the way of the world, the first rule of the Free Market.   In addition to constantly introducing new products people will have to buy, they tirelessly upgrade their ingenious programs, reconfigure the operating system, redesign their most popular programs and apps.   Sometimes they even eliminate them altogether.  iPhoto, for example, the program that allowed kids to bring frames in that could be instantly found in a folder– gone.  There is likely a way to do something similar, without a doubt, in the program that replaced it, closely resembling the iOS system they use on iPhones and iPads, but it must be figured out.   Similarly, the program where the kids edit the frames, and which has always had a pull-down menu within each frame to make crucial adjustments, Apple designers have eliminated this convenient feature altogether.   Of course, there has to be a way to do it, it’s just not easy to find.  Especially if you get frustrated when you can’t find it mentioned in the help menu.

So, because I can’t solve these vexing problems at the moment, and it is too hot to struggle with them now, I downloaded a great-looking program called iBook Author.  This program allows one to make interactive e-books, something I have long wanted to do.  They can only be used on Apple devices, of course, but it would be a start.  I was excited to try it and try it I did.  I created the first two chapters of a book, with an embedded movie, and wanted to preview it, see how it looks as an e-book.

Happily there is a button that says Preview right at the top.  I clicked it.  I was invited to select a destination from a greyed out list that contained one destination.  That destination, which I could not select, reads: This computer (iBooks for Mac) (Newer version of iBooks needed).

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The neighbors were treated to a Tourretic outburst that must surely have been unwelcome at that hour, or any hour.  I opened iBooks on the brand new computer I bought three weeks ago and was able to download several e-Books.  I flipped through them, everything worked fine. There was no option to download a newer version of iBooks.  I searched.  All will be revealed, I decided, when I speak to an expert at Apple Care who will guide me through intuitive steps involving holding down the Option key while pressing the smart trackpad with three fingers, for exactly two seconds, and then quickly powering the computer on and off, with an easy switch to the Apple key.  I eventually decided to stop struggling with the willful new computer, shut it down and go to sleep.  

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Sleep took its time.

It’s Like Riding A Horse

Thinking of the famous difficulty of managing people, I recall an incident from when I was 19 or 20 that serves as an excellent illustration.

I was in California for the summer and hitchhiked to L.A. for a brief visit with my girlfriend at the time, a sturdy and elusive young woman I’d been attempting to have a love affair with from a very long distance.   We were staying at the beautiful home of friends of her family in a wooded area of L.A. on cliffs high above the Pacific.   They were gone for the weekend.  

They had a horse and she asked me if I’d like to ride it.   I said I would, though since a pony ride as a child I hadn’t been on horseback.

Having grown up out west, she expertly saddled the horse for me, then explained that she was allergic to horses and rushed inside to shower before the hives became unbearable.

I sat on this large animal’s back and was struck by how high off the ground I was.  I gave the giddy-up signal and the horse began to walk. Having been in the area less than a day I had no idea where to ride, so I let the horse go where he wanted.  It only took a minute or two, and we’d gone a very short distance, when the horse stopped.  I was confused.  The horse as much as said “well, then, fuck you, my friend,” did an about face and jogged back to his stall at a good clip while I held on for my life.

Horses, it turns out, need to know that the rider is in charge, confident and knows exactly what to do at all times.  Much like any humans you might find yourself managing, as much as they might also like to be treated with deference to their feelings, opinions and initiatives.

Meditation on Discouragement

Courage is a rare and indispensable thing.  It is necessary for overcoming fear, which is all around us in a tumultuous world that ends, inevitably, in our certain death.   I don’t mean courage in the sense of being able to rush headlong into danger, although, in the moment sometimes it comes to that, but more the daily courage to act on what you know to be true in the face of an immense crowd chanting the opposite, loudly and constantly.  Or in the face of a small, silent crowd, for that matter.

Encouragement is a good and important thing to anyone facing any kind of challenge.  Note the way ‘courage’ is embedded in the word encouragement.  We can actually give courage by sincerely encouraging.  Presumably one encouraged consistently during the formative years will internalize enough fearlessness to continue without the need for external encouragement.   Blessed are these people, instilled with an incalculably valuable gift by the people who raised them.

Me, some days I find myself looking through the eyes of my grandmother’s beloved little brother who never made it out of Vishnivetz.   The youngest of seven Marchbein children, my grandmother spoke of him with love, and a glitter of joy in her eyes, the one time she mentioned him to me.   She was scratching my back, no doubt, as she often did when I was a boy, and told me about how much she loved her wonderful little brother, whose name was a Yiddish diminutive variation on Joe.  

No mention, of course, of what became of him, or the other six siblings, though I would find out years later exactly how things ended for them all.  Explaining, at least in part, why my grandmother resorted to so much vodka so often in her final years.

