Keep Calm and Be Like Oprah

One of the things I’m thinking about doing to put off writing an actual business plan is interviewing people who run successful businesses something like the one I think I want to run. The most obvious examples are the Keep Calm Generator folks—who I haven’t identified yet, but someone must have this logo and slogan trademarked and profit from at least some of the mass of merchandise, even though the Crown came up with it?—and Randall, the guy who runs XKCD and made enough money from drawing stick-figure web comics to have a giant pool of balls in his house. 

Don’t you know the bureaucrat working propaganda during the Blitz who came up with Keep Calm wishes we’d had the Internet and ready access to copyright lawyers back then, if he or she is still alive today? That person would be filthy rich if the government didn’t own her work.

There is a similar market and social need opportunity today for images that answer ISIS, or as I like to call them—since they’re not Islamic and they’re not a state—ISISn’t.

And it needs to be professionally designed, like the ISISn’t flag and the Keep Calm meme alike. Hopefully I can learn to do this myself in a free trial of Photoshop. But first, the ideas.

Here is where I will further brainstorm an anti-ISISn’t flag, logo, meme, image, slogan thing out loud on my blog, because this is how I think.

 

Characteristics of Keep Calm

The Keep Calm logo and slogan is the best model for what I want to do here. It shares six characteristics with other successful memes.

1. Its simple, professional visual design and text are easy to take in and remember. Even easier because it rhymes (almost). There’s nothing to digest here. You get it at a glance.

2. The text and image alike are easily customizable. So people get the immediate gratification of the creative high that leads people to do crazy stuff like leaving Harvard postdocs to go sleep on couches or in hostels around the world. Must be a powerful feeling, that creative high.

3. It uses positive selective attention to answer negative information and material warfare. Where the Nazis said, “Blitz! You’re all going to die in a fire!”—to paraphrase—it did not make psychological sense to respond, “Jinx! You’re all going to die in a fire, too!” or, “Chillax, people, you probably won’t die in a fire, but we live in a probabilistic universe in which shit is going down, so we really can’t say, but please pretend everything is fine or the opponent wins!” (Which is exactly the problem with terror in free societies. Just making the information about it available terrorizes people, in which case the terrorists win.) 

Keeping it positive empowers people to respond to violence and prejudice with resilience and toleration. That’s exactly how we must respond to home-grown violent extremist recruitment on social media.

4. It’s pretty.

5. The Crown symbol tells you who the speaker is, so you’re situated in a conversation. It’s personal.

6. The message talks to you, too. It identifies you as the audience, so again it seems personal.

Other examples of great slogans include Obama’s “Yes, We Can” and Uncle Sam’s “I Want You.” But you don’t see these still on posters, mugs, T-shirts, and bibs everywhere tchotchkes are sold. You see that not just around London with “Keep Calm,” but also online in the U.S. It’s well-situated enough in terms of speaker and audience to feel personal, but simple, pretty, and customizable enough to have staying power.

Now let’s play a fun game where I apply that in theory to creating an anti-ISISn’t meme analytically before drawing a bunch of terrible drafts.

 

Keep Calm and Defeat ISISn’t

It’s gotta be simple, customizable, and pretty—and preferably rhyme or otherwise be catchy, easy to remember. But how do you use positive selective attention to counter hate group recruitment? Who’s the speaker? Who’s the audience? What are the relevant symbols?

And—not a new problem, but a more difficult problem in the Internet age—how do you keep a good meme from going bad?

 

Positive Selection Attention to Counter Hate 

I’m not sure how well you have to know ISISn’t’s message to counter it. But it probably doesn’t hurt. So I read the Twitter and Facebook pages of three of their top UK recruiters—Abdul Muhid, Anjem Choudary, and Mizanur Rahman. And studied some of their main Youtube channels—TheMercifulServant (whose tagline is “Allah is only merciful to those who show mercy to others”), AbuBaraa 01, . TheMercifulServant glorifies death and dying for Allah, but a lot of the other social media content is about life and making life safe for Muslims. So there’s an apparent tension there.

Choudary is easily the most interesting of these guys. One of the most interesting things Choudary says is: “Democracy violates the sanctity of everyone & everything BUT The Shari’ah guarantees protection of Religion(Islam) Life Honour Mind Wealth.” To which one user, Nathaniel Kahn @CodeSpins, responds with “remember bitches NO ALCOHOL” and a picture of a man holding up a beer. But it’s an attack on democracy that doesn’t require followers to give up wanting wealth or material comfort.

Another of Choudary’s anti-democratic posts reads: “Nations run by democracy are plagued by Rape Robberies Gambling Suicide Promiscuity Abortion Porn Alcohol Shari’ah erases ALL these evils.” It seems to be a pragmatic argument, not an idea-driven one. We can argue the material realities—e.g., ISISn’t affiliates, like Boko Haram, and other Wahhabist extremist groups are known for using sexual violence as a weapon of war. (This is not a Them problem, but an Us problem—rape is a common problem in war, with war. Since war normalizes violence and thus violence against women.) 

But the really interesting thing about Choudary’s use of Shari’ah as an alternative to democracy in these sorts of posts is that he assumes there’s no interpretation in Shari’ah. No human hand in applying God’s word to man’s world.  

That’s implausible. It’s important to draw attention to that implausibility, to the interpretation innate in application of law to society. Because Choudary is right that the idea of Shari’ah as a form of or influence on government is a politically important one today. He writes, “The defeat of Communism & failure of Capitalism to provide solutions to the world’s problems leaves Islam & the Shari’ah to fill the vacuum!”

Of course proponents of communism and capitalism alike might argue that pure forms of both those ideas have never been implemented as systems of political or economic governance—just as Choudary and ISISn’t argument about Shari’ah is that they have a special monopoly on it even though it’s all been done before. So one can’t claim that any of these systems has failed. Unless of course one is making generalizations on Twitter to recruit gullible young people to an intellectually dishonest cause.

Everyone interprets theory to make praxis. But propagandists claim they’re not doing it. The laziest way possible of doing this is to say your praxis comes from God. So
Choudary puts words in God’s mouth, writing: “Promises of Allah of things to come: Defeat of occupying Jews, Conquest of Rome, Conquest of the White House, Domination of the world by Islam.”

Choudary’s White House Tweet got 64 Retweets and 44 Favorites. A bunch of people called him out, mostly snarkily and on the White House bit, some asking what he was smoking, some offering him Jesus or peace.

But it’s not easy to pull those open-source lists of WHO retweeted or favorite that, and with one click target THOSE social media accounts with some form of respectful, positive, persuasive response. And that’s what needs to happen to counter ISISn’t social media recruitment.

Someone needs to make a tool that makes it really easy for other users to counter this crap. But first that someone has to monetize (if it’s me, since I’m not independently wealthy and this is a job)—and set the tone. Because it won’t be a short-term project, it won’t be an effective tactic if it’s not respectful and persuasive to people with confirmation bias—that is, ISISn’t supporters who live in their echo chamber—and it won’t work if it’s not easy and fun enough that a bunch of people do it despite the perception of some risk. In part because, just as with any other form of resistance, the individual risk diminishes the more people do it.

(Anyway, perceived risk shouldn’t be a big deterrent to the same people who think about risking their lives fighting FOR ISISn’t. Except that logic assumes people are rational. Pause for laughter.)

Some people are already doing stuff like this really well, and we need better ways to promote their voices, too. For example, this gorgeous Nasheed about not hurting or judging other people has over 5,000 views on Youtube. It uses art and capitalism—it hocks T-shirts at the end of the video—to make Islamic arguments against violence and prejudice. You could conceivably quote from it to counter ISISn’t propaganda that rejects art and capitalism.

Back, then, to the Keep Calm and Defeat ISISn’t brainstorm.

Positive selective attention to counter this particular hate group’s online recruitment probably needs to focus on:

       Life. Life not death being a good thing for your well-being. God loves the faithful and wants us to thrive.

       Democracy. Religious influences on secular governments in democracies being common, constructive, and collaborative. If you want to make society better through these influences, you work through the system to do it. Anything else is like saying sports are stupid because you never win, and then refusing to play the game.

       Success. A lot of the negative selective attention ISISn’t is using to recruit on social media is about injustice (e.g., police abuses) and failure (e.g., of tolerance in liberal democracies or capitalism as an economic system). So drawing attention to justice, toleration, and entrepreneurship, and how we can build out to increase these good things together, is the positive selection attention field analogue to emphasize.

Michael Jackson and Oprah are the masters of positive selection attention. I don’t know how to apply that right now, I just know it’s true. They focused on lovely things (“heal the world,” “it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white,” “you get a car”) while confronting horrible things (violence, racism, poverty and its loops). It can be done.

Speaker and Audience

The speaker emphasizing these things has to be us. Regular people who control social media in free societies. The beloved community that is overwhelmingly law-abiding. The Abrahamic ummah that is overwhelmingly tolerant and peaceful. And peace-loving believers, religious and secular—believer in any kind of goodness, in the future, each other, hope for our world together. Regular people making fun of shit on the Internet.

