Monday, June 29, 2015

The Good Citizen

I whisper-yelled at some kid to kill his iPhone so I could indulge the finer points of Fast Five. I’ve shot glares at compulsive throat clearers, volume junkies, and pencil-drumming Ringos at the library. I once flipped a pair of birds at a Civic who (I found out immediately upon glancing over my righteous middle fingers) honked on accident whilst waiting for me to cross the street. I nearly ended a 10th grader at a concert because his girlfriend punched me in the face after my girlfriend requested she lower her voice. I’m over 30.

Hi. I’m Cody. And I’m a recovering asshole.

Or maybe “grouch” is better. The distinction is important because the two look a lot like twins but are, in the end, just sibs. An asshole doesn’t really become one until a grouch comes along and bestows the title. The asshole's is a lavish un-understanding, a cartoon fog of ignorance to the annoyance caused by his actions, which makes said annoyance kind of a lone tree falling. A meager fart reporting forgettably into the wind.

Grouches are the farters. The ones who get it, who suffer the burden of knowing, impossibly observant, terminally offended. Grouches get to rage and define, define and collect, collect and obsess. Kanye says this kind of thing gives him a Tylenol. To me it feels like something less emotional, more like a Stupendous Waste of Limited Minutes on Earth.

Outrage brought to you by That Tailgating Jerk is great fun to indulge. It’s just so boring. And it's boring to hear about. A last resort in the list of things I want to be feeling at any given moment.

What’s more interesting to me is good behavior.

Go ahead, chew on everything connoted by “good behavior:”

  • Principal Rooney
  • Nurse Ratched
  • anyone with “Principal” or “Nurse” before their first name
  • Hey Ya!
  • Bart Simpson in a shorts suit at church
  • Calvin’s combed hair

All chewed? Great, now swallow because good behavior as a function of conformity isn’t on today's menu. Acknowledging the human condition and pitching in to make it better (especially in face-to-face micro-ways) is. There’s “Tuck in your shirt because that’s what nice boys do” and there’s “Look the homeless guy in the eye when you give him a dollar because that’s what nice humans do.” I’m interested in the latter. Maybe “good citizenship” is a better name for it than “good behavior.” Could be they’re related like assholes and grouches, but I doubt it.

I made a list about this once. It was part of a high school graduation gift for my little brother. A few of the men in Aaron’s life compiled a book of things they wished they’d known at 18 and gave it to him. My affair with bullet points and procrastination is passionate, so I decided on a contribution 18 blurbs in length. Aaron was getting a handle on his ADD at the time; I reckon the short format was best for us both.

Looking back, the list feels like a confirmation of my own beliefs as much as it does a prescription for a little brother. There are gaping holes in both the list and my ability to always take my own medicine. But the notion of uncomplicated respect toward others is there. Whatever larger belief system or personal code you’ve carved into the sky above your life, I find notions to be helpful on the ground, in those mundane specks of daily interaction with other people.

You could sum it up like, “Be a net positive in the universe today,” or “Make others feel good.” Both fantastic things to live by and make posters of, but hard not to see as trite when stuck in the moment with Library Ringo, Fast Lane Feather Foot, or Shout-Talk Diner. So I made a list of specifics:

1) Recognize your achievements, accept compliments, drunkenly celebrate, fall asleep on the beach. But do wake up, do drink your coffee, stretch out the hangover and use the momentum to snap into your next thing. Rewards for a job well done are nice. Sustained progression over time is better than nice.

2) Love hard. One of the best achievements in life is the capacity to give and receive love. Think about that. Not as easy as it sounds, especially for men. This doesn’t mean being reckless with your feelings, though your heart will take a beating now and again. Go out of your way to tell the people you care about how you feel. That goes for friends, family, lovers. I'm sorry for putting those three in the same sentence.

3) Quotes can be lovely when lifted from the right people. Take this one to heart:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
- Mark Twain

4) Don’t pick your nose in the car. Everyone can see you.

