Speaking of which, the book vote survey is still open. The clear first-place winner, so far, is the series Where the Wilde Thinks Are. This also happens to be my business name. And a play on the last name I took after Oscar Wilde, who is my daddy.
Here is one of the draft manuscripts in that series. “Patton’s Chair” is an allegory about American loss of moral authority following post-9/11 violations of rule of law.
Once upon a time, a timeless soldier was reincarnated as an American General during the Second World War. His name was Patton.
Patton was an infinity-star General. He served for thousands of years. His service as Patton made the world safer for human flourishing. Among other accomplishments, Patton did a very good job studying at West Point and leading the Allied Forces to victory by designing D-Day and the successful liberation of Occupied Europe.
When people would ask him about the secret to his success, he would just smile. Usually, Patton knew better than to tell them anything close to the whole Truth. Whole Truths are really quite large and unwieldly. Some of them can’t even be put into linear narrative without the speaker falling off the edge of the world.
But sometimes, Patton would need to stop, be still within, and listen to his heart. This might happen by a hillside that he knew from a past life was once a battlefield. Or at a cocktail party when mortality was discussed. Or even in the heat of a battle, outside Time.
So Patton knew he could not usually say exactly what his heart said. It spoke in a language some people wouldn’t understand. And most of the time, actions spoke louder than words anyway.
But he knew he needed to listen to it and use what it told him. He would just have to be a faithful translator of the secret language of his heart.
Patton’s favorite place to listen to his heart’s secret language was his magic chair. After a long day generalling, he would always return there, settle in, close his eyes, and put his hand on his heart, the better to feel his feelings.
One day, Patton came home from a nice swim in the cosmic ocean with Hedy Lamarr. He was drenched in Truth and Time, dripping centuries all over the good carpet.
When he walked by his study to say hello to Push Coast Crow, he stopped and gasped.
Patton leaned on the door frame, slumping into his puzzlement. His hand wandered to his head, first scratching the top and then holding his whole body up at the temple and cheekbone.
“Caw?” Push Coast Crow asked.
“Yes,” Patton replied, but his voice was strained. He cleared his throat.
“Yes.” He heaved a sigh and stood up straight.
“Caw?” Push Coast Crow asked.
“Yes, please,” Patton replied.
Push Coast Crow brought Patton his scotch and pipe.
“Thanks,” Patton said.
Push Coast Crow and Patton sipped their scotch and lit their pipes. Push Coast Crow perched on Patton’s shoulder but did not kiss his cheek. He knew sometimes the General needed space.
For a long time they stood in the study doorway together in silence, smoking and staring at the empty space where Patton’s chair had been.
Finally, heaving a great sigh and resettling his weight on his other foot, Patton put his hand on his heart and closed his eyes.
“I feel…” He said, his voice trailing off. He shook his head.
“I feel…” He began again, his voice catching with emotion. Push Coast Crow kissed his cheek. Patton nodded and pet Push Coast Crow’s iridescence-streaked, black head and back. Then he took a deep breath, closed his eyes again, and resettled his hand on his heart.
“I’m angry,” Patton said.
“I’m really angry,” he went on. As he said it in calmness, Patton’s anger grew so hot that his pipe—which had gone out in his quiet reverie—relit at that moment and started smoking again.
“Caw,” Push Coast Crow nodded, flying some small distance into the study to give the General some space.
“But my anger,” Patton sighed, “is actually part of a much larger, massive cloud of grief.”
“With violent storms of anger, betrayal, loss, guilt, abandonment—and above all, shame.”
“I’m so ashamed, I can hardly stand it,” Patton said. And with that, he sunk down on the floor with his head in his hands.
“Caw-caw,” Push Coast Crow said, flying down to comfort him.
“I don’t know,” Patton said. “I just don’t know.” Patton and Push Coast Crow were quiet and still for a long time.
Then, Patton closed his eyes and put his hand on his heart one more time.
“I’m afraid. I’m afraid of the consequences, not for me, but for others, if I don’t get my chair back,” Patton said.
“I’m afraid for what is good in the universe. I’m afraid for the butterfly of grace and goodness that transforms in darkness and flies in people’s faces. I’m afraid for the world that it won’t be safe for her to be amazing, like she can be when she feels safe, if I don’t get my chair back.”
Patton shivered. Push Coast Crow drew in closer, nuzzling his nose.
“You’re right. There’s always a lighter side to the dark half-wheel of Emotion,” Patton sighed, pulling a lighter out of his still-damp pants pocket and steadying the fire below the wheel.
“I feel faith in goodness that I can’t explain,” Patton said.
“I feel, too, the darker side of the coin of peace: acceptance that I can’t control outcomes,” he said.
“Caw caw,” Push Coast Crow said.
“You’re right. I should be feeling hope, too.” And he closed his eyes, furrowed his brow, and pressed his hand harder over his heart. And then he sighed and was quiet for a long time.
“There it is!” He exclaimed suddenly, raising his eyebrows in recognition.
“I feel hope that we all want to make the world safer for human flourishing. We are really on each other’s team. We can learn from our mistakes and solve problems together,” he said.
And there Patton and Push Coast Crow sit to this day, waiting for his own country to give Patton back his chair.
A few months back, I heard a sound that changed my life. It made me feel so safe and valued that I cried, and then began to remember my dearest dreams—asleep and waking—in a way I hadn’t for years. It was the sound of singing policemen.
At the Major City Chiefs/Major City Sheriffs Conference, the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Honor Guard carried three flags—U.S., Canadian, and UK—on stage before the largest gathering of law enforcement leadership in the nation. They sang all three national anthems. The crowd of national law enforcement leadership stood, hands over hearts. And the love—the “abstract splendor” of a patriotism it’s fashionable to reject and important to question—was palpable, present, and not at all abstract.
Experiencing that room full of song and honor made me realize law enforcement is like a religious community. It’s tightknit, sometimes wary of outsiders, has its own unique characteristics in the aggregate, and holds its values sacred.
Police hold honor sacred. In the U.S., that honor is about protecting life, liberty, and property, and upholding the laws that stem from that first principle. That mission helps society as a whole feel safe to flourish.
Celebrating that mission is about celebrating our shared core values. Focusing our limited cognitive resources on that positive plane of attention actually helps make people safer. Procedural justice research shows that when communities believe police act fairly, they’re more likely to share information, cooperate, and otherwise behave in law-abiding ways that increase safety for the community as a whole.
Conversely, stereotyping police as prejudiced and violent is harmful for society in three ways. First, like any judgmental stereotyping of a particular subgroup, it runs counter to our shared value of tolerance. It’s ironic for the people who protect that value with their lives to be subjected to the same form of group judgment-based bigotry that this country was founded to protect persecuted minorities from.
Second, mistrust of police weakens security according to procedural justice research. People who don’t believe the police are legitimate are less likely to talk to them and obey the law. Just as trust strengthens rule of law—people who think working together will do good, are more likely to do it—so too does mistrust weaken it.
And we have a lot to learn form police. They’re the only ones who know the realities of police work. We might think we know from the media, citizen accounts, or civil rights organizations what American policing is about. And those sources are important.
But there are also a lot of biases built into the way we get our information about police from any sources other than police themselves. For instance, police are often required to keep their successes private and let their failures be public. Think of privacy protections in cases that can result in serious bodily injury or death—from domestic violence to mental health crisis. The subset of these cases where police succeed in helping vulnerable people through times of danger are generally not advertised. But the times they fail—and people die—are more likely to be public. Thus privacy protections and other considerations create reporting biases that hurt public perceptions of police—and that in turn hurts the community trust that helps police and people work together to make the world feel safe to flourish.
Ironically, feeling the goodness of the men and women I sang with at that policing conference was part of what led me to quit the job I had researching the singing policemen. Naturally inclined to mistrust authority and work to remedy its abuses, until a few months ago I was the postdoctoral researcher on the first national database of police behavior.
But the police I meant to help—systematizing national data collection to establish what the national numbers are and which agency policies and practices can decrease racial disparities and use of force—instead helped me. They helped me feel safe to be myself. Critic, yes. Activist, frequently. But first a singer of songs, a writer of poems and dreamer of plays, and an artist who gives thanks.
I’m thankful for the rule of law American police overwhelmingly work to uphold every day, at no small personal risk and without the kinds of endemic bribery and corruption that are commonplace in many other countries. I’m thankful for my freedom of movement that is essentially unprecedented in the history of human society, although I don’t always do a good job making use of it. And I’m thankful for the freedom of expression police protect that lets me make all kinds of creative noise without fearing anything worse than my own stupidity.
Because to paraphrase FDR, there’s nothing more stupid than refraining from making and learning from stupid mistakes.
I want to pick the project that: 1. Best celebrates security—in the sense of helping the world feel safe to flourish—through trust. 2. Feels most important in the sense of giving good to the world. 3. Is most exciting to readers and therefore might have an actual market instead of just being another thing I produce—like a dissertation or hundreds of oil paintings!
Warning: My writing is powerful. So you should help me pick the right project now—before somebody gets hurt. Here are a few of the things my writing has accomplished in the past—and might accomplish in the future—with a key distinguishing the two at the bottom: a. Earned $30,000 plus a new laptop in roughly 30 minutes. b. Probably cost me a high school diploma. c. Established a narrative for a breakaway sect of ISIL (which we’re not calling the Islamic State) that supports religious liberty and art. d. Started an argument that got me a job. e. Challenged the dominant narratives of race and crime in America in a way that contributed to trust and flourishing. f. Gotten the White House to call me on demand.
So take the survey where you can see a one-paragraph summary for each project. Please take a few minutes to tell me what book you want to read, and pass the survey on to others so I get a bigger sample. I value your opinion, and appreciate your support as I follow my heart.
Writing Accomplishments Key: Past or Present? a. Past. An essay I wrote in about half an hour won a three-year Rapoport Service Scholarship Stipend at the University of Texas at Austin. I returned the first $10,000 check and computer when I transferred to UVA in 2002. b. Past, obviously. I published Gordon, the student newspaper, as a junior at Indian Springs School in Indian Springs, Alabama from 2000-2001, during which time Vice Principal Roberts’s rein of terror was existentially threatened by my uncanny ability to apply White Out to a Time cover. c. Possible future. See #s 1, 2, and 6 on the survey. d. Past. Three cheers for the Cavalier Daily and the UVA Women’s Center. e. Possible future. See #3 on the survey. f. Past. I didn’t get Joe on the phone though. Sometimes everybody needs an editor.
