A few weeks ago, I was accepted into the 2016 Fall Cohort of Smartly, “The World’s First Elite Online MBA.” It was my second time applying – I wasn’t accepted after my first application, likely because I was distracted by traipsing around Portugal at the tail end of our honeymoon (nothing says romance like learning the basics of accounting!). While disappointed, I remained hopeful.
I applied a second time because of how interesting the prospect of a free, online business education is. I often worry that the skills I’ve learned and developed for television production won’t apply more broadly to other jobs or careers; I have no intentions of changing paths in the short-term, but I firmly believe in learning as much as possible in order to open up opportunities. In regards to that learning, I also worry about incurring massive student loan debt to get another degree (or taking time off to pursue it) when I’m not entirely sure what I want that theoretical degree to lead me toward.
So when I came across Smartly, a program that assuaged both my educational and financial concerns, I was won over. The program itself lasts through February of 2017 (including a few weeks for prep and exams), during which I will be working full-time as a television producer.
While their “MBA degree comprises courses across business disciplines including Finance, Marketing, Management and Entrepreneurship” I’m supplementing these courses with books of my own selection. On average, I’m hoping to add two books related to the week’s lessons, so that by the end of my degree, I’ve read an additional 40 relevant books. In the beginning, many of my selections come from Josh Kaufman’s Personal MBA Reading List.
Each week, I’ll write a short post recapping what we’ve been studying, and the books I’ve added to expand on our lessons. I hope this is helpful for my fellow classmates already enrolled in Smartly, as well as anyone else considering applying to the program in the near future.
After 66 puns made into comics daily since mid-June, I have decided it is time to punt The Pun After till another time.
The Pun After is the first comic I’ve undertaken since my freshman year of college, when I wrote and illustrated The Drivel. The simple form of unchanging art and pun-based jokes was intended to be a jolt of creativity for each day. By focusing on the setup and punchline instead of the storytelling and art like the longer-form Fantastic Ballads, I’d remove variables and develop one skill at a time, instead of being distracted by a dozen.
Though I’m falling shy of the 100 (AKA the one pundred) that I originally intended for this project, I am happy with the outcome. There are some other opportunities that have cropped up recently that I’d like to nurture, and that simply means some current projects need to go on the back-burner.
The three and a half months that I’ve worked on The Pun After have been entirely pleasant, and I want to take a few minutes to recap the project and what I learned throughout before saying goodbye.
The idea itself for a new comic came during a lazy afternoon in Portugal. Curious to see what kinds of strips I might be able make on a regular basis, I wrote out a list of ideas. Some were to be photo comics, some illustrated, and some were rehashes of old projects.
The first draft of The Pun After was called ‘The Pun Punt’ , and I described it like this:
“A kicker has to endure a pun from his placeholder. The quality of the pun dictates the quality of the kick, and the point after is never good.”
The art would remain the same in each installment, and the words would change, but the overarching punchline was the same: no pun would ever be good enough for the ball to score.
I knew from the beginning that this project wasn’t meant to hone my artistic abilities. Still, I had to communicate the idea to the people who would be creating the art, so I sketched out my “vision.”
From there, I found some images that captured the idea…
… and contacted a handful of artists through Fiverr to recreate those images with pixel art. Below were the top contenders.
… and finally, with words and speech bubbles added in Photoshop, came one of the first installments of The Pun After:
The Pun-and-Done Process
To write these jokes, I would sit for an hour and come up with 10 jokes a time, repeating the process 2-3 times a week. Of these 10 jokes, usually two or three were even in the ballpark of decent. The rest went in to the ‘Never-ending List of Unused Jokes’, which you see below.
After repeating the 10 idea session as many times as was necessary to craft 5 usable jokes, I would batch the work for creating the actual comics on Sundays, spending a few hours creating them in Photoshop (you can see the text placement process below), and uploading them to The Pun After, where they were set to post at midnight on weeknights.
The batch process worked well by freeing up time during the work week – it enabled me to meet my self-imposed daily deadlines without relying on having free time each morning to write and Photoshop.
The downside of concentrating the work, for me at least, is that it led to me feeling disconnected from the project, and it became easier to push off the work of generating ideas, and when I lost the consistency of thinking of ideas, and my weekends grew busier with other commitments, my grip on the project started slipping.
