Algebra as an Adult

One of my evening’s pleasures is doing Algebra with my daughter. A lot of people don’t know this but I was a Math major before I chose English & Writing. I got up into the rafters of Calculus II before dropping down into the rumpus room of Shakespeare and Hemingway and the sub-floor basement of Kafka, Robeson, and Morrison.

It’s great to be cerebral, to make those brain synapses do some jumping jacks and burpees.

And all those old formulas? They still hold up! Math is good for that: not changing, always right where you left it. The Pythagorean Theorem, the Quadratic Equation, good ol’ Pi equals 3.14159 every time – It’s not up for negotiation. There are no interpreters.

As for the life of a counselor and a dreamer, the “maybe’s and the what-if’s and the could-be’s will always be pregnant with possibilities, which is why I keep them around, but there’s something about crunching through black and white numbers after a day full of grey areas…

One thing leads to the next and the next and it never changes. And it never throws a curve ball at you. Math, like a reliable great uncle who tells you the same stories with the airy laugh at the end. Math, like a gleaming diamond, whether you understand it or not, it does what it’s supposed to do.

It could be Math, or it could be Gardening or Sodoku or Legos. There’s comfort in rules and routine.

Sometimes you just need to know what comes next.


Hats Off To The Artists

(1 min read)

Hats off to the artists: the fools, the geniuses, the ones insane with love and deep into a pursuit of which they don’t know the ending.

Hats off to the artists: those that dive deep into their own darkness and light every day, bold enough to stare at their soul, even after it looks back at them.

Hats off to the artists, who give up everything already valued in search of odd, angular, broken relics that we walk over and past on our way to the Big Time.

Artists. They see something and it’s not enough to see it; they have to find a way to break it down to its tiniest atoms, to know it better than anyone else so that everyone else can know it that way too.

Their feet and hands bleed so we can carry something back in from the cold and insert it into the corner of our room like a space heater, giving back to us endlessly, appreciated every time we notice it’s there.

Hats off to the artists.

Your work is what changes us and changes the world. Without your inventions cared for like stray animals, without your scribbled lines and wicked vibrations we’d be in a box in a box in a box, hoping for a weed to grow through the cracks in the floor, uncertain as to why we’re so cold.


What Should Be An Easy Choice

(45 sec read)

INSPIRATION is more important than time because inspiration creates time.

It’s like that age-old trick with the genie. Instead of asking the genie for a single wish, one should use the wish to request a thousand more wishes. Right?

Inspiration is that coveted wish that creates more wishes. All of us have at least one wish about TIME – having more of it, using less of it, going back in it, moving through it and past it and beyond it…

Choose inspiration over time and you can do all of these things.

This is a helpful notion when you come across an inspiring activity or event but feel like you don’t have time to do it.

Do it.

Because in the process of being inspired, your mind opens up, your energy skyrockets, you get smarter and faster in every way. You will be able to think in new directions, see connections that weren’t there before.

You will be able to approach whatever it was you were thinking of doing instead, with a renewed omniscience that is only available to the inspired.

I say this with the confidence of a superhero who just peeled off his street clothes, because that’s where I am right now: in the inspired place.

Perhaps, you’re here with me.

See the difference?



(1 min read)

My mom lives in her own world. She makes up a reality that makes sense to her. She collects pictures and objects that fill her home with voices to keep from realizing she’s alone, and that she’s been alone for most of her life.

I can’t think about this too much or I get sad. I’ve tried to rush in and be her whole world, to be everyone and everything for her. It’s been a while since that time and every once in a while I think about doing it again.

When I think about my childhood with my mom, it’s full of love and laughter and weirdness.

My mom went her own way, so that meant I collected different rules.

My mom routinely created outrageous situations where things were otherwise pretty boring – in places like banks and school buses and the sidelines of soccer games – and so I learned to be immune to humiliation and ridicule.

My mom could make a game out of anything. She always had something in her purse that we could fold into something else. She always had crayons and paper and tiny little metal things that just felt good in my hands while I waited in line.

My mom always ordered her waffle the same way – fresh strawberries not frozen, nuked for 30 seconds in the microwave, on the side, of course, in a separate bowl.

I often feel like I was brought up deep in the forest, around flowers no one’s ever seen, developing skills others don’t have, learning a completely different language, similar to the one everyone else knows but just a bit off so that no matter where I go or what situation I’m in, I’m always just a bit off. I sing my songs slightly off key, I dance a little off the beat.

And for this, I can’t thank my mom enough.

Thanks, mom.


Greatest Hits Reel

I think we’re present in the wrong emotions. All of us are experts in obsessing over things we forgot to do, did wrong, or can’t control. We perseverate on our failings more than anything else, and I guess that’s about survival: study what went wrong so you can correct it, so you only get bit by the shark once, so the treasure can’t get stolen again.

But we’ve become too good at it – being present in our failings. Our brains act like screaming, red-faced coaches forcing the team to watch reruns of bad plays. “See, right there! That’s where you screwed up! See it! see it! Right there! You should have ___________ but you ___________ ! I told you not to do it but you did it and now look what happened!

We play these videos incessantly.

They’re the wrong videos.

What a different life we’d lead if we watched volumes and volumes of our wedding vows, of snow days in the old neighborhood, of our first kiss, of yesterday’s kiss. That time we got singled out at work and thanked, a boring old walk home from the subway that turned into a cup of tea and an epiphany on a napkin.

