The Storm Cloud

I’m not sure where we were headed, but we were on a mission. It was clear to both of us that we needed to get somewhere, despite our sore feet and sore backs.

“Storm Cloud.”

“I see it,” I said, looking over my shoulder. “We should head back under the trees.”

“We’ll never make it in time.”

We both stopped, as the dark grey cloud moved in and took up the whole blue sky. There was nothing left to do but watch.

It was alive in its swirling, full of meaning and purpose, showing off its thousands of greys. The open meadow darkened, which was unsettling, as if someone on the edge of the glade had dimmed the lights without telling us.

“It’s here.”

With it, the rain dropped on our upturned faces, a message conveyed and received. Our clothes speckled into wetness, our hair matted down, dripping droplets into our eyes and mouths and down our backs.

No longer going in but now fully in, we raised our arms and turned up our palms, half in reverence, half in defeat, standing in a thousand greys. Grey ourselves.

All at once, the change was complete, as if a parallel world, tired of waiting, took its turn.

The cloud kept moving, impartial and proud. We turned our heads as it passed over us like a leviathon, everything around it blurred and penitent.

And as quickly as it came in, it left, on its own terms, an intruder that changed its mind, allowing the blue sky to show again.

Our faces felt no more rain, the meadow lightened; greens and blues returned without apology.

We looked at each other, as still as the stones, as wet as the grass, and decided without words but with renewed purpose and belief, that we should walk again.

Gen Z Wants a Redeal

Saving for a house

I’ve been talking to teens and young adults about the state of our country and the world in general.

“Where do you find hope?” I ask them.

They’re always silent. No quick responses.

WTF. Aren’t the kids supposed to hold hope for the rest of us? Isn’t the younger generation suppose to be unrealistically and annoyingly hopeful?

Instead, they’re already curmudgeons. Most of them are depressed. Like clinically depressed. And these are the smart ones, the thinkers, the kids who are tapped into the news cycle, the ones who discern the sentiment of a generation through thousands of 10-second TikTok clips. Reminds me of those old flip books, where you flip the pages and watch static images come to life and tell a story.

And the story they see is bleak.

Storms and fires in the forecasts
World leaders, deaf, greedy, and unjustly placed
Companies, indifferent, consolidating
Monopolies in every industry
Ads interrupting Art
Wars led by egos
Genocide before our eyes
Colleges, overstuffed and overpriced
Home ownership impossible
Two full-time incomes required to live
Price points tripling
Identities imprisoned
Love regulated
Narcisissists unregulated
Families divided
Dads still leaving (or not staying)
Lies believed
Democracy declining
Disease rates climbing
Smiles covered
Happenstance not happening
Debt climbing
Income stagnating
Layoffs
Overworked
Underemployed

Did I miss anything?

I have to just nod my head as they go through the list. They ain’t wrong. How do you find hope under the weight of all this?

I think back to when I was a teen. Gen X. We were the slacker generation because we walked around the world in a slouch, no real cause, not lucky enough to have a war to fight, or to fight against.

I never thought about the big stuff. Didn’t have to. Not proud of that, but that’s how I was: a slacker. And you know what else I was. I was happy. Happy and hopeful. I think.

Divorce was rampant, Reagan was coming up, with the Clintons and the Bushes not far behind. Regulations were being unbuckled notch by notch as I slept through the news and listened to Nirvana.

I’m not saying ignorance is bliss. Hardly. Ignorance is dying in your sleep.

I didn’t find hope in ignorance.

I found it in the cracks; I just didn’t know I was looking in the cracks. The cracks were my whole world.

A lot of the kids I talked to, when I asked what gave them hope, they said “I don’t know. Maybe this.”

“You mean this conversation?”

“Sort of.”

Is it that simple?

I thought of the drunken floats we used to do down the American River outside of Sacramento. The best part wasn’t the rapids and it wasn’t the drinking. It was the calm moments in between when we’d pull our rafts in close and hook our legs over the sides to talk with each other.

Perhaps this generation feels unlistened to. By everyone. Even each other. Everyone wants a platform and an audience; everyone’s watching each other, but the sense that people are listening. Is that lost?

Is hitting “like” and “subscribe” the same thing as looking someone in the eyes and nodding in support?

The rafts are floating apart. We’re connected by strings attached to cans — a dangerous ruse.

So what is hope?

Being naive enough to think you can change the world?

Or knowing you can’t do a goddamn thing but still trying.

Sorry. Even the hope of this slacker is waning. I’m really trying here, I swear.

Maybe that’s enough. Nirvana and flip books, Doja Kat and Tik Tok.

Maybe the search for hope is enough to keep it alive, a flickering flame, cupped and protected, enough of a thing to hand off.

