You talkin’ to me?

 

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I’ve always talked to myself. When I was little, I would narrate my doings, describing the astonishing thing I was building with Lego, the culmination of a stellar building career, summarized in grandiose terms by a plummy narrator, like a BBC biographical documentary.

As big, batty person, I talk to myself in the shower a lot, singing, using accents, getting louder and louder, repeating phrases I like just to feel them roll off my tongue and into the tub. Usually someone else in the house knocks on the door and asks if I’m okay.

I talk to myself when I make dinner, pretending I am hosting a cooking show, explaining how to properly julienne.

I talk to myself, less loudly, when I walk, immediately clamming up if someone passes by. Or sometimes I’l wear headphones just so it seems I’m just on the phone.

I dunno, I like to hear my voice in my head, and I like the idea of saying silly nothings that could amuse only me. Those I live with sometimes get irritated by my chipperness. They aren’t morning people. Or morning dogs. No problem, I’ll talk to the sparrrows.

Sometimes drawing is like talking to myself, especially when I am drawing from my imagination. A couple of days ago, I listened to the radio and filled a page of typing paper with hippos, some buck toothed, some with trotters, a giraffe or two, a crocodile in ballet shoes. They spoke to me.

I like it, it passes the time, it is not for anyone but me. But I like to listen to whatever it is in me that wants to say hi.

Kiss all frogs.

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When I was running a creative department a few years ago, I decided to make a film about creativity at the agency. Not about my department, but about people in accounting, account services, production, catering, media, and human resources. When I first put out the request for people to tell me about their creativity, the silence was deafening. Wasn’t that the job of my people?  But I insisted, and soon uncovered lots of examples of hidden creativity.  People who never saw fit to mention it in the office, went home and cooked incredible pastries, played the banjo, wrote sci-fi stories, won prizes for their roses, build radio-controlled helicopters, were in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The film was a smash and it opened all of our eyes. By removing labels, we discovered the hidden assets in our company. And we started using those assets in new ways, inviting new people to brainstorming sessions, giving them problem-solving assignments, asking them to help us crack the tougher nuts. Soon the whole agency was a creative resource. Instead of a few dozen people in my department, I could call on the whole staff.
We just don’t know where answers will come from. And when we insist on judging situations prematurely, we limit ourselves and our potential. Instead, we need to open up and stow the labels.
Invention doesn’t land neatly. We have ideas and don’t know where they go or what their purpose is yet. We need to honor those ideas — especially if they seem like mistakes.
For example, misconceptions are a sort of mistake that can lead to innovation. You mishear the assignment, you misread the brief, you misunderstand the problem, and 1+1 don’t make anything coherent.  Because the puzzle won’t snap neatly together, you really scrutinize the pieces. You come up with all sorts of explanations for this perplexing situation. You dream up new theories, new explanations for how things work.  Maybe you get a new tool and you toss away the instructions unread. You find a box of paints you’d forgotten about in the back of the cupboard and discover they don’t mix like they should. You visit a new country and can’t understand how they can eat what they do.
Most of these musings lead nowhere — after all, they’re built on a foundation of error.  But some of them, maybe just one, pivot your thinking, open your eyes to a whole new perspective. Your imagination struggles, flails and then comes up with a link no one has ever seen before. If the pieces fit too neatly, you’d be stuck doing the same old same old.
Sometimes knowing too much means not having room for the answer. Out of the mouths of babes (of all ages and all departments) come surprising insights, based not on experience, but on a fresh point of view.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t shun your mistakes. Don’t burn bridges.
Our wastepaper baskets contain the seeds of revelations and brighter tomorrows.

P.S. Happy 616, PL.

Father’s Day

boothHow do you convey what it is to feel pride in your child? It makes one’s own accomplishments pale. Because it is your doing — and so much more.
It is the sum of the love and work you put in over the years, the lost sleep, the dilemmas, the improvisation, the fear that your own failings would leave scars. And it is a second chance at your own life, a do-over that lets you rewrite the decisions you came to regret. It is the high road.
But of course it’s not so simple. A child is not a puppet to toe a well-laid plan. Every child has her own intentions, his own hopes and flaws. And yet when things turn out well, when they amaze, there is no height more exhilarating.
I grew up without a dad and had to write my own handbook. And becoming a father was a scary business at the start. Every setback seemed so high stakes, so unutterably bleak. But I was fortunate to have a boy who rarely disappointed or scared us. Quite the contrary. And now I feel him pass me on the track, surging ahead to make his own brighter mark. For what more could I hope?
Being a father is a dance — step forward, step back; lead, follow; hold, then let go. You are investing your all in a person who is destined to fly away and then (you pray) to return.
And the stakes of that dance are so high. Of all the jobs you can fail at, none is more significant than being a parent. And we all fail. How we dance back from that brink is a test of our mettle and our ultimate effect on the world to come.
When your child is suffering or lost, there is no deeper fear or sharper pain. ‘Take me instead,’ you inevitably say. Because only parenthood reveals the awesome power of unconditional love, of how much even your feeble heart is capable of.