Deciding to Punt
There are a few factors that went into deciding to leave The Pun After behind. One is my recent acceptance into Smartly’s MBA program. Though the MBA program doesn’t seem to be as intense as a traditional one, I want to ensure I spend the appropriate amount of time on the lessons and connecting with classmates. TPA took between 4-8 hours a week, and having that amount of time to dedicate toward education is more important over the next few months.
I also didn’t want to get into the rut of creating for the sake of creating, of producing just to be productive. In a way, I avoided the challenge of earlier comics by removing the artistic component and focusing on writing. Writing is what I’ve always done; art, whether drawing or taking photos, has always been more challenging, and I have a track record of finding ways to avoid it.
Any Given Punday
I am very pleased with these few months on The Pun After. It’s the longest I’ve worked on a daily comic before. Not that quantity should ever best quality, but this is the most installments of a strip I’ve made. I hadn’t ever taken advantage of a batch process before, and while there are certain downsides I didn’t expect, I’m happy to have experienced it.
Plus, it’s a simple idea, and it was a delight to execute. The project I had attempted before, Connect A Book, was time-and-money intensive, so The Pun After was, in a certain sense, a course correction and a project palate cleanser. I needed a light, funny little thing to recalibrate.
I leave it behind feeling refreshed, and though my current job may keep any larger-scale projects on the horizon, I’m excited for what comes next.
September marked the first full month of work I’ve had since April – no partial months, no honeymoons, no hiatuses. With work’s consistency, along with my beginning an MBA program, the amount of time I have allotted purely to reading is abbreviated. It also marked the first time in over a year that I’ve had multiple 2+ hour training runs, so I have been pursuing books (a handful on running) that I can listen to.
Over the coming months, I expect my reading will again be turned toward the business world (accounting and copywriting and microeconomics, oh my!), though I’ll still sprinkle in curiosity-fueled picks where I can.
Best September Book:
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance – As CNN pointed out in numerous interviews, Vance’s memoir served as a way of understanding the people who are currently supporting the Republican nominee for President. Hillbilly Elegy is the story of Vance’s childhood growing up amidst poverty and dysfunction in the Rust Belt. Seeing the pain and struggle and pride of his family, and the millions that grew up similar to him, is illuminating, and shows a humanity to a group of people that the media would prefer to cast aside.
Other Non-Fiction Reads:
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell – I began this book because I wanted a primer on how myths shape and affect the stories we tell ourselves. Though the allusions and references throughout Power of Myth are substantial, I found the conversational format difficult to digest.
Over the last few months, I’ve answered a number of questions on Quora. The topics I’ve responded to range from my professional experience (talk shows and television producing) to my personal interests (basketball and rhyming stories). By answering questions about topics I *think* I know about, I begin to understand them more deeply. To encourage this learning process, I’ll share a post each month that includes excerpts from 10 of my favorite answers here. Click through to see the full response.
Q: What is the nursery rhyme? A: “The nursery rhyme is oft said before bed
Like Mother Goose and Little Bo Peep’s Lost Sheep
They’re stories and tales that fill up kids’ heads
And – parents pray – get them to fall fast asleep.”
Q: What type of music is used for a local talk show? A: “…They may also reach out to local musicians or bands and pay them to record a few versions of a single song that the show can use over and over again, or just pay them to license an already recorded song.”
Q: How are guests selected to appear on late night talk shows? A: “Will they talk to us first? – Being the first stop on the talk show circuit is a big plus. It means that you have a nearly blank check as far as what you can talk about and do with the celebrity, since they won’t have talked about much in their life since their last romp on the circuit…”
My senior year of high school was all about finding opportunities to not wear shirts. For the boys of the cross country and track teams, being shirtless despite the temperature, weather and season was a badge of pride.
In a way, we viewed shirts much like the Post Office (allegedly) views mail delivery:
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these runners from the swift removal of their tee shirts during runs.
Being shirtless wasn’t just relegated to running around hooting and hollering after school; there were plenty of public opportunities, too. At the end of the school year, members of the departing senior class perform skits about the most memorable parts of their four years of high school – everything from sexy new vice principals and bomb threats to the multiple accounts of streaking.
And who better to play the streaker at a rally in front of the school?
This is an excerpt from the final rally I was a part of, and this and the other rally scripts I’ll write about are the only remnants I have of the rallies I hosted.
