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…

Ouch.

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.

Enter the Metaphor

selective focus photography of person holding baseball bat

My friend offered to coach my daughter in softball, so we grabbed a bucket of balls, a bat, and some gloves and went to the park.

At first, she struck out a lot. Her swing was off. I tried to give her pointers: “Keep the bat level… Swing all the way through,” but it didn’t really work.

My friend had a better idea.

“Pretend the ball is a piece of fruit, and when it comes near you, you want to slice that fruit in half.”

Smack. Smack. The hits started coming, but they were soft hits; they weren’t making it out of the infield.

“Hit ’em harder,” I cheered excitedly.

My friend took a different tack: “Imagine your sister just stole your favorite doll.”

Hazel doesn’t play with dolls, I thought to myself.

Then. Whap! Hardest hit of the day. Rolled right past me into the outfield.

Ah, yes, of course. Metaphor.

We don’t tell kids to point the tips of their skis together. We say, “Make a pizza slice.” It’s common knowledge at this point. A picture’s worth a thousand words. Kids work better with images.

Adults too.

The #1 way to change someone’s mind is not by making a good argument; it’s by sharing a metaphor.

If a friend says something like, “I feel like I’m drowning,” the best way to save them is to get in the water with them. To enter the metaphor.

“How do we get your head above water?”

But don’t stop there. Change the rules.

“The walls are closing in on me.”
“You’re forgetting that these walls are made of straw.”

“I can’t see through the forest.”
“Let’s cut down some fucking trees then.”

I’m so far down the rabbit hole.
“Maybe you’re still close to the surface, but you just don’t realize it.”

Usually, when people present metaphors, it’s not creativity that drives their vision; it’s that this is what they actually see. If you can tweak that image just a little, you can change their whole view.

Instructions can feel like lectures. “Hit it harder! Stop self-sabotaging!” You immediately create a power structure: you’re the expert, and they’re the idiot. Not a good recipe for lasting change.

Metaphors, however, are safe for everyone: a parallel universe, the land of make-believe, where the walls aren’t real, where sharp objects can rubberize in an instant, and nobody gets harmed.

The most dramatic and sustained transformations I’ve seen don’t come from brilliant advice or the lips of a sage; they materialize in a make-believe world.

You might not be able to hit a ball zinging at you at 30 miles per hour
… but you can slice an apple.

You may not feel like you can solve all of your problems at once
…but you can cut down a tree.

Enter the metaphor and make a change. Make the sea evaporate. Turn stones to jello. Knock down trees with your bare hands. You are the God of that world.

And, contrary to all the rules you learned as a kid and codified into laws as an adult, what happens in that world… happens in this one, too.

Permission to Speak Freely

White and red bokeh photography

I often say inappropriate things. I can baffle and offend. I confuse people.

My mind skips around. I connect strange dots. It’s a blessing and curse.

To be odd and unexpected.

Still, I speak freely. Less analysis upfront means less stress in conversations and more brain power to wonder.

My Japanese aunt calls it having a “clean mind.”

Not shaping my own words according to what others might think, say, or do.

I have a guiding principle that allows for this to happen.

Kindness.

Above all else, I care about people: the person I’m with, the person I’m passing, the person I may have just offended.

I don’t have to worry about my linguistic mishaps because they are unintended and will be cleaned up naturally in the next sentence.

You will see it in my eyes. Feel it in my voice. Something that cannot be faked.

I mean no harm.

I want you to flourish, to be better than you were before, to reach whatever you’re reaching for. Deep in my heart, I want this to happen.

So, if I misstep, bear with me.

I’m doing my best and I’ll come back around.

We’ve got places to go, debris to clear.

It’s all possible, with strange dots.

You’ll see.

That Judging Thing

Silhouette of persons hand

Don’t judge me!

Sorry. Can’t help it.

We’re designed to judge each other; it’s for our safety and survival.

Our brains make rapid-fire decisions about what we see based on past experience, learned and lived. We tell ourselves (in a split second), we’re more likely survive if we partner with those people, instead of those people.

Ironically, this proclivity toward likeness is what divides us.

You can’t stop judging; you’re human.

But you can train yourself to notice when you’re doing that judging thing and then step back to reevaluate.