You run a better information game than your opponent. And boy is ISIL—which we’re not calling the Islamic State because it’s not Islamic and it’s not a state—running a better information game than the West. Artists have to step up and solve this problem, because it’s an assault on the human spirit, divine creative experiences, and the freedom of conscience that allows us to create.
ISIL is the Justin Bieber of terror. It sprang up overnight with no warning, a bunch of young idiots love it for no readily apparent reason, and it’s not going away.
See a problem or something I left off the list? Leave it in the comments. I haven’t talked with anyone about this, so it will be nice to get hive help improving my thinking here.
10 Things Artists Can Do to Fight Terror
All of these things apply the same basic insight that free expression—not bloodshed—best combats abuses of free expression. Each could be a separate post, and maybe will be going forward.
Everything that directly targets ISIL-affiliated accounts should probably be done anonymously via Tor and blind email and social network accounts.
1. Don’t call it combat or fighting terror.
When people focus on terrorism, they feel afraid. That’s a victory for terrorists. This is also an extension of a more basic rule of good writing—use positive phrases. Instead of “don’t use negative phrases,” for example. It’s clearer and prettier. That’s Orwell and Strunk & White on good writing.
It also happens to be a better cognitive strategy for directing selective attention to what you want instead of what you don’t, and this matters because attentional resources are limited.
So first we have to be clear about what we’re up to. We set the terms of the discourse. Armies fight terror. Artists tell the truth and celebrate.
When you tell the truth, it enlightens. You get high. And you can help people envision better lives, believe in the goodness in themselves and others, and thus make a better world.
In cognitive psychology, this is a trick of positive selective attention. It often gets a bad wrap in reporting as if it’s disingenuous. But it feels good and can be honest. Think of the power of Harry Potter or Oprah—or reporting on the Peace Corps or successful policing, military, or disaster relief efforts instead of tragic mistakes, abuses, or failures.
Stories of hope make people’s lives better. There’s less attention to the positive realities even though they’re just as real, in part because the primary sources for them can seem interested and thus less credible. After all, a crime victim the police help isn’t likely to go to a reporter with her story rather than getting on with life. And who but the Peace Corps is going to report on Peace Corps success stories? Small operations like Utne Reader and The Sun have long recognized and tried to fill the resultant media gap in stories of hope.
A lot of ISIL recruits weren’t that religious before finding the group. They were isolated, alienated, and desperate for community, purpose, and a sense of worth.
And a lot of the people whose communities they’ve wreaked havoc on are gonna be in a similar position after ISIL is defeated. So stemming the tide of recruits and helping rebuild both require offering and strengthening alternative identities.
But there’s too much richness and beauty in the world for it to be destroyed completely. What remains needs to be celebrated. And maybe God will replace some of what has been lost. You couldn’t ask for a better answer to a movement that destroys art in the name of God than a series of sacred apparitions like Juan Diego’s Lady of Guadalupe, Charles Angrand’s Good Samaritan, or any number of other religious visions celebrated in art.
You don’t have to have a lot of resources to create divine pop-up art. One could imagine creating a simple how-to guide and supplies kit. One might do that on Etsy in the not-too-distant future.
3. Tell the Whole Truth
We tortured. That’s a problem.
Stop. I don’t care what you think about the terms, the context, or other possible justifications. It was illegal, immoral, and didn’t work. Instead it backfired, because security is about trust. Procedural justice research bears out the evidentiary basis for this common-sense logic. Evidence shows that when people trust that police are legitimate, they’re more likely to cooperate and behave in law-abiding ways. When they don’t, they’re less likely to talk to police and follow the rules.
This is a problem because we have a free press and freedom of speech—the U.S. stands out even among Western peer nations in refusing to outlaw hate speech—and want to shine light on serious problems to make them better. But circulating photos and stories of terrible, uncommon abuses that are not ongoing also provides more fodder for the terror propaganda machine. Even showing photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib for purposes of denouncing them activates the same negative neuronal networks of anger, distress, and hopelessness as showing the photos for purposes of terror recruitment. Most people’s physiology actually changes after seeing images of threat, which in turn changes what part of your brain you can use to process information. So the threat cues in photos of abuse activate the lizard brain, and fear rules thought below the level of awareness.
So we don’t have to keep talking about the same mistakes, or even hold Congressional hearings into whether crimes were committed. Those moves actually make people feel less safe by drawing selective attention to threat even though the threat (e.g., of post-9/11 torture) is not ongoing. f
But to make the world feel safer to flourish, we have to integrate the trauma of our national mistakes into a coherent narrative in which we’re learning to do better going forward. That integration means making best practices better in policing at home and abroad, doing more community trust-building in domestic and international security. This way the attention is on the improvement and not the mistakes—learning and helping learning instead of punishing and being punished. This so-called growth mindset predicts success across educational, professional, and personal realms.
So there’s a memification of terrorist recruiting using Western logos and funny pictures and stuff on social media. That memification looks like this. Only I’m not posting an image because I’m not spreading the disease. I’m making it a stupid dialogue instead.
Jihad Parrot: Just Dua It! Loser: Omg, I am totes radicalized.
No really, we have to stop them. They have LOLcats.
Terrorism was already a decentralized problem, but the Internet decentralized it more. The reason terrorism works so well in game theoretical terms is that a big, powerful actor can’t 100% defend against a bunch of weak, decentralized ones. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Kindergarden Cop” surrounded by 500,000 small children.
Arnold cannot defeat the children. Stop. I don’t care how strong he is. That is not the point. They’re kids, he can’t punch them, they’re chaotic, there are too many, and anyway have you ever tried teaching kindergarten?
Arnold has to instead convince the children that he’s a very nice man. This is called soft power.
Memification of counter-terrorism messaging
You answer decentralized, funny, values-focused social media messaging with decentralized, funny, values-focused messaging. They use memes; you use memes. They use funny pictures; you use funny pictures. They talk values; you talk values.
This requires honoring your enemy’s anger, which can be a very hard thing to do. It requires a form of forgiveness.
Memification of counter-terrorism does NOT look like: – Drawing pictures of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him (dishonors enemy’s anger) – Lobbying Congress to hire a bunch more people who specialize in Facebook (social media is so new that most people and companies claiming to specialize in it have no idea what they’re doing) – Trying to put memes back in the box (you can’t put information back in the box)
It DOES look like: – Setting ground rules (see above) to create a safe discursive space for free competition in the game of the responsive messaging. To control the rules of the space to make boundaries where there are none, you have to use carrots not sticks. For example, I could run a contest where the most effective counter-terrorism meme got its own Zazzle store and you’d make money from that. Or we could just, you know, agree to not get ourselves or other people killed. Whatever floats your boat. – Asking and answering the tough emotional questions before making a discursive move. Those questions are: What am I feeling? What is my opponent feeling? How can I accept both those facts without judgment and honor them? – Assuming people are good and so fronting values is always both correct and good strategy.
That’s conceptual. The to-do list of a better memification of counter-terror looks something like this: – Make a public list of popular ISIL recruiting accounts and websites (e.g., Anjem Choudary, Abu Baraa, and Abdul Muhid on Twitter). – Make another public list of methods of searching for such accounts and websites. – Put a meme generator by those lists. – Link in a meme bank so there’s a growing repository of relevant alternate memes.
Once those lists exist in a public place, it’s easier for everyone to find them—ISIL opponents and sympathizers alike. That’s a problem if the accounts stay active. But one might also make it harder to maintain the accounts through DDOS.
Note that the known ISIL recruiting/propagandizing accounts are still up even though people seem to think the security state is all-powerful and disregards the law. The accounts are still up because the police and national security agencies are tightly constrained in what they can and can’t do, especially when it comes to media. And they’re law-abiding. Otherwise, rest assured they would have taken these suckers offline a long time ago.
There is no man behind the curtain. There’s just you and me, and all our friends. And the trolls who apparently have nothing better to do. And some NSA wankers who can’t handle this ISIL shit because the Internet is too big to surveil. But apparently they can look at your dick pics. Sleep tight.
6. Make Better Terrorist Propaganda Magazines
Make a better Dabiq, the ISIL propaganda magazine—reach your target audience with alternative narratives immediately.
There’s a reason ISIL has recently targeted journalists and especially photojournalists in the region. And without Western ground troops for reporters to embed with, or civil stability to enable grassroots reporting, it’s hard to create an alternate narrative of what’s going on. So this gives ISIL a monopoly on the image war, which is a default win.
8. Support Volunteer Fighters
I’m not sure how to safely bolster support for volunteer forces. Because if you compile a list of names and locations for donations, it can be used as a target list too. But I’m sure there’s a way to do this that doesn’t jeopardize safety.
9. Support Public Art
It may seem frivolous when everything else is insecure, but art gives people hope—and freedom of expression helps us reclaim public spaces that have been marred by violence. So it seems important to support public art around the world. I’m sure there’s a way to do this that also measures art’s effects, maybe even testing how different forms of celebrating faith, peace, and freedom affect people’s well-being, sense of safety, and even perhaps the willingness to cooperate with law enforcement that in turn helps make communities safer.
Doing this at home and abroad at once also serves to underscore the common humanity that underpins peace and resilience.
10. Stop Calling them Amateurs and Paperclip their Propagandists
This is an elitist response to a populist problem. But probably a lot of ISIL recruits change their minds once they see how bodies on the ground don’t really smell of myrrh and roses. It’s a problem helping these people get out without getting killed. We can’t exactly resettle them in Peoria.
But we can resettle their propagandists, the information scientists who are probably running their show behind the scenes. We did it with Nazis, the so-called Paperclip Scientists. And we might as well do it sooner rather than later with these guys to take them out of action.
Because ISIL looks grassroots, but actually has high production values. Look at an ordinary, good quality Youtube cover video. Now look at an ordinary, good quality ISIL video. CNN marks it “amateur video.” But there’s nothing amateur about it. There’s panning without shaking on uneven ground. I couldn’t do that. Someone probably has a tripod or a fig-rig to pull that off. If you can find a version with audio, it’s better than it should be for being outside under windy conditions with noise from multiple directions as recorded by a phone. Someone probably bothered with a lav mic in a war zone. Who does that?