Another human that makes us more so.

Master of None.

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I have always been a dabbler. I have tried so many things, thrilled at the initial excitement of learning a new skill.
Here’s a partial list.
In high school, I learned the basics of how to write computer programs in BASIC. I sort of learned to solder electrical circuits, to make picture frames, to throw pots, to weave, to make silver jewelry and cloisonné.  I formed a Marx and Engels study circle after school. I learned the rudiments of playing the banjo, the piano, the saxophone, the harmonica, the electric guitar and the vibes. I acted in plays and directed them too.
In my twenties, I learned about cooking, photography, carpentry, and construction.
In my thirties, I learned to bind books, to screen print, to ballroom dance, to lift weights, to edit film, to design books, to get around a golf course, and to change diapers.
In my forties, I learned to watercolor, to use a dip pen, to podcast, to properly pack a suitcase, to write in HTML, to use a DSLR, and to make ice cream.
So far in my fifties, I have dabbled in barbecuing, painting in acrylics, gardening, entrepreneurialism, and driving properly.

Despite all this dabbling, I am not especially good at any of these things. I am not an expert, not even particularly skilled. (I can sound like I am which can be useful to dinner parties, allowing me to find common interest with almost anyone, except rabid hockey fans.) And yet there is still an enormous attraction to me in learning something new, in going to YouTube to research instructional videos, in buying specialized equipment, in delighting at those first glimmers of ability.
Some of the skills I have tried to pick up seem like they could transform my life. Many just seem interesting. And many turn out to be a lot harder than I thought, frustrating me until I throw down my banjo in disgust, and wander away, beating myself up at another failure.
But I don’t regret being a dilettante. I think far-ranging curiosity is key to a creative mind. Though recently, I’ve wondered if I need to cool it and stay on track. Time seems to be finite and it’s better to refine what I know.
But then again, I’ve always wanted to try my hand at lithography. And boxing. And After Effects, Oh, and the ukelele. Yeah, the ukelele.

The Club

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Over decaf, a friend told me of the time her teacher inherited a country club . Acre upon acre of sprawling grounds, putting greens, tennis courts, bungalows, a pool. Each August, he closed the club for a month, hung a chain across the drive, and filled it with artists, his students. He flew in models from New York and all day long they drew. At night they spread their work across the ballroom and he picked through the field of paper, a cassowary in a stained polo shirt, diving into the pile to pluck out a sheet of newsprint here, a watercolor there. As they sat cross-legged, smoking and paring the paint from their cuticles, he would weave a long twisting narrative that connected the works, a story of art and struggle and life.
This magical month of sunshine and charcoal and stories fueled the students through the year of ordinary living, until they could return the next summer to sip bottled beer on the club porch and pass around their sketchbooks once more.
I felt my cheeks grow hollow as I listened to this story from another era, a time of commitment and freedom I will never know. To live art so utterly, to learn without end, to share, to be young, to be led, to experience the drawing life as a mighty oak to add ring after ring to, never completed, always stretching and growing and failing and learning. Not a hobby or a vocation but a 24-hour life without end.
The story made me feel old and spent, standing on an empty train platform in the rain. Yearning for youth and ink and sunshine and possibility. Till deep in my head, a voice, a boy’s voice, said the sun was still shining and the day was still long.

Walk on the Wild Side

IMG_1614I have never been a great devotee of exercise. Maybe it was because I was always picked last for playground teams. Though I have gone through occasional paroxysms of gym-going and developed surprising muscles here and there, I would rather read a book.

