Sometimes, It Pays To Be Stupid Lucky

I’m a firm believer that Luck is actually a combination of opportunity plus preparation – that you can only be “lucky” if you’ve done the requisite preparation when you’ve been presented with an opportunity. I believe that’s true in maybe 90% of our lives, which is why I keep working at the things I love – so that when opportunity comes knocking, I’m not stuck sitting in my undies munching on Cheetos without a clue as to where my pants or a napkin are.

This isn’t about that ninety percent. I’ll get to that at some point.

This about that other ten percent. When it seems like God just looks down and says “You know what? Let’s just see what happens when I drop this right HERE.” Those moments when you’re in the right place at the right time for no good reason. When dumb luck smiles in your direction and decides it’s your day.

I’m pretty sure it was my senior year of high school and I was walking down the band room hallway with my buddy Jayson. We had a substitute on this particular day, so the inmates were having the run of the asylum, but nothing too crazy. That was mostly because we knew our sub was a special person – a woman who actually requested to sub for band and just liked being around creative kids, even if they were a complete pain the ass. As long as the place didn’t get set on fire and someone was playing music, it seemed that everything was okay with her. An incredibly nice lady.

We were going past the band director’s office when this modern day saint of a substitute said “Hey, you two like jazz. You want tickets to this show tonight? My husband and I can’t go.”

Free? Free with a capital EFF? Sure! Who’s playing? Nevermind, doesn’t matter.

Except it did. My buddy and I wound up with prime seats to see Rebirth Brass Band at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH.

To say this was a “formative experience” would be underselling it. For a honky kid from New Hampshire with a burgeoning love of soul and funk, this was like mainlining music straight from the source. New Orleans became Nawlins and this was the moment I became hooked on live music. I’d never seen anything remotely like Rebirth. To say that our high school jazz band was like what they did was sort of like saying my Ford Escort was like a Ferrari – technically speaking, they’re both cars, but that’s about it. They blew the roof off that place and then some. By the end of the night, they were inviting the audience on stage with them to dance… and somehow, I wound up there dancing… in front of people… with nary a sip of alcohol involved.

Maybe I was spoiled, but to this day, I’m always excited the day of a gig – whether I’m playing or just in the audience. Because you never know what could happen. You might get pulled on stage. Some random guy might ask to sit in and slay it. The lead singer from the band might jump off stage and sing while dancing through the audience. Maybe nothing happens but a good night of music. Maybe the band is having an off night.

Whatever happens, it pays to be prepared. That’s where the other 90% comes in – because you have to say yes and then be ready for what happens.

And a little dumb luck doesn’t hurt either.

Responsibility

“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Maybe that’s why I prefer a standing desk…

On my whirlwind weekend trip, I had the chance to visit Teddy’s birthplace in NYC and it’s gotten me thinking about the man quite a bit since. The idea of responsibility for one’s own actions is something I’ve wrestled with throughout my life and then found neatly tied up in a bow with this quote.

I don’t want to get into a larger discussion about society and how we view the struggles of others. I’m not qualified to lecture on the difficulties of others because they’re not my own and I don’t have the time this morning to delve into a serious research project. So, at the risk of getting Teddy’s ghost angry for choosing ease over strenuousness, I’m taking the quick way out and only speaking of myself.

Without a doubt, I can say that the quote above reflects my life pretty accurately. Were there external forces acting on my life? Yes. Did things go wrong that were beyond my control? Definitely. Were they the majority of my life? No.

By and large, I’ve been responsible for the life I’ve lived so far. And it’s been a good one. Considering some of my own missteps and bad habits, you could make the argument that where I’ve ended up constitutes an embarrassment of riches. In my case, the person causing a lot of the troubles has been the one I shave with in the mornings.

There’s a story about Hunter S. Thompson that I love where he’s sitting at a table and knocks a drink off the edge with the back of his hand. Before it can hit the ground, he’s swooped in with the same hand and caught the glass without spilling the contents. No matter how you slice it, that’s incredible reflexes – especially so when you consider he was probably drunk and hallucinating a bit at the time. The person watching was amazed and complimented him on his reaction time. Hunter mumbled something along the lines of “Well, let’s remember who causes most of the accidents around here in the first place”.

Maybe we’d all do to remember who makes most of the messes in our lives to start with before getting too high and mighty about our successes.