At first, this surprised me – how could these be the only documentation of my months and months of school spirit? In a way, though, they are the perfect artifact.
I soon realized these scripts were the purest expression of me as a senior in high school – of what I wanted to have happen, regardless of constraints, objectives, or responsibilities – and, in a way, mimicking the way high school seniors tend to view the world at that point in their lives: We’re the main character in our story, and everyone else is cheering us along.
The Start of Senior Year
So begins Year 2 of my dive into my G-mail Inbox, and with it, my senior year of high school. There are a total of over 900 e-mails and – with the introduction of Google’s Chat feature – chats spanning August 2005 to August 2006.
Before I began paging through them, I thought back on the most prominent moments from my senior year. This is what I expected to be corroborated in my inbox:
The 4 rallies we hosted in the Fall of ’05, and what it was like for a relatively non-spirited person to live inside the belly of the Student Government beast
The first exciting months of a serious relationship
Being one of the sports editors of our school’s newspaper
My continued obsession with productivity, as embodied mostly by serial comic strips about kitchen condiments
The college application process
I was surprised by how few e-mails I found supporting each of these categories.
The only correspondence I have from my time as rally commissioner are the scripts I e-mailed myself. There aren’t pictures. There aren’t videos. There aren’t even back-and-forth planning conversations, the examples I’m seeking out since My Archived Life is an exploration of the inbox and how I used it to communicate.
Still, it’s nice to have the scripts, which show us at our silliest. To give you an idea of what we strove for, here is the grand entrance to the back-to-school Welcome Rally, our first in front of the entire school, in which I do my best Marilyn Monroe impression by jumping out of an oversized cake:
Additionally, even though I started dating my girlfriend in August, we didn’t e-mail until the following July. There are brief mentions of her to friends who’d gone off to college (buried in lists of “things I’m up to”) so she did exist. I suppose seeing each other daily between student government and cross country and the oh-so-fleeting moments of passing periods made e-mails overkill, but it still speaks to how compartmentalized my inbox life was.
For the rest of my undocumented memories, I found little from journalism besides a few e-mailed articles, though my unrestricted computer time did lead to the beginning of a Gchat obsession (since squashed), and the formation of one of my most impactful, meaningful friendships (that I did my best to derail with regular, obnoxious chats).
With college applications, I assumed I’d have e-mailed my essays, my applications and my thoughts more often than I actually did. Here is a note where I talk about many things, including my views on private colleges.
You know what they say about the differences between all the colleges: “Some better faculty, but for the most part, equal…”!
For the most part, my applications were submitted through portals online, and I have very few e-mails to reflect on.
It’s so weird when memories are just memories.
I’ve talked enough now about the e-mails that I didn’t find, so let’s talk about what charming evidence there is for my growth, and what I was using e-mail for as a senior in high school. In no particular order, I used e-mail to:
Carry on feuds with teachers and coaches
Conduct my first (short-lived) comic collaboration
Send terrible first Gchats, which are saved on-the-record for eternity
Write and share as many bad raps as you’d expect a suburban teenager to write
With that, let’s start with my bastardization of Will Smith’s classic, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” – performed in front of 2,000 teenagers.
Homecoming Rally Rap
I need to start out by saying my fellow rally commissioner Liat was, and is, a saint. She is impossibly likable, light-hearted, and driven by a truly kind spirit. During the spring of our junior year, I happened to be standing nearby when she suggested to a friend that she wouldn’t mind being a rally commissioner during the upcoming fall. That she humored me when I threw my hat in the ring speaks volumes about her generosity.
We struck up a friendship, and had a blast scheming different ideas for how to engage indifferent teens, navigating the spirited world of student government, and developing along the way a sweet chemistry.
With the following effort, I did my best to get her to question her own judgment of pairing up with me.
It was our Homecoming Rally, and my idea for how to introduce our football team – the Grizzlies – was to pump everyone up with our own version of ‘ The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’
Don’t worry, I have the script.
If you’ve ever been curious what a deafening silence feels like, rap a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air parody in front of two thousand high schoolers. Fortunately, the football team burst out after my last couplet, and there was much rejoicing. Go Grizzlies!
Unfortunately, I had also written some more Fresh Prince lyrics, and felt like it was the proper way to end the rally.