Professionals do that. The grassroots appearance is part of the messaging, like it is with a lot of apparent overnight successes in the music industry and other businesses. But the professionalized administration behind it is part of the same old song and dance including Baathists in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria. This isn’t new and I’m not the first person to notice this. It’s just really scary and sad, because it means creative tools that can be used to put more light and joy into the world are instead being used to organize and celebrate prejudice and violence.
You may recall I have been up since dawn playing with my friend Craig and his List like this is a form of market research. I have been trying to systematically test where there is what demand for what products and services I can offer, since I’m having trouble monetizing my business.
In the course of that effort, I learned better what it means to go where the water is on this terrain. As in, targeting areas where there are more people, and specifically more people who are likely to want what you got. And I tried very hard to go there.
But this still doesn’t feel right.
In part because I just got through a few of these Craigslist posts for my editing, tutoring, and grant proposal assistance services—with a ton of other high-population, probable high-demand for these specific services areas with Craigslists picked out and queued up to target next—before Craigslist gave me an error. Something about exceeding acceptable posting from that email address for the day?
Sooo. Market research is definitely not what Craigslist is for.
Even though what I’m doing is also EXACTLY what Craigslist is for—matching up people offering goods and services with people who want them.
Spidey Sense Says Something is Wrong
I obviously need to be monetizing a business. I obviously need to be trying new demand-driven, market research-based sorts of ways of doing that.
But if I give this latest experiment in that vein my all and fail, I won’t feel gratified that way you can feel gratified failing when you have given something your all. Because you get back up and try again when you fall down and you care. But this isn’t what I really want to be doing.
I don’t want to post ads for editing and website building on Craigslist. I can do that stuff! If you need it done, you should pay me! I can help you and I need the money! Or I could help you find other people to do it cheaper tbh and you could pay me an arbitrage fee, because that’s probably a better system for both of us as long as I’m doing quality control!
But guess what? I can do a lot of stuff. For example, over ten years ago, I worked as a:
1. car mechanic,
2. research assistant,
3. administrative assistant,
4. children’s dance, art, and drama teacher, and
5. victim advocate.
At the same time. While a full-time student. Caring for a seriously ill parent. Uphill both ways in the snow. (Yawn.) That was fun, College. Don’t ever come back.
Now I have a PhD and basically the same job options because my own work is more important to me than anyone else’s. There is no amount of money you can pay me to give you my time today. It is mine and I have work to do.
This is what I want to do now. None of it is urgent in the sense that it meets people’s immediate needs—stuff at the top of their totem pole that they would pay other people to help with every day, like getting healthy, tasty, affordable food to eat, or having more time and money. That’s the stuff the latest online business class I’m taking, from App Sumo, says to focus on. I see ways to do it. I just don’t care.
The stuff I care about is important in the sense that it adds quality of life. At least, that’s the most sense I can make of what I seem to be intent on doing next.
Now I am going to:
1. write books,
2. make art with my hands,
3. sing and make jokes in public despite remaining mildly agoraphobic, seriously perfectionistic, and going days without speaking when I can help it, and
4. defeat ISIS.
Doing all of this will require efficiencies.
Conveniently, my plan to defeat ISIS accomplishes all these things. So I should be at least making a terrible pitch of that plan. Not to mention scaling back on the framing a tad so I can under-promise and over-deliver. Probably? Maybe?
I am afraid to talk about my plan. It feels weird. But it has felt weird to express myself for months, and that’s not conducive to getting stuff done. We’re social creatures. So I am going to talk about it. Next. But first about why I am afraid.
Focus on Fear
I could make a shortlist of evidence-free, emotional reasons why I am afraid to talk about my plan. And I probably will, because my brain is in part a list-making device. And evidence-free lists let that part of my brain do its obsessive-compulsive list-making thing without fooling itself into thinking it is reasoning—when it is actually emoting, fighting intuition and insight, or doing something altogether irrational.
But first I have to say what we all know—that doing what you are afraid of is generally a good idea. This is mostly because the feared outcome usually doesn’t come true, isn’t as bad as you think, or turned out to be clouding creative work that changes the game altogether.
So here is my deal with myself. First, focus on the fear. Then, make a terrible draft pitch of the plan. And then, take a walk in the sunshine in my beautiful city.
Reasons why I am afraid to talk about my cherished plan for world peace through art
1. I will get in trouble.
2. Someone will steal it.
3. People will think I’m crazy.
4. It will be obviously stupid once I start hashing it out more properly.
5. Once articulated, it will turn out to detract from other, dearer dreams that I don’t yet know are dearer to my heart despite having less social import—like writing poetry, painting, and smelling flowers.
6. What if somebody else already has a better plan like this one, and I mess up their plan by talking about mine since some of this might work better if nobody talks about it, we all just do it independently?
7. What if OH MY GOD JUST TALK ABOUT THE PLAN ALREADY SERIOUSLY ENOUGH WITH THE HAHA I PSYCHED MYSELF OUT!
There are advantages to being largely out of patience. Plus I can see counter-points as soon as I write out the fears. To wit:
Reasons why my fears are stupid
1. I will probably not get in too much inescapable trouble for just writing stuff down on the Internet. People are busy. I am not hurting anyone and I am not anybody’s problem. I can probably get away with a lot since I don’t have a functional family or a job or anything. What are you gonna do—give me the cold shoulder or fire me?
2. If people want to steal my good ideas and can implement them better… Maybe that’s for the best. Plus, this is a total rookie fear in any creative enterprise. The far greater risk than theft is inaction. Plus, it’s all in the execution anyway—the fun, the process, the fluidity. And those aren’t things that can be stolen.
3. K. Let people think I’m crazy. As long as I’m having fun.
4. K. Looking stupid is generally how you get better. I’m all about the improvement.
5. K. Learning about my actual preferences by acting on what I think they are and finding out I’m right—or wrong—turns out to be a great way to figure out what I really want.
6. If somebody has already started implementing or been thinking about a plan like this one, we should work together. How are we gonna coordinate to do that if we don’t talk about it? Creative collaboration and discourse make big projects like this better. This blog can always disappear. In fact, I can always disappear. It’s actually not that hard to change your name and move across the country a few times. Kinda fun tbh.
7. More do, less fear = more fun.
Ok, I lied. First-next, the walk.
Then, pathetic attempts to make myself post more Craigslist ads for services I think people want—editing, tutoring, grant proposaling! web design and building, online store building, social media management! —but also secretly know or believe everyone can actually do themselves, insofar as they are important to do at all.
Social media management, I suspect, is not actually that important for businesses’ bottom lines in relation to other stuff, and I suspect the base rate of success of such services actually improving businesses’ bottom lines is quite small. But this is just from mucking around in the social media world for a few months, spending money and learning a bit about how things work, what services people offer, and the effects they seem to have or not have.
Anyway, I thought I needed help with all those things—and I learned a lot from a lot of people about all of t
hem! But ultimately, I did a better job doing them all myself. And I’d rather teach you to do them yourself and go write one of my books. That works out better for everyone. I guess I’m not a big believer in expertise over education. I’d much rather have a big teach-in for creatives who want to start their own businesses, make their own websites, and that sort of thing, than sell over-priced services to people who can’t really afford them.
Finally, I give up on all excess nonsense and hash out my crazy book-art-play-peace plan. Out loud, on the Internet, as it were. It will be terrible. I won’t be able to bring myself to post big chunks of it. Just some. And just some of it will not suck. I will do it anyway. If all it does is pull the idea out of my side like a burr, fine. Then I can move on to making a survey summarizing ten possible book projects with a paragraph and a graphic for each, and figuring out how to market test or otherwise validate or improve the appeal of a book before writing it.
After a few hours spent posting a mere 25 Craigslist ads, the Internet and I reached a consensus that this was probably a stupid way of testing for demand for the products and services I can think to offer.
To recap, I recognized my failure to monetize a business in a few months as… A failure to monetize a business in a few months. Typical but suboptimal. Thought about why that happened. Decided I needed to figure out what I could offer that would sell like my car. And made this list of 14 things that might be like that thing if I pitched them to the market.
My new business friends who are good at framing things like to say they’re not mistakes. They’re free seminars. So here’s a free seminar I made this morning.
Morning Seminar: Go Where the Water Is
My first mistake was approximating equalization. This is wonky social science terminology for not randomizing groups to treatment and control like in a true experiment, but just planning on doing something like every other. Or in this case, posting each of the 14 possible goods/services I brainstormed to one Craigslist market every 14 cities on the global list of Craigslist markets.
That’s how I wound up posting about my oil paintings to Bemidji, Minnesota. Which was about when I decided this was dumb.
That was also about when my posting speed improved. So it started driving me less crazy to do this dumb, repetitive task! But Craigslist also picked up on my improvement and said—whoa there, you can’t post that fast.
Don’t they know they’re providing me free market research services?
The positive way of saying this is: not all market research is created equal. I don’t care about how the effects of my ads scale to tiny markets. I only care about big ones. So I should have started by crossing off the Bemidjis or just circling the Detroits. You go where the water is in all areas of life. And in market research terms, that means testing in larger populations, especially where you’re more likely to find people like you.
I can vastly improve on the first idea of how to do a little market research—approximately equalize 14 Craigslist ads across global Craigslist service areas to see who responds to what—by going where the water is. That means:
1. Target demographic centers. More people (within the Western context) = more business. So I want to post to Detroit, not Bemidji.
2. Tailor tests. More artsy types = more art business. More colleges = more editing and tutoring work. Etc. So maybe I wanted to post about my paintings to Santa Fe, not Daytona Beach.
3. Grouping products and services. My list from earlier this morning of 14 products or services really condenses to six groups of products or services. Reframing things within categories ensures that a potential client who’s interested in one thing (like paintings on Etsy) gets the chance to express potential interest in a closely related other thing (like art merchandise on Zazzle).