The audience is the same. It’s an Us, not a Them. Because ISISn’t recruits in particular, and hate group recruits in general, are regular people who are persuaded by ideas, images, and the appeal of belonging and sense of purpose—or what Andrew Carnegie identified as the desire to feel important—just like everybody else. What’s really sad is that they’re people to whom arguments about injustice and immorality appeal. ISISn’t recruiters use images of children starving in Syria, real examples of racism and police brutality, and other things we all agree are horrible to recruit people who care about truth and justice to an equally horrible cause. We need those potential recruits working on truth and justice in more productive ways. These are really valuable lives we’re losing on both sides.

Possible Symbols

If Keep Calm was the opposite of the blitz’s command that Londoners panic, what symbols are like opposites of ISISn’t’s glorification of death, rejection of democracy, and focus on failure? What symbols celebrate life, democracy, and success from the point of view of all of us, to the point of view of all of us?

Anonymous has got that spirit. But first of all, that set of symbols is taken. And second of all, there’s something hypocritical about the lack of transparency there. Democracy is about coming to the market place of ideas, showing your face and your wares, seeing what happens. It’s risky. It’s personal. The more everyone does it, the less risky and yet more personal it is. So generally I’m a fan of Anonymous, but I’m up to something different here out of faithfulness to the idea of transparency and its function in the marketplace of ideas. 

Life and the idea of choosing life has been a bit coopted by the anti-abortion folks in the U.S. But maybe you could symbolize it visually with a riff on Happy Human, Keith Haring, the XKCD sort of comic tradition.  One could also envision a modified traffic light, an acorn, or a tree of life, like so:

Democracy is hard to symbolize visually in the West. My most ready mental images are of ink-stained fingers in post-Saddam Iraq, people in the streets during the Orange Revolution, and scenes from Rihanna’s “American Oxygen.” The problem with democracy—as I’m sure many others have already said—is that it’s the worst possible form of government, except every other form. So it’s hard to think of visuals symbolizing it that don’t involve mess, argument, protest over injustice, the tolerance paradox (wherein we tolerate intolerance in liberal democracies, so arguably they contain the seeds of their own corruption or destruction—e.g., cross-burning is protected as free speech in the U.S.), open flame, and loud noises (fireworks, concerts, arguments).

Certainly though one might symbolize the spirit of democracy in the form of a freedom hive, the spirit of toleration in a combination of religious symbols like lots of people have already done, or perhaps a flame. Although the Olympic flame, symbolizing human achievement, might be better as a symbol for success.

Of course, any good image or slogan can be coopted. Information warfare is like any other form of competition—it’s a continual dialogue, an arms race of words and images. That points to perhaps the biggest danger of making a Keep Calm and Defeat ISISn’t meme along with a social media tool to combat hate group recruitment online. ISISn’t can steal it. 

 

Haters Gonna Hate 

ISISn’t managed to steal a Nike slogan for jihad. (Just Dua It is one of their most successful memes. It’s so brilliant I wince every time I write it because I’m spreading it. I’m spreading it right now! Aaaah!!!)

So I like to think that if I keep the focus positive enough, like Keep Calm, it will be relatively hard to make what I make work for evil. But the reality is that—as in all realms—anything I can make that is awesome, they can steal and make evil.

That’s why I have to make the social media tool that combines meme generation with easy, decentralized targeting of ISISn’t social media followers. Because the arms race of online hate group recruitment is one in which propaganda flies so fast, no centralized group can combat the hate. It has to be a game everyone is playing, for everyone—the vast majority of regular people who want peace—to win.

I think my next steps are probably to brainstorm more while talking with people here in London who have actually been recruited and turned back (or not), make some proper drafts to pretest or brainstorm with real people in those targeted communities here, and play around with building at least a draft version of the tool to pull lists of people who follow ISISn’t propaganda into lists that others can target for respectful dialogue to change the available narrative.

It’s very hard to fight confirmation bias, the bias that what we already think is right. That’s part of why art is so important in this equation. Images, music, and allusion work better than argument, force, and proof. Which is why hate groups can become powerful in the first place. 

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Planning the Non-Plan Plan

I have always been an artist. But I have never before believed that if I clarify my desires, hone them into goals, and plan to achieve them, that I can.

On one hand, believing in that art of the possible places a lot of value on the preferences that seem to come from within. And on the other, the belief itself comes from a deepened understanding of how social markets are. If businesses thrive by giving people products and services they need, making their lives better—then all successful businesses are art businesses in the sense that their owners are doing their own art. And I want to help the world thrive through art, then I can be a successful businessperson, too.

Yet, the sociality of markets also means that I have to hone my desires into goals that serve others. 

Lately, I have gotten really good at the meta level of this process. I want to make the world feel safe to flourish through art, and I have some ideas about how to do it

But—much to my chagrin since I’ve been trying to “launch my own art business” for months if not years—I have not actually written a business plan. 

 

Why No Business Plan, Dr. Wilde?

Hear me out. There is a really deep insight behind the spirit of this stupid mistake. 

Plans are bad. 

Or rather, inflexible plans that keep you from adapting, constantly integrating new information and connections, and otherwise going where the water is are bad. 

Central planning doesn’t work for economies, so why should it work for careers? 

The same problems apply—the information environment changes too fast for centralized government agencies or even a single person exploring the world to know far in advance what goods or services are in what demand, what consumers want, or how to respond in the moment without, you know, responding in the moment. 

So life improv is the most efficient way to run your career as a business. By life improv, I mean showing up to play. By showing up to play, I mean things like listening to people without knowing what (if anything) you’re going to say in response. Or getting on a plane to another country with a one-way ticket and no place to stay. 

But conventional business wisdom—and indeed conventional wisdom across the board—says you need a plan. And these two things don’t have to conflict. You can show up to play within a plan. Provided it’s a non-plan plan. A flexible plan. A plan you update, adapt, or throw away and rewrite entirely when it’s not working. 

But first you have to make the plan. That’s a problem for a lot of creative people. 

 

Plan Not Do is Artist Death

We all have analytical as well as creative skills. The systematizing part of the brain that wants to sort colors into some kind of order, and the messy part that wants to move with the music to smush them all together into something new—and turn the canvas upside-down to try again if we don’t like the result. Planning gets in the way of doing when we insist on knowing the result before we start. 

This is artist death. More broadly, this is why perfectionism is the most common cause of procrastination. It’s an attachment to outcome that keeps us from being open to the process. That’s not just bad for creativity, or work production. It’s not the most fun way to live, either. 

Civil society depends on it being safe to risk, in art and life. That’s part of why libertarian thinkers like Friedman and Hayek supported a negative income tax or minimum income. Because when you know the worst possible outcome of trying your hardest to achieve your dreams is short of homelessness and hunger, you’re more likely to feel safe to show up and play. And that helps society flourish, because it helps people flourish. 

That’s also part of why I’m bouncing around London without a permanent address or income, trying not to find work so much as to implement my artistic vision and meet people who can help me do that in more social ways. 

In some ways, it definitely works, this “show up and play.” I did improv on a London stage Sunday night, and met amazing comedians and lovely people doing it. For someone who has struggled with social anxiety to the extent of barely speaking for months at a time, it was magical to be my happy performance self without fear, all of a sudden, with the right new people in the right new place. They didn’t even know I hadn’t done an improv performance before. So I learned I have to some native extent that skill set that I’ve long fantasized about developing but never been brave enough—or had a good enough plan—to try. 

Last night, I did stand-up—or rather, my far too academic facsimile thereof—at a mostly poetry, filmed open mic. Seeing how well I present on-camera was shocking. And getting help writing actual jokes on my material after was great fun. So now I can do that again, and keep learning or relearning how to talk about what matters to me in ordinary language, honed into one-line jokes that “show not tell.” Good writing isn’t just rewriting. It’s also good talking. And for that you have to go outside. And going outside is easier in a big city, when you don’t have a proper place to hide away anyway. It’s pretty hard to be agoraphobic when you’re couchsurfing. 

Every night this week I’m doing something like that, culminating (I hope) in an open mic Friday with an amazing pianist I’m really excited to sing with. My intuition is that all these performance throws—pushing myself outside my comfort zone to develop my expressive and presentational abilities like I’ve always wanted to—are serving a bigger purpose. I just don’t know what that purpose is yet. I wish I knew. And I don’t know. And I can’t know. And I have to keep embracing that and showing up to play. 

 

Still, I Need A Plan

I will not plan myself out of doing. I will not plan myself out of doing. I will not plan myself out of doing. 

But I’ve been reading about how to write a proper business plan, and I want it done yesterday.

There are lots of great resources and templates out there for doing it. It probably should’ve been the first step in thinking about leaving my Harvard postdoc to start my own art business. But the intuition about what was next was so strong and so much better developed than the analytical thinking about it, which mostly agrees with people who tell me what I’m doing is totally crazy. (Lucky for me, I have a tendency to take that as a compliment.) 