Even if you don’t know what to do with it.

.

How To Get Stuff, By Hazel F.

Alameda-Antique-Fair

We dragged our 7-year-old to the Alameda Flea Market, kicking and screaming and clawing for her iPad as we pushed her out the door. Secretly, I thought about staying home too, mostly to work on an online course I’d been building for how to look for work.

Glad we didn’t stay home, though. The Flea Market had a lesson for us, and for me in particular.

Hazel’s mood turned as soon as she saw all the jewelry and gemstones lining the tables that repeated themselves off into the horizon. We stopped at every sparkly booth.

Hazel didn’t spend any of the $5 we gave her, but she got plenty of stuff.

First, the guy in the tie-dye gave her a big pin that said BOSS on it with a rainbow behind it. She put it on immediately.

Next, she got a bejeweled snap-open case — probably for holding a small photo or maybe cocaine. She gasped when she saw it and pulled me over to look at it. The vendor, this time a pair of bearded late-twenties hipster guys, offered it up to her.

“I heard her call you dadda. That’s what my girl calls me. She can have it.”

Hazel beamed.

There was one more item, the greatest win of the day, given by a tall white woman with white-blonde hair in black overalls. She had hundreds of rings set out with glass-blown eyeballs on them. Hazel kept picking them up, putting them in my face, and making scary noises.

“Arrraaaahhhh!”

I’d feign fear, and she’d laugh every time, put it down, then pick up another one.

“Arrraaagghaaaal!”

In the background, the overalled woman was in a squat doing something with her hands. She popped up and walked over with a locket that had a clear top and about 30 tiny little glass eyeballs inside. She handed it to Hazel and showed her how the little swivel knob opened and closed the case.

Then she looked at me. “I love her enthusiasm.”

I got the sense this woman loved her work, that there were shittier jobs before this one.

And then she said, “Enthusiasm, kindness, and curiosity. I reward those things.”

Wait a minute. That’s my line. I just wrote that exact same line this morning (Okay, maybe not exact). But that’s what my job-search course is about.

We can all take a lesson from Hazel.

Whether looking for a job or gemstone, step away from the screen, get out there, be enthusiastic, curious, and kind, and good stuff will come to you. It’s funny; when you’re off networking with people, you don’t get an interview by asking. You usually get it by being enthusiastic, curious, and kind.

And it’s gotta be genuine. The fake stuff doesn’t work. You need to bring the wonder of a 7-year-old into the conversation.

Even if you don’t get stuff right then and there — we can’t all be Hazel! — you’ll be better off, you may learn something, and you’ll make someone’s day. Like rows of hand-made eyeball rings on a tapestry, these are the things to be treasured.

The Boy, The Lion, and the Stick

Don’t look down

A boy and his elder were walking in the mountains and came across a lion. Before the elder could stop him, the boy poked the lion with his walking stick.

The lion sprung up and growled.

The boy raised his stick and got into a fighting stance. “Get back!” he yelled, but the lion roared.

The elder lowered the stick of the child, put her arm around him, and pulled him close.

The lion roared and stepped closer. It got right in the boy’s face, roared so loudly it moved the boy’s hair, and then moved in front of the elder, who stood as still as the mountain.

Looking into the eyes of the lion, she spoke. Her words were soft and steady: “I am sorry that the boy poked you. I understand your growl.”

The lion roared.

The elder stood with the boy stone-still, save for the slightest nod of her chin.

The lion roared, louder. Louder. LOUDER!

And then it turned away.

The elder waited until the lion laid back down, and then pulled the boy and his stick away.

“Your are courageous,” said the boy.

“I am respectful,” said the elder.

“You faced that lion,” said the boy.

“I faced the fate that you created.” the elder said, and then turned to the boy, her eyes dark as night, reaching into his soul. “How is it that you use your stick but don’t expect the roar?”

The boy looked at his stick.

“You hold the stick and tell the lion to stop. But you cannot stop it. It is nature. As the wind blows, the trees bend. This is how it is.”

She raised his chin with her coarse, thick fingers.

“Listen to me now, my boy. In these words, you will find real truth and the real courage that you seek: The only way out of a lion’s roar is to put down the stick.”

She put her hand on the boy’s shoulder, gently this time, and softened her mouth. “This is even more true if it is your stick that created the roar.”

She opened her hand, a hand with so many folds and scars, that even the trees respected her.

The boy handed her his stick.

She used the stick to pry a rock loose in the ground. A salamander, awakened by the light, scurried into the grass.

“Now you understand the lion’s roar,” she said, patting his little round belly.

“… Whether you are the lion or the stick.”

Entitlement

person standing on white snow covered mountain during daytime

Entitlement elbows Kindness right out of the room.