5) Do your best at whatever you do. This isn’t to say avoid devouring shiny and eclectic pursuits that catch your eye/heart (You should totally do that, especially at the outset of your 20s.). But it does mean that once you commit to something important, follow through. Talent exists, but exceptional people didn’t get that way by just having it. You hear a lot about hard work, grit, paying your dues, etc. Tired old-guy-talking-to-young-guy phrases, yes, but there’s a reason they exist. Multiply your natural strengths with these things and you’ll be unstoppable.

6) Be good to your body. Eat well. Don’t tattoo areas you wouldn’t tan. Legs are OK.

7) Have a group of close dude friends. There are truths you’ll never learn about yourself until you spend time with people who don't want to see you naked.

8) Listen. Listening isn’t sitting there looking like you’re interested. So many people do this because looking someone in the eye without saying anything is hard. Stop wondering what your listening face looks like or how many times to nod your head at a point well made. Stop waiting for your turn to talk, start hearing what the other person is saying, how it makes them feel, what it says about them and how they approach the world. Want to learn, even if you don’t feel like it. Don’t worry, you’ll have your chance on the mic, but give people the courtesy of your genuine attention first. Do that and they’ll repay you with the gift of truly listening to what you have to say.

9) Be good at communicating. That can mean a lot of things: persuading, comforting, clarifying, supporting, etc. Whatever it is, say what you mean. It’s hard to do that if you don’t have a point. Some people are good at doing this with a lot of syllables, some get the job done with less. Either is fine, so long as there’s intention. Otherwise, you’re left with chatter, which is boring at best, narcissistic at worst, annoying at all times. Talk when you know what you’re talking about. Shut up and be a sponge when you don’t.

10) Make mischief.

11) Extremity and moderation – there’s room in your life for both. When gauging things like other people’s opinions, be moderate. Strike a balance between stubborn judgmentalism and blind belief. Take pride in being you, but don’t walk around seeking to embarrass those who see things differently. At that point, you’ve stopped learning from others. Once that happens, young padawan, you are fucked. Lessons you’ll remember for the rest of your life can come from deep left field. Don’t be afraid to mix it up. Go to the symphony, talk to your cab driver, listen to NPR, go to a rodeo, watch subtitled movies, make friends with someone who never went to college, be in a Pride parade, volunteer at a retirement home, learn how to dive in a third world country. When you do these things, know your audience and weigh the wisdom they have to offer against your knowledge of who they are.

12) When in doubt, keep your cool.

13) Know a lot. Don’t pretend to know it all. Don't ever actually think you know it all.

14) Be respectful to the women in your life, no matter what the nature or outcome of the relationship.

15) A mustache is off limits before 35, unless it’s part of a beard. Or a dare.

16) Sometimes you must fake it ‘til you make it, but don’t let it become a way of life. If you must explain your work instead of letting it speak for itself, be a competent and honest explainer. Nobody likes a poser.

17) Be kind to waiters, janitors, cab drivers – anyone whose job it is to make your life easier. Rude people look incredibly insecure to those they’re trying to impress.

18) Call your brother frequently. He loves you very much and needs someone to boss around.

Good citizenry is work, and I think it takes shape from an accumulation of things like tiny good deeds, off-handed kindnesses, subtle encouragement. My hope for Aaron is that this stuff becomes reflexive.

Even if it doesn’t, and he has to work as hard as I have to mellow out, I’ve done my part to combat the evils automotive rhinotillexis. Be still my grouchy heart – that is something.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Spitballs & Slavery

I was recently asked the following:

What social problem is most compelling to you? Pick one or more organizations to partner with to address this social issue. What would you do? How would your solution engage a broad and relevant community, who would benefit, and how it would ultimately drive impact.

I think it's important to mix realism with your altruism, i.e. "How would this actually work?"  Utility doesn't always have a place in the brainstorming stages of an idea, though--I used this exercise as an opportunity to stargaze a bit:

Human trafficking might be the biggest elephant in the middle of our collective global room.  Estimates of the number of people categorized as “slaves” in the world right now (individuals recruited to be controlled and held captive for the purpose of exploitation) is anywhere between 12 and 30 million.  These are among the highest figures in history and they are astonishing.

