Do you remember when smoking was allowed in bars, and you didn’t smoke? You’d start your “going out” planning by deciding what jeans were about ready to wash. What sweater you could part with for a week at the cleaners, and perhaps, what jacket you might be able to tumble in the dryer with a handful of dryer sheets at the end of the night. You knew everything would smell like an ash tray, so you planned accordingly. I feel like that’s what it’s like going out now. You feel when you come back that things might be dirty somehow. I can’t wipe my clothes with Clorox wipes, but I can plan accordingly. I wore this sweatshirt all week and slept in it last night. I wore it to the doctor’s office today. I can now wash it and cleanse any “dirt” real or imagined. At least it doesn’t stink. No harm. No foul.
The second assignment in week two of Creative Writing was to write a story based on a prompt from The Artist’s Way. The prompt is below in bold.
I feel guilty that I am not more put together. Professional. I can’t say I feel this all the time but sometimes. Ok – weekly. Usually at work.
I can’t have long nails. They bother me. I can’t do Cher things like work with my hands, type, hold a tennis racquet. How do you do anything with nails? Fish change out of your pocket, position a fitted sheet, serve a tennis ball, apply makeup?
That’s another thing I don’t like. Can’t do well. I envy my best friend’s 18 year old daughter. She could be Kevin Aucoin or whoever does makeup really well these days.
I’m that old.
Makeup makes me feel like a poser, an amateur. I hate the feel of it on my face, and I’m worried it will soil the collar of a favorite shirt when I take it off.
It’s just makeup though. It washes, right?
Hair. I do love my hair, but I rarely “do” it. It’s more of a functional thing. Which is why I like it long. There are many options for not doing long hair.
Pants. I really only like jeans and yoga pants. Dress pants? Khakis? Ugh. The horror. I feel bloated and unattractive all day long in them. I found one pair of J Crew cropped pants that I love. Think Audrey Helpburn. No pockets. Black. Fitted, and cropped to above the ankle. I bought them in every color. I took a pair apart hoping to make more in other colors.
Plaid. Argyle. The list is endless. They’re perfect. I just need more options.
Sweatshirts. Let me tell you. I have a mountain of them. If I could wear them every day for a month. I wouldn’t run out. If I had a job where they were appropriate attire, I’d feel most at home.
T-shirts. OMG. They’re folded on shelves with a folding board. They’re organized by color and theme. They’re ironed. I’m that person. I have enough for an entire year without duplicates.
Sneakers. I can’t stop buying them. New Balance. Reebok. Nike. Puma. Adidas. Piles of Adidas shoes. A Vintage Campus pair I found in a thrift shop and mountains of Barricades and Adizero Feathers that have retired from tennis and line my basement stairs waiting for their next life as house project shoes or mowing the lawn footwear.
None of this strikes me as feminine though, and sometimes that needles me. Am I a professional person with these traits? Do I belong in a corporation if I dress like this? I look around. I see manicured nails. Slacks. Heels.
The thought of my feet in heels makes me scream in agony. I need my feet. Why would I torture them? Besides, I tore a calf playing tennis, and now a knot forms in my right calf when I wear anything a few inches in height, reminding me of the injury. “Don’t test me, bitch! You need me for life!”
Yes. I do.
Week two of Creative Writing commenced with a request to write a story with Kevin Mitnick as an inspiration. Below is my story.
He pulled up to the old storefront in South LA and took the first parking spot on the street. His late model Lincoln Towncar shook as he shut off the massive big block engine. It was a retired New York City car service car that his dad bought him as a joke, and it never stopped being funny. An “I heart NY” and a “Free Kevin” bumper sticker adorned the back and made it his own.
He shuffled up to the front door in his dark wash jeans, a black t-shirt, and a backpack covered with pins and patches ready for another day fighting Russian trolls behind the screen of a MacBook Pro. It was late afternoon in California or early morning in Vladivostok, just as the first shift was punching in ready to flood the social network with garbage hashtags and working overtime to hack a campaign staffer’s email.
Even though he was just 16, the Bloomberg campaign had hired him full time after reading a story in the local paper about his exploits hacking the school lunch credit cards after a close friend couldn’t pay for food. “This is just the kind of out of the box thinking we need,” Bloomberg mentioned to his senior aid. “Get that kid on staff.”
A staffer showed up the next day at his parents house with a generous monetary offer and a “Mike Can Do It” hoodie. He was in.
He’d been working the afternoon shift for several months now and holding weekly meetings with paid staff and volunteers explaining how phishing worked and how to never click a link in your email. “I mean never,” he’d bellow. Even though the message came from a kid, the staff respected his knowledge and his integrity.