When someone is entitled (e.g. “This is mine for the taking”), they eliminate the possibility of being assisted.

People around them get the message and put their hands down. They may cheer for the entitled person, but they’re not really rooting for them because they were never part of the story.

When someone is entitled, they may rise up, but they will necessarily be alone on that mountaintop and will have robbed everyone else, not just of the view, but of the opportunity to help.

At the heart of it, entitled people are not just selfish but destined for loneliness.

To need help, to give help, and to acknowledge the giving of help… this is the lifeblood of connection. It’s what draws people to us.

And, when it comes to nourishing our souls and injecting meaning in our moments, there’s nothing more important than that.

If you feel like something’s missing in your life, pause your quest for accumulation and ascendancy. Notice the people around you.

Be humble, be kind, be grateful, and help when you can.

InBoxed In

Hands typing on a laptop keyboard

Checking email can feel like a race. Respond, respond, delete, archive, respond, flag as spam, delete, delete, delete. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

We should remember to invite things into our inbox that we want to see, things that bring absolutely no stress with the message they carry.

Try it.

Reach out to someone — a client, a friend — with no agenda whatsoever. Only to show them love. Or interest.

They’ll respond with the same unneedy gesture, and you’ll both have a bench to sit on in the middle of the marathon.

A 5-second meetup.

A smile in your back pocket.

Joy on demand.

Do You Believe In Magic?

woman in fairy costume standing on green field

When people talk about manifesting reality, those around them may roll their eyes.

While I don’t believe we can alter the universe to our own benefit, I do believe we can change our perspective. Or, perhaps, sharpen it.

When we make a decision in our mind that reaches all the way down to our heart, we walk through the world with renewed vision. We see things we wouldn’t have seen before, things we can gather, act on, and integrate into our lives.

In this way, science and prayer are one and the same:

Pragmatic magic.

Controllable dreams.

Fairy dust in our fists.

It’s not the universe that changes.

It’s us.

Creativity vs. AI

Close up photo of matrix background

I’ve been thinking a lot about AI.

It’s like an overeager assistant starting to do your job. And doing it quite well.

I suppose I should be happy to be able to outsource piles of gruntwork, but I’ve always found peace in the process, a meditation in the mundane.

Creativity is one of my top values. I know this because, in graduate school, our clever professor auctioned off a set of sought-after values. You only had $1,000, and there were more people in the room than values on the list, so the room livened up pretty quickly. I fought for Creativity and Purpose. I scored Creativity for $800. Purpose came second because, as I reasoned, Purpose comes out of Creativity.

I’ve always found Purpose through Creativity, and now I’m being shouldered out of my creative space. AI can paint paintings, write essays, and (gasp) generate blog posts. In seconds. This means anyone can paint paintings, write essays, and generate blog posts.

One so-called godfather of AI has said that creativity is nothing more than making novel connections.

Computers can make infinitely more connections than humans. We all watched Big Blue beat the Grand Master of chess. Creative thinking has become mechanized. Art has become Science, which, for artists, is like calling the mountains the sky.

Sure, I can do more with less, but I’m having trouble letting this roommate move in. He wants to sit at my desk, create my reading list, correct my grammar, drive my car.

It’s not jealousy. It’s more like despair, fighting for the time to grieve a best friend and companion while everyone else seems so excited about where we’re headed – like a child looking out the back windshield, helpless, as the car pulls away.

But people still love to play chess. Creativity is cunning. And immortal.

This is the only comfort I have, sitting in the back seat: that we will turn the corner and there he’ll be, in new clothes, older but the same, arm outstretched, all 5 fingers extended, overstuffed bag on his shoulder, recognizing me through the glass, and summoning me out of the car.

Jus’ Chillin’

Silver dynamic microphone on black microphone stand

In college, I had a radio show with my friend.

Cliff & Jay, Jus’ Chillin’!

It was a great gig: We had the 2 am to 6 am shift, all the time in the world to comb through WMFO’s massive record collection, including one of the largest jazz portfolios in the Boston Area.

We were aggressively unprofessional and amateurish. We actually got canceled because (as we were told in our appeal meeting) we used profanity and made too many references to illicit drugs and alcohol.

Okay, fair. But what do you want? It was a 2 am slot!

There’s something special about that slot, knowing that everyone listening is in some extreme experience of their own — pulling an all-nighter, drinking away their sorrows, having a cigarette after making love, walking home into the sunrise.

We did it up right for them. We got really loaded, played some incredible music, had some fun conversations, and pondered life out loud. We’d let each other run soliloquies, which sounded amazing in professional-grade headphones.

And we fucked up a lot too. I remember one time my friend, E, called the show. I was so excited to hear the phone ring.