There seems to be a comparative lack of attention aimed at this $9 billion industry. Be it the disturbing nature of human trafficking, the perception that slavery happens “elsewhere,” its persistent, un-topical nature, or paralysis in the face of such a deep-seated problem, mainstream media just doesn’t seem to highlight human trafficking in the way does many other critical social issues.  Anyone who reads Ishmael Beah’s child soldier memoir, A Long Way Gone, Aaron Cohen’s one-man anti-sex trade crusade, Slave Hunter, or finds out that upwards of 15,000 people are trafficked into first-world countries like the United States each year would be hard pressed to keep a poker face. So how do we throw up the bat signal?

Finding the right nonprofits to involve in a funding/awareness campaign would be the easy piece.  CAST LA is a wonderful organization specializing in helping trafficking survivors back onto their feet whilst raising awareness about modern day slavery.  They may not be international enough for the scale of this campaign--Not For Sale would be.  They focus on stark, digestible statistics to illustrate reactive and preventative efforts to get survivors and would-be victims into stable employment situations.  Slavery Footprint has the most brand recognition of the three. Their “How many slaves work for you?” calculator is powerful in its ability to provoke immediately actionable changes to daily behavior and consumption habits.

The critical piece would be engaging the right brand partners to associate with an issue as intense as this one.  Three good ones come to mind:  Toyota, Red Bull, and Quiksilver.  These brands are bold and youth-oriented, giving them the ear of an audience capable of hanging with and advocating for something as heavy as slavery awareness.  Initiative breakdown:

Filmed surf event in the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia.  HD footage by Red Bull, unlocked with donations matched by all three partners online.  The location itself is a statement; Southeast Asia as a region houses some of the most entrenched trafficking pipelines in the world.

… Toyota?  Large market share in Southeast Asia.  Rugged location allows them to showcase 4x4 lifestyle offerings.  Would likely be interested in an opportunity to dig further into the surf/alternative sport market.

… Red Bull?  This is the online publicity vehicle.  Anything produced by Red Bull in the alternative sports space is sought after by fans (e.g.,  Red Bull turns this into a mid- long-term campaign that lives well beyond the actual tentpole event.

… Quiksilver?  Quiksilver has a history of philanthropic initiatives, mostly within the eco space.  Aside from providing big name riders, Quiksilver may be interested in giving back to one of the wave-desirable regions on which the surf industry focuses quite a bit of attention.

Play globally, change globally.  Abolish slavery everywhere.

The aim would be to engage alternative sport/stunt video interest online.  (32 million views for the Red Bull Stratos project video, as a point of reference)

Tight, Instagram-lead social media integration with participating nonprofits and sponsors.

The ground swell occurs within the alternative sports community, then continue virally depending on the originality and wow-factor of the footage.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Happiness, Ambition, and the Queasy Unicorn

Please read this HuffPo article if the title makes no sense to you.

This one is short because happiness shouldn't be rocket science, in spite of all our best efforts to make it so.

One idea I find in most things I've read about happiness is that comparing yourself to the Joneses is the worst thing you can do.  So stop it.

As for being ambitious and feeling special, that's tough because it's easy to use the latter as fuel for the former, when really it should be the other way around.  More intellectually than emotionally doable, though it's a really good idea to strive to get there on both fronts.

Work hard, respect your time, give it to the people you love (including yourself).

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

To Suck, Perchance to Dream

As a drunk and sincere fan once shouted at Jeff Tweedy during a Wilco show, I too must shout at Ira Glass:  "How'd you get so insightful?!"


"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

"A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through."

What I love about this is how Glass the Almighty uses one hand to jingle the keys of encouragement above our giggling eyes while lighting a fire under our ass with the other.  Distilled, it's your standard call to arms from a luminary person, twisted up and made original by an acknowledgment you don't often find in these types of interviews:  You will suck, probably for a long time.

What's more, if you're good, you'll be aware that you suck, which begs the question:  If excellence springs from self improvement, self improvement from self awareness, self awareness from self scrutiny, and self scrutiny from taking constant stock of your weaknesses, how do you keep from being a gloomy asshole on your way to the top?

I suggest elephants.  Elephants and William Hung.

