We’ll Stay In The Car

Getting the feisty toddler into the car and buckled into the baby seat requires a kind of reverse hostage negotiation, so small side trips are usually canceled if they’d require anybody to leave the car. The tendency is for parent and child to just stay in place until the return home.

“All right – time for everybody to get out and stretch our legs!”

“You go ahead. We’ll wait here.”

“But it’s an incredible view! We came all this way!”

“Yes, but Junior is all buckled in. We’ll just hang out in the car.”

“But who knows when any of us will make it back to Mount Rushmore?!?”

“We’ll enjoy it from here.”

“We’re parked between two buses.”

“That’s fine. I brought a book.”

“But we mapped our route and timed our viewing to coincide with today’s total solar eclipse.”

“I know. I wrote our itinerary.”

“The apex is in two minutes. The next one is in 2047.”

“I’ll use the dome light.”

“Okay. I’ll be out here for a few minutes. Then we’ll head back to the airport and return the car.”

“Yeah, I’ve been reading up on that. For a nominal fee, we can just take the car back to California.”

“How much is the fee?”


“That’s nominal?”

“He’s asleep.”


The Con: Where It Comes From, and How To Avoid Pulling It On Ourselves

Mostly I just think Donald Trump is a con man and a bully who has money (which make an ugly combo), but he also seems to be a radiant example of the “fixed” mindset.

Carol Dweck’s book Mindset was a major revelation for me. The basic idea: the “growth” mindset holds that “If I study/practice/work hard, I’ll get smarter/better” – while the “fixed” mindset holds that “Everyone is already as smart as they’re ever going to be.”

Kids learn the growth mindset when they’re praised for working hard, which encourages them to work even harder, take social risks & learn, etc.

Kids learn the fixed mindset when they’re praised for being smart, or talented, or pretty, or athletic – or ‘important’, or ‘winning’, or ‘destined for greatness’ – or whatever. Those who hold the “fixed” mindset seek encouragement, but they avoid situations where they’ll be tested – since any failure at all would rob them of all confidence for the future.

When they’re in danger of exposure, they often become extremely defensive and irrational. Acknowledging established facts becomes a low priority.

Most learning involves risk that weaknesses will be exposed, so people with the “fixed” mindset tend to avoid opportunities for learning. (To my great detriment, I absolutely grew up with the fixed mindset.)


Old video now making the rounds shows Donald Trump describing his genetic predisposition for success. I wish I was making that up.

Years ago, Trump faced a fork in the road: he could either be a success, OR he could follow the rules of business, honor his contracts, pay his bills, accept his failures, respect others’ dignity, and act like a grownup with responsibilities instead of an angry child who is owed success at any price.

America now faces precisely that same decision.


Trump makes bizarre, impossible promises and claims without a whiff of evidence. He frequently denies things he said on television moments before. He’s made ludicrous statements about how he “likes soldiers who don’t get captured” (more than POWs), “PTSD means you’re weak”, evading taxes makes him “smart”, etc. When others lose, he wins.

He also claims that only he can solve terrorism and fix the economy, even while every business venture he touches goes bankrupt and his every movement leaves a snail trail of lawsuits and small contractors facing ruin. He built a business strategy out of systematically cheating his vendors and partners, refusing to pay his bills but still claiming to be wealthy and an expert businessman. And in true schoolyard bully fashion, he reliably accuses others of precisely those offenses of which he is clearly, publicly guilty. (He attacks the poor for not paying taxes, but he hasn’t paid taxes in decades…just this week, he accused Clinton of ties to Putin – ?!?)

By now it’s abundantly clear that Trump inherited his money, lost hundreds of millions of dollars, regularly bilked and bullied small businesses, dramatically underperformed the market in profits, and convinced whole industries not to trust him. As a real estate developer, he’s a titanic failure. But as an expert in lying his way into deals and cheating his way out of them, he’s had considerable success.

This all seems like the behavior of someone who has devoted his entire life to rejecting his own mammoth failings, pushing them onto other people (psychologically, socially, and financially) and seeking ever more costly and risky ways of maintaining his façade and his lifestyle at others’ expense.

Perhaps all “narcissistic” behavior is rooted in such determination to hide one’s weaknesses even from oneself, with others footing the bill. Avoiding one’s own failings requires that the furious denial must never stop, even when clear evidence, and human dignity, and literally the future of the country demand otherwise.

Trump is seemingly incapable of accepting criticism or acknowledging fact. When he contradicts himself and ignores established facts, he simply may not realize he’s doing it.