The old list looked like this after I coded it for easier “approximation of equalization” and Excel stuff:
Products and Services to Test Demand for on Craigslists A 1. The paintings I’m selling on Etsy ? Etsy (E) 2. The art merchandise I’m selling on Zazzle ? Zazzle (Z) 3. Painting commissions ? Commissions (C) 4. Website and online store design and building—I made my own ? Web (W) 5. Social media management—making a business social media presence across platforms, and teaching the fundamentals of how to engage the right networks and maintain them yourself ? Social (S) 6. Market research—what I’m doing right now with Craigslist, and more in-depth experimentation in other ways using other tools ? Research (R) 7. Editing and submissions advice ? Editing (E2) 8. Tutoring ? Tutoring (T) 9. Grant proposal assistance ? Grants (G) 10. Start-up consulting/Entrepreneurship coaching ? Start-up (S2) 11. Positive selective attention coaching ? Positivity (P) 12. Low information diet coaching ? Low-info (L) 13. Books, my precious books ? Books (B) 14. World peace through art ? Peace (P)
The new list looks more like this:
Products and Services to Test Demand for on Craigslists B
1. Art: paintings on Etsy, merch on Zazzle, commissions on website.
3. Web support for business: website and online store design and building + social media management.
4. Market research and start-up consulting.
5. Positive selective attention & low-information diet coaching. (Both of these things are about cognitive and emotional resource management, but that’s not the best possible language to pitch them with.)
6. What are actually my pet projects I’m not sure I can monetize on an immediate timetable if at all, but doing what I want is the point of all of this, so I might as well try—my books and my world peace through art plot.
As much as I hate to spend a few more hours on Craigslist not knowing if this way of testing for demand for services will work at all, it seems important to at least follow through on the revised experiment. That means whipping up ads for 2-6 in the updated product and services list, matching each category to appropriate areas by common sense or intuition, and giving it a go.
This will get tricky when I get to #6, which is probably where I should have started since it’s the most important set of possibilities to me. But it will also take the longest to work through.
Market research for unwritten books is tricky. Commercially successful authors of recent note like J.K. Rowling have established fan bases online through fora and other community-building. I don’t have anything that fancy set up. So I probably want to create a survey summarizing ten possible book projects and ask my blog readers, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers to help me by voting or saying what they want. The trouble with that is that it doesn’t involve money, and we know that attitudes (I like/don’t like this) and behaviors (I will actually give you money or not for this) can diverge quite a bit.
And I don’t know about posting my world peace through art proposal. It’s beautiful in my head and might sound stupid outside of it. Plus, if it’s a good idea, maybe I should just pull it off anonymously. That’s often how I work best. Plus, the SCORE (retired executive) members I got free Small Business Administration advising from thought I should be pitching a bolder, crazier plan to the Internets—but I’m pretty sure this one is actually too crazy to put out there unless I pull it off first and then talk about it later, if it works. That’s how I did college apps (two years early without a high school diploma), my name change (no one in my family knew for over a year when I legally changed every part of my name), and relationships in my 20s.
This social network stuff is hard, new, and weird. But you can see—at the long end of the statistical tail of success stories—how when it works, it really works. And in the middle of the distribution, people have better health, emotional, and financial outcomes when they have strong social support networks. You don’t build them by quietly trudging along or gunning for something other than your dreams. Although I’m not sure how you do build them. Or indeed how you know your dreams without just trying a bunch of stuff to see what feels right and what works. But I’m also not sure how you get success on any meaningful terms without pouring all the crazy out of your heart and onto the fire. Someday maybe that will be a seminar. For now it’s a plan.
I wanted to raise about 23k in a few weeks before throwing all my stuff in storage and taking off to travel the world making art for a year because it feels right. But I am not really making any money. So I figure it’s time to think about this some more. Namely, it’s time to think about where demand is for what.
Craigslist offers two ways to test demand systematically. The first way is checking for what people are advertising for.
When I check what people are advertising for on Craigslist, sexism makes me too angry to even.
A whole lot of people would rather pay me to trip over a coffee table wearing a short skirt than solve the world’s problems. Meanwhile I have a ten-point plan to defeat the Islamic State. But you would rather lick my toes? Fantastic. How’s 3:00? If we don’t all die in a fire before then.
The second way Craigslist offers to test demand systematically is advertising and seeing how people respond.
I figured out this would probably be the best way to test demand for the different products and services I can offer by selling my car. I wasn’t selling hardly any paintings with lots of effort. But in under 24 hours, I sold my car for more than I bought it for over two years ago. People need cars. The price was right. The market worked. Maybe the same principle holds for the other things I have to offer, if I pitch them right. Let’s see.
Craigslist serves five main regions globally: the US (420 lists), Canada (55), Europe (95), Asia, Pacific and Middle East (65), and Oceania —Australia and New Zealand (2). Of these, it might be weird to post in English in the European and Asian markets. But I’ll do it anyway. Exchange rates make doing business in Canada and Oceania different from doing business in the U.S. And goodness knows within the U.S., a major metropolitan area is very different from a small town, a Southern city is very different from a Midwestern one, and all bets are off in the West.
I could analyze the differences between these areas in greater detail, decide which ones matter most, group the Craigslists, and then randomly assign different ads to different subgroups of the markets the lists represent.
But I don’t care about any of that right now—I just want to know where there’s a market for what, and then think about how to increase profit after I start making it. So at the risk of missing a lot of information, I’m basically mixing up all the categories I could break the Craigslist markets up into like they don’t matter. This gives me a total of 637 lists to advertise products and services on, to see what people want to pay me for and do more of that (as long as it’s fun and doesn’t involve my toes).
Notice that Craigslist is providing me free market testing. This is very nice of them. Thank you, Craigslist.
Products and Services
There’s a lot of stuff I could do for money. I’m not gonna do most of it. Here is the shortlist of exciting things I could do for money that I’m not going to try just now: drop shipping, day trading, gun running (legally with a federal firearms license), drug peddling (legally with online supplement sales), and prostitution (also known as getting a job).
If I get really desperate, I’ll try day trading. Like a lot of women, I’m pretty good at it on paper and not super comfortable risking real money because it feels like gambling. But that is actually part of what makes women better traders.
The whole point of this life experiment is to figure out what I want and go for it. So I only want to offer products and services that I really want to be providing, that I think make the world a better place by adding obvious value, solving people’s important problems.
Here are the things I can offer that fit that bill:
13.Books, my precious books—the ones I want to write, not the ones I have in boxes for storage now, those you can’t have
14.World peace through art
I might come up with a few more. Probably I should stop there for now though.
That’s only 14 product/service “cars” to test across 637 Craigslists. That means I should be able to test each “car” in at least 45 markets. I want to keep track of where I post what, so I’ll do that in Excel. (I will force myself to do that in Excel.)
Overall, this should give me a more informed sense of where there’s demand for what, which products or services to focus on selling more of, and how much value the world places on things other than my toes when I point out what I have to offer and how it can be useful.
Materials and Next Steps
I’ve been meaning to do this for days, and it always feels “too late.” Like, why didn’t I do this five years ago? When is the perfect time to do it? What is the perfect way?
This results in it not getting done.
So today I’m writing these 14 ads and posting them on 637 Craigslists. It is not the perfect time and they will not be perfect. It will be done though, and I’ll learn something.
I’ll probably report results early next week. Probably nothing will happen. Experiments are weird like this. This isn’t even an experiment in the proper sense of it—I’m not randomly assigning anything, I don’t care about statistical significance, and I’m not even defining outcomes of interest in advance because I don’t know what to expect. I just want to see what happens.
I’m perversely excited about all the mistakes I’ve made in just a few months of attempted business launches. Better to fail earlier and harder, and learn, than not.
Had I not gotten super cool-looking—but statistically insignificant—results in pilot testing for my dissertation research… That everyone I talked to was sure would pan out—but didn’t… I might have gone in a different direction… And not been crushed when the initial results turned out to be wrong.
Had I not gone along to get along in relationships for many years, I might have started asking for what I want sooner.
Abject failure can generate better outcomes than early, middling success.
And boy have my initial business launch attempts failed. Here are three things that seem to have gone horribly wrong—and how they underscore what has gone terrifically right.
Horribly Wrong Sequencing
I quit my job before monetizing my business.
Don’t do that.
Unless of course you’re called. And then accept that your sequencing will look screwy to everyone else. And you will figure out what is next as you go, because you are showing up to what is next in your own life, on your own time.
Horribly Wrong Investing
I invested five figures in launching my business. Before adequately testing the business model.
Don’t do that either.
Unless of course you’re trying to figure out how this business thing works. And then accept that risk is part of the game. And a lot of apparently successful businesspeople actually lose more than they gain. Risking and trusting are integral to producing better individual and aggregate outcomes. As long as you listen to the outcome of the risk, and adjust.
Horribly Wrong Goal-Setting
I tried a bunch of different goal-setting exercises, like Napoleon Hill’s autosuggestion and Tim Ferriss’s dreamlining. There are a million different forms of the same basic exercise here. They’re all about directing positive selective attention to actualizing what you really want. Which requires first knowing what that is. And figuring out what you really want is actually a LOT of work.
Throw it away. Do it again.
It’s hard. We’re all looking for the golden ball in Robert Bly’s terms—which is an allegorical way of saying we all lose touch with something, maybe just by being born, maybe by growing up (or trying to). And knowing what we really want is part of getting back in touch with a certain holiness, so we can get it.
How Three Wrongs Make Right
A lot of failure in asking—for painting sales, publications, editing clients—has desensitized me to the horror of it. This increased comfort with failing enabled me to sing my own songs on the streets of Mexico despite barely being able make noise in my own apartment sometimes. It enabled me to ask my housing lawyer to get my damages back from the great Cambridge bedbug imbroglio of ’14 (don’t ask)—or file in district court already, because it’s been eight months and that little mess tanked my meagre savings. (I’ve been asking nicely and sleeping on a sleeping bag since September. It’s like a little camping party in my apartment.)
And it enabled me to ask Richard Branson for advice on Twitter.
This is brilliant. This is right. I still haven’t figured out quite how to apply this to my own goals. Simple is hard.
I also still haven’t gotten baptized—a goal for the day—despite calling over a dozen churches. SIMPLE IS HARD.
But I’ll get it. Because I know how to ask for what I want. Politely. Persistently. And I’m doing it.
More importantly, I’m figuring out how to ask other people what they want. Systematically. So I can give them what they need and profit from helping them.