This is a lot to ask, but I invite you to take a trip down memory lane with William Hung's original American Idol audition.  It's painful, it's heartbreaking, it drops an anvil of a question on your sensibilities:  "How, benevolent Creator, could you allow this man to wake up in the morning, stare sure-footedly into the mirror, and say, 'You can sing.  You can sing the shit out of this song.  You should share your gift with millions.'?"  Isn't it unfair?  Isn't it a drag that Mr. Hung had no one in his life to keep him from embarrassing himself, to tell him to focus on literally anything else?

Yes to both.  But consider Hung's obliviousness as a function.  Putting aside for a moment whether or not he should have done what he did, his blissful ignorance of his own shortcomings resulted in him actually accomplishing his goal.  That's kind of powerful.

Now consider that ignorance as a tool for someone with a little more potential.  If you're lucky, you're a bit clueless when you first start learning a skill that you intend to showcase to other people.  That's perfect, because you definitely suck on day one and may continue to do so for a while.  For a lot of people, the reality of that is too much even for self discipline to overcome, so they quit or turn their ambition into whatever their equivalent of "I only sing in the shower" might be.  These folks value truth over the possibility of being made foolish, and that's fine.  It might even be what the smart money says.

But the tradeoff is a forfeiture of the lottery ticket that the Misfits, Television, The Horrors, and MGMT decided to buy with their credit of healthy ignorance (DumbBucks?).  In the beginning, some of these guys couldn't even play their instruments, which would be enough for a lot of folks to question whether or not they should pursue a job that requires... playing an instrument.

Others, like Ray Lamontagne, knew immediately that their skill didn't match their taste (i.e., that they sucked), but blotted it out with the will to soldier on, woodshed like crazy, perform a lot, and become very technically good.  This is a tougher route because, unlike the William Hungs of the world, you glare at your weaknesses every day.  At a certain point, you get up in front of people and experience what it's like for others to glare at them, too.  To avoid mortal injury, there's only one way for the self aware to get through it:  thick, Clint-Eastwood-crow's-foot elephant skin.

Ever read 1984?  In it, there's a concept called "doublethink" that the bad guys use to brainwash the good guys into believing that history happened one way when everybody knows it didn't.  Elephant skin is kind of like that, but instead of self deception, you simply downplay the negative things you know to be true.  No blinders, just sunglasses.  This is also called having a good attitude.  You know the detrimental effects of dwelling on your shortcomings, so you work hard on them when you need to, have faith in your own ability to progress, and ditch the dwelling when it might otherwise distract and break you down... like right after hitting a bad note, forgetting your line, dodging moldy vegetables (real or metaphorical) hurled from the peanut gallery.

As with most things in life, all of this boils down to Johnny Knoxville, who once posited, "If you're gonna be dumb, you better be tough."  Bless you, Ira Glass, for reminding us that the smarties need it, too.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Art, Copy... Code?

"Art & Copy" should sound familiar to anyone in the ad agency game (or fans of Mad Men). Google's Art, Copy & Code initiative facilitates new kinds of experiences by acknowledging the power of the modern web for advertising and outreach.  Kind of like for nerds.

Brighttrack: Free College Prep for Those Who Need It Most

Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch? From extracurricular planning to campus tours to nurturing a unique Capstone Project that cherry-on-tops the resumé of under-resourced high schoolers, BrightTrack is poised to even the playing field of college candidacy in all the best ways. Sturdy roots in crazy smart founders and a list of advisors that reads like a who’s who of pragmatic do-gooding doesn’t hurt, either. I cannot wait to see this husband-wife operation grow like gangbusters.

Learning Betterer

Full disclosure #1: Things with tag lines like "It's free. Completely free." generally make me nervous. Google's "Apps for Education" is a big exception. The core offering of Web-based email, calendar & documents for collaborative study is cool but not particularly novel. Partnerships with disruptive carriers like YTL that hack around infrastructure limitations and get schools in developing nations online with 4G high speed wireless via Chromebooks, on the other hand, certainly are.

Full disclosure #2: Yes, I work at Google. No, I had nothing to do with creating Apps for Education (sadly!) and have not vested interest in promoting it.