I’m still not sure how to write a business plan, though. I could write seven—one centered on the book series Where the Wilde Thinks Are, one on the new social media tool and satire site Memes, Bitches, one on music, one on stand-up, one on painting, one on screenplays, one on other writing—and ask people to vote on them. But often artists need to pursue several projects at once for creative and material reasons. 

Plus writing seven business plans seems like a bit of a waste of my time and yours.

Plus it’s “plan not do,” and validating potential business ideas through experiments makes more sense. But first I need a plan to validate. I’ve done this ad hoc a bit with painting sales on Etsy, art merchandise sales on Zazzle, and editing/tutoring services. But I want to do it much better and as part of a bigger picture. 

So I need to know better where to start. Do you start with the There, the point to which you’re trying to get from Here, and work backwards? Do you start with the genre of product or service you want to be offering, with validating experiments to see what people actually want or need? Do you start with the thing you can’t help doing because it’s your calling (cf Jewel, Hedy, Vincent)? I think you have to do all three at once. But I don’t know how. 

All I know still is that you start by showing up to play when you don’t know what else to do. 

Because no matter what you do with your analytical mind, and no matter what you do as an individual, the creative and the social river flows. 

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Why Social Media Needs A New Tool

And you should invest in my company to create it.  

Between Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and whatever new thing is invented between now and the time I publish this blog post, the universe of social media is vast and ever-expanding. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and the newness of the technologies conveying and producing it.

But social media needs a new tool that recognizes how powerful images are, and someone should give me a million dollars to keep investing in creating it.

Or rather, I should practice asking here so that when I actually ask in the right venue—Kickstarter? Crowdfunder? A company that links investors and companies, like Seed Equity?—it’s a proper pitch.

Proper pitches have three elements: the story, the service, and the scratch.

Ironically for a story-teller, the story is the hardest part of this for me to put together. I’d really rather sit down with you and have tea. But being able to present the story professionally is also the most important element of all. For instance, for Kickstarter, you have to write a proper script to make a proper video to make a proper pitch. Story is a necessary but not sufficient condition of all proper pitches. So here goes story. 

 

Story

I left a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Harvard to start my own business as an artist. Like many bold decisions, it seemed over-determined to me at the time—like I couldn’t do anything else, so why even try to figure out why it was the next step or what came next? I am going to speak and help other people speak truth to power while drawing more selective attention to positive stuff instead of counting up abuse cases, because that’s what will really make vulnerable people safer. 

This decision seemed totally crazy to everyone around me. Especially to the very few people to whom I said at the same time—I want to make world peace through art. And the one person to whom I said—I want to defeat ISIS. And the nobody but God to whom I said—why doesn’t everybody understand with flashes of light and insight how the information environment is where security comes from, because the story we tell about reality shapes it, and that’s why You started out with the word? (Christianity shares this belief—about the sanctity of the word—among many others with Islam.)

In my job as the post-doctoral researcher on the Justice Database, the first national database of police behavior, I traveled around the country pitching Database participation to police departments. The essence of my pitch was that other professional fields, like medicine, have national comparative datasets that let them help each other discover how to make best practices better. In addressing the concern that the data might be used to “name and shame”—like media reporting on racial disparities and police use of force often is—I cited Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets. Dweck shows a “growth” orientation of learning and helping learn, as opposed to a “fixed” orientation of judging and being judged, correlates with success across a wide range of contexts—educational, professional, and personal. The Database project has a “growth” mindset orientation, and that’s one reason why participation in it is confidential unless departments self-disclose it.

This work brought me to the biggest law enforcement leadership conference in the nation, where I had something of a religious experience involving singing policemen. I also heard Representative Dutch Ruppersberger III (D-MD) of the House Appropriations Committee and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh C. Johnson talk about ISIS/ISIL and the problem of homegrown violent extremists, who seem to sometimes be radicalized on social media.

I also learned to pronounce the word “meme.” (Say: “me-m.”)

Then I stayed up all night making counter-terrorism memes and learned how to use Twitter. I am the least probable person to figure out anything new about social. I’m just beginning to understand how social networks work in real life. I just got a smart phone last April because my job required it, and had texting blocked on the phone number I never gave out anyway before that. 

Except. I care like a girl. And my lack of prior expertise in social media made me approach it like I approach all new things I want to learn: like it was mine to make a big mess with until I made something I liked.

Boy, did I make a big mess. I’ve basically always been solvent except for federal student loans from undergraduate. But I went into five-figure credit-card debt doing stuff like paying search engine optimization “experts,” social media managers, and web developers to help me actualize my idea. They didn’t. But I learned from what they did wrong. A lot. Every mistake was like a seminar, and I have no problem paying for education. This stuff is so new that there really is no better way to learn than by doing—and anyway we know more generally that testing before you’re ready and making mistakes is a great way to learn. 

So that’s the story. I had published poetry for years, organized a local stand-up comedy group, exhibited and sold art, and otherwise “done art” for about ten years. But I had never before put together how it could interface with my academic credentials and professional experience to be of service. 

 

Service 

The new social media tool I want to create is going to be of valuable service to society in general and vulnerable groups in particular in four ways. 

1.     Big-picture service.

Making the world feel safe to flourish through art.

People don’t know what I mean when I say this. I know what I mean when I say this. I’m still working on closing that gap. 

2.     Correcting for reporting bias.

Drawing selective attention to successes rather than failures, context rather than outliers, positive stories of improvement rather than the negative ones of violence and prejudice that tend to dominate reporting on safety—as exemplified by how we call these sections in newspapers “crime” beats, and reporting on what government forces do abroad is mostly “war” reporting. What’s lost in these characterizations is not just the ambiguity innate to what Tim O’Brien and others have called “true war stories,” but also mindful use of the power of selective attention to generate the outcomes on which we focus. It’s important to use that power wisely in part because it correlates with better outcomes—as in the placebo effect.

And also in part because there are systematic reporting biases that cut the other way. For example, we don’t hear about the vast universe of cases in which ordinary policework does not harm or helps people. Privacy protections rightfully keep us from knowing when police help citizens in mental health crisis or abusive relationships get to safe places. And being busy probably keeps regular people who might be stopped speeding and let go with a warning—who might then drive more safely—from thinking much of the experience. So we’re likely to hear only about the relatively small universe of cases in which something goes horribly wrong in police interactions. That type of reporting bias then hurts public perceptions of police, which in turn hurts community trust.

It’s nobody’s fault. It’s not a plot. The media are not bad. It’s just that all the incentives in reporting are structured so that media attention centers on what goes wrong instead of what goes right. And that has consequences.

One might argue that those consequences include cases like the recent death of a young Boston-area man who “liked” an ISIS-affiliated Facebook page and allegedly plotted to attack police, prompting police to confront him first.

That’s not just a one-off. Procedural justice research shows that trust underpins security. People are more law-abiding and cooperate with police more when they trust that police act fairly. Thus trust makes security while mistrust breeds lawlessness and insecurity. So addressing reporting bias by drawing attention to the broader context and the positives is actually one of the best ways to make vulnerable people safer from prejudice and violence.

Those biases hurt public perceptions of police, which in turn hurts trust in government and actually makes people less safe. This is a national security issue because of associations (psychological and material) between local/state police and federal security forces, despite their separation in the US—as the Boston attacks show. 

3.    Giving people space to create.

Spaces, actually. 

a.     Memes. Currently, I envision the tool as a website featuring tabs for repositories of subgroups of memes on five main themes, plus a generator that lets you customize those memes or create your own. This is like the successful Keep Calm Generator model on steroids.

b.    Discussion forum. I’m not a big fan of these myself because they’re usually negative—adversarial, unforgiving of mistakes, generally not the ethereal equivalent of sitting down with a friend for a cup of tea. I want to create a positive space, but without micromanaging it. We’ll see how that works with a few simple rules (e.g., this is a respectful space—no hate speech—that means no Mohammed Toons here or in the memes section).

c.     News aggregator with cover meme generator. Aggregated news using the Paper.li platform plus a front page aggregator to let you see a bunch of covers at a glance. And has a meme generator too, so you can make your own headlines on the covers.

d.    Merchandise creator. No meme generator is complete without a link to creating your own stuff. It’s so easy to make an Etsy or Zazzle store. I did it for my oil paintings on this website. Why not do something like that for memes?

That is not a rhetorical question. I’m not sure if there are legal problems doing this with images I’m using for satire but didn’t create—which is most Internet memes. So for sure I can sell my own merchandise here, but I need to research this question further. Which is one reason why I need more funding, to keep investing in asking experts for help. Even though sometimes the help experts can give you is that you had better figure it out yourself.

4.     Gives people a new tool for creating dialogue, too—for reaching out to political opponents. The three main challenges in countering radicalization of young people by groups like ISIS are the echo chamber effect, the decentralized nature of the Internet, and the free speech laws that characterize Western legal regimes.

a. Echo chamber. The echo chamber effect isn’t new to the Internet, but the Internet makes it worse. It’s also sometimes called information Balkinization and is one instantiation of confirmation bias, a common cognitive bias in which we tend to look for information that confirms we’re right. Being right feels good, so we seek out information sources that tell us we’re right. Thus people who agree with Fox News tend to watch Fox News, and people who agree with Rachel Maddow tend to watch Rachel Maddow. 