Just like research turned out to be much more about learning what I didn’t know I didn’t know, than testing my original hypotheses—which were almost entirely wrong—so too business turns out to be much more about learning what problems I can solve for people for fun, that I’m not even sure they should pay me for because I love doing this stuff… That asking, listening, changing, asking again, listening, changing, asking again game that vocalists play with accompaniment in improv, and radios can play too. It’s all chaos. It’s all good. That’s how social exchange works—decentralized, unpredictable, fluid, and better than anything you could imagine before showing up to play.
At least that’s what VERY preliminary results of my first market tests show. More about that soon.
Making the time to prioritize your own work, spending money like you believe investing in your dreams is a good investment, and articulating exactly what you want like it matters and you can get it aren’t mistakes. They’re steps. Just like any failure.
Please help me sell all my art in a few weeks to follow my dreams by buying some paintings, and consider also donating to the Wounded Warrior Project for Armed Forces Day (which was Sat.) and Memorial Day coming up next Monday. Warriors are journeyers, too.
There’s something about roads.
There was a time in my life when that thing was fear.
Statistically speaking, driving is a much greater threat to American lives than terrorism. Every time you drive a two-lane road, your life is literally depending on a stranger staying on one side of an arbitrary yellow line.
Roads depend on trust.
At some point, I got over the fear and drove alone from LA to Boston, camping along the way and taking the photos that became this painting series.
Freedom of movement is internal as much as it is external. That’s why Americans don’t just drive for work and adventure. We drive for freedom—although the environmental costs of the habit threaten our security.
We also move around more than people from and in other countries. This reflects an internalization of our freedom of movement. What is legal and infrastructural becomes mental and emotional. We can move.
Moving is supposed to be a major life stressor, like divorce or loss. But we opt into that stress a lot. Maybe because we intuitively sense that not all stress is bad. Stressing muscles is the best way to strengthen them. Moving into fear is the best way to overcome it. Trying new things before you know how to do them is the best way to learn.
Roads represent all those things. Faith in oneself at the wheel—and other people at their own. Forward progress that builds. Navigating the new. And discovery of the unknown, or at least the unknown to us.
Like roads, doors are really rich symbols with lots of journey associations.
The doors that I couldn’t stop painting this fall and winter similarly celebrate faith, change, and the unknown.
The series also integrates the symbol of the trust dandelion that I had been painting and writing about, building on Cory Doctorow’s writing on information and network phenomena. As i see it, trust is a somewhat unique entity because it sits at the intersection of emotion (we feel trusting or untrusting) and information (we trust based on information, and transmit information about who to trust to others, usually based on personal interaction). Trust moves along social networks like other forms of emotion and information, in a pattern that looks like a dandelion.
As you can see better in the darkness, the trust dandelion on one side of the door frame and the bullseye of science—that is but one eye on the smiling face of truth—hold up the door.
Meanwhile the light of the world creeps under the closed and locked door.
That light is faith. It might be secular—faith in the fragile human goodness of ourselves, others, and the world. It might be religious.
For me it’s religious, and the religious experience my faith stems from includes the gift of this great joke. I had a dream while I was painting this series about the door of light in the darkness, closed and locked tight. The light of the world creeps in gently underneath. Even though, as it turns out, all the locks are on the wrong side.
I think that’s what goodness in the world is like when we trust. We unlock goodness in other people they were just waiting to have recognized.
And anyway believing that makes things more fun.
Journeys and Fights
On National Armed Forced Day this weekend I thought about the veterans in my family. One of my grandfathers joined the Navy illegally at 17 to fight in World War II after Pearl Harbor. The other joined the Communist International to illegally fight Franco and fascism in Spain before the U.S. joined the fight.
Some journeys—like my grandfathers’ when they were young—are fights. Every fight is a journey. But is every journey a fight?
There is conflict in every journey, in every story. But I don’t think every journey is a fight.
A fight is a frame—a particular metaphor we can use to tell a story. You can pick a different metaphor, and it’ll change the way you think. What you believe, and so how you feel, what you perceive, and how you act. You can tell a story of fight, or a story of adventure and learning, about any conflict. “Good Morning Vietnam” isn’t a fight story. It’s story about the power of humor, music, speaking truth to power, and valuing people as people, not as means or ends.
Sometimes I think I need to have a better mission than traveling and making art—a cause, goal, budget, timetable, and the other components of a grant proposal that I’ve had for my life for as long as I can remember.
Then I remember the rules of the road. The year-long life experiment on which I’m about to embark is in part about simplifying. I don’t need a grand plan. I don’t need a mission. I just need to show up to life. The poetry and paintings, amazing human connections, and other forms of magic seem to happen on their own when I do that. It’s how I wound up singing my own songs on the streets of Mexico City last month despite having never busked, been to Mexico, or sang all that in front of another human being in real life before.
I don’t seem to make hardly any money doing any of this yet. And I’m on that like it’s a problem. Come to think of it, that is a problem.
But it’s also what I’m supposed to be doing. So I’ll do it like I mean it and we’ll see what happens.
I have an incredible degree of freedom in how I live my life. It’s probably unprecedented in human history. I can move freely about the cabin of the world using planes and trains, sell products and services globally using the Internet and phones, and do it all cheaply enough to still have money (or credit) to buy paint now and then.
The sacrifices made by people like the grandfathers I didn’t know—and countless other men and women fighting countless wars—gave us this freedom. So I donated to the Wounded Warrior Project this weekend and lit a candle in honor of all our ancestor fighters and travelers who took new roads and opened doors so we could be alive on the face the earth today. As Maya Angelou once asked an angry Tupac Shakur, having no idea who he was: “When was the last time anyone told you how important you are? Did you know our people stood on auction blocks and were sold—bought and sold so you could stay alive today?”
Three magic animals keep appearing among the 200+ oil paintings I plan to sell within 2 weeks before putting what remains of my stuff in storage and starting my year-long life experiment in traveling and making art. Hounds, butterflies, and foxes appear in art across many cultures and contexts. Accordingly, their meanings are as varied as humanity—hunter and pray, motif and symbol, friend and accessory.
Franz Marc has already painted the best dog paintings in the world, and Mary Oliver has written the most beautiful poems about dogs. Yet in Marc’s vision, there’s a loneliness and angularity about the dog in the snow. While in Oliver’s, the dog is togetherness and comfort.
I love how art can make of one thing at once a notion and its opposite, without deception or contradiction. That way of holding the richness of experience, which can be like that too, seems to be a large part of its power. We all have so much meaning and richness inside us that we have to tell stories all the time to make sense of the world within and without. Giving people tools to tell those stories better—more brightly, more gratefully, more critically—is the service art does to the internal life. That’s what people pay for when they pay for art.
That’s probably why a lot of artists, like Keith Haring, had a policy of not interpreting their art. Giving the viewer all the interpretive power instead. Telling people how to interpret even your own art, in that school of thought, takes a little bit of power away from both the viewer and the art.
Alternately, a lot of story-tellers, like William Blake, have used art to clarify and enrich their own story. There’s no question of whether or not you’re going to offer an interpretation when the whole point of the art in the first place was to illustrate your story.
As a writer first, I fall in the second camp. I’ll tell you what I think my art means. Most of it illustrates my writing in the first place.
Hounds to me symbolize linearity. They’re familiar, comforting, seek tasty animals of fact in straight lines. They’re common. They can be sweet and useful. They’re often presented as the only animal in the world—as in Popperian social science methods texts that teach only linear, falsifiable predictions from linear, falsifiable theories are scientific. For this reason, linear theories and plans can seem like the only animal in forest. But there are plenty of other important meaning-making animals. For one thing, there are also butterflies.
In science, butterflies symbolize chaos. For example, the Lorenz system literally looks like a butterfly. Chaotic theories don’t always generate readily falsifiable hypotheses. That doesn’t make them unscientific.
Thankfully, we can understand a lot about chaotic systems like weather without actually being able to model predictions about it all that well. But weathermen still get the timing and amount of snow wrong all the time. And we still debate to what extent global climate change is man-made, and what it will mean in the future.
A lot of human systems are chaotic, too. Predicting rare events like revolutions and terror attacks is a chaotic systems game.
In more ordinary terms, we often hear some version of the expression: “a butterfly flaps its wings in China, and there’s an earthquake or Timbuktu.” Meaning that sometimes small acts or events have huge, faraway repercussions. That type of effect is inherently non-linear, chaotic. It’s the so-called butterfly effect.
Sometimes, for instance, conflict brings about peace. One might hope anyway that the shadow of the butterfly wing of tragedy can bring attention to old wounds that need healing. I mean tragedy in the classical sense that good actors meet terrible fates despite having their hearts in the right place. And I mean old wounds like the racialized problem of inequality in America.
So in the painting below, the shadow of the butterfly also looks like a man with his hands up, on the ground, alluding to Michael Brown and the problem of lack of recognition between police and communities of color in American today.
Lack of recognition is a prison. We’re not free to develop the goodness in ourselves when we don’t recognize it. We’re not free to help others develop their goodness when we don’t recognize it. And the world isn’t free to flourish when people don’t feel safe enough to risk, economically (in markets) and politically (in democracy).
But risk is scary, and these chaotic systems—markets and democracies—are hard to predict. So a lot of people and communities remain confined in the cloven pine of stasis.
There, internal states remain internal.
There’s no risk of spectacular failure, because there’s no risk—apparently. But the greater risk is arguably from not risking at all.
You might say the opposite of these caged creatures are people who risk great personal cost for the greater good. That those people have butterflies of grace in their faces.
Looking at people like I’m going to draw or paint them always brings out the butterfly. Recognizing the goodness in people tends to bring it out like that.
Butterflies also turn out to be a significant motif in Mexican visual culture (arts, crafts, advertising, fabric) —as I learned after photographing and painting them for months and then feeling called to Mexico City last month.
As the sidewalk there said, life can be magic when you remember to be free.
In the same way that hounds and butterflies mean lots of things to lots of people, foxes are rich in associative possibility. To some they mean protection or comfort. To others hunger or wiliness, or their combination—the willingness to steal chickens.
To me, the fox symbolizes all those things and more. In theoretical terms, a fox theory is the rare synthesis of linear and chaotic—the meta-theory that often eludes us.
For example, relativity and quantum physics don’t yet square into a unified theory.
This is also a problem in fluid systems modeling. Laminar flow regimes are linear and turbulent flow regimes are chaotic systems, and we don’t yet have a meta-theory fitting them together.