The “fixed mindset” would also explain Trump’s obsessive and embarrassing habit of making petty and public attacks against women who offer him no threat. Of all the problems a president may face, Trump’s own fragile ego will clearly be the dominant force in every decision.


Taking a step back, Trump’s effortless alliance with hate groups suggests that the “fixed” mindset may explain those groups’ behavior as well. Yes, many children learn to hate minorities because their parents did, or because negative experiences and media portrayals taught them an oversimplified way of looking at the world. But the furious drive that turns bitter prejudices into spiteful compulsions and spiteful compulsions into organized, militant hatred – that drive does not come from without. Only those struggling to deny their own weaknesses would build a lifestyle around attacking the weaknesses of others.

We can’t control Donald Trump, other than by keeping him out of office. We mostly can’t control his followers, other than through strong, continuous, compassionate outreach. We mostly can’t control the media, other than by taking personal responsibility for understanding what’s really going on in the world.

But we can control ourselves. The best way to respond to Donald Trump’s maddening denial of his own obvious shortcomings is to embrace our own, even as we work to transcend them.

All wisdom we may gain comes from an understanding of our own weaknesses as well as our own strengths.

If our behavior is not racist, it’s because we acknowledge our own racist impulses.

If our behavior is intelligent, it’s because we acknowledge our own potential for overlooking the obvious.

If we are not fooled, it’s because we acknowledge that we are perfectly capable of being fooled, even by our established allies.

If we are to defeat Trump – AND WE MUST – we will do so by being better than Trump. And we can only be better than Trump by acknowledging that, each in our own ways, we are capable of being just as hateful and defensive, just as disconnected from the effects of our own actions, just as quick to blame others for our own towering mistakes and to push the costs onto others.


In sum, there are exactly three ways to respond to a problem:

1) We can deny the reality of the problem. That’s what Trump and his supporters do.

2) We can deny the reality of the solution. Unfortunately, that’s what third-party voters in our system tend to do.

3) We can accept the reality of the problem AND the reality of the solution. This step makes progress possible, but it requires some acknowledgment that we are not the heroic revolutionaries we wish we could be. Only by accepting that we are both part of the problem and part of the solution can we inch toward progress instead of making the problem worse.

So yes, for all of the reasons listed above, every third-party vote really is a vote for Trump.


Many third-party voters distinguish between votes cast in ‘swing states’ and those cast in states already ‘guaranteed’ to be won by a specific party: they might vote differently when they feel their vote would “count”.

The electoral college math in such cases may be sound – but in my view, the logic is not.

First: Trump’s angry mob might respect Clinton’s resounding victory in the popular vote while a technical victory would be seen as just another conspiracy.

Second: while no candidate is perfect, third-party candidates’ tend to be evaluated as symbols of frustration rather than potential leaders. Their strongest ideas are embraced regardless of practicality, and their weaker ideas and overwhelming lack of experience tend to be overlooked. Support for a third-party candidate usually promotes an idea rather than a choice as to who the leader will actually be. Because the election will decide who the leader will be, most third-party votes represent an refusal to take responsibility rather than a acceptance of it.

And finally, assuming that the election has safely been won is the surest way to lose an election.

Like it or not, we’re all on the same train, we’re all responsible for where it goes, and we’re all obliged to defend vulnerable Americans from the changes Trump and Pence have promised to put in place. Aloof condemnation of both candidates is deeply irresponsible, and is ultimately an attempt to use the candidates’ weaknesses to distract from our own.

Contradictions Are Bad, But Also Okay

The same question keeps coming up: why does anybody support Donald Trump? I wouldn’t trust him to run a day camp, but almost half the country wants him to be president.

Trump has the full and direct support of Nazis and the KKK (once again, we’re all living in a Ramones song) but also plenty of honest, poor, patriotic, concerned, frightened American citizens. (Witness the “Farmers for Trump” signs throughout Northern California. What class of citizens depends on immigrant labor to make a living from the land while supporting an anti-immigration real estate baron?)

Every one of those characteristics should compel those voters to recognize Trump as a fraud and stop him at all costs, but many still defend and support his campaign. Why?

I don’t think it’s because they’re filled with hate. (Although we all have to manage some hate.)

I don’t think it’s simply that they’re stupid. (Although we all have to manage some stupid.)


I think it has to do with the way we navigate contradictory information.


Every one of us can download more information today than can be read in a human lifetime. Inevitably, complex ideas are reduced to articles, articles are reduced to headlines, headlines are reduced to soundbites, and soundbites are reduced to opinions collected from friends and family that may have no basis in anything at all.