My grandfather claimed to have been quite athletic as a young man and, to demonstrate his prowess, at sixty years old, kicked my soccer ball over the house and into the neighbouring bullock paddock, never to be seen again. Though he never went to the gym after graduating from the gymnasium (as secondary school is called in Germany), he was a doctor and, except for the smoking pipes, cigars and cigarettes, had a healthy and balanced diet throughout his life, (lots of veg, not much meat, etc).His one exercise regimen I remember is that he walked for half an hour every day and always took a post-lunch nap. It seemed to have worked — he lived to be 98.

The one form of exercise I actually like is walking. In New York, I used to work to my office and back each day, rain or shine, forty minutes or so each way. I don’t know how much it qualified as exercise —despite all those feeble studies that say mowing a lawn or brushing a dachshund or lifting an especially thick paperback is all the exercise the normal adult needs.

I walked as much as I did for other reasons. Taxis make me car sick and cost too much. Buses are painfully slow. I don’t own and wouldn’t drive a car in the City. The subway will do when it rains but there still a lot of walking needed to and from stations, so why not walk the whole way and save $2.50?  Bicycles get stolen and can get you killed. And it’s really hard to find  a decent rickshaw any more these days.

But the biggest reason: walking gives me ideas.

I have written huge chunks of all my books while walking the street of New York. I have written commercials, had life-changing ideas, worked out seemingly insoluble problems, and all while strolling through my favorite city in the world (sorry, LA!).

I’m not alone apparently. Researchers at Stanford University put people on treadmills and found that they were far more creative when they were walking. And even after taking a walk, they came up with a lot more ideas than before, up to sixty percent more! The researchers can only surmise why this is — perhaps it’s because when we walk, we feel good, and when we are optimistic, ideas flow. It could be because when you are diverting energy to walking, it’s not as available to the monkey, and right-brainish restrictions are relaxed. Your mind is simply freer, swinging its arms and whistling a happy tune.

Since coming to LA, I’m tempted to drive everywhere. But I walk my dogs for half an hour each afternoon and I try to walk to the grocery store a few blocks away rather than take the truck.  And even walking on a treadmill at the gym works and almost as well as strolling through a sylvan park.

How do I write while I walk? Well, I used to pull the journal out of my pocket and scrawl down thoughts in pen. But now, I use my phone. I am addicted to Evernote — I just launch the app, and the amazingly accurate speech recognition software turns my murmured thoughts into text which I can then refine when I get to where I’m going. If speech reco isn’t working well for some reason, I just make a little recording on my phone and listen to it later.

Amazingly, most of these ideas float up out of nowhere and, later on when I look at them, they seem magical. I don’t even remember having most of them. Getting those ideas down right away is key. If I clutch them in my mind, trying not to forget, my creativity freezes. The idea needs to be jotted down, stored and moved off stage for new ideas to show up.

Okay, see you later. I’m off to take a walk.

On beginning

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Beginning starts with a dream.

A dream to draw.

A dream to create.

A dream to play the ukelele. Speak Portuguese. Ride a bike. Lose five dress sizes.

A dream to be what you always wanted to be.

A dream to finally face that part of your life that you’ve avoided so long because it shames you or makes you feel weak.

You hold that dream in your mind, you caress it at night, you turn it over and over and wish it would come true. That you could do this thing you dreamed of, effortlessly, fluidly, joyously.

And with that dream of doing this one thing come dreams of doing other things, of being other things, of feeling strong, and competent, on top of your game, happy. Complete.

Achieving this one dream feels like it could mean achieving all those others as well.

This dream means so much to you that you hold it delicately, like an egg that could shatter and dash all your expectations of yourself. To pursue this dream could mean to fail and so you take a long time before you muster the courage to take the first step towards reaching it.

So, beginning, starts with a lot—too much—at stake.

And beginning starts in a realm you can only imagine, because you haven’t ever been there. You’ve seen other people achieve that dream. You’ve seen the drawings they’ve made, heard theme singing that aria, tasted the soufflé they whipped up so easily. And you think you know what that must be like. You think you know what the journey there must entail. If only you had the courage to actually begin.

But so far, all you really have is that dream, turning slowly in your mind, lit by thousand candles.

And then a day breaks, more sunny than the rest, a day that fills you with a new type of hope, and so you decide to begin. You breathe deep and pick up that pen. You sit down at that piano. You dive into the deep end of that pool.

You are filled with exhilaration and hope. Your dream glimmers on the horizon

And then as soon as you leap, you flounder and flinch. You gasp. You sink beneath the waves.