I am that beloved youngest sibling, standing on the lip of a ravine on the northern outskirts of Vishnevetz, in my underwear, amid the pounding of drums, the crashing of cymbals and the drunken ruckus of Ukrainian peasants who are trying on my clothes and scrambling over the ravine like demented monkeys.  It is evening, the sky is darkening.  I am waiting, and I can see what I’m waiting for.  The group before me has just had it — a bullet in the back of the head, one for each.  One more shot for the occasional twitcher and then a little dirt thrown over this layer.  “Next,” motions the Nazi in charge, like the maitre d’ at a horribly overpriced restaurant the critics can’t get enough of. 

I cannot get past this ancestral memory at the moment, though I try.  It is more than enough to stop me in my tracks, force me to the keyboard to try to tap it out of mind.   Some days the incomprehensible hatred, greed and stupidity of human beings lays on my heart like an anchor.   Why should such long ago events, no matter how terrible, stop me from doing what I need to do today?  Where is the courage to acknowledge it as just another terrible and distracting thought, one to think and let go of, and let myself get back to work?

What is work?   Today it is sitting at the kitchen table, where the new laptop is set up and ready to go, and clicking “play”, the timer on my cellphone running.  Watching the pitch that I need to refine, make sure it’s as close to ready as I believe it may well be, note what I still have to improve.   I have been working on to it now for over a month.   My immediate task is to make sure the automation is working correctly and timing the presentation, which aims to be about ten minutes long. 

Does not sound like particularly hard work, though I’ve been nervously unable to get to it so far.  Instead I am thinking of a ravine I never saw, on the outskirts of an old town cursed by God himself.

Of course, it’s the fearful difficulty of the entire enterprise that is upon me today.  The arbitrary slaughter of my family thirteen years before I was born is just a manifestation of my feelings of futility.   The fear is knowing that everything is riding on the pitch being a wonderful evocation of the thing I’ve been working on, unpaid, for the last few years.  

An excellent sales pitch is the difference between life and death, I understand that finally.   No shame in being a shameless shill for something that can help so many kids, give myself a better and more productive life in the process, I understand that now too.   I’m ready to do it, truly, and working on it.  Except for the feeling of discouragement I have to talk myself out of.

The pitch will explain why the program I’ve created, which has worked 100 out of 100 times, under very bad circumstances about half the time, and even been greatly appreciated by several amazed adults who’ve seen it in action, is something the NYC public school system, and every children’s hospital and juvenile cancer ward, should pay to have their kids participate in.  

The good work will then go on, the joyful laughter will be heard, the heartwarming feelings will be stirred.  The alternative?  Nothingness, the years theorizing, designing, field-testing, being delightfully confirmed in my theories, refining, trying to document, raise funds, publicize… gone with no meaningful trace.

I’ve refined the pitch now for a few weeks, showed draft 3 to two professionals last week who gave me excellent feedback.  I am using their notes to make draft 4 much better.  It is already much better, after several hours work on it yesterday.  I am sure of it.  

All that remains for me to do at the moment is to press “play”, start the timer, and watch the show.  Then I will know how close I am to having something I can present that will do the bulk of the selling for this wonderful program; that and being in and out of the sales meeting in 20 minutes or less and leaving the potential purchaser with a warm feeling of confidence in me and my product.  Nothing to it, baby.  

And so I have successfully talked myself into doing the obvious now, as soon as I’ve hit the “publish” button I’ll head right in there with my timer.  

Even though I am also, clearly and at the same time, still standing by that godforsaken ravine in Eastern Europe waiting for that coup de grâce as the supercilious maitre d’ distractedly fusses with the collar of his uniform in the hideously warm Ukrainian night.

Creativity revisited

Why this obsession with creativity?  I do not sell mine, after all, why is creativity so important to me?

Never mind.  Not interesting right now.  I want to present John Cleese’s excellent observations about the necessary elements for creativity as concisely as possible.  I need it in a tiny nutshell, to add to a pitch to help me sell my program, which provides exactly those conditions to theoretical elementary school kids.

The great John Cleese describes five essential conditions for creativity:  place, start time, ending time, confidence and humor.   

For young children, who are naturally creative when given the slightest chance to be, we’ve reduced the formula to this:

Have fun and help each other.

You can’t have fun if people are bothering you.  Don’t bother anyone.  If you can’t help, don’t hurt.

When it’s time to be quiet for a minute or two, be quiet.

Place for creativity: how about a room filled with art materials and a camera stand to shoot frames? With a recorder to make soundtracks and a computer to assemble the animations.

Time:  ideally about two hours.   This allows for set-up and clean-up and leaves 90 minutes or so for time concerns to disappear.  The kids now have all the time in the world for leisurely play, letting things develop in their time, being comfortable with not much happening sometimes.  

Asked what she liked best about the workshop, the Idea Girl said “it gives you plenty of time.”    

Confidence is necessary, because if you think you can’t dance, or sing, or draw, or animate, you probably won’t be able to.  

What gives a person confidence?  Someone smiling and giving a thumbs up when the idea is presented.  

What takes away confidence?  Critical comments, ridicule, skepticism, indifference to your best efforts. 

The last part, humor, happens naturally in a room where children are playing, relaxed, involved, having fun, trying out the craziest ideas they can think of, not worried about anyone bothering them.  

It’s not unusual to hear participants laughing at the end of a session.