The fun part about being on the floor during a pep rally is there is no place to hide.
Bad Raps, Vol. II
I have mentioned Orthodox Films, the group I was jealous of during my junior year. I ultimately partnered with them over the following summer and into my senior year. I also talked about Mildly Dangerous, my own short-lived production. It died a swift death.
During this year, I became aware of a third group, a technically talented bunch that operated mostly within our school’s video production classes, and I fell in with them at the end of the year, even being the host for An Amazing Race-style show they produced featuring teams of senior students.
Mercifully, this does not exist on the internet, or in my inbox.
What do still exist are the e-mails in which we collaborated on a Lazy Sunday-esque rap video.
In my quest to “do something relatively new,” I wrote a rap about golf.
Will reading these lyrics be the next #SoGoneChallenge? Only time will tell.
The embarrassment of my inbox isn’t limited to rally scripts I e-mailed to myself. Thanks to Google’s ever-expanding inbox, and the advent of chat, I have hundreds of instant messages that remind me of my winning personality.
So I was antsy about re-reading them, especially when I saw just how charming I was at announcing my e-presence.
With e-mails, I trended toward complete sentences and full thoughts. I expressed curiosity about the other person. What was college really like? How were they liking their new city? Did they have, like, a thousand boyfriends?
With chats, the expected immediacy transformed me into a child, as it became the perfect medium for enabling someone already needy of feedback and responses, interaction and attention.
I bounced off the walls with noises, thoughts, and pestering requests.
So, despite the nature of chatting being to chat, or, “to talk in a friendly and informal way” – I was angling for feedback, a desperate creature whose hunger expressed itself like, “LOOK I AM MAKING PROJECTS COMICS WRITING PLEASE READ CLICK VOTE LOOK.”
I like to think my e-mails to friends who’d gone off to college reflect on me as a growing person, someone interested in what happens when one steps out into the world. But, if I like to think that way about those e-mails, I’m forced to embrace the me-ness, the self-centered, “what can you do for me” nature of my chats as an equal part of my personality.
Journalism was the first time in school that I had the dangerous responsibility of working in front of a computer each day, and, on monthly deadlines, late into the night.
I spent more time than I probably should have on a computer, at a time I was writing and chatting at a higher clip, so naturally a lot of my thoughts are baked into these back-and-forths, like oddly punctuated polaroids of my growth.
To get our articles edited, we all sent them into a shared e-mail, and the section editors retrieved them. So, luckily, the bold opinions and ideas I had as a senior were saved.
The first here is a column full of wacky workout advice I wrote for the sports section that advocates tanning (get paint from Home Depot), taking naps, and burning your school binders. The second and third are from a series I wrote that was inspired by Fight Club. I’m sorry, Chuck.
… and here is a comic I “drew.”
If it’s not clear from this selection, I was all over the place in journalism. I was editing and writing for the sports section, drawing comics, writing opinions and news articles and music reviews, putting together ads, and designing layouts.
Journalism had become a laboratory for my experiments in productivity, as I alternately challenged myself to have the most assigned articles in any given cycle, to have articles assigned to every section of the paper, and to come up with enough sports content to expand our section from four pages to eight.
It’s obvious to me now that I did not focus on quality. This frenetic effort reads like I wanted to be seen as a writer, despite a lack of effort in writing well.
Late in the year, I missed out on a meeting, during which I was apparently called out by our teacher for leaving a deadline night early. The result of that lack of effort resulted in a poorly edited and designed section.
From a chat with a different section editor:
This is probably not off-base. While I felt slighted because our section didn’t get as much attention as the others, and we had our number of pages docked… that doesn’t excuse doing a poor job and not giving a consistent effort through to the end.
In that chat, I did proceed to call out the rest of the staff for their own faults, so it’s good to know I’ll lash out (online) when attacked (in meetings I didn’t attend).
It hurt being singled out because it also rang true. It was getting toward the end of the school year. I was distracted. Whether or not I was checked out of journalism by that point, it’s not clear, but the following e-mail from my teacher pushed me that way.
I decided not to attend that year’s journalism convention, and started focusing my attention on the end-of-the-year activities.
Comics & Collaborations
Despite going full-steam ahead with creating comics, I rarely e-mailed myself versions of those comics or lists of ideas like I had done the year before. What remains I could dig up are general correspondence about the comic, along with a few examples of internet-enabled collaboration.
