Music Is Magic

Gold saxophone

Nothing can amplify or transform a mood like music.

John Coltrane can lull you into a trance. Taylor and Olivia can help you feel less alone. Nirvana and Alice in Chains can work you through a bout of angst you can’t shake. Michael Franti can turn a tired day in the hammock into a rejuvenating respite. Jay Z can make you want to write poetry. Bob Dylan can create a revolution. Even now.

Music pushes you deeper into the mood you’re already in.

But don’t forget you can also put something on that will change your mood completely, turn things around. This can be challenging because the mood you’re in may be blocking you from the productive thought of putting on music.

It’s spiritual; you have to have faith.

However you’re feeling, whatever the mood, play a song and I guarantee you won’t be the same by the end of it.

Musicians are mystics: shamans with instruments, able to transform us with the movement of their hands and the breath in their lungs.

They fill the air with fairy dust.

Cast spells to save us.

Time and time again.

If you’re really down in a hole, you could put on Alice In Chains to dive deeper into it, or you can put on John Coltrane to transcend it. Either way — charging through or rising above — you will begin healing, become more whole, and get closer to where you need to be.

And where we need you to be.

Counseling My Lyft Drivers

Trying to show off a new car for a couple of friends

It happens inadvertently, but it’s happened enough that I can call it a trend:

I career-counsel my Lyft drivers.

It seems like the common thread among Lyft drivers is being in the midst of seeking something else.

Most are entrepreneurs with big ideas, some have suspended careers because of personal issues, some are unwilling to ‘go captive’ and enter the corporate world, and some just can’t get a job in their line of work by the time the rent bill comes around.

I talked with one driver who lived part of the year in Southeast Asia just to cut down on expenses. (Seemed a drastic measure, but, having watched the cost of living triple in the last few years, it’s a notion I entertained for a milli-second.)

Usually, these folks don’t need career direction as much as a plan to reach their destination. In other words, they know where they want to be; they just can’t arrive. Or at least haven’t yet.

As a career counselor, Lyft, Uber, and DoorDash used to be ‘stop-gap’ jobs I’d recommend as a quick way to make money with low barrier to entry. You could make enough in a day or a couple of days to pay for groceries or the electric bill.

But these companies got greedy and once they cornered the market, the pay dropped significantly. Now we have people racing around the city 7 days a week, from fare to fare, trying to make a living. Some are indentured to the company who leased them their car.

What’s the end result?

Sadly, these drivers with good minds and big ideas can’t seem to slow the car down long enough to get off the race track and pursue their dreams.

This Catch-22 shows up for a lot of us. We seek full lives, and therefore earn our way into routines that leave very little wiggle room for change. When something breaks down, we’ve got limited time to fix the problem, let alone change our course completely.

And so we keep racing around the track, getting more of what we already have while our big ideas scream at us from the back seat.

After counseling 10 or so speeding entrepreneurs with day jobs, I’ve come to realize this:

The first step is almost always making time for the first step.

Otherwise, you get nowhere fast.

What’s It All About?

Person standing on a rock in the sea

It’s hard to live.

Our brains are well-developed. We’re a thinking species; not always a good thing. We’re a long way from being content just sitting on a mossy rock. After 5 minutes of one thing, we feel an urge to move on, to find a reason to make us grow. And that urge never seems to go away, like a hunger that always comes back after we eat.

We chase being full.

We invent pasts that didn’t happen, we dive into stories we can never prove, we create vacation spots for those we can no longer visit, we erase whole events and people. Some of us even erase entire sequences of thought, years of life, or we split in two to deal with the hardest of things.

We plunge into work.

We dedicate our lives to solving problems.

We burrow into books and teachings, willing to follow anyone arrogant and foolish enough to believe they have the answer.

It’s a painful notion to recognize that the accumulation of things, even of fantastic experiences, even of accolades from the world — shouts of approval; certainly bring growth, but never peace.

That the things we do, the badges we earn, don’t amount to anything, really; with time, much less time than planned, they become obsolete: rusting, bent metal in a pile.

We want everything to matter. We want to have the biggest collection, to live in the euphoria of newness without having to go through the ordeal of finding something new.

This happens to us again. And again.

We wish to be a voluptuous shape but, try as we may, imagine as we do, we’re just a line — a point really — a dot on a dot, regardless of the stories we believe to be true.

Our movements deceive us.

We can move our little dot in any direction at any given time, and, despite how good that sounds in a children’s book or a video game, it’s painful to deal with in real life.

As sure as the world spins, we continue to go up and down, but we wish for the up when we’re down and fear the down when we’re up, and therefore miss those minutes, or perhaps worse, make them painful.