No one questioned he had a strong sense of right and wrong.
He was also very successful on the hacking front having accessed the internal network of one particularly relentless troll network. How did he do it? A link in an email. One click and he was in.
He was able to see what the network had on Bloomberg.
Verdict. Very little.
He did his job.
He dug a little further and found the bank accounts of the group. Where was the money coming from? When he found out, the campaign made a press appearance touting the finding and the expertise that made it happen – a skinny teenager that could be easily overlooked but now no longer ignored.
Looking to do more personal work and side projects in 2020, I enrolled in a creative writing class at PCAD. For this exercise, we took a prompt from this website, https://writingexercises.co.uk/index.php, and took 20 minutes to write a story around it. The prompt is in bold below.
As he took in the view from the twentieth floor, the lights went out all over the city. He was reminded that it was the 30th anniversary of 9-11. Even after three decades, the memory was fresh, but the thought of something actually happening on this date was behind his comprehension.
Could it be a terrorist attack or something more mundane like a failing circuit in the country’s aging infrastructure.
Probably the latter.
Occam’s Razor and all.
He shuffled toward the stairs and silently cursed himself for making it “leg day” at the gym yesterday. His 45-year-old hamstrings strained as he headed down the winding flights of stairs.
Once he got to the bottom, the air was warm befitting a late summer day. New Yorkers seemed unbothered with the sudden darkness; although, the bodega across 23rd street was rapidly closing up shop – the owner slamming the steel garage door down with authority lest anyone think to quickly loot a Smart Water or some lottery tickets.
He headed east toward Eately thinking maybe, just maybe, a giant chain like that would have a generator? Maybe? But where would they put it? Was there room for a generator in Chelsea?
He could really use a cup of decaf, it was evening after all, and a chocolate croissant. Eately’s bakery couldn’t be beat. How long would the darkness last?
Why had he forgotten dinner? He was thinking about it all through the meeting when the view from the conference room just caught his eye on the way out. He stopped to enjoy it. Take in the view. Live in the moment.
The meeting went well albeit late. He thought he nailed this last round of interviews. His dream job. A project management gig for AWS. A job with one of “The Big Four.”
The pinnacle of a career in tech, he thought.
He was in a fantastic mood. He left like a master of the universe, and then bam, no power. Back to reality.
Eately was, in fact, closing. No power meant no registers. Everyone paid with their smart phones or watches. No one carried cash. Everything ran on electricity. Without it, the world stopped. “When had he last charged his phone?”, he thought as he headed east. He couldn’t remember.
Good thing he lived on 12th and Broadway. It would be just a short jaunt home as the subway was surely closed as well. The moon was out, and Union Square was alive with people escaping their apartments to play in the moon glow. The latch on the dog park gate snapped as he passed. A woman brought her two Golden Retrievers out to play with the bossy Frenchies that ruled the space.
I’m glad my Air Pods are dead, or I would be missing this joyful noise, he thought. Just a few more blocks to go.
Should I really go home or linger a while?
After all, my window unit has hummed to a halt and the place is probably stuffy by now. There will be nothing to do in the darkness anyway.
He stopped and turned back settling in on a bench to watch the action in the dog park. By now, the pack had been joined by a few more hounds who perked up in unison as an ambulance rolled past with sirens blaring.
Howl. Howl. Howl.
With a desire to do more personal work and outside projects in 2020, I took a creative writing course at The Pennsylvania College of Art and Design. The class meets three weekends in a row on a Saturday, 10 am to noon. I can walk there. For this exercise, we rolled four different dice and had to incorporate these items into our story: Princess with a weapon, an apple, a left turn signal, and a submarine. I started by tackling the submarine first though I know very little about life aboard.
She woke up in a full sweat as the sirens blared on the submarine.
Squawk. Squawk. Squawk.
She had been a sailor for a full year now and had thought she heard every siren and digested every emergency signal.
Yet, this was new.
What could it be?
She hopped off the top bunk and headed toward the door. A blinking left arrow in the hall indicated the way to the hatch. She melted into the stream of sailors heading out. Everyone calm but silently annoyed at the interruption. Navy life was constant interruption.
At the end of the hall, the officer motioned for the team to stop. The sirens fell silent.
“Fire alarm, folks.”
“Thanks for playing.”
“You may now return to your bunks.”
It took her six months to learn how to sleep on this nasty vessel, and now that sleep was interrupted by a game. The hazing never stopped.