In the context of radicalization, this means that forums where people advocate for ISIS don’t get a lot of traffic from people who might offer alternate narratives. This is a problem because it makes radical views seem normal. 

b. Decentralized mess. Moreover, the decentralized nature of the Internet—large, sprawling, and created by many people doing their own thing, together—makes it effectively impossible to surveil. This is why national security agencies want to capture massive amounts of data to trawl through later in directed investigations. It’s simply not possible to keep up with the expanding universe of social media in real time. Even if it were, encryption is making it harder for law enforcement to follow open source communication trails, like emails seasoned terrorists might exchange with recruits after making contact with them on social media.

c. Free speech. Dastardly free speech strikes again! 
Even if you could keep up with hate groups on social media, you couldn’t take down most ISIS propaganda. Especially the really good stuff that uses memes, music, art, humor, and literary or Quranic textual allusions. Because we live in a free society. So far from refusing to negotiate with terrorists, have to engage in dialogue with them in the marketplace of ideas that is the Internet.

That dialogue has to be local, and it’s best if it comes directly from the same communities whose members are being radicalized. So this tool needs to use location information from Twitter and Facebook users’ public profiles to match, e.g., ISIS account followers with other folks from similar locations. This way, people who want to reach out to folks in their own communities who are effectively tuned into Radio ISIS online, to offer a different song? It’s easy for them to do. Because it should be easy, and it’s not now. 

This is a translation of basic community-oriented policing principles to social media.

I can’t believe no one has already done this.

But I can also see how creating a tool for users to reach out to social media followers of particular groups like ISIS, to decentralize the response to hate groups’ recruitment on social media and encourage political dialogue, might be more controversial than the rest of this project. This kind of tool has obvious abuse potential. It could be used by political parties to run smear campaigns, or hate groups to send threats. And I’ll do what I can to engineer it so that doesn’t happen.

But any communication tool that helps people address particular networks can be abused in a free society. The potential for good outweighs the potential for bad. We know from field experiments on political behavior that people are easily shamed into behaving better next time when you tell their neighbors how they misbehave. All you have to do to increase voting is tell people you’re going to tell their neighbors if they don’t.

So making people who follow ISIS-associated accounts on Twitter or like them on Facebook  into neighbors—making it easy for people who are near them to reach out to them for dialogue—ups the emotional ante of the simple Follow or Like act that plugs people into social networks that have sometimes had the apparent effect of encouraging violence. It does this without government surveillance. It does this without using information other than what is already open-source. And it does this in a way that might encourage dialogue before radicalization occurs, potentially saving the lives of crime victims and potential criminals alike. 

So that’s the service component. The new social media tool I envision makes the world feel safe to flourish   through art by focusing on what is good and how we can do more of that as a society, giving people space to create art and hold dialogue with political opponents in that spirit. There are lots of such spaces already, but none of them makes it really easy to change the narrative coming at people who express support for hate groups on social media. 

 

Scratch 

Money is a metaphor for value, and this new social media tool is extremely valuable because it fills an important gap in the information environment, appealing to a mass audience with broader impacts for society at large. 

Right now I see it as a website like Facebook or Twitter. The website makes money in the following five ways:

1.     Short-term: Donations using Venmo or PayPal.

2.     Short-term: Zazzle store (merchandise).

3.     Medium-term: Ad and/or product placement revenue. 

4.     Medium-term: Converting the Zazzle store to other forms of merchandising with better profit margins (but more start-up and maintenance costs). Xkcd followed this step-wise merchandising model. 

5.     Medium-term: Divine pop-up art kit on Etsy. Just an idea at this point, for putting together the tools to let people make their own “art in place” more easily. Probably another one of those things that I know what I mean, but not yet how to show and tell other people what I mean. 

 

Basta

Enough. That’s it. That’s the first draft of the proper pitch for one of four elements of my art business. And it only took me four months to get clear enough on in my unspoken language to draft!

To be fair, this is a draft proposal for revolutionizing counter-terrorism by creating a new tool that brings community-oriented policing into the information age. It has to be done from the private sector because we live in a free society where the government doesn’t run the media. And it has to be done by an artist with some science and politics chops—maybe a history of earning National Science Foundation Political Science funding—and maybe some expertise in policing. WHERE WILL YOU EVER FIND SUCH A PERSON? (Hint: She’s crashing at a friend of a friend’s in a suburb somewhere far, far away. Smiling at you sweetly. While typing this. Planning her third new website in two months instead of figuring out where to sleep next week. Details.)

 

Details 

I need to talk with lots of smart people about lots of details, and I’m not sure how to get a hold of them. Mostly I don’t even know who they are. So I’ll plunk down some of the details I’m stuck on here, hope people with relevant expertise are willing to read this, and do what I can do for outreach—post around on LinkedIn, talk to strangers in bars, read, and keep playing around with problem-solving myself.

1.    Building the site. Which platform is best for a site like this—WordPress, Jigsy, something else? I used Weebly for one website I recently created and Square Space for this art website that I made last month. But those tools aren’t equipped to handle the meme generator and forum elements of this new social media tool, tentatively MemesBitches.com. I’m afraid WordPress probably is, and I’ve not been comfortable working in it before. Might have to learn.

2. Designing the logo. The draft site logo inverts the ISIS flag—a black flag with the Shahada (statement of faith), a white circle that’s meant to evoke the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)’s seal, and old timey Arabic font. 

Today, I played around with a black flag/white lettering inversion of white flag—for peace—black lettering. First I tried making an actual black seal using a black candle. But it came out too gray.

When I darkened it though, it looked a bit like a bullet hole. Which really is the opposite of the idea here—world peace through art. 

Plus that font doesn’t work. Neither does this one, although it’s more evocative of the old-timey font. 

Plus the ISIS flag is actually done at a high level of professional work.My edges are too rough. I made these draft inversions using my camera phone and Microsoft Word. 

To be honest, I really thought I could do this while living in a car with a napkin and a pencil. But I would like a big table and some oil paint now, please. 

3. Making and improving the hate group follower algorithm.

Right now, anyone can manually identify who likes or follows a known ISIS-associated account on Facebook or Twitter. (I started making a very partial list of such accounts here.) 

Manual might be best at the beginning. But we should have an algorithm for that and keep improving it constantly to keep up with changes in the information environment. Somebody has probably already done that, but making it from scratch will do if they don’t want to play. 

4. Figuring out how to show-not-tell the pitch.

I suspect this means making something like a functioning draft website and troubleshooting it until it either works well enough to fund itself, or attracts start-up funding. I probably do need to secure funding for the project at some point, since my credit will run out eventually. But doing makes more sense than talking about doing. So if you know how I can do this better, tell me. I’m learning. And if you want to help me, tell me. I’ll help you learn. 

One of the things I always struggled with as an artist was accepting myself. I think I thought art didn’t do anything useful. But now I understand stories and images to be the stuff of life. They can give us faith, hope, and love. Or they can take them away. 

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How to Run an Art Business

Imagined Critic: WHO IS THIS PERSON TO BE WRITING ABOUT RUNNING A BUSINESS WHEN SHE’S POOR AND HAS A PH.D. IN THINKING BUT WHAT HAS SHE DOOOOOONE? 

Consider this an early draft of a commencement speech I want to give at an arts and entrepreneurship magnet school in ten years—when I’ve gone from Harvard to homeless (“housing insecure”) to running a multi-million dollar arts empire. Or at least being debt-free while vagabonding from job to job like a jobbing artist. 

1. Pick a model—horizontal or vertical.

Then make your model horizontal if you thought it was vertical. 

Do you want a broad customer base or a narrow one? Are you targeting social networks with lots of people or just a few? I think of businesses that try to offer low-cost (a.k.a. properly priced) goods and services to as many people as possible as horizontal, and fancier stuff targeting elite markets as vertical. (Horizontal and vertical are also terms of art in political economy and business that means something else that’s not important right now.) 

Hokusai was the horizontal model master of the hermit kingdom. 

Hokusai exhibit at the MFA Boston through Aug. 9. 
Hokusai exhibit at the MFA Boston through Aug. 9. 

He made cheap prints, illustrated poetry books, snack bags, lanterns—you name it, he painted it, and sold it as such a low price that everyone could afford it. While turning a profit. But he didn’t really get the hang of it until he was about 70. 

Starbuck’s also works on the horizontal model.

And they do what all wildly successful businesses do—the founder saw something cool he thought people really needed or wanted, and offered that. Instead of first asking what he had to give, or what he wanted, and working the problem of business from that side of the equation. 

You have to work both sides. This is what most businesspeople get that most artists miss. 

The two groups are not so opposed as all that, though. The more I travel and talk with businesspeople, the more I realize all businesses are art businesses. In the sense that everyone who is doing a good job offering properly priced products or services is doing a form of art, and most small business people are doing something that is their art—is one of the things they have to offer the world with passion, devoutness in a sense, and the service orientation that characterizes all social purposes. 