How is it that we can do anything, go anywhere, be anything, and yet we find ourselves unable to leave the room? Or maybe we can leave the room, only to begin running so fast we make the world a blur.

It’s this thing, this running from stillness, this burrowing from light, that has become the human thing, that separates us from the rock and the moss.

There’s some comfort in knowing that we all have these experiences, that the hard heat of the sun and the isolating shade of the mountain, are all of ours.

Both can feel nice and both can feel terrible.

And it’s never enough to have one, nor both. It wouldn’t be enough to own the sun, to run so fast that we fly right into it.

Indeed, most of us have wished for exactly this: to make our feet leave the earth, to fly right into the sun.

For me, this helps. When things get hard, it helps to imagine leaving, walking into the incredible heat of the sun, melting down into nothingness. Actually going there, using this cursed brain to go there, to finally stop the running, to disappear.

It helps.

Because, when I emerge from nothing, everything else becomes a little more special.

And the earth, as if appreciative of my humble effort to disappear, seems to spin a little more slowly. The wind’s harsh gusts become a song.

And I notice as the tide shifts and the powerful waves recede, a mossy rock appears, and I know without having to think why I know, that the silence between the waves is my invitation to join what’s been there all along.

And I will sit and it will be lovely, and for a moment I will be wise and in that widsom I will have to remember that I will forget this loveliness and I will not be wise.

The waves will grow and crash. They will take my rock, and me.

And, though I may be full of doubt at first, I will emerge, wet and seemingly without wisdom, in search of a new moment.

In a world of make-believe stories and evasive destinations, of carefully laid plans and disruptive winds, of saltwater and sun, this is the closest I can get to uncovering the truth.

Reason to Interrupt

Thank you, NHS.

We were deep into it; I was talking with my hands, sitting there at our wobbly table on the sidewalk amongst the other wine drinkers at dusk.

Three young women, no more than 20, with hip, baggy clothing and patches of skin showing here and there, approached our table, one of them sheepishly in the lead, the others behind her, smiling.

“Excuse me,” she said, probably surprised by my delight at being interrupted.

What could this be about? What couldn’t wait?

I live for these off-script moments among strangers, a few unusual lines to remind us all that we’re very much alive. We can do anything. We are the architects, not the tenants.

I abruptly stopped. So did my drinking buddy. And we turned, our drinks fully cocked in mid-air, ready to save us from any awkwardness that may arise.

“I just wanted to say Happy Pride,” she said. And then more quietly: “I came out today.”

And, behind her, her friends started clapping.

So we started clapping.

“Awesome!!” I shouted, and my knee hit the table, jiggling our water glasses. “AWESOME!” I shouted louder. “Thank you for that! Thank you for telling me! Happy Pride!”

I clapped hard. I clapped above my head and woo-hooed as she turned to her friends, all of us witnesses to an actor’s first act.

The whole patio erupted in applause, a chorus of positive reinforcement cascading the sidewalk, a medley of wine glasses raised in the air, sparkling in the sun.

It’s like we were all hoping for this to happen, all tucked away in our dutiful roles as friends, fathers, and professionals, hidden out of habit, but secretly wishing for something to jar us loose.

That’s what she did: jar us loose.

And for this, we were grateful, Grateful and alive, closer to each other, seeing each other’s faces. Smiling at strangers, toasting with friends.

It felt so good.

To know that one more person was on their path, was — for the first time — able to hear the rhythm of their own pulse on a busy sidewalk in Oakland, California. Loved by friends, breathing fully.

Proud indeed.

The Fisherman

Silhouette of fisherman on lakeshore at dawn

He preferred to fish from the shore, his toes in the mud, the whole of the lake in front of him. His rod didn’t change much over the years. And why would it? He was the best fisherman in town, perhaps the country.

Then came the nets.

The first one pulled out thousands of fish in a single pull.

Before long, there were nets everywhere, blanketing the lake, extracting the fish in minutes. The men with the nets did not come barefoot; they did not choose to feel the cool, wet earth between their toes or to appreciate the glint of the sun off the lake’s surface.

They walked quickly and threw their nets without contemplation.

They never asked him to leave; they didn’t have to.

He left on his own. The rod felt silly, his craft immediately ancient and unimpressive. Coming home with a dozen fish, however beautiful in their color and size, no longer provided the same warm feeling.

He dropped his rod, not out of any specific emotion, but just by opening his hands. He began walking.

Hours passed, and he found himself by the same small pond he discovered as a boy, the murky puddle where he learned his lot, hours of trial and error, of cursing, of laughing, of waiting for the surface to tremor.

There were 2 young men on the shore, sitting in low-back chairs, their rods upright and secured in the earth beside them.