The water is colder, deeper, and darker than you’d ever imagined.

That first line that you have imagined in your head is finally on paper. That first chord thunders across the strings…

And it is flat and leaden and ugly, the work of a fool. Nothing like what you had seen in your dream. You flail and struggle on, despair sinking like clouds over the moon, plunging you into darkness.

And then, through the shadows, you hear the first righteous wails of the monkey. Wails? Or hoots and cackles? That voice in your head that delights in holding you back has finally fought its way through the lavender  bushes and daisy fields that surround your dream, bringing with it an icy dose of ‘reality’. It delights at your failure, your hubris at thinking you—ugly you, stupid you, hopeless you—could do this thing.

It wraps a protective arm around your shoulder and starts to lead you back to safety.

“You don’t have to keep doing this,” it tells you. “It’s too hard. Your talents too meager. The teacher’s too  incompetent. This isn’t really your fault. Just don’t try it again.”

That monkey is in your head to keep from risk, from new experiences, from growing. That monkey voice was implanted in you when you really needed it, when you had to have a warning voice to say, “you’ll put your eye out with that, you’ll break your neck, you’ll catch your death of the cold.”

New things still make that monkey scamper out of the darkness with alarm. The unknown, the challenging, the scary, the hard. Things that could make you cry.

And it has a hundred tools up its hairy sleeves to keep you in check and on the reservation.  It can make you panic. It can make you beat yourself up.  It can make you lash out at those around you. It can make you freeze and suck your thumb.

  It can make you panic. It can make you beat yourself up.  It can make you lash out at those around you. It can make you freeze and suck your thumb.

This what happens when your dream first meets reality. A rude awakening.

You feel shocked. You feel hopeless. You feel humiliated. You feel blind to the path ahead.

The monkey says, “See, this is why you haven’t done this before.  Because. You. Can’t. Do. It.”

The monkey says, “Stop now, stop the pain, crawl back on shore. Go back to where you were.”

The sense of failure spreads beyond the task at the hand, this particular challenge.

The monkey uses this opportunity to tell you what a failure you have always been, at so many things throughout your life, at every new effort you ever undertake.

The monkey, of course, glides over all of the things you have accomplished, all the battles you’ve won since you took your very first step at 11 months. The monkey edits your life down to show you that you have done nothing but shit since birth.

You cry yourself to sleep.

You wake up, the sun shining. You are still you. But now you have learned one lesson.

That lesson might be if you try and fail, it hurts.

That lesson might be if you try and fail, it hurts and you should neverever try again.

That lesson might be that the pain is temporary. That you can weather it. That you are now a day older, a day wiser and that challenge is still there to be conquered.

You regroup. You uncap your pen. You charge once more.

And this time (or the next time or the tenth time after that), you suddenly feel a shift. You look down at your sweaty paper and one part of one corner of one wretched drawing gleams with hope.

It’s good, that bit there.

Through all the mangled notes, one cord rings true. Amidst all the collapsed and burned cakes and pies, one crumb of one cookie tastes sweet.

You can do it.

You have seen the first shred of evidence that you don’t utterly suck to the core of your marrow.

Now, that glimmer of proof may actually have been there in your first or second drawing or concerto or cookie. But you missed it. That first shock the monkey dealt you, that first brutal wakeup call, made you temporarily blind and deaf. When you first stumble and crash to the ground, your head is ringing, your nose is bloodied, and you can’t see straight. You can’t assess your work, you can only cringe and cover your head.

But when the day comes that your vision clears, your objectivity returns, you will discover the value in what you have made, the beauty, the reward.

And now you can clutch on to that one sign of hope.  You can continue even as you blunder through more mistakes, more beautiful, educational mistakes that teach you lessons galore with every ham-fisted stroke.

And that dream that started you off? It wasn’t wrong to have. Even though getting to that castle on the hill is harder going that you’d dreamt, you can look over your shoulder and see that you are getting higher and soon you are walking through clouds. That dream remains essential because it is the thing that keeps you going, especially when the going gets tough.

The monkey is still hanging on for dear life.  He still claws at your shoulders and ears as you struggle forward. But his grip is weakening. His voice is dimming. He is wrong. You can do it if you will do it.

You just need to begin and keep on beginning and discover that it’s the journey that is the reward. The dream is just to keep you moving forward, a mirage, fantasy. It’s the journey makes you smarter and stronger and better and happier.

Now, what would you like to begin?