While the two comics I mentioned making during my junior year – the hand-drawn Sheep comic, and the photo comic about George Bush and Bill Clinton – fell by the wayside, I kept on the path of creating serial comics, pushing myself with daily and weekly deadlines.
This attitude toward creation feels like another evidence point proving I was more interested in doing things than doing things well.
At one point, I got in touch with an artist looking to collaborate, and we made it two whole issues before our communication fell apart.
Here is the initial reach out.
Then his reply, and in purple, my e-mail, along with my stated desire for a “physical, in-my-hands minicomic.” The ends justify the means!
After exchanging scripts and script notes, the following two comics emerged:
These comics seemed to be the beginning of a fruitful collaboration, but despite having e-mailed scripts for the next 5 issues, those comics didn’t materialize, and Not Quite Dead Yet became, in fact, quite dead.
One of the primary motivations for reliving my inbox is to understand why I don’t collaborate on creative projects well. One issue I know I had (and have…) was defining project limits. Another is being overly ambitious about where the project could head before it had even begun (a 2-part minicomic!).
Unfortunately, this back-and-forth doesn’t have the intimate details that later interactions do. The collaboration simply worked until it didn’t.
I had a longer-lived project with a photo comic about kitchen items called The Sordid Affairs of Kitchen Condiments – shortened to just The Sordid Affairs.
I announce its beginning in early October to a friend in the midst of other self-congratulatory points.
While the comics themselves are lost to time (my brother asked me years ago if I had all the strips backed up on a hard-drive, which I promised I did. “You’ll want to look back at them later on” he said…), the two images below, intended to be buttons, give a sense of the look of a strip I updated twice a week.
In the first, an orange has torn apart another orange in a savage display of food-based cannablism. In the second, a ketchup and mustard bottle have fathered packets of ketchup and mustard (hence, ‘use condiments’). Jokes!
Like other projects before it, I got caught up in the attention it was receiving (or wasn’t receiving), and focused on that more than the actual quality of the project.
I chat about web site visitors, and about each strip’s metrics, but not about lighting, camera placement, writing, or the jokes.
So why was I creating it in the first place? I thought the idea was funny initially, but did obsessing with its reception ruin the process?
Then, like the projects before it, and so many more to come, I killed it. After 40-something installments, The Sordid Affairs was no more.
Though the blog post announcing TSA’s demise is also lost, this is the chat that followed, one full of uncertainty and a blasé attitude.
Also – I’m on Gchat at 6:24 in the morning.
Thanks to the internet archive, you can still see the skeleton of the page, if not the images.
As a fun side story, the webcomics community is accommodating, collaborative, and warm. There were often opportunities to create installments of other people’s strips, so even though I have none of my own comics from that time saved, I do have one of those I did for a comic friend.
Below is a guest strip I illustrated (to prove I could do more than just take photos?) for Jim Burgess, who did a series called Able & Baker.
After a year of inactivity to rest my knee, I came back to exercise with a vengeance: not only was I running varsity for the cross-country team, I was training for my first triathlon. In order to pull this off, I had to coordinate my bike and swim workouts within our cross-country team’s schedule. Much of my communication with my coach early on is about taking days off from running with the team to cross-train on my own.
I’ve always wondered if this more personal back-and-forth engendered a personal relationship that caused what happened later in the year to be so painful. Or maybe I was just sensitive.
At any rate – the triathlon, and the cross-country season, were successful. I competed injury-free, and was able to keep my training commitment past the fall running season, through winter training, and into the spring.
As a reward for that commitment, a small group of us traveled that winter to an invite near our coach’s childhood home.
Here is a photo of me being athletic as a sponsored Clif Bar athlete.
But while my discipline held (undoubtedly helped by dating a fellow runner), I found myself frustrated during the track season. I was unable to break the 5-minute barrier in the mile time and time again, stymied at the 5:03 mark.
At the same time, I had come down with a sickness that wouldn’t get better, a hybrid cold/sinus infection that doctors didn’t diagnose, medicine couldn’t alleviate, and I wasn’t able to endure patiently. After missing a few days of school and not finding myself any closer to a remedy, I began to blame the exertion of competitive races as the reason I wasn’t healing.
Not the practices, though. The practices were fun! We ran around shirtless! We hooted and hollered!