Similarly, we don’t have a unified theory of justice that combines the chaos of internal states and human as opposed to rule-bound interactions with the linearity of procedural justice and justice as fairness. I think the synthesis is something called justice as forgiveness. But I’m more interested in trying to make it with tools like art, faith, and entrepreneurship than writing academic stuff about it.
Hounds, Butterflies, and Foxes
So I tried to envision what it looks like for linear hound and chaotic butterfly theories to fit together in integrated fox theories.
And in the tree where the fox might hide from hounds or the butterfly might be confined.
But in the end, what felt most whole and right for envisioning Kit Fox, as I call the character of this linear-chaotic synthesis in the story she lives in in my head, was simply darkness. Falling through the night, as from one universe to another. Or maybe she’s only coming down from the tree.
Some of these images are religious—couched in the context of the paradigmatic story of a holy woman, Mother Mary. Some come out of biographical interest in successful female artists—Frida Kahlo, Nina Simone, Anna Karenina. And some tell stories I have in my head, illustrating poems, characters, book seedlings and such. Here are a few of each type, on sale along with all my art for over 50% off in my new Etsy store.
“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me.”—Saint Paul
Earlier this week, I wrote about the story of the Lady of Guadalupe that I learned in Mexico City last month. Hers is a powerful example of story and art changing the world.
Simply by appearing—a Mexican Madonna—and asking for a church, she decreased violence and increased religious tolerance for newly converted Mexicans living under Catholic Spanish rule.
All it took was a miracle. A painting, to be precise. The Lady of Guadalupe turned a pile of roses into a painting before doubting Spanish eyes. The apparition made the deal: Mexican peasants got religious tolerance, Catholic Spanish got a miracle and a monument, the Lady got her church.
Frida Kahlo was a creative deal-maker, too. She made a career flipping her liabilities into assets.
Frida was fond of saying she had been in two bad accidents—the one that put a whole through her belly and left her in chronic pain, and Diego Rivera.
Out of the first, she made a self. Known for her dress and demeanor as much as her art, she turned the weaknesses of her disfiguration and what might have been disability into strengths. Learning from scratch how to dress to cover up her imperfections, she became a fashion icon. When she put on layers of lacey shawls and all her jewelry to go to events, street children would follow her asking, “Where’s the circus?” And she would smile and walk on.
Out of the second, she made a life with her husband.
Nina was always better with birds than men. But she, too, is known in no small part for making for herself “a new dawn, a new day, a new life.”
Nina also took it upon herself to promote civil rights and racial discourse through her art, popularizing the lynching poem “Strange Fruit” and speaking often from the stage about “our problem in America.”
Another female artist I like to re-imagine in this re-making light, although she’s not often celebrated in this way, is Anna Karenina.
Anna was an artist—she fashioned a different life for herself than what was expected, under strict social constraints. And in the end, it wasn’t different enough. She thought—
“Haven’t I striven, striven with all my strength, to find something to give meaning to my life?”
Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl talks about the universality of this striving, “man’s search for meaning.” The quest is often associated with distress when people are isolated or feel betrayed, as in the ancient story of Hecuba, the woman who transmogrified into a dog after losing everyone she trusted to death or betrayal. Tolstoy, Frankl, and Euripides all tell us the social context of the universal search for meaning is what turns existential angst into dehumanization—sometimes.
This is how I like to reimagine Anna turning that dehumanization around—
The wounded dog who is a deer limps toward the nightlight of the approaching train. Lies down with her head in the clanging lap.
Iron and wind tuck her in. The train passes like night like life and like death. Morning comes. A new woman stands.
One of the things art is about is making universal human experiences—like injury or weakness (Frida), or existential crisis (Anna)—generative instead of (purely) destructive. And that’s one of the reasons why powerful women in art are really powerful. To be visible when you’re not supposed to be (Lady of Guadalupe), or appear beautiful when you’re supposed to be sick (Frida), is shocking. To make a choice, any choice, other than what’s expected (Nina talking race, Anna walking off on her life) is, too. There’s a reclamation of the power to set the terms of the discourse in all these things. That’s art.
This painting is part of a diptych illustrating this poem in my second poetry book—
[ ] ?
represents the complete set of all giveable fucks. Ask me one more time for a plan, and I’ll point to the next available tree.
When I organized and emceed a local stand-up group back in Virginia, I often found that poems, songs, and political satire could (and should) be boiled down to really tight jokes. It just takes time, and willingness to fail and fail better.
That’s what my year-long experiment in traveling and making art is about. Showing up to play. Before I’m ready, before anything is perfect, before I even think I know what my plan is. It’s hard, but it’s the fastest way to learn. It’s also more fun than not.
Part of me wishes I had a more ambitious, community-oriented project laid out on Kickstarter. Being me, I have a list of such projects. But my lease is up in three weeks, and it takes 30 days to plan a good online fundraiser plus 30 days to run one.
So I guess I’m starting the year-long experiment early by showing up to the move before I feel ready. And maybe it doesn’t have to be any harder than that.
Here are the two paintings that have sold so far today—along with others still available in the galleries they’re from, and part of the stories that weave them together. I threw in a surprise bonus painting with each painting sold, and shipped them right away.
Outside the Legion of Honor
When I visited the Bay area for the first time for work earlier this year, I was lucky enough to have time also to visit the Legion of Honor fine arts museum in San Francisco.
Even the trees outside the museum knew they were part of a special place of art.
The waves crashing nearby knew, too.
As did the bridge at night. The Golden Gate Bridge WAS part of a big art installation I caught the tail end of—lit up for a limited time by 25,000 LED lights.
The LED lights have all come off the bridge now. The water underneath at night must look very different. Still lit up by buildings, boats, and passing headlights. But darker. I was lucky to catch it in this window of much light.
Waves in the Intelligent Universe
When I read the Wendell Barry book Digging In this fall, I couldn’t stop painting this idea from it: “The human definition of the natural world is always going to be too small, because the world’s more diverse and complex than we can ever know. We’re not going to comprehend it; it comprehends us.”
This idea—that social science has it all backwards—was what inspired me to start writing and illustrating a sort of an updated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Although originally conceived as a sort-of combination comic book and methods text—obviously—I might throw away everything I’ve written as part of starting the big experiment. I want to find the hardest problem in the world and work on that next.
The vultures of prejudice, violence, and hopelessness sometimes blight the smiling face of truth.
This matters in research methods, because all reasoning is motivated reasoning. People with brain injuries to emotion centers can’t make simple decisions. There’s too much noise even in the simplest decision—forget the whole, wide world—for us to decide anything without feeling. And researchers make decisions all the time about what to look at and how.
Deciding what to look at shapes the world you live in.
Belief shapes emotion, which shapes perception and action. The perception part of this is sometimes called selective attention in cognitive psychology. Selective attention is about selecting a signal to pay attention to in the noise of the world.
Depression is about negative selective attention—the real-life problems that predict it, like chronic pain and loss, are real. Similarly, sensory hypersensitivity is about lack of selective attention—the stimuli that tend to bother people with hyperacousis or some forms of autism are quite real, too. Synchronicity and serendipity are about positive selective attention. And happy coincidence and good luck, too, are a real part of the world. Humankind being a statistical improbability, they’re a rather important part of the universe we live in. Far from being an error term, improbability is the stuff of life. And paying attention to the good in it helps develop goodness.
It can be hard to see, but the smiling face of truth is there even in the lowest-probability events. In life, a lot of people find after much time and reflection that what might have seemed to be incredibly bad luck turned out to be or yield some bit of important guidance or protection.
Speaking of serendipity, the loveliest, funniest thing made my sales today happen. Yesterday, I sold the mic stand I just bought to sing on the streets in Mexico City to Erica, a wonderful singer in the Boston band Sebio, off Craigslist. I sold it to her below market value, like I’m selling all my art.
Erica was nice. We got to talking about my plan to learn more, faster, traveling and making art, after selling all my art and putting the rest of my stuff in storage. She thought that was kind-of awesome. And she posted about my art on Facebook.
One of her friends, Pennsylvania painter Dustin Porta, saw it and did the same.
One of his clients, from a New Orleans market, saw it and bought two paintings.
Lunch Money Paintings are the price of a nice lunch—22.6€ + shipping—at my new Etsy store. They’re the 9″ x 12″ oils on watercolor paper works I made with a palette knife in Mexico City last month on the roof of the hostel where I volunteered after leaving Harvard to make art. Among other things, the Mexico Study proved I can learn more, faster, make art, and slash rent and other expenses by traveling.
As a social scientist, I see a lot of possible cognitive errors in how people interpret events to fit the idea of God or something like God—the intelligent, caring, and hilarious universe. But you could say the same errors apply to how people interpret events to fit the idea of a godless world. To be super wonky about it, you can generate evidence against the null hypothesis of no God much more easily than you can generate evidence against the alternate hypothesis of God. Because God is a chaotic theory and those aren’t falsifiable by linear evidence generation. This is just Hayek on the chaotic nature of the social world.
Anyway, one of the things I learned in Mexico was how much less taboo it can be in other places and cultures to talk about godly experience. In America, and especially in learned circles, talking about experiencing flashes of insight, answered prayers, and other forms of divine intervention is really a no-no. And talking to God—and listening—is considered evidence of insanity.
In Mexico, it’s normal.
Pretend we’re in Mexico.
This is an illustration of wings and flashes of light I saw in Boston during a religious experience in which I left Harvard because I couldn’t do anything but make art. Then I went to Mexico City for a month because I felt called there. I’d never been to Mexico before. I lived in a hostel when I’d never stayed in one before. All the while discovering resonances between the art I’d been making and the magic of Mexico—the butterfly motif—the brown Madonna (my Tent of Civilization series and Mexico’s Lady of Guadalupe). I’d never heard of this stuff.
I seem to have gone on an accidental pilgrimage.
The Basilica is a Roman Catholic church in Mexico City. Some sources say it’s the second-most visited church in the world—second only to St. Peter’s in Rome. Others say it’s the most-visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world.
The holy site where it stands actually contains eight churches.
The Spanish built the first church because the Lady of Guadalupe—an Aztec Mother Mary—appeared to the peasant Juan Diego there and asked for one. She gave him roses that turned into a painting of her when he opened his cloak to prove his vision to disbelieving officials.
To be clear: the Lady asked for a church. They gave her eight. One of them leans a little bit, but it’s still standing.