We’re living in an age when there’s really no excuse for not working on the horizontal model. If you’re a portrait artist and you spend a month on an oil painting of a client, yours is probably a vertical model. But you can probably make it horizontal too with a few tweaks. E.g., work on getting clients who are famous enough that when you paint them, you can use and sell the likeness commercially to broader markets. 

 

2.    Engage your audience about your work in the context of that model. 

One of the most common novice business mistakes is investing in your business idea before validating the model—being sure people actually want to pay for the product or service you’re providing. Validating is about dialogue. Dialogue is scary because ideas are perfect in your head and early criticism can hurt the creative process. And because you often don’t know what you’re doing in that process until you do it, in my experience. But you have to show up to the dialogue anyway. 

J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) and E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Gray) built online fan bases before publishing and hitting it big with their books. 

“Walk Away,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas. 

There’s a lot of talk about social networks and personal branding in contemporary business discourse, but you can engage in this dialogue anonymously if you prefer, too. Banksy is a great example of that. Anonymous is another. Anything you don’t want out there, including your identity itself, doesn’t have to be part of the exchange of information in the dialogue. The anonymity can actually become part of the branding—as long as you own it. 

 

3.    Gun it off the cliff before you’re ready.

Jewel was homeless for a year after her boss fired her for not sleeping with him. Hedy Lamarr let a guy on a boat rename her before getting back to acting in America after fleeing her creepy husband and Nazi Germany. And Edna St. Vincent Millay—probably the highest-paid performing poet in history—grew up drifting from town to town reading great literature out of a trunk, and lived for a time in the smallest house in NYC with her starving actress sister before making it big. 

People will always need story-tellers, because stories give us hope and strength. 

But story-telling is not a profession that lends itself particularly well to linear planning. 

Waiting until you have a plan will not make you a plan. 

Waiting until you are good enough will not get you good enough. 

Signaling to the universe that you know what you want, that you work continuously to hone your desires into specific goals with money and time values, and that you are open to flashes of insight and network magic to make and implement plans to achieve those goals until you succeed—that’s what correlates with success in every realm. 

There are a lot of people who don’t want to believe this because it means maybe they’re choosing to forego their dreams by not being that specific and risking everything for them. 

But the research literature is pretty clear that the “if you dream it, you can do it” principle holds water for horrible things. For example, if you want to kill yourself and think of specific means, and rehearse doing it, and attempt suicide—those are good predictors of suicide

If you want to succeed and think of specific means, and rehearse doing it, and try and try again—those are similarly good predictors of success. 

Cynicism asks us to believe in our power to fail and not succeed, but that’s inconsistent logic. There’s not a formula for succeeding on the first try, but there is a formula for success. And it’s going for it until you get it. 

Even when part of going for it is showing up to play without a plan. 

 

My Aim

It was very hard for me to make a specific aim, to define what it would mean to me to succeed as an artist—taking seriously the idea that if I can hone my desires into well-formulated goals, then I can plan, try, fail, adapt, try again… And succeed. Reading Napoleon Hill helped me work through this, although I am still internalizing the idea that I must try and try harder, and believe in myself, to succeed. It is terrifying. I have to let go of the fear. Sometimes, I have. And sometimes, I worry that I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping in a week. Like that’s a problem. 

I still have to get to the point where I know my own desires and goals well enough to review them morning and night, orally and in writing, in the form of an autosuggestion. Autosuggestion is about tuning yourself in to the positive selective attention field within and without, being most alert and aware to information that will help you succeed—the signal among the noise. It’s hard. It’s a Kuhnian shift in being. But we’re all always tuning into a particular signal or set of signals all the time. It’s the only way we can make sense of the mass of sensory and other information around us at all times. So we might as well be deliberate in the tuning. 

I want to make the world feel safe to flourish through art, making $2 million in a year by offering my best service in the following four ways: 
1. Being an increasingly competent stand-up comic and poet-singer, performing. 
2. Running MemesBitches.com, a humor and news website decentralizing the response to global security threats like ISIS
3. Publishing books and ebooks starting with my illustrated poetry book Push Coast and the illustrated allegory series Where the Wilde Thinks Are (including the draft of Patton’s Chair I blogged last week). 
4. Selling paintings and essays I make while traveling the world. 

All the processes go together. That’s how creativity works. 

This is my work. Telling the truth and celebrating beauty while giving people hope. 

And I could spend all weekend researching small next steps—where to sleep after next Wednesday, how to make money while traveling, where the 3-5 open mics a week I need to be doing are in these parts, how to better apply these hard-learned business lessons to my own art business. 

But I want to work on the coming-together vision of the website that I think has the power to give other people a place to channel their own creativity to make the world feel safe to flourish through art. There’s nothing more important in life. Other than occasionally remembering to eat. And trusting that the worst thing that can happen when we really go for our dreams simply can’t be as bad as the best thing that can happen when we don’t. 

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Go Where the Water Is

“Moon RIver,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas.

Going where the water is in faith communities, thought patterns, and business is just smart. But I’m still learning to do it better all the time.

 

Going where the water is in faith

Today, I got baptized.

I knew First Church Cambridge was the right church when I walked in the door—despite having never been there before. Not just because of the rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter sign in the yard. Or because it was the only place in town that would baptize me before I begin my year-long experiment in traveling the world and making art. (Funny story: I called a bunch of churches and they all had rules I couldn’t follow—classes, timetables that wouldn’t work since I’m going vagabonding now. So they turned me away. Even when I cited John and pointed out that was rather un-Christian. I had given up when the last one I tried called me back and welcomed me.) 

Those of you who followed my last blog, that I half-regret deleting now, may remember that I have been having dialogue with my soul and seeing butterflies everywhere for months. Aside from the painting gallery, featuring a butterfly series, and my recent accidental pilgrimage to Mexico City—where butterflies are a common motif—I have been creating photographic evidence of the fact that there really are butterflies.

Everywhere.

The universe is punking me.

And I like it.

You can call it synchronicity, serendipity, or selective attention. That last one is what cognitive psychologists call the thing, and it’s very real. It’s one of the mechanisms whereby ideas shape reality. Our beliefs shape our emotions, which shape our thoughts, perceptions, and actions in the world. So philosophers rule the world. And so I’m learning to pay attention to my successes instead of my failures. This way I can “go where the water is” cognitively—see my strengths and pitch to them to generate more successes.

 

Going where the water is in thought

“Moon Eye on the Smiling Face of Truth,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas.

This feels weird, because for years I’ve made lists of my failures instead of successes. Mistakes made to learn from or avoid repeating. Regrets to worry—to remedy or release. But worrying them in the first place defeats that purpose. Listing successes is a much better idea. 

Listing them publicly even is embarrassing, but is what a lot of successful people do. I am unusually embarrassed to credit-claim sometimes. For example, I hold three higher degrees, but have never walked at a graduation ceremony of my own.

So here are things I have done that I consider successes (in chronological order):

– Over 50 on-stage performances as a classical pianist, winning numerous awards including cash prizes.

– Won family Christmas tree gambling at 12.

– Painted application to private high school—not an arts school. Accepted, skipped 7th grade.

– Perfect score on SAT Verbal at 15.

– Accepted to a bunch of honors colleges early, skipped 11th grade, entered college with over 30 credit hours from AP and CLEP tests.

– Earned $30K + a new computer in 30 minutes writing Rapoport Service Scholarship application at 17.

– Isolated at new school after giving the scholarship check back and transferring, I decided I really wanted to be around kids and make art. So I brainstormed how I could get paid to do that, pitched children’s dance, art, and drama teaching to the City, and got a part-time job as teenager while a full-time college student that let me design and teach my own classes including Storytelling through Dance.

– Secured coveted hand modeling (main character/first-person POV) position with Rosetta Stone, confirming what we always knew—like David Duchovny, I’m “different from the face and body boys.”

– Dozens of art shows in Virginia c. 2005-2010, sales, continued production.

– Dozens of publications including poetry, short fiction, and memoir in literary journals, op-eds including Guardian publications under two different handles (both not my current name), comedy including The Morning News, McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel, SCQ, regular political satire at the now-defunct Democracy.com while it lasted, ditto Yankee Pot Roast contributions.

– Walked into a theater and got my first adult part at my first audition without having prior association with folks there. (I was Annie in the Sarah Ruhl comedy The Vibrator Play at Live Arts.)

– Ran local stand-up comedy group in Virginia 2010-2014.

– Finished my BA, MA, and PhD at UVA despite not having a high school diploma or family support.

– Gave back Russian summer language intensive funding because couldn’t figure out a way to do the course plus my full-time job that I had kept for the first year of grad school. Cried for a week, realized this was a lifelong dream, languages are gorgeous and I always wanted to learn Russian. Got funding back, found closer housing for mom and me, quit job not knowing how would pay rent, made it work. (Lesson: When you signal that you are gunning it off a cliff for your dreams, the universe takes notice.)