So when I suggested as much to my coach – that I, the anti-Iverson, might like to just practice – he responded in a mature, reasoned, instructional way.
“I’ll turn my stuff in.”
Stuff = uniform = I was done with track, just three weeks before the season actually ended.
Could I have stuck it out? Yeah.
Should I have? Of course.
Maybe I felt I could more dramatically make my point in a terse e-mail.
Or maybe I used e-mail to have conversations I was unable to have face-to-face.
We got to talking after graduation and throughout the summer, and would ultimately write regularly over the coming years.
So, why did this exchange, the sudden quitting, stick with me? Perhaps there’s an intimacy to the inbox.
By allowing yourself to read and re-read someone’s message, you alter their intended tone in your mind.
By allowing yourself to write and re-write your response, you get to play out different scenarios and fantasies, but this re-reading and re-writing just leads to an obsessing about this one interaction long after the other person has let it go by pressing ‘send.’
I’m not sure.
If there is one relationship to take away from this second year of G-mailing, it’s the fortuitous birth of a friendship with Amy (whose wedding speech instigated this whole project).
It was during my senior year that we first started getting to know each other when she made the mistake of indulging my pestering.
Here is our first e-mail:
At first, I was Amy’s editor whenever she would write about sports. I was impressed with her ability, though less than optimistic about how my input would affect her writing.
Then, she became our co-sports editor. She was also running cross country, and track, and we got along famously.
We celebrated events big and small.
Despite being a few years younger, she was always the more mature in the friendship, able to handle my short-sightedness, my stubbornness, and my many annoying instant messages.
… as well as many other unsightly qualities I still have in droves but won’t reflect on for another 10 years. My back-and-forth with Amy wouldn’t abate for years, but I’ll save the rest of our conversations for the book deal.
In and amongst chats and raps and rallies, I was taking the SATs (I remember waking up early the day scores were out to refresh the CollegeBoard site, but there aren’t any e-mails or chats that reflect this neurosis), applying to colleges, and occasionally, having interviews with alumni of those schools.
One of those schools, Duke, set me up with a perfectly nice lady. We had a perfectly nice conversation about her perfectly nice school, and then I decided what better way to thank her for her time than to spam her with my perfect comic.
Her response is below.
(Mayor Newman, if you’re curious, was the salad dressing in charge of the fridge.)
I didn’t get into Duke.
I did, however, get into UCLA.
I loaded the page in Journalism and was pretty … ambivalent about it. For the University of California application, each additional school you apply to is represented by another clicked checkbox. This lack of personalization left me feeling detached.
I thought I’d much rather go to Bard, where my sketch comedy idols attended. Or to Rice. Or Tufts, but…
Or Washington University, in St. Louis, where I got waitlisted. Rather than push past the waitlist and strive for acceptance, I chose a different tact.
The anti-climactic nature of my UCLA acceptance is, I believe, reflected in my almost-zero emails. Nothing to friends. Nothing to family. A delay in making my first dorm payment.
It’d end up being a very good decision, but nothing in my inbox reflects this.
With the decision on where to attend college lodged firmly in my inbox, my senior year began wrapping up. A reflection on this period of my life wouldn’t be complete without the piece I wrote reflecting on my senior year for the newspaper. Soon after the newspaper containing this letter was published, I graduated. I went on a senior trip to see some music festivals in the midwest. And, despite the lack of e-mail evidence, I was still involved in a relationship that would soon become long-distance.
College was on the horizon, and with it, figuring out classes, clubs, majors, friends, and dorm food.
Plus, comics. Always comics.
The only real restraints I had over my final summer before college was some adult supervision, and that was about to disappear as I moved down to the dorms.
With a few weeks off before beginning work on Season 3 of the show, I made a point of finishing up the in-progress books on my Kindle, Audible, and book stand. While it’s more manageable to keep the thread of multiple books when I have several hours a day to read, I can’t maintain that mental juggling act during production. The books I read ranged from technology and time to philosophy and athletics, and the variety kept me engaged.
With the return to work, a bike commute, and an increase in running mileage, I’ll be listening to books as much as reading hard copies, so I expect an influx of lighter choices (already I’m enjoying a book about octopus) for the ears, as well as continued exploration of other curiosities.