“How are the fish?” he asked.

They shook their heads.

He walked over, and they sat up.

“What are you using?”

Before long, he was showing them how to find worms in the soil and hook them lengthwise so they wouldn’t fall off. He demonstrated a side-cast to get the line under the willow. Ah, the willow, that old friend.

He tugged at the line 3 times, reeled a half turn, a winning formula he would never forget.

The line jounced, barely noticeable unless you were holding the rod – a small vibration you could easily miss if you didn’t know what it was.

He smiled and glanced over at the young men, but they were busy looking at each other, a private exchange he wasn’t supposed to see.

He noticed, for the first time, their empty bucket and the cooler with the bottle opener on it.

“Sorry,” he said.

And they laughed.

He put the rod down, gently this time, as if placing a baby back in its crib.

The willow seemed to answer with its sway, a loyal friend bearing witness.

His feet cold, he made his way back to the road, feeling the punches of wind each time a car raced by.

He thought of the nets, the lake, and his home. He tried to imagine the way the nets would feel in his hands, how heavy they may be in his arms.

He pictured his rod, worn and bent, laying on the ground by his footprints, then turned around and walked backward, trying to ignore the wind.

He paced slowly, knowing all too well that the road would soon dip and turn and take everything from him.

Within minutes, the pond was out of sight.

And then the willow.

Good Morning Lottery

Documentary work for the UK National Lottery

Too often we let the mood we wake up in determine our day.

Don’t forget that you’re the CEO of your mind. Don’t settle for the first proposal. If you aren’t dazzled by the thoughts you woke up with, put something else in there. Think about someone who is good to you, read a poem, reflect on a win, imagine your favorite place, picture something you want to have happen today.

You’re never obligated to keep running with the first report that comes in. Rather than follow that thought, call an emergency board meeting.

Brainstorm more options until you roll up on something good.

You can win the good-morning-lottery every day.

Because this is the only game you get to be in charge of.

And it’s the most important one.

Eating Airhead Gummies and Speaking with a French Accent in an East Oakland Convenience Store Parking Lot

Cliff And Hazel Eating Gummies In the Car

We had 40 minutes to kill between dropping off our friends at the airport and picking up Evaline at the zoo, so I resorted to the obvious choice: pizza. Hazel and I share a love of East Coast pizza, so we navigated our way to a joint I know and like. She could hardly contain herself. (She may like thin-crust pizza more than I do!).

But it was closed.

And so was the next place. And the next.

In fact, there were hardly any restaurants or grocery stores anywhere and the buildings that were still standing, were boarded up or closed. It was all parking lots and liquor stores, grass growing up through the pavement, broken light posts, missing fire hydrants.

A place not taken care of.

We drove for blocks and blocks. I said nothing, just let her take it in, come to the realization herself that there’s work to be done.

“There’s nothing here,” she said.

“But there are lots of people here,” I said.

After checking the clock, I resorted to pulling into a convenience store parking lot.

Brunch for us would be a bag of all-in-one assorted Doritos/Cheetos/SunChips/Pretzels and a Grape Crush Gatorade. For dessert, Airhead Gummies.

It was heaven for an 8-year-old: sitting in the backseat with her dad, popping junk food, and using the brightly colored gummy shapes to tell stories.

She held a blue mustache-looking gummy between her nose and her upper lip.

“Mawhnjaay,” she said, pretending to stroke it.

I dug around to find another blue one.

“Mawhnjaay,” I replied.

And then we ate our mustaches.

Within 20 minutes, I was pretty cracked out on sugar. To be honest, my stomach was feeling pretty terrible.

“See that house,” I pointed to a pink wooden single-family home right next to the parking lot. “Think about it,” I said. “They don’t have any restaurants to eat at.”

She didn’t say anything.

“Where are the grocery stores?”

Still nothing.

It’s a delicate thing: lifting the veil of innocence.

I checked the clock.

“We gotta get Evs.”

We rolled up our bags of junk food and exchanged high-fives. I hopped out of the backseat and walked around the car to the driver’s side—a short distance, but by the time I sat back in the driver’s seat, it was like a whole different reality lay in front of us, like we had sneaked into a wormhole of time we weren’t supposed to have found.

It wasn’t until we were on our way home, retelling our travels to Evaline, that I learned what the experience had been like for Hazel.

“We drove down a road, and there were all these people but no places to eat. Nothing was open, everything was boarded up or broken. We drove and drove, but we couldn’t find anywhere to eat.”

“Wow,” said Evaline, her teenage tone betraying the word itself, before laying her head against the window to sleep.

Two young minds at work in their own ways.