They really know how to treat a Lady in Mexico.
Lady of Guadalupe
The Lady is everywhere in Mexico City.
Here she is in a prayer candle flame in the church where they hold services these days.
And in the Basilica.
One of the reasons Spanish religious officials didn’t believe Juan Diego at first was that the apparition was a native woman. She was a Mexican Madonna.
Being Spanish, I suppose they had always imagined Mother Mary as Spanish. It’s funny how we often extend what we know into the unknown.
Reimagining her took a bit of convincing.
But in the end, it was impossible to argue with the miracle right before their eyes.
So the Lady got her church.
And the Mexican peasants got greater tolerance for local religious rites from the Spanish.
After all. You wouldn’t persecute Mother Mary if you were a Catholic.
It wasn’t something you could say at the time either. Witness:
Humble Mexican Peasant: Mother Mary was Mexican, now stop torturing and killing us for practicing our religious rites. We converted, ok? It’s called syncretism, assholes. Be cool.
Spanish priest: [Snaps fingers and has peasant tortured and killed.]
But you could show it. And Juan Diego did.
In the way that kindness often creates kindness in social interactions—and violence, violence—this act of showing mutual recognition created mutual recognition.
As it happens, another Mexican Mother god was around before the Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego. Her name was Tonantzin—Mother of All Gods.
Lunch Money Paintings are so called because they’re the price of a nice lunch—22.6€ + shipping. They’re the 9″ x 12″ oils on watercolor paper works I made in Mexico City last month on the roof of the hostel where I volunteered (aka, sat by the liquor drawing people to induce drink-buying). I’m breaking them up into subgalleries to blog, since there are about 60 of them and that’s too many for people to really see them.
Yesterday’s post featured the East/Southeastern view from the hostel roof of Cathedral Metropolitana, the biggest cathedral in the Americas. Today’s features the Western view.
Other than the slowly setting sun and haze of very many cars between very many mountains, the predominant feature of the Western sky in the heart of Mexico City’s federal district is the Torre Latinamericano.
At 44 stories high, the Tower is the world’s first skyscraper built on highly active seismic land. It withstood the 1985 earthquake.
On a bad air day, the top can disappear in the midday haze that bites newcomers’ throats. But at night it always seems to slice up into the sky, as if marking the city for God to come back to.
You can pay 80 pesos to go the top for a panoramic view of the city.
Or you can make friends with Dmitri who works on the 29th floor and get in for free.
Below the tower, pigeons take flight before the evening thunderstorms that come on suddenly, early warning signs flashing quiet gray.
The storms consume everything. Landmarks, horizon, metal grates over closed shops, police clustered on corners in the darkness.
They wash the city clean before the sun goes to bed in the Cathedral. They wash the air, too, that otherwise smells vaguely of the incompletely closed sewage system running underground. And they leave something extra there. The charge of the storm.
But my mic stand sold! To lovely Boston musician and new friend Erica, of the awesome band Sebio.
Breaking out a small subset of paintings to showcase in one blog post I then promoted on social media correlated with a big increase in traffic.
Specifically, I had 137 page views today. This is pretty good for a website that’s only been up a week. It’s up from a previous peak of 76 on May 4—the day the website launched.
But the peak could’ve been at least also in part from the second Mail Chimp newsletter I sent out to my email list. And from talking with a nice person in real life who then promoted me in turn on her own Facebook. (Thanks, Erica!)
So the moving sale launch today was a success. I got a little better organized. Made a little money. Drove traffic. And sold something. That’s a start.
This is the first of several posts featuring the oil paintings on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper I made with a palette knife on a hostel roof in Mexico City last month. I volunteered there while pre-testing the year-long life experiment I’m beginning next month.
In Phase 1, I learned from a lot of early mistakes in attempting to “launch” my “art business.” Most of them involved paying nice strangers to try to get things done faster and better. And things then not getting done.
Then, I left Harvard and sang on the streets of Mexican City for a month.
The Mexico Study proved four things:
(1) Academia is not for me. A lot of people told me I was crazy—clipping my wings at best—but leaving Harvard felt so good. So right.
(2) I can make art anywhere. With anything. I don’t need an apartment, a studio, or even canvas. (In Mexico City, I painted on watercolor paper on the hostel roof, obvi.)
(3) Free advice from friends can be better than paid help from strangers. Especially when you have no idea what you’re doing other than learning from mistakes. I got fantastic information and help from nice folks in the hostel bar. Plus I got free room and board for sitting near the liquor talking to people.
(4) Always keep a Lifestraw in your go bag. Because you have to drink the water.
Bigger-picture, the Mexico Study was a pre-test of my year-long experiment. It worked. Expenses slashed, art made, lots of learning. Game on.
Last week, I announced the year-long life experiment in traveling and making art. I launched my new website and blog, plus an Etsy and Zazzle store to sell my art and art merchandise. So now I have art T-shirts like Keith Haring!
That will make me roughly $1/shirt. And has made me exactly $1. (Thanks, Ms. Fairweather. Fifth grade was the best.)
Any profit is good profit. But that’s not what I want.
So I should say what I want. Set a clear goal, say what I’m doing to achieve it, and when it’s going to get done.
My lease is up at the end of the month. At that point, I plan to put everything I own in storage to cut living expenses and enact the idea that the world is my home while learning more, faster, by traveling.
I want to have sold all my art by then so I don’t have to pay to store it. That means selling hundreds of oil paintings I made since August. (I don’t have any older art because I gave it all away twice last year before the two cross-country moves my postdoc required. It was a gratitude exercise, it was great, but now I’m trying something different.)
In other words, nothing bad happens if I don’t raise the money. I store or otherwise dispose of the art and manage the Phase 1 debt. Maybe I do odd jobs traveling instead of running an online business that funds it. Maybe I do something completely different that hasn’t occurred to me or presented itself yet.
But I expect to meet my goal, because the work has that value.
Here’s the value break-down. I worked backwards from my fundraising goal, and I’m selling everything below market value according to thirty-party sources.
When I regularly showed and sold oil paintings between 2005 and 2008 in Virginia, my 16″ x 20″s went for around $300 and my 30″ x 40″s for around $1200. My selling base rate was higher than my competitors—although in the regional art business, that meant I still took annual losses. So when the art market crashed in 2008, I mostly stopped exhibiting to focus on grad school.
Forty-nine dog years and one PhD later, I have that much more painting experience and the art market is making a come-back.
But instead of raising prices above the previously established market value, I’m selling at less than half market value. Only for the next two weeks.
This means I’m selling paintings at materials cost times two (for labor) to avoid paying art storage costs, clean house for my new experiment, and get more people reading my new blog.
Pricing on that logic looks like this:
a. 9″ x 12″ paintings: $2 paper + $10 paint + .17 cent envelope + $5 shipping (domestic) = $17.17 * labor = $34.34
c. 22″ x 28″ painting (I only have one of these in stock): $30 canvas + $30 paint + $50 box and shipping guestimate = $110 * 2 labor = $240
d. 24″ x 36″ paintings: $40 canvas + $40 paint + $50 box and shipping guestimate = $130 * 2 labor = $260
e. 30″ x 40″ paintings: $50 canvas + $60 paint + $50 box and shipping guestimate = $160 * 2 labor = $320
With my existing painting inventory, that means that if everything sells I should make about $27,000.
That’s misleading—part of the take is box and shipping costs. So I’m probably about $17,200 shy of my goal if “all” I do is sell 260+ paintings in two weeks.
Except now my Etsy store only has 233 paintings instead of 261, even though nothing has sold. Did I just lose two dozen paintings? No matter. The gap is basically the same whether I know my inventory and how to count, or not.
That’s where commissions and story-telling come in.
So let’s split the $17,200 difference between commissions and story-telling. That means my goal is to make $8,600 in painting commissions in the next two weeks.
But my time for performing services in that window will be limited. I need about three hours a day to pack and mail paintings, three hours a day to pack and do other move prep, three hours a day to manage other business stuff, and nine hours for sleeping and other animal things.
That leaves only six hours/day for 14 days for portrait and story-telling work—84 hours. So I have to charge $103/half-hour commission to make my goal.
Plus, my unwritten rule on commissions has always been that you only buy what you love. I only want people to be delighted with my art. If you aren’t, you don’t buy it, commission or no. So it’s risk-free for you to commission a painting.
This is #1 on my list of what I’m worth and have to give others. Primarily, I’m a writer. I write all sorts of things. I’ve published opinion essays in The Guardian, academic work in journals in like Testing, Psychometrics, and Methodology in Applied Psychology: The Musical, and poetry in The Georgetown Review. (I may have made up part of one of those titles.) I’ve written children’s books, a play, a screenplay, a dissertation.
But first, I’m a poet. You may wonder why I’m fundraising at all, since poets are well-known as being rich and famous. I’ll never tell.
I’m offering four types of story-telling services to make the remaining $8,600 of my two-week goal.
a. Website and online store design and building. Do you like my website? I made it myself. My Etsy and Zazzle stores, too. I could make something like this for you, next-day, for $600.
Market value of this service is more like $1200 and it usually takes three weeks. Then you usually get hooked in with hosting fees and stuff.
I don’t want to host your site. I don’t want to maintain it. I want to teach you to do it. It’s not that hard. And we both have better things to do with that time and money.
I’m only offering this service for two weeks, as part of my move sale/fundraiser for the next phase of my life experiment traveling and making art.
b. Social media management. Setting up a social media presence from the ground up is daunting. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, G+, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and whatever other thing is invented between the time I finish typing this sentence and the time you read it—which ones do you need? Business or personal, or both? I can get you set up to “be social” and manage the accounts yourself for $200.
Get started on the right foot with consistent brand across platforms that establishes the right tone. It’s much easier to continue on that path than to stumble across it yourself, like I did.
c. Marketing. The ghost of Bill Hicks is blowing smoke at me right now. But I guess you could say I’ve done PR. For nice people when I like what they’re doing. (Pause for coughing fit.) Chill, Bill. I love you.
All businesses are art businesses. Talking with people about their art—what they make and give the world of their passion and labor to make people’s lives better—is fun. Marketing at its best is just about appreciating that omnipresence of art in commerce, and communicating that appreciation to others.