That flood of information ‘shows’ that Donald Trump is a ‘compulsive liar’, a ‘childish racist bully’, a ‘pandering fraud who contradicts himself on an hourly basis’, a ‘business cheat whose empire is built on failing to honor his contracts’, etc.

But that flood of information also ‘shows’ that Hillary Clinton is ‘crooked’, a ‘warmonger’, a ‘shill to corporate interests’, a ‘radical liberal’, a ‘closet Republican’, etc.

I’ve used ‘quotes’ to make a point, but the record shows they belong only on the line describing Clinton.

Every contradiction demands that we choose sides. We want things to make sense, even at the expense of understanding reality.

At a certain point of saturation, facts lose their place in the argument: they’re just more information to be directed with sandbags and drainage systems.

Some hear Trump say “crooked Hillary” and take his side against Clinton; some hear it and take Clinton’s side against Trump. Some hear it and, apparently, take sides against both.

The most difficult reaction is to ignore such meaningless statements – or, if there’s time, to weigh them for their factual value. Trump doesn’t prove that Hillary is ‘crooked’, but he does demonstrate his own infantile habit of name-calling, as if pro wrestling provided the model for presidential behavior. How might that quirk affect delicate international negotiations?

Sorting through contradictory statements is difficult and exhausting, but sorting through contradictory facts is more complicated still. Did progressive politicians support the war in Iraq? Many did. Did progressive politicians support DOMA against gay marriage? Many did.

Struggling to make sense, we reject contradictions. We assume a politician can only be for us or against us, for rights or against rights, for justice or against justice. We rightly demand justice and human rights, often ignoring the ugly demands of keeping our allies in office.

We despise corruption, dishonesty, and the influence of money. It’s easy to forget that we’ve built a system that requires a little of each.

(Those who hold Bernie Sanders up as a shining example of a politician free from corruption and dishonesty: While I supported his campaign, I also read his campaign emails where he aggressively trashed Clinton for petty or nonsensical offenses. He’s spent the last few months trying to preserve American democracy by reversing the damage from his own exaggerated claims. I like most of Bernie’s policies, but he’s been playing the same game as everybody else.)

I think Trump has an instinctive grasp of all of the above. He sputters out a torrent of contradictions and lies because he knows quantity will ‘Trump’ quality. American decisions are made in a hurricane of headlines and claims, usually on the way back to work.

The group that disturbs me most are progressives who think they can reject all of these contradictions by voting for third-party candidates. This group will decide the election.

If they reject Hillary Clinton’s contradictions – her record on gay rights, say, or use of military & diplomatic strategies – they create a much larger contradiction, their concern for justice and human rights directly supporting Donald Trump’s promise of American fascism.

Only by accepting that we all have contradictions – every politician, every voter, every human being – can we make a responsible decision together.


Staging a Musical Taught Me Where Society Is Going

Last weekend I held a big event, coordinating dozens of performers and a large audience. The end result was fantastic, but exhausting. I planned for six months, and everything still happened at the last minute. Why?

Because electronic communications are changing what communities are.

For months, I used email and Facebook messages to recruit, coordinate and motivate dozens of collaborators. Phone calls and texts were very specific, i.e. “Can I use your garage while you’re away?” Longer exchanges happened via email.

My communication is mostly virtual. My closest friends and collaborators may live 10 miles away, or 100, or more. Most of my friendships are maintained through Facebook, email, texts and phone calls.

My communication is mostly unsyncronized. I can email a friend at midnight and they can respond at noon. We both participate in the conversation, but not at the same time.

My communication is mostly inclusive of the group, meaning it’s impersonal. If I ask for something, I tend to ask everybody. To do otherwise would feel like an imposition on one person.

Each of these factors greatly increases my options. Technology allows me to collaborate with more people under more circumstances.

Yet all work is ultimately physical (it has to happen somewhere), and all work requires time, and all work requires the collaborators to impose on one another.

Communications which are virtual, unsynchronized and impersonal are at least three steps removed from this moment, here and now, where all work will ultimately get done. By changing the times and places where work can get done, electronic communications create the optimal environment for procrastination.

Getting together is inconvenient, of course. Living 100 miles away from my collaborators would end the collaboration if we couldn’t share ideas electronically.

And the work does get done. Unity of purpose does not require adjacent cubicles.

But electronic communications can drain a project of its momentum and satisfaction. Work done toward a physical goal is best done physically, with a feeling of exploration and invention. Work done toward a social goal is best done socially, with a sense of shared risk and shared benefit. Work done toward an personal goal is best done personally, with a clearly expressed sense of individual purpose, security, and welcome.