I thought about the leftover quiche in our fridge as I pulled onto the on-ramp, passing a display of orphaned hubcaps lining the mangled fence.

And then I caught Hazel’s eyes in the rearview, Gatorade stain around her mouth: a glimpse of our 20-minute hiatus from the world, or a swan-dive deeper into it.

Pursing my lips and squinting my eyes, I put on my best bad French accent.

“Mawhnjaay,” I said.

And she laughed.

Thoughts About Thoughts (and Happiness)

The word thoughts on a pin board

Perhaps the goal shouldn’t be to have more happy thoughts.

Instead, maybe we should aim to hold onto our unhappy thoughts a little less tightly.

Self-criticism is necessary for growth and transformation. It’s a genetic tool to keep us evolving. But we often forget that part of the formula and perseverate on telling ourselves we’re not good enough.

The fact of the matter is all of those outwardly happy people out there have plenty of inwardly dark moments too. It’s not that they’re better at banishment; they’re better at letting go. Or rather, not holding on in the first place.

Thoughts should flow through us like a trickling brook. Watch out for whirlpools.

Allowing Your Ideas To Take Off

Close up view on birds plumage

I have a Post-it on my wall that reads: “Done is better than perfect!” (with an exclamation point, because sometimes I have to yell at myself!).

I got the phrase from a client who saw it written with a sharpie on the wall of her break room. She’s in the tech industry.

It refers to the ideas of iterative development and design thinking, the belief that perfect things are rarely made perfect in private.

You need input, fingers pointing, attention waning. Otherwise you’ll never see your blind spots.

This is especially true with innovation: building something new, whether it’s a business plan or a work of art; a product or a perspective.

One of my own pitfalls is staying in the workshop too long. I know I’m not alone on this.

I love the workshop — a safe domicile for my brightly colored creativity — but until my ideas reach another eyes, ears, or hands, my impact is limited. I’m trapped in my own opinions and feelings. And, as much as I’d like to believe I see every angle of everything, that’s just not true .

Ideas are like beautiful birds. Better to take them outside and let them breathe, soar, and sing, even if they’re not fully groomed.

They’ll sound different outside the workshop. And, once you realize that vulnerability is much better than invisibility, and that criticism beats the hell out of cynicism, your ideas can finally take flight.

Anxiety Dreams

Red building on a school campus

I finally got rid of my college anxiety dreams, the ones where I can’t find my class on the first day, or where I lose my schedule and don’t know where to go, or how I failed to realize I enrolled in a class and still had to sit for the final exam…

It was hard to get out from under them, but I did. The trick was to not care.

Let me explain.

There I’d be on the quad, with my backpack, holding a map or a schedule or whatever, and the panic would set in.

What if I miss class, what if I’m late, what if I fail, what if, what if…

Too many what-ifs can ruin you.

So, in the moment, in my dream state, where I’m somehow in my 40s on a campus with a backpack and I care about what 20-year-olds think, I fold up the map, put in my pocket and walk into a building. The goal in Dream-Cliff’s brain is to find someone and ask for help, but it seems like the folding of the paper works by itself, and I usually end up someplace else, off campus, in another dream, a safer, funnier dream.

The last couple of nights, though, the college dreams have come back: it’s the first day, and I’m meeting people, and I can’t remember their names. They all seem to know how to do the school thing, and I don’t.

WTF! I thought I figured this shit out already.

Then I realized what was going on.

My oldest daughter is going off to college this year. This year!

I’m anxious for her.

This was a relief to realize — that it’s her, not me — but then my parenting gene kicked in (oh that big ‘ol heart will do it to me every time!) and I began to worry for her.

What if she can’t get to her classes, what if she gets lost, what if she doesn’t find a friend?

It’s almost harder because I’m not in control of the outcome. I can’t fold up the map this time.

She has to.

But, I suppose can help her realize that being late to class on the first day isn’t the end of the world, that the first people you meet may not be the best people you meet, that friends come with time and teachers are forgiving.

Or maybe she’ll learn that stuff on her own.

Maybe I need to stop trying to ply her with advice and, instead, let the world do some teaching in my absence.

In my absence…


That’s the real source of the anxiety, isn’t it? The thought that she’s going to be out there — somewhere — without me, that I can’t clean up behind her, that I can’t make introductions, draw a bright red line from her dorm to her classes, build a robot suit made of thick metal plates and set up an alert system to notify me in case of failure.

It was a lot easier to solve the problem of getting lost myself.

Letting go of my daughter’s hand and willingly allowing her to get lost is much harder.

Much harder.

She’ll have to find her way to class without me.

She’ll have to figure out the map trick on her own.

And learn to live with her dreams.