Most of the press releases you can buy are bad because they don’t involve any market research. That’s dumb. We live in an era when you can run a survey experiment in half an hour on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to assess what your market really values or how they respond to different press release options. Why would you not take advantage of that amazing opportunity to talk to your market and pre-test your materials?
To be fair, I don’t. But that’s because I’m busy running a bigger experiment with my life right now. I’m testing new things by trying them, and I’m trying them too fast to pre-test.
Anyway. I can design and run your market research and PR experiments, and write accordingly better, more evidence-based press releases than market leading services. I’ll do it for $300 per survey experiment or press release.
But only for the next two weeks.
d. Editing and submissions advice.I’ve done freelance editing work for academics, creative writers, and lawyers. I’ve published in dozens of venues including literary and academic journals. Editing is easier. So if you’re stuck, let me help you.
I’ll drop it to $30/hour for the next two weeks. Because I can do editing work anytime as filler in the race to the goal. And submissions advice is just fun. Plus I love helping other writers. Plus I want to build a client base in services I can perform while traveling.
Maybe—just maybe—I’m spreading myself too thin for a change.
Because I definitely need to keep the blog updated with results of this experiment. Plus break out the paintings in featured blog posts by subgallery, to tell people about them. There are just too many on the Etsy store for them to otherwise be accessible. And when I chart out the sub galleries in blog post-sized chunks, that’s two weeks’ worth of blog posts right there. But if I don’t promote the services every day, I’m not going to get the business. Duh.
So I’m probably setting myself up for failure. But, perhaps perversely, I feel like I have to go for exactly what I want to have any chance of getting it—even if it’s not really reasonable, so I can’t possibly do it right.
It’s all a big experiment. And the most important thing I’ve learned so far about experimenting is to do lots of it and keep trying new stuff. Because the learning is in the mistakes more than anything else. As long as you’re really showing up to the mistakes. And you have to keep trying new stuff to keep making new mistakes.
Oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas. One in a series, “Dysmorphia of Dreams,” available on Etsy.
The series is about recognition, or lack thereof. Paul Dunbar speaks to the positive potential of that recognition—
“By the Stream”
By the stream I dream in calm delight, and watch as in a glass, How the clouds like crowds of snowy-hued and white-robed maidens pass, And the water into ripples breaks and sparkles as it spreads, Like a host of armored knights with silver helmets on their heads. And I deem the stream an emblem fit of human life may go, For I find a mind may sparkle much and yet but shallows show, And a soul may glow with myriad lights and wondrous mysteries, When it only lies a dormant thing and mirrors what it sees.
People are beautiful. Art is a compulsion. These two facts combine when I go to bars. That looks like this.
This tends to result in friends. Most people want to be seen. Really seen. Recognized.
And when you look at someone like you’re going to draw or paint them—if you’re doing it with the art of their face in your heart—you’re seeing them. Art is about recognition in the heart.
Perhaps for this reason, compulsive bar drawing also often results in commissions.
Like the commission that came out of seeing Paco. Paco was sad when we first met. He got sadder when he realized he’d set a beer down on one of my wet oil paintings tucked in the back corner of the hostel rooftop bar. But I could see that Paco was basically a strong and happy person. The person you see here looking up at his dad, remembering the day when he was a little kid when his dad taught him math on horseback. The photo he’s holding are his dad’s hands during his last rites. The image also appears on a tattoo on his chest.
And in his new painting.
If art is about seeing people, then travel is about meeting them where they are. That’s why the two work so well together. Because when we’re not inured to details and locked into routine, we’re more present. More alive. More seeing.
And I don’t know what else life could be about. Although I’m bound to learn.
This is my new favorite rooftop perch, by Catedral Metropolitana and Palacio Nacional in Ciudad México.
I couldn’t stop painting it last month. When I quit my job at Harvard to make art and wound up in Mexico City (CDMX).
CDMX was magic for rethinking what it means to be an artist. The people are so friendly, I played songs in the streets that no one had heard me perform before because I´d been too shy to make noise outside my shower.
Other than throwing you into new circumstances where you meet nice people, three things about travel make art-making easier.
1. Less stuff means more creativity. Making art while traveling is an exercise in learning and relearning that anyone can make art anywhere. The human spirit finds a way.
2. Less urgent makes more time for important. The Internet abroad is so spotty that I can write my books instead of staying on top of email.
3. Less spending of money enables more spending of time on art. Although it’s counter-intuitive, living abroad is much cheaper than living in the U.S., done right.
Overall then, travel makes it more instead of less possible to better become myself as an artist. So I´m not coming back.
Painting the World: The Experiment
This year, I´m running a new experiment. I’m traveling the world making art.
I’ll still be Boston-based.
But, like, on friends’ couches. (Batts eyelashes at Boston friends.)
I´ll get to know the places I go, living cheaply or free in hostels, with host families, or at other places a bit outside the cities I visit. Use some of the gorgeous languages I studied years ago but never really used—French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Russian—and learn others I know tiny bits of but never really got to know—Creole, Swahili, and Urdu. Soak in the beautiful people and places that make up our home—the world.
Blogging the Experiment
The main thing this blog will chronicle is the paintings that I make along the way. The stuff I´ll also be working on that I won´t talk about as much is my writing, music, and comedy. I’m a writer first, but the book projects that mean the most to me will take some time to do right.
Is to better become my artist self while better being part of the world. That means four main things right about now.
Sell the art I make while traveling the world. Build enough of an audience doing this that I get a solo New York gallery show within 12 months.
Shape up my book drafts and partials into finished products. Begin self-publishing books on my website within 12 months, and keep writing.
Perform my music regularly on the streets and in venues all over the world as I work up an album.
Get back to performing stand-up, too. Within 12 months, go to at least one comedy festival and be making practice videos until I have a correspondent video that’s good enough to submit to The Daily Show.
Yeah, I know.
It’s ok though. I’ve pulled this before. It’s kind-of my thing.
When I was Skyping my Ph.D. dissertation defense last year while driving cross-country to start my new job as a National Science Foundation post-doctoral researcher in the fourth-ranked Psych department globally, despite having never taken a psychology class—my co-chair said: “We kept telling you you were trying to write ten dissertations. Well. You won.”
That wasn’t when I jumped up and down screaming. That part came after they passed me. (I had my doubts.)
My ten-dissertation dissertation was crazy enough to work. The project had to be ambitious enough that I couldn’t get bored or disillusioned and walk away from it. It had to be something no one else could do. It had to be something I had to get right.
Becoming my artist self in the world is also crazy enough to work. I can’t get bored with it, no one else can do it, and I have to get it right.
Rules of the Road
1. Own myself.
This means prioritizing my art. Working for myself. And showing up to my life as an artist in the beautiful, wide world.
2. Invest wisely.
It takes investing—which means risk—to launch a business. And I am an almost pathologically risk-averse person.
Yet, in one month of making art my job, I have already taken on five-figure debt attempting to launch my “art business.”
I have never done anything like this in my life.
But you have to take risks to get pay-offs. That’s how investment works. And I’m worth investing in.
3. Slow down to speed up.
It´s easy to get caught up in lists and steps. But when you have less, you need less. You can see how minimal the requirements of a good life are. How important people are. How easy it can be to just show up and play.
That’s what people who make art their career have discovered, in a realm where you can’t plan to reach your peak creative power or make the right collaborative connections or have a really powerful dream. But if you make space in your life for the important over urgent, and keep showing up there—magical things can happen.
People are basically good and want good things.
When you exude goodness and invite other people to do the same, they generally do. When you care about them and their dreams, they tell you amazing stories. And when you go for your dreams and tell them, they generally want to help you. But you have to be open to what they want, how they experience life, and what they and only they have to teach you.
That’s trust. Not knowing what the outcome will be, but showing up to play anyway. It correlates with better health and economic outcomes for people, communities, and entire nations. It’s a good way to live.
This year is a celebration of that trust.
And if I fall on my face, it doesn’t disprove human goodness. It proves fake deadlines are dumb.
5. Follow only good rules.
In other words: Break all the rules that need to be broken.
I don’t mean like paying taxes and stopping at red lights. Which, incidentally, they don’t do a lot of in Mexico City. Apparently in colloquial Mexican Spanish, “red light” means “look both ways before speeding through the deserted intersection at night as police look the other way cos they’re not stopping there either.”
No. I mean the unwritten rules. The Can’t, Have To, Don’t sets. Such as: – Don’t quit your day job. – Artists can’t make a living. – You can’t just walk away from Harvard. – You can’t say that (e.g., I talk to God and He talks to me; torture created a new wave of terrorists and we have to own our shit to fix that; we don’t actually have sufficient evidence to address really basic factual questions about guns and public safety even though this is a pressing health and security issue that affects all Americans). – You have to have a place to live or you are homeless—and being homeless is very, very bad!!! – Your dreams are stupid, and you should shut up and report to working for someone else’s. – You have to have a plan! – You have to read all the emails! – You have to type all the notes and tick off all the urgent list items! – You have to… [insert many things here] – Don’t drink the water.
Ok, so that last one turns out to have been good advice. Oops.
Unwritten rules are complicated!
Life is pretty simple.
One rule: Love people, do good, keep going.
Support My Experiment
You can support my experiment in a few ways.
1. Buy my art.
I produced over 200 oil paintings in about six months. In my studio apartment. Then another 50+ in Mexico City. Now I’m staring at the stack of blank canvas I bought before taking off for Mexico, wondering—can I illustrate the children’s books I wrote there using pen & ink or watercolors? I like to work in stages—drawings, watercolors, oils. But I should probably return this stack of blank canvas. Because making more oil paintings when I haven’t even been trying to sell them doesn’t make sense.
Gluten-free, dairy-free protein bars because I am legit a starving artist now. Also because Larabars are tasty and travel well. Crickets are also tasty. Maybe I shouldn’t say that while I’m trying to convince people to pay me for having good taste. Whatever. It’s all on the table here, people.
4. Tell your friends.
Maybe you just think what I’m trying is kinda cool and want to tell someone else about it. Social networks are magic. That would be cool. Do that please.
Alternately, you can submit a formal complaint about the nerve—the nerve!—to wildethinks at gmail dot com. By submitting your complaint to that email, you acknowledge that all such complaints may be used in a book, screenplay, painting, song, stand-up routine, or other creative vehicle for purposes including but not limited to mocking you mercilessly, mocking me mercilessly, and having fun making people happy.