And when communications are virtual and unsyncronized and impersonal, then communities are virtual and unsyncronized and impersonal. The most basic component of community may be overlooked as I again reach for my phone.

As much as I love my distant friends and my expansive community, I’ll build future collaborations on in-person meetings, direct communications, and work done with others in the same room. And that’s also where the fun is, which makes it  the best place to start.


The Curious Toddler, The Drill Sergeant, and Why I Need To Relax

I spent the holiday weekend at an Artists’ and Writers’ Retreat. My goals, in order, were to sleep, to figure out why my creative process was dead in its tracks, to writewritewrite, and to finish five novels.

I achieved my first three goals.


Stuff I learned:

1) Inside each of us is a drill sergeant and a curious toddler.

Only the drill sergeant knows what creative work is.

Only the curious toddler is capable of doing it.

The drill sergeant has a job: get to the desk. If time, safety, working conditions, or anything else creates problems, the drill sergeant needs to make those problems go away.

Once at the desk, recess begins. The curious toddler fits the pieces together. The drill sergeant’s job is done.

2) It becomes a trap when the roles are reversed. I might get to the desk only when inspiration strikes, or when convenience allows, or when I finally feel *relaxed*. Somehow the curious toddler was put in charge of getting to the desk, and he won’t bother unless he’s got a question he wants answered.

When I do make it to the desk, I want to make good use of my time. The drill sergeant demands progress, results, success. His skill is identifying dangerous ground from miles away, so no path seems promising enough. The writing that emerges is stripped of risk, emotion, narrative progress, and anything personal.

The drill sergeant’s job is to clear the way for the curious toddler, not to make the work happen. Yet every convention of writing pushes us to get it backwards.

3) Social networking GREATLY aggravates the problem.

Facebook (and every website with social content) rewards mild, persistent curiosity. This lures the curious toddler, but every promising corner leads only to another promising corner.

Precisely the same instincts which might produce creative work can also trap us in a cascade of memes, news and social updates. Curiosity is engaged. When playing or making art, answers are invented, and skills are developed. When reading or watching movies, details are connected and assembled into a whole experience. But when clicking through Facebook, the imagination is rewarded only for changing direction.

Human curiosity creates what it cannot see directly. We can test ideas and invent stories because we anticipate what is not there.

Yet social networking is now training us to expect a reward not when a story is resolved, but when it’s interrupted by the search for the next story.

When no question is as compelling as the question of what the next question will be, satisfaction becomes obsolete. Storytelling has been replaced by the search for better stories.

Facebook is taking my inner child to the playground, placing the kid on a swing, and handing him an iPad.

The drill sergeant cannot help, because no commitment is required. Nobody thinks “Now I’ll sit down and lose two hours on Facebook.” The dangers the drill sergeant knows to look out for are nowhere to be seen. Every hour on Facebook begins as fifteen seconds on Facebook.

Yes, Facebook is great for catching up with old friends and keeping up with the culture. But an hour on Facebook is not an hour catching up with old friends. The friends are nourishing; the habit is not.

4) Creative work demands relaxation – so when I’m stressed, I put off creative work ‘til later. When I finally get started, the pressure makes me feel even more stressed, so I’m more likely to avoid it next time.

Knowing I need to relax, I do those things that immediately redirect my stress: I check Facebook, check email, look for something else to do. Out of respect for tradition, I might even have a drink.

The drill sergeant inside says “We have to write!” The curious toddler panics. Again, both are trying to do jobs they’re not qualified to do.

The toddler’s job is to be curious. His job is not to know the answers, but to wonder what they might be.

The drill sergeant’s job is not to cause stress, but to manage it. Instead of demanding “We must write”, his job is to announce: “We must relax.”

The more relaxation happens, the more creative work will get done.


Ghostbusters, Hillary, and Dudes Who Are Afraid

ghostbusters-2016-top-164137The new Ghostbusters is hilarious and entertaining in the extreme. You should go see it. No spoilers below.

But yeah, I’m going to start by discussing the 1984 version.

In the 1984 all-male version of Ghostbusters (why don’t we call every all-male cast an “all-male cast”?), the Ghostbusters emerge from a haunted building and Bill Murray proclaims “We came, we saw – we kicked its ass!!”

That moment set the tone for the original Ghostbusters. It’s full of laughs, but it doesn’t have many jokes. The fun is in watching likeable characters triumph in unlikely situations.