At least her bed awaits. She climbed back in and fell asleep instantly. This was a trick she learned in the first three months. Sleep time was precious and in short supply. Best to learn how to drift off in minutes and not waste time pondering your condition, which for a new recruit was poor indeed.
She fell off into a deep REM sleep and woke in dreamland as the princess she wanted to be.
Dreams were her escape hatch, and this one started off with promise.
No more short hair. No more scratchy Navy-issued jumpsuits and granny panties. She was surrounded by vintage black tulle and silk. Her long hair in ringlets that felt soft and smooth as they gently grazed her back. The embroidered bodice hugged the broad shoulders she first earned doing pull-ups in boot camp and exposed her strong back.
Who said a Navy life had no upside?
Rings adorned her fingers and and a beautiful amethyst pendant fell across her collarbone. Actual jewelry. More things to enjoy that the Navy made her leave behind. She slowly played with the mother of pearl ring on her index finger and surveyed the room approvingly.
Handsome leather chairs were scattered around with inviting fluffy throws tossed over their backs. Pillows and warm area rugs filled out the space with comfort. Sun shone in the tall, narrow windows and made sunbeams across the hardwood floor.
Sun. Actual sunbeams.
She felt like a queen.
Next to her on a small marble top table lay a bowl of fresh fruit. Apples, oranges, pears. She hadn’t even thought about fresh fruit in ages, and the supplements provided to protect sailors against scurvy were a poor substitute for the real thing.
The fruit is going to taste marvelous, she thought. She eyed the bowl and wondered what to try first suddenly overwhelmed with the opportunity to choose her meal.
Beyond the bowl was a smooth, medieval sword in a shroud laying on black leather ottoman. A symbol of power and grace – two things she lacked as an underling. Now they were hers. She rose from her chair and strolled across the room with her tulle petticoats rustling beneath her dress.
She picked up the heavy sword with ease and removed the rough leather cover protecting the shaft. It gleamed in the sunlight, and she was forced to squint to examine the engraving near the handle. Like her dress, it was old and exquisitely made long ago with attention paid to every detail. It was a work of art.
Just then, an officer entered the room and barked orders at her.
Not today, she thought, and held up the sword like a talisman.
The officer continued screaming louder now, and the sword seemed to have no effect.
No, this can’t be! “But, I’m not on that submarine anymore, right? This can’t be over. I didn’t even have an apple yet. But, I haven’t enjoyed this enough,” she lamented.
Just then, she awoke on the same bunk. The officer just below her to her right. Screaming as before. Another dream gone too soon.
How much time until we dock again?
Last winter, I instituted a room by room cleaning project. I emptied closets and cupboards. Nothing was untouched. Nothing uncleaned. I got rid of boxes of stuff.
In Brad Warner’s fantastic book, Sit Down and Shut Up, he writes this about things:
Every object you acquire comes with a certain degree of responsibility for that object. Most of us don’t realize this, which is why we treat the stuff we own so incredibly badly. You need to take care of these things. When you don’t, you cause yourself and others a heap of trouble.
The only way to really be happy is when you desire as little as possible.
I keenly felt the burden of things during my clean out, but since then, I’ve continued to acquire. I was unable to give it up then, but I’m coming around. I just bought a new computer and deliberately let go of some files. I purchased Spotify and stopped buying music. I’m thinking of dissolving my CD collection.
Technology helps as certain technologies go away like VCRs and DVD players, those relics left behind lose their meaning. Streaming services mean you no longer have to own your movies or your music and thus the burden of caring for it.
It’s sometimes noted with a sneer by older generations that millennials don’t want to own things like cars. I think owning things comes with a certain complexity that this generation has decided to avoid. I think we need to, perhaps, applaud that thinking and re-examine our own.
It’s been a year of change at my job, and at some point, one of our executives came by and told me that the door was open if I needed a dose of radical honesty. I appreciated that and indicated as much. “You strike me as the kind of person that empties your bucket for other people.”
Yes. I. Do.
If you project enough concern for others, eventually people will feel confident that your well of goodwill is an underground spring that never runs dry.
Mine does, but I don’t often show it.
As an introvert, I fill myself with alone time. When the bucket is running really dry, I hole up in my house like a shut in. I paint. I fix things. I wear giant headphones. I fill my day with tasks. I cross things off my many lists. I’m short with those close to me since those begging for my energy are not around. I hate this, but it passes.
I envy those who seem to have a bottomless well; although, I imagine they’re needful as well. We all are.
I began my graduate work a few weeks after receiving my undergraduate degree. I knew I didn’t want to leave school, and I kind of never have. You shouldn’t either.