Best August Book:
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler – Despite considering myself an animation enthusiast, I knew surprisingly little about Walt Disney’s origin story, and the beginning of the most dominant animation production in history, before reading Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney. This book is a wonderful combination of biography, history, and commentary. It shows Disney’s drive to push cartoons into an art form, to imbue his creations with music and life, and what happens when the pursuit of high art clashes with the need for money, and the need to appeal to an audience.
Comparing Disney’s growth into a producer and businessman with others who’ve shaped animation, like Hayao Mayazki, was also instructive. What do we lose when we leave the daily toil of creative trenches behind for the battle of shaping an industry? When should you give up control of the minutiae to master the bigger picture? For artists and business people alike, how we think about those decisions can affect the course of our careers and lives.
I recently had four weeks off between jobs. As some of you may know, I don’t idle very well, so I put serious time into thinking about how to spend my month in a mostly productive way.
I came up with some good ideas and some bad ideas. Here is an abridged list:
+ Maybe I could read a book-a-day, I thought (and explore the Glendale library system while I’m at it!).
+ Maybe I could go on a different hike each weekday morning.
+ Maybe I could mimic The Rock’s day-in, day-out schedule, down to workouts, cod consumption, inspirational messages, shaved head and selfie videos, all the while calling myself ‘Soft Rock.’
+ Or, maybe I could get better at making eggs each day (or, “Eggery Day”), in the process breaking myself out of a delicious-but-stagnant sausage-scramble rut, developing a skill, learning more about cooking and food, and giving my wife something to snack on before her many-highway’d commute (The “I Love You” part of the title).
So, I went with eggs (and not just because it held the most potential for puns).
You Can’t Spell ‘Beginning’ Without Egg… Sort Of
For four weeks spanning July and August, I tried out egg breakfasts, egg bakes, scrambles, omelettes, frittatas, quiches, poaches, and even a drink and a dessert. Using the Egg Cookbook: The Creative Farm-To-Table Guide to Cooking Fresh Eggs as my guide, I set out each weekend to the grocery store to stock up on ingredients for my ever-growing list of egg dishes. Then, each morning I’d wake up at 5:45, get the water boiling for a Chemex coffee for two, and get to work.
I regularly dirtied two large and small non-stick skillets, two cast iron skillets, and every single one of our cutting boards. Cooking for two leaves a disproportionate pile of dishes – especially when I would get fussy about taking photos and plate the eggs on multiple dishes for the right aesthetic (full disclosure: there is a 29th dish – an apple omelet – that was simply too unsightly to be included). To that end, I aimed to get the meal plated by 6:45, so I had about 30-45 minutes to prep and cook everything.
On days with baked egg dishes, I was at the mercy of the oven, unable to do anything to speed the eggs along. On days with frittatas, each new ingredient needed time to soften and brown before the next could be added. I discovered that real-world patience does not always apply to the kitchen. On days where the recipe called for poached eggs, the dish could be ready in minutes (for that reason alone, Avocado Toast with Poached Eggs is a new favorite).
Eggery Day was engrossing. Each day, I felt challenged. I grew. I made mistakes (some delicious, some ugly, some unmentionable). I spilled. I did so many dishes. Then, I did it all again the next day.
So, without further ado, the dishes.
Buy Extra Ingredients – As I got past the first 10 or so recipes, which were mostly chosen for their uniqueness, I began to notice similarities in ingredients. Potatoes, bell peppers, onions, bacon. These “insights” are hardly revelatory to anyone who’s ever eaten breakfast before. But what was handy were the few days that for whatever reason (timing, mostly) I couldn’t do the preselected recipe, I could whip together an impromptu dish because I hadn’t purchased the bare minimum my other recipes called for. Again – these aren’t insights for people who actually cook, but I come from a background of baking where one is trained to think of the recipe as a scientific formula, not creative plaything, and while I had known cooking could be more improvisational, it’s another thing to experience it.
Cook Time, Prep Time, Total Time – reading recipes is not just about the steps to take, it’s about the time those steps takes. Because I was facing a deadline each morning (wife’s gotta go!), I calculated backwards using the recipe’s prep time and cook time. I didn’t always double-check the stated times with the times included in the actual recipe (it was 5:45! I was sleepy!), so there were a few instances of being doomed by typo to a just-cooked dish that had to be sent along for the drive in a steaming hot Tupperware. Additionally, some recipes listed “Prep Time and Total Time” while others listed “Prep Time and Cook Time.” These are helpful distinctions to understand.