Bill Murray is the dangerous hero: the selfish, unpredictable jerk we can’t resist. He’s Han Solo with wisecracks.

The 1984 Ghostbusters showed the victory of science nerds and snide outsiders. Only those heroic misfits could face the city’s demons and rescue civilization.

Recollections of that movie focus on the laughs, but I think that upending of social traditions was the real source of its appeal and humor. It would not have worked for Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt to be the Ghostbusters, with or without laughs. The usual heroes could not take on such sticky adversaries.

So, imagine you’re an awkward boy in 1984. You embrace Ghostbusters because it scrambles the status quo and puts sarcastic freaks like you on top.

Some of the losers would now win, but not all. Rick Moranis’ clueless neighbor and Bill Murray’s snooty rival for Sigourney Weaver’s affections – the violinist, defined by his allergies – do not enjoy heightened status at the end of the movie. Ghostbusters isn’t particularly misogynistic (unlike so many movies of the time), but even Sigourney Weaver’s dignified heroine is mostly a damsel to be rescued and a prize to be claimed.

The eighties brought us Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, Real Genius and “the snobs vs. the slobs” – that line from Caddyshack, another Bill Murray vehicle. The social revolution that would bring us iPhones, Google, and impossible Bay Area housing prices was just getting started.


So 32 years later, a new Ghostbusters – not a sequel, not quite a remake – casts four women in the lead roles. The jokes are very funny, and many are from a woman’s point of view: even a few apparent “dick jokes” are subtly replaced with female versions. Gags about men putting each other down are replaced by women stumbling over one another to be polite and supportive.

And some men who found redemption in the original Ghostbusters’ rattling of the social order are oddly threatened by their imagined victory now going to someone else.


Long story short: I think this explains why this year’s election has been such an angry train wreck.

Trump appeals directly to those who fear they’re losing their old place in the hierarchy. “Make America Great Again” means “Enjoy the benefits of racism, sexism and xenophobia, just like your grandfather did.”

Clinton appeals to those who know hierarchy is inevitable, and will inevitably evolve. “Death, Taxes and Hillary” indeed.

Third-party candidates appeal to those who reject the very idea of social hierarchy. They’re willing to imagine fantasy rescue scenarios and vote for impossible-to-elect candidates because they envision a truly level playing field, where the weight of consequence may safely be disregarded.

So, what can we do?

1) If they’re to cooperate, Trump supporters need to feel they have a place in the evolving hierarchy. Bill Murray has not been replaced, dude, and neither have you. Unfortunately, attacks that isolate them seem to make the problem worse. Trump has embraced cult-leader tactics, lying to his base to convince them of their own desperation.

2) Clinton supporters need to embrace support of the system and improvement of the system as equally necessary. Justice and fairness are exhausting, but injustice and unfairness are worse.

3) Third-party voters need to acknowledge that they are part of the very system they despise. There are realistic ways to slowly improve the system, but “sending a message” of aloof disdain for every available path forward is not one of them.

We imagine an improved society as something arriving from afar: some ideal savior will emerge to rescue us from the corruption and purify our soiled country.

Some people thought Bernie Sanders was that savior, and that his very clear loss at the polls exemplifies every kind of corruption that holds us back. Some of those concerns were legitimate; some were ghosts that continue to haunt both Clinton’s efforts and Sanders’.

But all the ugliness we have seen has a name: Democracy. We are subject to manipulation not because we are trapped, but because we are free. Our votes are expensive because they shape society more than any of us like to admit. (As some have reminded us: Hitler was elected.)

Our world will always have ghosts. We cannot destroy them all. What can we do? Together, we can learn to not be afraid.


Wrong Way to Be Right

My quick take on voting for Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, etc.:

There’s a system called “ranked choice voting”. If your candidate does not win, your vote goes to your second-choice candidate, and then to your third-choice candidate.

Ranked choice voting would eliminate many of the biases and limitations of the two-party system. Ranked choice voting would allow smaller parties to win real support, since voting for their candidates would not be considered “throwing away a vote”. That in turn could encourage greater voter turnout. With ranked choice voting, our elections could truly reflect the will of the people, as in many ways our present system does not. Ranked choice voting would allow us to vote for the best candidate, AND pick a back-up to avoid catastrophe. We could each be proud of our idealism without making the problem much worse.

There’s only one problem:


We have a winner-take-all system where every candidate competes against all the others to get the most votes. That’s the system we have, and a whimsical approach to voting only makes the problem worse.