I work in technology. Everything changes all the time. Being ok with being a student turned out to be a huge advantage, and it will continue to be as the world of work changes in nearly every field.
Those who learn will flourish
Tom Peters recently noted on Kara Swisher’s Recode: Decode podcast that the ability to be dedicated to reeducation will allow you to flourish in a time of change:
I believe that the 40-year-old who is totally dedicated to reeducation every single day of the year is gonna make it and is gonna flourish. I think that they are going to flourish by being a value to some customer set, for God’s sakes.
It’s not new. It is not new. My wife and I have a sub-zero refrigerator and the compressor went out. The guy came to fix it. I chat with everybody. Here’s a guy who I would guess is 40, 45 years old. He has a little utility company that helps do appliances, six people. He had just gotten back from a two-week training course that he had paid for out of his own pocket on the Internet of Things. You know, when refrigerators start ordering your stuff for you.
I think he’s gonna survive, and I think he’s gonna thrive. I think there’s a good chance that his six-person company will be a 16-person company. I am incredibly optimistic about people like that.
This is an era of rapid change, and Swisher’s podcasts have focused heavily on the world of work. Peters contends that being dedicated to reeducation means survival. It sounds drastic, but is it?
How many things have changed in your job since you started 5 years ago, 10? If you just started, what do you think your occupation will look like in 5 years, 10?
Different? Yes. Radically different. Very possible.
Online or in class
My degrees are in English, but a good chunk of my work is in print and web design. To bolster my career, I earned a design certificate from The Pennsylvania College of Art and Design about a decade ago. I’ve taken classes there ever since for both professional development and for personal growth.
I also use Lynda.com, Skillshare.com, and Coursera.org for access to specialty courses, world class instructors, and general training. They’re great resources and very affordable. Lynda and Skillshare have low introductory offers. Some Coursera courses are available to audit for free.
Classes can also bring about interesting changes in perspective that enrich your life outside work. I’ve written about a Buddhism and Psychology Class that helped me think differently about the world of stuff.
In some ways, it’s never been a better time to need a constant education because the resources are available and plentiful. Choose carefully. Get recommendations from others, and fire up that web browser or get thee to a classroom. You’ll be glad you did.
Here is something that happened to me just recently but has reoccurred throughout my design career. The things I care about. The things I think are cool or good or difficult or clever are not always what others think are cool, good, difficult, or clever.
Most people walk around in their own bubble of interests. Most people are not designers. If you work with a team, what matters to any particular member of the team is what that person is interested in. It may take you 15 minutes to put together that flyer, but if that flyer is promoting this team member’s project, then that is all that matters.
My advice to you is to treat everyone’s project like it’s important. Don’t down play any work you do. Don’t sell yourself short because you thought it was easy. Put your best work forward always even if it isn’t what you consider challenging or especially interested. You’re helping to interpret and sell their dream, and that’s important. Always. That’s challenging. Always. Even if you did it before.
For the hard and interesting stuff, keep a side hustle. Find a way to fit in the work that you really want to do, the work that challenges you, the work you find interesting or cool, the work that makes you feel like a pro. You also need to please yourself, and the tough stuff will do that. Make sure you fit it in even if it doesn’t pay the bills because it will feed your soul.
I recently completed Buddhism and Modern Psychology by Professor Robert Wright on Coursera.org. In the supplemental material, one of the video lecturers was one between Wright and Paul Bloom on Bloom’s book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.
In it, Bloom talked about the essence of things. From a review of the book: “What matters most is not the world as it appears to our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think the thing is.” Bloom argues that at the root of pleasure is our reading (or misreading) of the essence of something rather than the facts presented to our senses.
Like Wright, Bloom traces the origin of essence to natural selection. “We have evolved essentialism to help us make sense of the world, but now that we have it. It pushes our desires in directions that have nothing to do with survival and reproduction.”
Bloom argues that we endow everything including people and items with an essence that gives them a value. This is why a tape measured owned by JFK has more value than the humbleness of the object would suggest. It’s value is inherent in who owned it. It’s essence.
Essence works both ways. Bloom argues that clothing and other items owned by regular people have less value. They are herein tainted by being used.
I think Bloom’s argument is a intriguing one, and I find a lot to relate to. I’ve noticed that used items have far less market value when buying clothing at thrift stores and on eBay. Clothing of all types goes for a fraction of its retail value. Even unique pieces can usually be found with enough patience, and their value as determined by the market is far under retail. If you’re concerned about essence, then, by all means, buy things that have never been used. If you’re not, just wash them, and they’ll be yours.