A better designer, a better partner, a better brother, a better manager, a better cook, a better baker, a better photographer, a better son, a better writer, a better traveler, a better runner, a better friend.
It’s not that I feel objectively bad at any of those things, but I frame the situations and relationships I find myself in and wonder what someone better might do.
It’s not a question of quality, necessarily (look, I’m not trying to be the BEST photographer!), but usually some action instead of no action. How many times have I walked past a moment, thought about taking a photo, and kept walking, only to wonder about having that moment for myself. If I were better, I wonder, I would’ve taken that photo.
If I were better…
Maybe a better designer would aim for consistency over the company’s projects, instead of shooting for the stars on each individual flier.
Maybe a better partner would let her know what she means to him in each language they share.
Maybe a better brother would have brought home some Rwandan coffee.
Maybe a better manager would understand how his team needs to be managed, and provide that each day.
Maybe a better cook wouldn’t order in when there are still vegetables to be roasted, eggs to be scrambled, and fresh tomatoes to be reduced.
Maybe a better baker would work on the same recipe to fine tune it, rather than flitter from pie to muffin to scone without improving any of them.
Maybe a better photographer would just stop and take the photo.
Maybe a better son would Facetime more often when he’s on another continent.
Maybe a better writer would appreciate the community that gives him so much leeway.
Maybe a better traveler would say, “Why not?” and jump on the moto-taxi.
Maybe a better runner would understand it’s okay not to run if it hurts.
Maybe a better friend would ask him to drinks, despite the years, regardless of the outcome.
Slowly, as I keep going, as I keep asking myself what it might be like if I were better, things get better. It’s hard to notice the changes of a life infinitesimally, incrementally, marginally better, day to day, or even week to week. But the infinitesimal, incremental, marginal improvements are there, and they add up. Just keep going.
In 2008, I had a room to myself at UCLA, and time on my hands. With that, my room became a production studio where I worked on animations, stop motion shoes, short films, scripts, projects and nonsense ideas, including an animated a 4-episode-long time travel series featuring Albert Einstein and short films about shoes and recycling (separate films, though, maybe there’s something cinematic about recycling shoes…). In short, it was a pretty productive year. Also, I went to class.
One of the sillier ideas I took on during that time was Adopt A Dino. Somehow (and this may have been related to a time-traveling Einstein) I ended up with a tube of plastic dinosaurs. Rather than risk stepping on them in the night, my friend Camille and I wrote index card-length adoption pleas for each of 30 different dinosaurs, took them out one morning around 5am, and placed them all around campus. On one side of the cards was the adoption please, and on the other, our Adopt-a-Dino e-mail address, just in case anyone wanted to send us their heart-warming stories of dinosaurs finding their forever homes.
Again, it’s a silly idea.
Our hope was to delight a person or two as they went about their day, be they a math student, law professor, coach or staff. We scattered these dinos across the graduate schools of business and law, both north and south campus, in front of the library, on Janss steps, and around the dorms.
Ultimately, we heard back from three dinosaurs (and their new families). The notes are below.
The first photo is the one featured above came back without any note. It’s a dinosaur and Royce Hall. The sun is just rising. Some event is being set up. Likely, this Tyrannosaur is roaring along with the hourly bells. Though I don’t know about the home he found, I know he’s in good hands.
The second note came via a director at the UCLA Fusion Science & Technology Center:
Just wanted to let you know that I found a home today! Some really big dude adopted me and brought me to his office. I love it here. Everything is green, just like me. And I have already made a lot of friends. There’s an alligator, a fish, a frog and a bear. And so far, they all seem very nice and have made me feel very welcome.
Gotta go now. Time for me to explore more of my new home.
Mark (the dino)
I couldn’t have dreamed of a better home. Big dudes, green things, and friends? That’s going to be tough to beat.
Our little project was never any bigger an idea than scattering toy dinosaurs on a college campus, with biographies written in Sharpie on flimsy index cards. It’s a little project that we hoped might be a little fun for us, and a little silly to someone else. That anyone would indulge us by writing back was a nice surprise.
And then we got the third note.
Just wanted to let you know what happened to the dino.
I teach writing at UCLA. I had arranged for 33 4th grade students to come to campus today to interview my students about writing.
Last week, one of the 4th graders, a high-functioning autistic boy, flipped out, screaming he couldn’t, wouldn’t, absolutely no way go to UCLA! When the 4th graders’ teacher told me Max wasn’t coming, I had to reassign my student who was going to interview him to join another 4th grader. Yesterday I found out that Max had changed his mind. He was coming to campus, but didn’t want to interview anyone, just wanted to go on the tour part of the visit.
On the way to campus I realized something horrible. My students had decided that they would each get a little gift to give to the 4th graders. Max, having no partner, would get no gift. I felt terrible. I had no time to run to the student store to get something. I was trying to remember if there was anything in my office I could give him. As I walked past the inverted fountain to my office in the Humanities building, still fretting about what to do, I saw something….
…a little dinosaur. And Max had his gift.
When all the other kids walked out of their interviews holding their little stuffed bears, baseball caps, journals, t-shirts (and two 4th graders received footballs signed by the UCLA football team!), I handed Max his gift.
Thank you for brightening the day of a young boy who struggles so hard to get through life.
Now, we had no way of knowing this would happen.
But we do know, as self-evident as it is, that it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t done anything.
I wish I could say this inspired me on a journey to start dozens and dozens of public arts projects, as I endeavored to brighten and uplift spirits young and old, in places near and far, for nine years and counting.
But it hasn’t.
Instead, this note reminds me that the little gestures, the ones you unknowingly make at the beginning or end of your day, in traffic or in class, with coworkers and with strangers, have unknowable impacts. And though they may be hit or miss, though you may only hear back about three of those 30 dinosaurs (I just have to believe that those other 27 found good homes…), some good will still come of it.
So, send those dinosaurs out there. You never know who needs one.