– Got my first (only) choice job as a Postdoctoral Scholar in Psychology at UCLA working on the Justice Database, the first national database of police behavior.

– Got Harvard Kennedy fellowship through that job.

– Had religious (faith) experience, got back in touch with everyone I know in my family after years of estrangement, and honored everyone including the father I haven’t seen for 21+ years.

– Left academia when it finally became clear to me that I’m an artist, and I get to ask the world for what I want, show up and play, and give the universe an opportunity to play with me.

– Created a new art website and Etsy store after spending a month volunteering in a Mexican hostel, singing on the streets, and brainstorming how to monetize art. Sold 9 paintings in 4 weeks.

– Formulated the right question at last in relation to this new life experiment in making life and traveling. How do I make the world feel safe to flourish through art?

– Took a first crack at answering the question today in a song, “Stain Louis.”

 

Going where the water is in business

“Massachusetts: A sea and a sky,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas. 

It sounds so obvious, but it’s right and there are so many ways to go wrong. You go where the water is in faith, or finding your way in relation to the search for truth and community more generally. You go where the water is in thought, or orienting your beliefs to success since ideas shape the world. And you go where the water is in business, offering goods or services that are so valuable, people will be happy to give money for them because you’re making their lives better.

This is how free markets work. One of the things that economists don’t talk about enough is how these interactions are predicated on trust and caring for oneself by caring for others. 

Lately I’ve been studying successful businesses. Not just by reading and talking with local businesspeople, but by accident, when I’ve been getting help that I am simply acting like I can afford. For example, when I moved all my things into storage Friday.

I could’ve done it myself. But I had muscle spasms for months after moving myself down two and up four flights of stairs from Cambridge to Boston overnight in August, in the great bedbug imbroglio of ’14 of which we shall not speak. And that was roughly 250 oil paintings and a thousand pounds of books (back now from my ex) ago.

So I paid a Task Rabbit. His name was Aaron, and he didn’t just help me move heavy things.  He managed his time and other people’s. He problem-solved on the fly. And when I talked to him about what he was doing, because he was obviously a business genius, he told me all about the share economy.

The share economy exemplifies going where the water is in business on a high-trust model. It’s exemplified by a relatively new set of services including Task Rabbit, AirBNB, and Lyft. These services let workers set their own hours of availability and sometimes their rates. And they let clients get simple things they need to make their lives better, on demand, from vetted strangers who come to them.

Need someone to wait in line or move boxes? Hire a Task Rabbit. Need a place to stay in a strange city for a month? Search AirBNB. Need to get to work? Call Lyft. It’s cheaper than a cab, and will probably get you a driver faster since the drivers are already decentralized, on the road, closer to you rather than congregated in centralized spots around a company.

No one has applied the share economy model to art yet.

On one hand, maybe that’s because it’s not possible. Or maybe they already have, in crowdfunding services like Kickstarter that let people support specific art projects. But that’s pretty centralized and funds what the artist wants done instead of making artists’ services available to a wide range of clients on a horizontal model, on demand. Or maybe they already have, in ways that haven’t quite taken off yet or that I just don’t know about. 

On the other hand, this might not have been done yet and there might be a big pot of gold at the end of the share economy artist services dealer rainbow. Lots of people deal art, but no one is dealing artist services the way they’re dealing these other things (personal assistance, housing, rides). Maybe that’s because demand isn’t there, or maybe that’s because it’s a bit harder to think how you would structure this form of the same general business model.

On the third hand, in the dystopian universe in which I continue over-analyzing everything all the time, I probably need to start waiting in line for people—for $50/hour—while I keep writing poem-songs about policing, learning how to self-publish, painting, getting back to stand-up, and otherwise prioritizing my art over everything else while asking my two new favorite questions—How do I make the world feel safe to flourish through art? And how do I apply the share economy model to artist services? 

Because while I’m learning to better go where the water is in all things, I also gotta eat.

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Patton’s Chair

Quick, while I finish packing to throw my stuff in storage tomorrow and begin my new life experiment traveling and making art—what is the meaning of life? 

In related news, my Etsy store listings are all deactivated for now. Because the paintings are about to be inaccessible. Hopefully I’ll make more on the road. Then I’ll have new active listings, and blog them. I also might be live-blogging a book once I decide on one of the ten many folks were kind enough to vote on earlier this week

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.

His chair was missing!

“What—where—with the—MY CHAIR!!!!!” Patton stuttered.

“Caw. Caw,” Push Coast Crow replied.

“WHAT HAPPENED?” Patton asked.

“Caw. Caw,” Push Coast Crow replied.

“Was it the Nazis?” He asked.

“Caw.” Push Coast Crow shook his head sadly.

“The Russians?” He asked.

“Caw.” Push Coast Crow hung his head lower.

“Japanese?””

“Caw.” A single tear fell from Push Coast Crow’s perfect beak. Where it fell on the floor, roses sprang up and continued crying Forever.

 “Who then?” Patton asked.

“Caw,” Push Coast Crow said, very softly.

“What?” Patton asked.

“Caw,” Push Coast Crow repeated, just a little bit louder.

“WHAT?!” Patton replied.

“Caw caw caw caw caw,” Push Coast Crow explained.

“THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE,” Patton said.

“Caw caw caw caw caw caw caw!” Push Coast Crow insisted. And then, nodding sadly: “Caw.”

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.

“It’s not ok,” Patton replied.

“Caw caw,” Push Coast Crow said. “Caw caw caw caw caw caw caw caw caw caw?”

“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.

“Caw?”

“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.

Patton sighed.

“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. 

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Singing Policemen

“Dysmorphia of Dreams,” one in a series of oil paintings about the problem of misrecognition and its Lorenz system (butterfly) solution. On sale for over 50% on Etsy for two more days before I throw everything in storage and go vagabonding. 

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. 

“Colorado,” another original oil painting you can only get for two more days—over 50% off on Etsy—before the paintings go in storage, the listings go inactive, and the artist hits the road to begin a year-long life experiment in prioritizing art. 

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. 

“Laws of God and Man,” original oil painting on sale for $100 on Etsy for two more days only. 

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. 

Third, research shows that—across educational, professional, and personal realms—a “learn and help learn” (growth) not “judge and be judged” (fixed) mindset correlates with success. So an inclusive, positive attitude that acknowledges citizens have much to learn from law enforcement as a community and vice-versa is much more likely to help improve outcomes everyone cares about than the adversarial alternatives. 

“Replanting the Seeds of Community Trust,” oils on 16″ x 20″, $100 on Etsy for two more days only. 

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. 

“Trust Dandelions,” one in a series about the network phenomena of trust and mistrust, $100 on Etsy for, oh, now about one more day. 

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. 

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Book Vote

“Maryland—Green Ridge State Forest,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for 89.45€ at Etsy for the last few days of my moving sale. 

Certainly he scored it, bold, and black, and firm,

In that Indian paper—made his seniors squirm,

Quoted office scandals, wrote the tactless truth—

Was there ever known a more misguided youth?

—Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Could Write

 

It’s the last few days of my moving sale. All my paintings are over 50% at my Etsy store. The current listings go inactive Wednesday night before my stuff goes in storage and I go vagabonding next week. So now is the time to grab what you want! 

As I prepare to put my stuff in storage and travel the world with a backpack making art, I want your help picking my next writing project. To vote on a list of possible book projects for me to prioritize this year, check out this two-question survey

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. 

 

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Art of War: Ten Things Artists Can Do to Fight Terror

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
 
How do you recruit a growing army of creative young people while destroying and looting some of the world’s most precious art, forbidding instruments in music, and killing people for basic expressive acts like shaving or voting in an election? How do you generate “a still-steady inflow of foreigners, ready to give up everything at home for a shot at paradise in the worst place on Earth”? This despite apparently having few resources, formal allies, or a vision of the future that does not end in apocalypse?

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. 

   
   

In fact, its forces took the Syrian city of Palmyra this week, and it’s driving me crazy. 

Probably we have to go to war to defeat ISIL. But to paraphrase Sun Tzu, we want to win before we do that.

Here are ten things artists and other everyday heroes can do to combat ISIL before it succeeds in launching an overt, larger-scale terror attack on U.S. soil. It’s already responsible for domestic attacks including a recent one in Texas that resulted in a few cartoonists’ deaths.

 

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. 

Oops. 

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. 

I can do this by traveling the world making art, interviewing people, and writing one of the book projects on this list you should take now to help me pick one. 

Maybe I should also start a list of positive media forces to interview, pitch things to, or emulate. For example, I really like (and have published with) the following: 
The Science Creative Quarterly
Dissertation Haiku
The Christian Science Monitor
McSweeney’s 
Feathertale

 

2.    Offer and Strengthen Alternative Identities.

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. 

Those are exactly the same identities ISIL undermines by destroying precious art, architecture, and artefacts

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

“The Good Samaritan,” oils on 30″ x 40,” one my take’s on Angrand, on sale for $280 in my Etsy store until Wednesday night. 

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. 