It’s that 2-second pause that will save us.

It’s the space for growth, a tiny little Hobbit door to the other side, appearing out of nowhere and all too often overlooked.

But it’s there.

Pause, step through, and we all live.

Repainting Memories

Multicolored abstract painting

When I was in 5th grade, I wore my mom’s clip-on earrings to school.

Actually, they were my gramma’s earrings, that kind of old, decorative jewelry with the plastic jewels where the metal doesn’t really shine.

It wasn’t meant to be a statement. I just kinda liked the pinch on my ear lobes, the weight of them, and how I could feel a slight jiggle when I turned my head. So I kept them on as I walked out the door.

I became a spectacle in class. I distinctly remember Mr Lausten, the meanest teacher in the whole school, calling me out: “Flamer! What the heck are you doing?” He shook his head.

A defining moment for me: disdain from an adult about something out of the ordinary, a clue that much more was possible than the lines we draw for each other, that the world wasn’t perfect and no one had all the answers. Not even teachers.

I felt like I was on to something.

It always bothered me when a kid was yanked out of line to write a phrase 50 times on the blackboard. I hated how the dirty kid got made fun of all the time.

I was too young to understand how class influenced uniformity and that we’re conditioned to break into tribes, so all I saw was difference and sameness, meanness and isolation.

I never joined in, but I didn’t intervene either. I do remember wondering why some kids were together at recess, and others were walking around by themselves. I’d like to say I broke the rules, that I went against the norms of the playground and stood up to bullies, but that wasn’t the case at all. I wasn’t Superman. I was 10.

I’ll say this, though: After Mr. Lausten made fun of me in front of the class, I didn’t take my earrings off for the whole day, even when they started to hurt.

I suppose it was my first protest, standing up to authority, sticking up for the kids I never got to know but should have, breaking the minds of the people who draw the lines and play within them, and most of all, quietly and righteously telling my 5th-grade teacher he can fuck off.

It was the loudest I could scream at the time.

That day marked the end of the earrings chapter (until high school, anyway), but the beginning of something new. It wasn’t a coincidence that about that time, I dove into Hip Hop, started reading books on my own, picked up breakdancing, and threw snowballs at cars.

I never meant any harm.

I was just trying things out, drawing my own lines, and stepping back to see the designs.

I wonder if this thing has always been in me; if rebellion flows in my blood, or if it’s something I learned. If not the earrings, would it have been something else?

It certainly feels that way.

Even now, upon playback of that 5th-grade memory, I fantasize about standing up on my school desk and ripping a guitar solo.

That would have been cool. It’s not regret; it’s more like coming back to an old painting and drawing back over th lines.

Adding some color.

Making it even better.

A celebration of sorts.

A scream, finished.

Putting People on Stage

I’m not claiming to have all the secrets to raising kids right but if I were to give one piece of advice to parents it would be to build a karaoke stage in your house.

I’m not talking about just going out and buying a karaoke machine; I mean creating a permanent space for singing and stage antics (think cartwheels, splits, and do-si-do’s).

I’ve seen the benefits.

Something happens to people when they sing into a microphone. Doesn’t matter if they’re out of tune or stumbling over the words. With support (and plenty of applause!), they come alive. In some ways, I see my work as a coach like this, as if I’m giving people the stage. Sing however you want, and I will applaud.

One of my favorite things in the world is witnessing people expressing themselves as they really are, particularly if they haven’t been able to do so in other parts of their lives. It’s like watching a flower open up, like hearing a swallow as the sun rises…. but in a headbanging kind of way.

Kids who grow up with their words amplified learn to love their voice, and everything else in your life is possible when you love and embrace your own voice.

Yeah, I love singing glam rock at the top of my lungs, but I’ll always make room on the stage for the shy kid (or adult!) who loves the song and needs an audience.

What you do on a karaoke stage, you can do in real life.

When I used to teach, sometimes I’d get nervous before a lesson. Singing always helped. Though it was scary to do, often on my way to class, I’d belt out a quick verse. It cleared my guts and gave me air. People’s heads would snap up in my direction, which told me, yeah, I was really doing this. Sometimes that’s all you need.

I give you the same advice when life gets hard.

Put your voice into the world, regardless of who’s around, and sing through your fear.