“Yo! WMFO Mo-Fo Radio. Cliff and Jay Jus’ Chillin!'”

“Dude, you guys have been off the air for like a full minute. Total silence.”

“Oh, shit. I must have hit the button.”

Jay stuck his head in the doorway, arms full of records. “You hit the button?!”

My bad.

But we got callers anyway, and not just college kids. People who lived in Boston, who worked. And if we got callers who were grown-ass people, that meant we had listeners who were grown-ass people, which sort of surprised me.

Why would a grown-ass person listen to a bunch of kids fumbling around at a radio station, passing a whiskey flask, and misquoting Kerouac?

I got my answer 27 years later.

I was at a stop light and my thumb hit the radio dial by accident while I was wiping the fingerprints off the touch screen. The station jumped from 91.1 to 90.7, that is to say, from KCSM Jazz to KLAX College Radio in Berkeley.

“That was, um…. yeah, that was Charlie Parker. At least, I think that was Charlie Parker. Sorry, brain fart… we’re gonna go with that. Charlie Parker! Next up, something you’ve probably never heard of… an EP I found in the bathroom cabinet of all places… Not sure what it was doing ther. Anyway, I got a special surprise for ya.”

Her voice was simple and kind.

It made me laugh out loud. At her, at me. I had to stay tuned in.

Against the backdrop of the polished radio voices out there with their flawless transitions and pre-written plugs for products they have to pretend to care about, hearing a college kid fuck up a Charlie Parker credit was music to my ears.

It’s the cracks and turns in the branch that make it interesting.

When she came back, she gave a speech on staying in the moment. It started off good but then got terrible, totally forced and contrived. She meandered, probably because she liked the way her voice sounded in the headphones.

Humans should grow like the rest of nature: unpredictably, sometimes lovely, but mostly twisted. When things get too perfect, they stop being human.

She apologized for meandering and then said what she really wanted to say. It was the best part of her speech.

At 20, we strive for perfection. At 50, we are bored by it. We know better.

How beautiful that a 20-year-old college student can deliver such joy to a grown-ass man at a stoplight, simply by making mistakes on her path to perfection? And back again.

She didn’t give a number to call, but if she did, I would have given her a ring.

“Play some more Charlie Parker,” I would say. “And keep doing what you’re doing.”

Sometimes it’s almost painful to be old, to know where all the potholes are, and still have to watch people drive over them.

But I guess that’s the good part, too: life looping back on itself.

Right in front of us.

Happy New Year, folks! Enjoy looking at life. 🙂

Best. Christmas Present. Ever.

There I am, sitting on our blue shag rug by the S-shaped chair in my powder-blue Battle Star Galactica pajamas, stoked as all hell at my Christmas present.

I love this picture.

I love it because it shows my unhindered excitement, which I carry in my body today. It’s constantly trying to come out, and I’d have it no other way.

I love it because it shows my parents knew what I liked and supported me, no matter what.

I love it because… if you look closely, you’ll see what I’m holding and what I’m so juiced up about:

Smurf Shrinky Dinks.

Just have mom or dad put them in the oven and watch them shrink!

It was the 80’s. I was deep into my Smurfs phase. I drew them, had several of those little rubber figurines, watched the cartoon every day, booed Gargamel when he showed his face, and, like the Smurfs themselves, used “Smurf” as a part of speech. “Wow! That’s the Smurfiest!”

I’m proud of this picture because it shows something about me that I treasure:

I like what I like.

In elementary school, sometime after I’d outgrown my Battle Star Galactica pajamas, I wore my mom’s clip-on earrings to school. Not because I wanted to make a statement but because I liked the way they looked.

Same reason I wore parachute pants and, later, MC hammer pants and patten leather shoes, purple suits, and a polka-dot headband fashioned out of a cumberbund.

Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth was the first single I bought. (Oooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?) Erik B & Rakim’s Microphone Fiend was the second. I’m pretty sure they never did a duet together.

I wasn’t much into hooking up. I was more into falling in love.

A girl asked me if I was gay after I refused to go to second base with her friend, and I could tell by the way she asked me that other people wondered the same thing.

Let ’em wonder.

I never understood conformity; it seems to go against nature. Do we all really want to wear the same shoes? I mean, like, really?

As I got older, I began to converge around the truth that we all eventually believe: not being cool is really the only way to be cool.

When I look at that picture of me, languishing in joy at the sheer thought of playing with my new Smurf Shrinky Dinks on Christmas Day, I gotta say, I was ahead of my time.

I can only hope my kids are half as excited as I was.

Up late, carrying presents down from my office, arms full of tomorrow’s excitement, I’m pretty sure they will be.

Merry Christmas, y’all!
(if you’re doing that sort of thing today)

Enjoy the excitement.