So it’s unsurprising to see direct links between these post-9/11 American detention and interrogation practices, and the development of the Islamic State. Recent revelations linking coercive interrogation practices in domestic police departments with those abroad are probably hurting national security in similar ways. 

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. 

4.    Make Better Jokes

At the coolest policing conference ever this winter, I learned three important things: 
–    ISIL uses memes to recruit home-grown violent extremists, and the law enforcement community doesn’t know what to do about that.
–    Memes rhymes with seems! Language is so funny out loud. 
–    Apparently I seem emotionally distant. No one has ever told me that before in a bar. Because usually no one can get close enough to hit on me. 

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. 

Don’t make the mistake of assuming someone is already running this ship. Congress is wondering why no one is already running this ship. NO ONE IS ALREADY DOING THIS TOTALLY OBVIOUS AND REALLY IMPORTANT THING TO DO. OMG. WTF? LOL. 

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. 

 

 

5.    DDOS ISIL Recruitment and Propaganda Accounts 

DDOS, or direct denial of service attacks, are an established form of peaceful protest—but they’re still illegal

Here’s how someone else says a person might execute a DDOS attack without getting caught if you wanted to, but I don’t really know how to do it and you shouldn’t because it’s illegal. 

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. 

Sure, some of it is probably intelligence-gathering—leaving validated information sources up to listen in. But contrary to what a lot of people make of revelations about mass surveillance from document dumps like Edward Snowden’s—which was so big even he didn’t read all the documents he leaked—the Internet is actually too big to surveil. 

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. 

 

7.    Make Better Images from the Frontlines

This requires embedding with volunteer forces like some U.S. veterans with combat experience who have traveled to Iraq to help anti-ISIL militias there

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. 

And that’s not very social at all. 

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Craigslist Ad Experiment: Update 2

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.

Hmm.  

This is a surmountable problem. I can reread the terms of use to figure out what I’m doing wrong. Or I can just switch email accounts, or wait a day. But that’s not the real problem. 

 

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. 

 

My Turn

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. 

Huh. 

So I’m figuring out how to experiment with being without a permanent place of residence while traveling and making art. And I think I had better keep honing focus on exactly what I want and go for it. In fact, I seem to be fresh out of the capacity to force myself to do anything else. 

 

Important Not Urgent

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. 

 

New Plan 

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. 

Also? I was a terrible mechanic. 

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Craigslist Ad Experiment: Update 1

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. 

Then I started moving like a researcher. 

It’s always a mistake to move like a researcher when you can move like Christopher Walken

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. 

2. Editing, tutoring, grant proposal assistance (for which I already have a website up and running). 

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. 

 

New Plan

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. 

 

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Craigslist Ads Experiment, Part 1: Wtf, Markets?

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.

 

The Experiment

 

Markets 

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.

“Ceiling Ballerina Holds the Orbit of the World in Her Heart,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for 89.45€ now—over 50% off for a limited time during the last week of my moving sale—on Etsy. 

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.

“Fortuna Spins the Wheel,” oils on 16″ x 20″, on sale for 89.45€ now on Etsy. To paraphrase Machiavelli, Fortune is a woman—and she’s gonna spin your wheels. 

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:

1.     The paintings I’m selling on Etsy

2.     The art merchandise I’m selling on Zazzle

3.     Painting commissions

4.     Website and online store design and building—I made my own

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

6.     Market research—what I’m doing right now with Craigslist, and more in-depth experimentation in other ways using other tools

7.     Editing and submissions advice

8.     Tutoring

9.     Grant proposal assistance

10. Start-up consulting/Entrepreneurship coaching

11. Positive selective attention coaching

12. Low information diet coaching

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. 

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Failure is a Step

Here is basically everything I own. It's about to go in storage, except the suitcase and backpack. Those are coming around the world with me this year. Unless I can fit everything in the backpack. 
Here is basically everything I own. It’s about to go in storage, except the suitcase and backpack. Those are coming around the world with me this year. Unless I can fit everything in the backpack. 

In a week, I’m putting all the lovely original oil paintings on my online gallery in storage. So if you’d like to buy one to support my life experiment in making art and traveling, now’s the time to visit my Etsy store.

After that, you can still get art swag at my Zazzle store. Or turn up Ringo and ask me to paint you a postcard

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. 

Do that. 

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. 

He answered. 

 

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. 

It’s basically the Bill Murray of business planning. Show up. Do what people need. Have fun. Poof. “No one will ever believe you,” but you better pay taxes on it anyway. 

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. 

 

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Roads and Doors

“I must now go a long way… I must face a fight that I have not faced before. And I must go on a road that I do not know.”—Gilgamesh, Tablet III, 2100 B.C.

“You don’t wanna stay on your farm in Kansas forever and sing that same song over and over to the animals that don’t pay you any attention.”—John Waters on the message of The Wizard of Oz

 

Roads and doors keep appearing among the 200+ oil paintings I plan to sell in under 2 weeks at over 50% off in my Etsy store before putting what remains of my stuff in storage and starting my year-long life experiment in traveling and making art.

Roads and doors are journey symbols.

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. 

 

Roads

“Open Road,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

There’s something about roads.

“Open Road (2),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

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. 

“Open Road (3),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

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

“Maryland—Green Ridge State Forest, Red Road,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

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. 

“Open Road (4),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

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. 

“Open Road (5),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

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. 

 

Doors

Like roads, doors are really rich symbols with lots of journey associations. 

“Gratitude,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, gifted in the second Great Art Giveaway of 2014, in the second cross-country move for my old job. 

The doors that I couldn’t stop painting this fall and winter similarly celebrate faith, change, and the unknown. 

The first one in this series, “Door of Light,” built on the images of the smiling face of truth I wrote about last week

“Door of Light,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

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. 

“Door of Light (2),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

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. 

“Door of Light (3),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

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. 

“Door of Light (4),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

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. 

“Door of Light (larger),” oils on 24″ x 36″ stretched canvas, on sale for $220 now in my Etsy store. 

And anyway believing that makes things more fun. 

“Door of Light (5),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now at my Etsy store. 

Journeys and Fights

“Boston Harbor from the Air (2),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

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?” 

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Three Magic Animals in Art

“Kit Fox in the Darkest Woods,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

 

Hounds

Franz Marc's
Franz Marc’s “Dog lying in the snow” is one of the most popular hound images in the world. 

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. 

 

Butterflies

Damien Hirst's butterfly mandalas are the most (in)famous example of butterflies in contemporary art. 
Damien Hirst’s butterfly mandalas are the most (in)famous example of butterflies in contemporary art. 

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. 

“Butterfly at Normandy,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

A lot of human systems are chaotic, too. Predicting rare events like revolutions and terror attacks is a chaotic systems game. 

“Butterfly Storm,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Butterfly Storm (2),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Butterfly Storm (3),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 
“Butterfly Storm (4),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Butterfly Release from the Cloven Pine,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

There, internal states remain internal. 

“Butterfly Sigh,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

There’s no risk of spectacular failure, because there’s no risk—apparently. But the greater risk is arguably from not risking at all. 

“Larkspur Butterfly,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Rosa Parks is the Butterfly,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 
“Slahi is the Butterfly,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

 

 

Foxes

“Sleepy Foxes,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy, with deference to Franz Marc. 

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. 

“Kit Fox in the River of Fire,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Underground Kit Fox,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

 

 

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. 

“Butterfly, Fox, and Hound in the Waves,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

I pictured them on the smiling face of truth I’ve written and painted about before. 

“Everyone in the Smiling Face of Truth,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

And in the tree where the fox might hide from hounds or the butterfly might be confined. 

“Kits and Larkspurs Treed,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Trust Fall Fox,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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Three Types of Powerful Women in Art

As I look at 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, one of the themes that emerges is that of powerful women.

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

 

Holy Women

“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me.”—Saint Paul

“Lady of Guadalupe (13),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, on sale for $24.34 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (14),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, on sale for $24.34 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (15),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, on sale for $24.34 now on Etsy. 

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. 

 

Female Artists 

“Frida’s Ghost,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, on sale for $24.34 now on Etsy. 

Frida Kahlo was a creative deal-maker, too. She made a career flipping her liabilities into assets. 

“Frida’s Ghost 2,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, on sale for $24.34 now on Etsy. 

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 Plays Behind the Door of Light,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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—

“Reverse Hecuba,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

“Reverse Hecuba”

The wounded dog 
who is a deer 
limps toward 
the nightlight 
of the approaching train. 
Lies down 
with her head 
in the clanging lap. 

“Reverse Hecuba 2,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

Iron and wind 
tuck her in. 
The train passes
like night
like life
and like death. 
Morning comes. 
A new woman stands.

“Reverse Hecuba 3,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

 

Story Women 

“Complete Set,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Complete Set 2,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

Later: more Story Women paintings. 

 

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Moving Sale, Day 3

My lease is up on 05/31 and I’m starting my year-long life experiment in traveling and making art a few days later. So I’m having a moving sale—selling 200+ oil paintings in 2 weeks. 

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. 

“San Francisco—Outside the Legion of Honor,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, SOLD today on my Etsy store for the SALE price of $100. 