Under our present system, a vote for one candidate rejects all others equally. If two leading candidates are racing to claim the most votes, every vote for a third candidate relinquishes any say in the decision. If one of these unappealing but more popular candidates is merely disappointing while the other is an historic nightmare waiting to unfold, every fringe-candidate vote brings the nightmare closer to reality.

Our present system demands a very different approach than ranked-choice voting would.

Yet many voters – many of our most involved, informed, concerned voters – still choose their votes as if we have ranked choice voting.

They study the fringes and write in their daring choices as if they were selecting a designer outfit to express their unique tastes. That the fate of the nation, vital freedoms and laws affecting generations to come, international relations spanning the globe, the health of the world’s economy and tens of thousands of lives will be shaped by the actual result of the election…all that is utterly disregarded. “Self-expression” or “voting my heart” is somehow embraced as a higher goal than personal responsibility for our collective fate.

“Our collective fate” also disproportionately affects the poor and disadvantaged, of course. Supporting a fringe candidate may utterly fail to support them.

There is often an explanation.

“Only by supporting outsider parties can we purge our system of its current state of corruption.” This is the right goal, but exactly the wrong approach. Allowing the worst candidate to win makes the problem worse and our opponents more powerful.

Demanding ranked-choice voting would support outsider parties and may ultimately purge our system of corruption, but making idealistic choices within our present system allows worst-case scenarios to unfold. The stakes this year are EXTREMELY high.

“If enough people did what I’m doing, we’d be successful.” This is true, just as it’s true that enough people buying your product could make your business a success. Bankruptcy courts are full of companies that would have been profitable if they’d had more customers, but the customers never materialized. We need to navigate elections as they are, not as we would like them to be.

“I refuse to support ‘the lesser of two evils’”. That idea sounds noble, except: refusing to support ‘the lesser of two evils’ directly supports the greater of the two evils. Rescuing a donut thief from a mass murderer is supporting “the lesser of two evils”, but it’s also the right thing to do.

Many of us grow to adulthood without facing difficult choices. Family, money, and personal safety have allowed us to make decisions only when an optimal result is available. Yet life demands that we make some choices that do not immediately flatter our idealism and impatience with a flawed system.

To truly be part of the solution, we must accept that we are also, inevitably and inescapably, a tiny part of the problem. Only by doing so can we help to steer the wayward vessel toward a safe landing.


DIY Animation – Ten Things I Learned

I’ve spent much of the last month creating basic animation via hand sketching, Photoshop, and video editing. The results were included in a festival of DIY animation for kids.Image5

Ten things I learned:

1. Animation is mostly cheating. With technology that can replay a series of pictures on video with astounding ease, the main challenge is to create images that are similar in specific ways and different in specific ways. Both are mostly achieved by tracing, copying, comparing and studying, from real-life objects and from the images already created for the animation. I found the practice absorbing and, yes, inevitably tedious – like many more familiar, less rewarding things.

2. I quickly decided that very smooth animation wasn’t as interesting for my purposes. Drawing the same picture three times by hand would create a wobbly image, which downplayed the quality of any one drawing and emphasized what they created together. In some primal nerve response, I found we immediately look for meaning not in the object we see, but in why it is moving – and that immediately becomes a story, about the characters on the screen and whoever put them there.

3. Once I realized that flawless motion wasn’t my goal, I began to see the obvious flaws in my drawings as the very source of their appeal: even the most basic line was clearly more interesting drawn by hand than generated digitally. I still appreciate elegant and beautiful artwork, and recognize the importance of developing skills – but I also realize that those obvious details I had dismissed as my weaknesses were better regarded as my style, and what I had embraced as my style was better regarded as my cumbersome attempt to hide my weaknesses.

4. Years ago, an animator named Brad Anderson visited my college art class and explained that animation works best when we see both a living, moving thing *and* a series of still images. He even suggested that animated films may lose some of their transcendent appeal as the movements become too precise and lifelike. I’ve come to think all art works that way: a painting is both paint brushed onto a canvas *and* a glimpse at a scene from life, while a stage play is both a ritual in a theater and a story taking place at another time and place. When the same work can be experienced in multiple ways, the real magic is to be found in the relationship between them.

The word “style” also suggests the same type of optimal balance between accidental and intentional, weakness and skill, substance and surface, humanity and mechanism. Transcendent work emerges from the tension between the opposite characteristics.

5. Another concept I recall from a college art class: “focus”. Smooth animation, sharp digital images or skilled, precise drawing may still be preferable to more obviously handmade work, despite being less “human” – because the “flaws” can distract from what the artwork is really about. When the story *in* the cartoon is more important than the story *of* the cartoon, I’ll want the animation to flow more smoothly.