Not Really Spreading The News

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to spend a couple days walking the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan with a good friend from college. Along the way, I ate a ton of good food, did some tourist-y stuff, did some nerd tourist-y stuff, went to church at Hillsong NYC, and saw my favorite band of all time Tower of Power slay at Brooklyn Bowl. It was a blast that even driving home in a monsoon couldn’t dull.

One thing I didn’t do was take a ton of pictures or post on social media.

Partly that’s because the times when it would’ve been most convenient to post, I was at my hotel which was a black hole of cell service (in spite of being able to see over a dozen cell towers from my window) and had wifi that was only slightly less spotty than a rented room in the deepest parts of the Amazon. But it was mostly because I didn’t feel like it.

There’s something about walking around New York that’s very peaceful for me. Maybe that seems an odd way to describe being in a city that’s famous for never sleeping, but that’s the best way I can describe it. The constant movement of people, cars, buses, taxis, and lights reminds me of staring at waves on the ocean or a fire. You never see the same pattern twice because it’s always changing.

To get a little more strange, I guess you could describe it as a reverential attitude that kept me from reaching for my phone (unless it was for getting directions). For the same reason I didn’t want to take a picture of the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center, I didn’t want to spend too much time snapping photos. Because I wanted to really feel those moments rather than worrying about capturing them in pixels.

Now, there’s also a chance that I’m romanticizing my lack of social media savvy as well, which I’m also okay with. Either way, I feel like I was present for the whole weekend, got some much needed time with an old friend, and got up close and personal with a band that’s now closer to an American musical institution than anything else. Which is all I really cared about anyways.

It’s Not

“Anything’s hard that you’re forcing.” – Markus Redmond

I think it can be hard to admit when I’m forcing something – especially when it’s something I want really badly. It’s actually funny how easy it is to continue forcing something, which is a contradiction in and of itself, which also happens to make it an incredibly human thing to do.

We are creatures of contradiction. We are species of hypocrisy, but we’re also creatures of fun, whimsy, genius, and bullshit. It’s the biggest reason why human beings are interesting at all – our capacity for contradictions.

So I can agree with Markus in part because the writing itself isn’t the hard part necessarily. Writing poems isn’t a hard thing for me. Writing this blog post isn’t particularly difficult. Typing out a screenplay isn’t a massive undertaking. It’s only when I build it up and begin to force myself to do things where it gets tough.

Now, keep in mind that Markus Redmond is also the guy who wrote his first screenplay in three weeks and then sold the thing, so let’s just say that mileage may vary, shall we? Even bearing in mind the man’s apparently superhuman writing skills (only half kidding here), there’s something to be said for understanding where the difficult parts actually are.

For me, I can get tangled up in what will actually happen with the project after I’m done writing – which is a stupid thing to do while in progress because it’s an entirely meaningless worry until you’ve actually finished the thing. But again, it’s an easy thing to do and also a form of procrastination with a dash of self-sabotage tossed in. What better to distract from the doing of the thing than what I’ll do with the thing after it’s finished? It’s almost perfect.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about as I’m stalled a bit on my two major writing projects. Am I really being stopped by the hard part or am I misplacing my anxiety to avoid the thing altogether? Maybe I’ve wandered off topic a bit here and lost the thread, but hey, that’s human as well, right?

Surprise!

“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated”. James P. Carse

No matter how you slice it, that’s one helluva quote. But that’s not what really intrigued me enough to write about it this morning. What sparked me to it was that I’d actually misread it the first time and only caught the right wording as I was writing it down in my journal.

Initially, I read the second sentence as “To be prepared against surprise is to be educated”, which I guess was my brain’s early morning way of tying the two of them together. After a mild self-scolding to be a more careful reader, I realized that both readings could be seen as accurate in their own ways.

My first thought on my initial misreading was that being prepared against a surprise is a bit of a downer. I mean, who doesn’t like a good surprise? Note that I said good surprise. Finding an extra twenty dollar bill in your winter coat from last year is a good surprise. Finding a cheese sandwich in the other pocket would be surprising but not good.

But I could see how the idea of being prepared against surprise would make a lot of sense to me in a certain situation. In many situations, I find myself working through details so I don’t get caught by surprise at a time when I can least afford it. Not having all the information I need for a project that’s on a deadline or having extra microphone and power cables in my box heading out to a gig are the first examples that come to mind. That’s trying to avoid unpleasant surprises and I’m all in favor of that.