Our friends help us back into these memories, which tend to come up when we carouse about nothing in particular, when we seek laughter above all else. Yes, we’ll gladly conjure our greatest hits for other people, but when left alone, we tend to put these videos away and pull out the red-faced coach.

This is where we go wrong. The good stuff should always be out, like a giant coffee table book or an open browser tab, there for a quick screening when we have a free moment.

Play the right videos. Learn from your wins, not just your losses. Laugh with history and you’ll live your best life.


The Talking Scrapbook

It’s enjoyable to think about all of the turns of phrase and peccadilloes I’ve picked up from important people in my life.

From my art teacher… I use the term “sneak up on it” in reference to taking it slow and steady when working on a large, impossible project. It comes up a lot.

From my old recruiting boss, I sarcastically use the line: “I’ll get to that in my copious spare time” when a request is made and I’m already flat out. (My wife says this now too.) I also push the up arrow on my keyboard exactly twice each morning to wake up my monitor screen.

From my dad… I cut up everything on my plate before I eat anything, at the dinner table I instinctively place the juice off to my left, I use “My man!” as a term of endearment when I’m excited for someone, I call steak “stike” and pizza “ah-beets” (at least in my head), I routinely say things like “ahead of the game”, “bassackwards,” and “cookin’ with gas,” and I rarely get the orange juice in the drive-thru because it ruins the deal.

All this stuff in my head and in my actions, baked into the Cliff code. It’s like carrying around a scrapbook of important memories and the pictures talk when I wave my hand over them. Just by being alive and going through my day, these pictures, they come to life, suddenly and unexpectedly like a talking greeting card. I can’t help but smile.

Sometimes, when I spontaneously laugh in public for no apparent reason and someone asks me what’s so funny, I tell them. “Oh, I just thought of someone I know.”

And no further explanation is needed.


Street Sweeping

9am the 2nd Wednesday of the month. And you know what that means!

Everyone up and down Mira Vista Ave has to move their cars to the other side of the street to make way for the street sweeper.

It’d be entertaining to watch a time-elapsed video of all the people, in robes, with coffee, moving from the right side of the street to the left, almost always a little bit pissed off.

If there were such a video, you’d see me at 8:59 yesterday morning running out the door, angry at myself for forgetting because now I had to park in the boonies and walk 20 minutes back to my house. Ah yes, city living.

But sometimes being late is an advantage. In the startup world, they call it “the last mover advantage”, which is apropos for the street sweeping scenario as well, as I’m discovering.

Just as I get into my car, a man across the street gets into his, and pulls away, leaving behind the gift of a rockstar parking space right in front of my house, a welcome anomaly amidst the bumper to bumper parallel-parked cars wedged into each other across the past couple of hours.

By 9:01am I’m bounding up my steps, delighted with my good fortune, eager to put the extra 20 minutes to good use, and laughing at how upset I was just 2 minutes ago.

A damn parking space, man. Is that really the difference between a good morning and a bad one?

We’re so fragile.


Neither Here Nor There

We all seek to be WANTED, to be sought-after for the things we have to offer.

This can become an obsession, especially for us entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, entry-level whatevers, managerial-whatevers-looking-to-be-directorial whatevers, directorial whatevers-looking-to-be-VP whatevers, attorneys wanting to be partners, athletes, coaches, speed skaters and speed daters, jaded haters, all of us, the broken-hearted…

It’s never enough. We’re always striving, aren’t we?

A growth mindset is healthy, indeed essential, to happiness, but the so-called wanted people out there with the red carpets and the golden signatures don’t seem any more satisfied than the so-called unwanted people, the rest of us.

We all have problems. We all have stress.

Neither emptiness nor fullness equates to contentment. Still, it’s so hard to sit in one place and not wish to be in another.

Here’s my advice: Look down at your feet, look up at the sky, look down at your feet, look up at the sky. Now, try not to miss anything in the middle.


A Gift From Someone Who Loves You

It seems obvious but I’ll say it anyway:

If you want to ensure you have a good day, it’s really up to you.

I mean this in a very logistical way. A surefire practice you can start doing to give yourself a smile is to be the first one to reach out. You will rarely be disappointed.

Call a friend early in the day, email one of your favorite clients out of the blue, say hello to the woman with the dog at the crosswalk, tell someone in your home that you love them, compliment a child.

The very act itself will give you a lift, but there’s something else that happens too. You’re planting a seed in the world that will bloom for you and you alone. It may happen immediately or it may show up later in the day, a gift for you, from you, through someone else.

Be the first to reach out to create joy in your day and get the smile you deserve.


Garbage Man Philosophy

I wrote a short story a while back about a garbage man giving life lessons to a Lit major. Okay, it was semi-autobiographical. I was in school at the time doing a summer job painting dumpsters…

The story veered deeper into fiction toward the end as I was trying to figure out something profound for the garbage man to say. The main character (me) was always quoting novelists and talking in other people’s voices and the garbage man got sick of it. He turned to “me” and said:

“Ya know, Cliff, you need to put the book down every once in a while.”

That was the profound part.

At the time I really didn’t know what I was trying to say but it seemed important.

Now, I think I finally get what was percolating in ‘College Cliff’s’ head.

You have to stop taking in information to leave room for your own thoughts. There is so much to read and so many conversations to have, anthologies to study, podcasts to ingest, soundtracks on your walk, video clips to play in the background while you eat your toast,

But, as a great garbage man once said, you have to put the book down.

There’s no reason to believe that your thoughts are any less profound than the experts you plug into your ears.

Listen to yourself. You can learn a lot.