6. Sketching the most rudimentary objects has reminded me that drawing is a skill to be learned, like typing or driving. I’d effectively assumed that some people are born knowing how to draw an eye, or a hand, or an open door (and that I was not one of them) but conveying physical ideas through 2-dimensional lines is more like a technology to be discerned and developed, or a language to be acquired, than a personal gift to be enjoyed by a talented few.

Just saying the word “technology” these days raises the idea of patents and legal battles. The idea that basic techniques can be *owned* seems closely related to our cumbersome idea of creative talent as a personal quality rather than a learned skill. While I continue to admire artists and craftspeople for their expressive creations and dedicated efforts, I’m suddenly suspicious of my own passivity in surrendering so many complex or inconvenient tasks to others whose “talents” obviously surpass my own.

7. Much of this comes back to the ideas expressed in Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset”: when we believe we are born with a “fixed” level of intelligence or creativity or talent, every activity becomes focused on hiding weaknesses that seem to represent permanent flaws. When personal strengths are seen as skills to be learned and developed, weaknesses are less threatening and easier to build into strengths. So telling a kid “Wow, you’re smart” can discourage learning, while saying “Wow, you worked really hard on this” encourages learning.

8. That said, I found it TREMENDOUSLY liberating to joyfully apply myself to something I’m really, really not good at. I have very little skill as a visual artist, so creating a work of visual art felt like discovering an entire house hidden in my closet. Life offers plenty of obstacles – my limited skill, available time, outside criticism, practical issues – but by far the biggest obstacle in my path was my own sense of which challenging tasks it would or would not be rewarding to try.

9. The “magical” quality of animation we admire may also make the basic technique more intimidating than it should rightly be. The word “admiration” seems to describe two distinct things: the “admiration” that shows measured deference to a threatening competitor, and the “admiration” that shows affectionate respect for a supportive colleague. When the technique that produced transcendent work is no longer mysterious, we may discover that our admiration had reflected our fear of what held us apart rather than our joy at what links us together. (The Bible frequently confuses “love of God” with “fear of God”, which suggests that these distinct feelings have been tangled together for a long time.)

10. I’m very happy to say our DIY animation festival was a wonderful success. The two most satisfying responses: after the show, our toddler said “I want to watch Sesame Street AGAIN” (he thought he’d just watched it!) and two kids in the audience immediately went home and created their first animations. Success!



Spoilers About Spoilers! (Note: does not contain spoilers.)

Gizmodo published an intriguing article claiming that spoilers actually enhance the pleasure of watching or reading stories.

Why this is a ridiculous idea:
1) Nobody says spoilers “ruin our pleasure” from a story. The problem with spoilers is that the details are discovered when I’m reading twitter or glancing at review headlines or standing behind a blabbermouth in line for the concession stand, but I want to learn the details when I’m fully immersed in the experience. I don’t want some stranger who’s already seen the movie to be in charge of when and how I learn the details, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life remembering how I learned about The Big Reveal in line at Save-Mart.
2) Yes, knowing some details of the ending can enhance the audience’s pleasure. Every good storyteller knows that, which is why every story is arranged in its own particular way.
3) “What definitely doesn’t work is incorporating spoilers directly into the stories – that simply makes for bad storytelling.” Wrong! A well-told story provides plenty of information in the beginning, allowing the details to unfold in a particular way. This arrangement makes the story what it is: a comedy or romance might reveal the climax early to keep the tone light, while a mystery or a drama might hold the vital secret until the final scene to maximize the tension.
(This statement is a reference to the investigators’ experiment of inserting “spoiler” paragraphs into the stories to test whether that enhanced readers’ pleasure – which (SURPRISE!) it did not. Most people don’t like their movies interrupted by commercials either.)
4) If this idea is fundamentally wrong – if spoilers really do reduce the experience of watching or reading a story – what does this study reveal?
I suspect the study produced the results it did because knowing the “spoiled” details reduced the tension and emotional investment in the story, making the adventure less traumatic and turning the focus on the cleverness of the storytelling rather than the emotional ups and downs offered by the story itself.
A story that’s been “spoiled” can still be enjoyed, but it’s a different kind of enjoyment: more aloof and analytical, less traumatic and personal. The ‘pleasure’ may be enhanced, but the depth and richness of the experience, the complexity it offers and submission it demands, may be diminished.
A story may offer more enjoyment the second or third time than it did the first time, but it’s not the same type of pleasure. Much of the experience may even be through a kind of nostalgia: rereading a story, I enjoy remembering how much I enjoyed it the first time.
It’s a bit like bringing a child to Disneyland. Part of the fun is had in experiencing the park vicariously, imagining how much fun it would be to see for the first time. The adult may very well enjoy the visit more than the child, in part because the adult can enjoy their own pleasure even while they share that of the child. But an adult life is diminished if all of life’s pleasures are experienced indirectly, through others.
In a way, we all like to know the ending ahead of time. Maturation is largely a process of figuring out what things in life aren’t going to work, and learning to avoid them. Many arguments simply aren’t worth having, and many emotional experiences seem to be more trouble than they’re worth.
But we read and watch stories to recapture those demanding emotions we may avoid in everyday life. Nobody who watches Game of Thrones really wants to battle the undead in a frozen wasteland, but we seek out this unpleasant experience because it appeals to much that is dormant inside each of us. In some way, the raw emotions stirred by the traumatic experiences onscreen are familiar. They remind us of who we really are: powerful, uncivilized, and…unspoiled.