However, there are also times when I deliberately leave space to be surprised. There have been times both at gigs and at church where I’ll intentionally leave some part of the music vague just to see what happens. After all, if you’ve prepped everything around that part and are working with people who understand what’s happening, it can be fun. I’d say those would qualify as good surprises – even if they’re mistakes.

The trouble, I think, is when the idea of being prepared against surprises becomes a way of life and mitigating risk becomes a full-time job. Taking away surprise in all situations is a horrible thing because it stifles innovation, but more importantly, it takes away fun and the joy of discovery.

Full credit and disclosure, the quote above is from Tim Ferriss’ weekly 5-Bullet Friday email newsletter, which I’d highly recommend along with his podcast.

Influencers

The idea of being “an influencer” has gone from being an unknown to a badge of honor to a bit of a slur is just under five years. On one hand, that’s nature of how quickly the world moves these days. On the other hand, considering how fast we move, that’s not a bad run either.

However, the idea that people aspire to be “an influencer” on social media and that a handful of people actually make a living (some quite a comfortable one) at it, is a bit crazy on the face of things. For someone like me who grew up when the “The Internet” (and yeah we capitalized it back then… along with beating our clothes against a rock to clean them) was something like Prodigy or AOL, garish colors, and that wonderfully annoying squawk as your dial-up modem merged you onto The Information Superhighway. Terribly exciting stuff back then. But the idea that someone could be famous for being online and make a living for no other discernible skill besides existing and knowing how to make a selfie video? Kinda strange.

Then I had a chance to watch a video with Jeff Bridges this morning during my workout. The whole thing is a good watch, but the bit I’m focusing on starts at about 2:31…

A little reference material right off the bat, and mostly for my own sake. Buckminster Fuller was an architect, system theorist, designer, author, inventor, and futurist. Trim tabs are used in boats and aircraft, and are small control surfaces attached to a larger control surface.

Fuller used the idea of a trim tab metaphorically to great effect, which is what Jeff Bridges is getting at here. The idea that moving the trim tab (an individual) a little bit causes a low pressure that eventually turns the whole rudder around which then pulls the whole boat around is fascinating. It’s a revelation and also vaguely frustrating because it’s one of those things I feel my brain should’ve really worked out on its own a long time ago. But I digress.

To me, this is a shot of energy into the mainline. No matter what the political or social environment, I think everyone feels powerless at some point – that there’s absolutely nothing they can do, as an individual, that will make any kind of impact on the society or world as a whole. This despite having hundreds of examples where the actions of one person had a cascading effect that led to change. It’s easy to hand wave those away because we can put those individuals in a box labelled “special”, which implies they’ve done something we can’t.

Personally, I think all it requires is a shift in perspective and effort. At most points in my life where I’ve sat in the doldrums, it’s because I’m too lazy to either shift my perspective or do something that would begin to create forward movement. That’s not to say that depression or sickness doesn’t play a part, but let’s face it – that’s not always the case. There’s a lot of times when I just didn’t want to get off the couch, literally or metaphorically speaking.

The perspective shift is that we might not get a chance to see the change. While we can all effect change in some small way, not all of us will be around to see the results – our change is a generational change. Really, that can be some of the most important change there is.

Writing is a Battlefield (Earth)

To err is human, but to really mess things up, try justifying the err and wind up building an entire system of fragile excuses, self-pity, and loathing that lean on each other like a demented house of cards waiting to topple over at the slightest hint of wind.

Or maybe that’s just me.

The point is, we all make mistakes. Thankfully, most of them are not fatal to ourselves, career, or family. In most cases, the worst case scenario bears only a passing resemblance to what actually happens. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we still have to cope with and process those mistakes and figure out how they fit into our lives. At the very least, most of our errors aren’t quite as public as being a credited writer on one of the worst movies ever released, Battlefield Earth.

I’m not writing this post to crack on Corey Mandell, because I actually admire the guy. Not for Battlefield Earth, because that would probably qualify you for a padded room and losing your scissor privileges for life. We’re talking about a flick that the first screenwriter, J.D. Shapiro, tried to avoid being given a writing credit. This is not the beginnings of a beautiful story.