Even the trees outside the museum knew they were part of a special place of art. 

“San Francisco—Trees Outside the Legion of Honor,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

The waves crashing nearby knew, too. 

“California Waves,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Golden Gate Bridge at Night,” oils on 16″ x 20″ canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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.” 

“Waves in the Intelligent Universe,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, SOLD on my Etsy store today for the SALE price of $100. 

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. 

“Moon Eye on the Smiling Face of Truth,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Over the Water,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

But in the current story, Science is trying to hit one eye on the smiling face of truth. This riffs on the reliability/validity bullseye diagrams professors often use in first-year methods courses. 

“Science Trying to Hit One Eye on the Smiling Face of Truth,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

The vultures of prejudice, violence, and hopelessness sometimes blight the smiling face of truth. 

“Vultures on the Smiling Face of Truth,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Sky or Sea, Morning or Night?” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy.

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.

“Smiling Face of Truth at Dawn,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

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. 

“Smiling Face of Truth at Sea,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

 

Serendipity

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. 

You can say this is just how network phenomena work. Information and emotion spread along social networks like dandelions, in Cory Doctorow’s poetic expression of the way network phenomena look when you mathematically model them

Or you can celebrate the magic in the chance meeting that went right. The way I lucked out when I least expected it. The great outcome for everyone that resulted from nobody’s plan. 

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Holiness in Mexico

Continuing the series of Lunch Money Paintings from Mexico, today I’m featuring a series of paintings about holiness. I’m having a moving sale to unload 200+ paintings in 2 weeks before beginning my year-long experiment traveling and making art

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. 

The first set of Lunch Money Paintings focused on Catedral Metropolitana, the second on Torre Latinamericano. Now things get freaky. 

 

Wings and Flashes of Light

The omnipresent reading pile, soon to be replaced by a Kindle as I try to not compress my spine (any more) with the backpack I'll be taking around the world. 
The omnipresent reading pile, soon to be replaced by a Kindle as I try to not compress my spine (any more) with the backpack I’ll be taking around the world. 

I’m reading Jennifer Skiff’s God Stories: Inspiring Encounters with the Divine. Skiff compiled short, first-person accounts of people’s experiences of divine intervention. 

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. 

“Angel,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

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. 

 

Basilica 

“Basilica,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

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. 

“Basilica (2),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€. + shipping on Etsy. 

The holy site where it stands actually contains eight churches.

“Basilica (3),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€. + shipping on Etsy. 

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. 

“Juan Diego’s Roses,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

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. 

“Lady of Guadalupe,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€. + shipping on Etsy. 

And in the Basilica. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (2),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€. + shipping on Etsy. 

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. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (3),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

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. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (4),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

Reimagining her took a bit of convincing. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (5),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 
“Lady of Guadalupe (6),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 
“Lady of Guadalupe (7),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

But in the end, it was impossible to argue with the miracle right before their eyes. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (8),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

So the Lady got her church. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (9),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

And the Mexican peasants got greater tolerance for local religious rites from the Spanish. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (10),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

After all. You wouldn’t persecute Mother Mary if you were a Catholic. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (11),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

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.] 

“Lady of Guadalupe (12),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

But you could show it. And Juan Diego did. 

“Dysmorphia of Dreams—Lady of Guadalupe,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

In the way that kindness often creates kindness in social interactions—and violence, violence—this act of showing mutual recognition created mutual recognition. 

“Tonantzin,
“Tonantzin,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

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. 

 

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Lunch Money Paintings 2

Yesterday, I started posting Lunch Money Paintings to promote my move sale

I’m selling all my art at cost before putting my stuff in storage and beginning my year-long experiment in traveling and making art. This means I want to sell 200+ paintings in two weeks. The cheapest ones are Lunch Money Paintings. 

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. 

Western View 

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.

“Ciudad México Sunset,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy

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. 

“Torre Latinamericano,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

At 44 stories high, the Tower is the world’s first skyscraper built on highly active seismic land. It withstood the 1985 earthquake. 

“Torre Latinamericano (2),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

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. 

“Torre Latinamericano (3),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

You can pay 80 pesos to go the top for a panoramic view of the city. 

“Torre Latinamericano (4),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

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. 

“In Flight,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

The storms consume everything. Landmarks, horizon, metal grates over closed shops, police clustered on corners in the darkness. 

“Storms Over Ciudad México,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

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. 

 

 

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Day 1 Moving Sale Results

In one day, I achieved about half of my impossible fundraising goal. 

By finding a math mistake. Unless I’m making a math mistake now. 

Money

I made about 92.83€ by accident trading Bitcoin, and lost about 64.98€ on a sale for daily profit of 27.85€. 

Sales

The bad news is that no paintings sold. Recall that I’m trying to sell over 200 oil paintings in two weeks in order to lighten my storage load, pay off business launch debt, and seed the year-long art travel life experiment launching next month

But my mic stand sold! To lovely Boston musician and new friend Erica, of the awesome band Sebio.

Traffic

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. 

“Catedral Metropolitana (9),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, $24.34 + shipping. 

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!) 

Verdict

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. 

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Lunch Money Paintings

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.

These are lunch money paintings because I’m selling them for the price of a nice lunch. Since I plan to sell all my art in two weeks, they’re $34.34, including domestic shipping.

On my hostel rooftop perch, I couldn’t stop painting the Catedral Metropolitana.

Catedral Metropolitana (2)” is the big church in the heart of Mexico City’s Federal District.

Catedral Metropolitana (3)” is the biggest cathedral in the Americas.

Like many cathedrals in Mexico, the Spanish built “Catedral Metropolitana (5)” on top of a former Aztec holy site.

“Catedral Metropolitana (6)”

Outside the cathedral, trees and lights make a small square nightly home to a few residents. Otherwise, the streets are deserted at night except for police and passing taxis.

“Catedral Metropolitana (7)”

At night, the cathedral gains light while the sky loses it, like the light of the sky is going to bed in the church. In the morning, the light gets up in much the same way.

“Catedral Metropolitana 8”
“Catedral Metropolitana (9)”
“Behind the Cathedral”

Inside, there are many altars, rooms with pews oriented in different directions, places to pray with candles.

“Door of the Cathedral”

So instead of facing one front, it’s like the people inside are praying out in all directions, to the whole world.

“Man in Prayer”
“Light Inside”

Like a radio sending a signal out in every direction, or a lightbulb putting out light to a whole room.

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Moving Sale

Welcome to Phase 2 of my year-long experiment in making art and traveling

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 bagBecause 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. 

False Start

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.

I’m also doing everything Noah Kagan suggested in Tim Ferriss’s latest podcast. More on this later as I see how it works. 

 

The Goal

By 05/31, I want to have all my paintings gone, plus commissions and other services selling, all my Phase 1 business launch debt paid off, and funds to store my stuff for a year.

But 05/31 is when my lease is up for real. So to be safe, since moving is hard, I want to try to get it done in two weeks instead of three. 

Look. All I’m trying to do is raise $42,200 in two weeks when most businesses don’t make profit in the first few years at all. 

It’s just a moving sale. How hard can it be? 

Moving Sale

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.

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. 

1. Paintings. 

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

b. 16″ x 20″ paintings: $10 canvas + $30 paint + $4 shipping box + $12 shipping (domestic) = $56 * 2 labor = $112

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. 

2. Commissions. 

My previous commission work normed from $700-$1500. People like custom work, and I like doing it. 

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.

That’s way below market value for 9″ x 12″ oil paintings—much less custom work. 

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. 

3. Story-telling. 

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. 

Seriously.

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. 

There’s not an established market value of social media management services because the field is so new that nobody knows how to do it. This is why big companies keep making big social media mistakes. And little people keep making little ones and getting fired

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. 

The median market value of a bad press release ranges from $750-$7500. 

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. 

My normal editing service is $100/hour. That’s about market value

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. 

Next

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. 

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Mirroring

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”

Paul Dunbar

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.

 

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Barfly

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. 

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Painting the World: My Year-Long Experiment

This is my new favorite rooftop perch, by Catedral Metropolitana and Palacio Nacional in Ciudad México. 

Catedral Metropolitana and Palacio Nacional, Ciudad de México.
Catedral Metropolitana and Palacio Nacional, Ciudad de 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. 

Hostel friend enjoys rooftop art.
Hostel friend enjoys rooftop art.

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. 

The Goal 

Is to better become my artist self while better being part of the world. That means four main things right about now. 

1. Painting. 

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. 

2. Writing. 

Shape up my book drafts and partials into finished products. Begin self-publishing books on my website within 12 months, and keep writing. 

3. Music. 

Perform my music regularly on the streets and in venues all over the world as I work up an album. 

4. Comedy. 

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

Impossible! 

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. 

4. Trust. 

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. 

Please. 

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. 

I am so not returning the canvas.

2. Send me clients. 

For art sales, painting commissions, or my side business that I also enjoy tremendously—editing, tutoring, and grant proposaling

3. Send me food.

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. 

Or Not

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.

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