Jersey, Oakland, and Everything Between

Ten thoughts about my first full Bruce Springsteen concert, March 13th in Oakland:
1) Brilliant, fantastic show. Emotionally rich and tremendous fun.
2) Bruce Springsteen WORKS HARD. With no opening act, no intermission, and often no rest between songs, the band roared at full throttle for three and a half hours. There are very few things I want to do for three and a half hours in a row, but I had a great time and was reluctant to leave.

His first words were “OAKLAND, ARE YOU READY TO BE ENTERTAINED???” He knew he had a job to do. Bruce is 66 years old. I overheard a fan saying it was the best Springsteen show of several he’d seen.


3) Bruce occasionally speaks to the audience, not just introducing a song but giving it a context within the show, within his own life, and in life in general. There’s a sense that he’s giving the audience what they need to understand the music – whether for the first time, or in a new way. At some rock shows, the audience might feel obliged to indulge the performer (e.g. “Here’s one off our new album…”), so it seems very considerate of the performer to be so concerned for the audience’s needs.
4) His stories and concise explanations feel spontaneous, but they’re supremely beautiful in their precise wording and impact. The bar is set very high for music critics to describe the meaning of the songs, or what role each might play in the show, as well as Springsteen himself does.
5) The focus was very clearly on the audience – not as lucky witnesses to an exclusive performance, but as the very reason the show was taking place. Accordingly, the band played most of the last half of the show with the house lights on. The musicians might face each other or execute some planned move together, but with every gesture came the sense that the party wasn’t on the stage: every seat in the room was invited to take part.
6) For this tour, the band played every song on Springsteen’s 1980 double album The River. One review from years ago observed that keeping only half the 20 songs from that collection might have produced one of the best single records ever, but the scope of Springsteen’s ambitions led him to include several weak or silly tracks – all of which would now be performed.
Some songs were less effective than others, but the variety also gave the evening a sense of history and place. A powerful dirge like “The River” or a radio staple like “Cadillac Ranch” might speak to this moment and many others like it, but a half-dozen steps into less inspired bar-band rock and shadowy musical drama somehow illuminated all the space between this enormous show and the small stages the band had played decades before.
7) As our swim through The River began, Springsteen described his original ambitions for the album: it would explore all those things that tie us to our lives – stories, sadness, parents & children, funny stuff, jokes, sex, romance, loss, hope. Most of his songs work on several of these levels.
I cried through five or six of the songs – from the scope and righteousness of Badlands, the familiar sense of loss in The River, the tragic vitality of The Rising, all the hope of Thunder Road, and all of the above that now seems overdue or lost or out of reach for me. I might have been responding to the sadness and commitment and hope in the songs, or the experience of calling together so many moments from my own past and present all at once.
8) Prove It All Night might have focused entirely on sexual bravado, yet it digs down to find what is authentic and human in that drive, for better or worse. Springsteen’s more pedestrian rockers may not always hit the target, but he’s written some of the most literate and perceptive songs we have.
9) My favorite track of many was “Because The Night”, which Bruce wrote for Patti Smith. (He apparently gave Smith co-writing credit, for which she has expressed gratitude.) It may have been my favorite song that evening because it pushes past Springsteen’s focus on the emotional depths of modern Americana, into murkier, artsy territory.
10) This is the second Oakland Coliseum show I’ve seen for which seeing the whole show directly conflicted with catching the last BART train. Someone should fix that.