What I took out of Mandell’s story is that it takes a lot of missteps and failures to get where you want to go. In this case, he wound up finding what he believes is his true purpose, writing. Would he have ended up in the same place without writing lines for a hero named Jonnie Goodboy Tyler? Maybe. But unless you’ve got the Eye of Agamotto hanging around and want to nip off to check out all the millions of alternate timelines, I feel pretty safe in saying that we can’t be sure.

(Seriously though, if you have that thing hanging around, drop me a line – I have some questions.)

This is in line with what posted yesterday – something I thought I was pretty good at that I’ve had to re-examine. Looking at all the parts of my life that have happened so far and accepting them all as part of what has gotten me here.

Even that time I rented Battlefield Earth.

Enduring the Edit

“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”Don Roff

The best thing about having two writing projects going at the same time is there’s always something to work on. Get stuck on this one, move to the other, and then vice versa. The worst part about having two writing projects going at the same time is that if you’re timing is off, you can wind up in the edit phase with both of them at the same time.

That’s where I am now.

The first project, a screenplay, was sent out for feedback awhile ago and came back with plenty of notes (totally expected) and an encouraging pat on the back (bonus!). I rewrote the first 15 pages, sent it back for some more feedback, got more notes, and am now in the process of working a full draft. The other project is a book of poems where I’ve stopped writing new material and have been focusing on revising what’s been written to assess where I’m at in the overall scheme of things.

One of the gifts from this process has been coming face-to-face with things I’ve often said but now have to question if they’re really true. The first thing is that “I know that all my poems aren’t great and I’m willing to write through the bad ones to get to the good ones.” The second is that “Because I only write for myself, it’s okay that I don’t revise things.”

Looking at those on my screen, it’s pretty easy to see the cozy log cabin of lies and deception that I constructed for myself. I mean, inside my head or coming out of my mouth, those things sound great. But sitting there in front of me, it’s tough to not call it for what it is.

Really, it’s an excuse to not do the extra work of editing and rewriting. In fact, now that I’ve exposed my own lies for all the world (or at least the couple dozen people who might stumble on this) to see, I’ll go a step further and say that I’ve been neglecting an entire portion of the writing process itself to my own detriment as well as the work itself.

Much as discouraging people to talk politics and religion leads to people not knowing how to talk about politics and religion, not editing and rewriting means you’re absolute crap at them. Even if I am writing primarily for my own pleasure, that doesn’t mean it has to suck, right?

So here I am, enduring the edit and trying to find the joy in it.

I may need a flashlight.

Getting To Do Done

Am I an organized person by nature or a disorganized person who is forced into being organized so that I can get things done and find my car keys on a regular basis? It’s the classic chicken-egg question, and one that I’ve yet to satisfactorily answer for myself.

For other people, I usually go with the second because it sounds better and I suppose also gives me a slight ego boost for overcoming natural bad habits. However, it’s probably a little closer to the first than I’d like to admit. My room growing up was rarely the complete disaster I’ve seen from most kids and even when I was in college, things were pretty well kept. After cleaning our kitchen for the first time, my wife thought she’d wound up with the guy from Sleeping With The Enemy. In my own defense, all of the labels weren’t out.

Which is all to say in a roundabout way that I have a daily to do list. I write it out by hand with little checkboxes and then take great joy in adding a check to those boxes throughout the day. If I neglect to have my list, then the day tends to wander (see also: yesterday’s post and guess which days I’m best about making that list).

For a season, I tried a method that it seems other “wildly productive” people use, which is to schedule your day out completely by time – down to the quarter hour. Sounded like a fantastic idea until I’d done it about a month and realized that much as doing just one thing might work for some people, that this wasn’t for me. I can see how that would work, but for me it caused paralysis and aggravation because it always seemed I was going off schedule. So I went running back to my list.

And you know what? It works. Maybe not in a “wildly productive” way, but it works. Things get done and between my list and my calendar, I have a pretty good look at my day and can plan accordingly. And if things don’t get checked off the list? I either add them to my list for the next day or reevaluate whether it’s something I should be doing.

See, I think the best lesson I’ve learned from the list that I couldn’t quite get with the schedule was to be a little more kind with myself. Maybe it’s a crossed wire in my head, but the schedule never allowed me that breathing room whereas missing one item on a list elicits a shrug from me. After spending a fair amount of time beating myself up over the years, I figured I owe me one.

Probably more, really.