Comfort Zone Cooking – We all fall into familiar patterns in our kitchens. We shop for the same ingredients. We make the same meals. We repeat the process. It reduces our mental strain if we don’t need to treat every trip to the grocery store as a brand new adventure, and for those treating food as fuel, that’s an understandable attitude. I wanted to break out of the few recipes that I had down, and this monthlong binge did just that. With just a week, or 10 days, I would’ve made some attractive looking dishes, and tried some new techniques, but I doubt that would’ve been enough to break the comfortable food orbit in which I was stuck.
There are all sorts of ideas about how many days it takes to make and break habits that apply equally well to breaking out of ruts. At a certain point in learning, whether it’s a language or a skill or a new position at work, you hit a plateau where each day isn’t necessarily as fun as the day before, and the process of handling that plateau can grind us down.
In facing our discomfort head on, though, and not backing down, we can break through toward delicious new frontiers.
The repetition and variety of this project, as well as its predetermined end date, all worked together to motivate me through this morning endeavor.
Whether I can maintain this type of commitment to cooking during a season of television remains to be seen. If all that comes of this cooking project is a few more seasonal frittatas and hashes on the weekends, then this will all have been worth it. It was creatively fulfilling, mentally stimulating, and, more often than not, quite tasty.
To all those who egged me on, thank you. You’re welcome to come over-easy to our “café” anytime.
Over the last few months, I’ve answered a number of questions on Quora. The topics I’ve responded to range from my professional experience (talk shows and television producing) to my personal interests (coffee history, running, and foreign languages). I enjoy the back-and-forth on Quora, and I’ve found that answering questions about topics I *think* I know about forces me to understand them more deeply and write more clearly to express that understanding. To encourage this learning process, I’ll share a post each month that includes excerpts from 10 of my favorite answers here. Click through to see the full response.
Q: Should I learn Spanish or Italian first? A: “While there are no shortage of incredible Italian authors and literature (Umberto Eco,Niccolò Machiavelli, and Dante, to name a few), knowing Spanish not only gives you access to the fantastic authors from Spain (Miguel de Cervantes, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Antonio Mochado), but the majority of Latin American literature (Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende, Octavio Paz, and many, many more) is at your fingertips, too.”
Q: Are most runners lovers of self-help books? A: “Runners are in tune with their bodies, they often keep detailed logs of their physical activities, and they seek to improve themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually.”
My junior year of high school was filled with indifference and apathy.
I was coming off of the thrills of a great sophomore year: I played several minor parts in our high school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, but I wouldn’t get cast in the school’s fall play. Performing, which had been a big part my first two years of high school, was out.
I had a great time in cross country that fall, but because of developing Osgood-Schlatter, an affliction of the knee, running for the cross country and track teams was out of the question. Running, which is on its own a fine activity, is also critical to the two other sports I’d loved and played since I was a kid – basketball and soccer – so another big part of my daily routine was out.
Quite a way to begin the year.
As such, I became kind of an asshole. I talked back to teachers and challenged their lectures on a daily basis. I was critical of friends. Having little structure to my schedule beyond school allowed this attitude to ferment, and I frittered away many afternoons designing websites, posting on forums, and talking about projects, while at the same time finding myself frustrated with friends who weren’t putting in the same amount of effort I was.
As fortune would have it, this is also Year 1 of my Gmail account, so much of this angst is documented in typo-ridden messages to friends, parents, and several unfortunate ladies.
So for a 15-year-old who couldn’t yet drive and who had to busy himself with other means, the e-mails over the first year, approximately 560 conversations, are a glimpse into collaborations and frustrations, cutesy advances, emotional swings, and petulant teenagerdom.
I have pulled together some examples of the best of the best (or worst of the worst, as they case may be), so let’s dive in.
In 2004, text messages cost 10 cents to send and 2 cents to receive. When you were as prodigious a note passer as I was in junior high, the transition from note passing to text messaging meant big bills.
So, as a substitute, I e-mailed. Now, not everyone had an e-mail account, or checked it often enough for my carefully worded masterpieces to be worthwhile, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
At this point I should mention I’ll be using first initials for those ensnared by my more awkward correspondences. While I’m laying all of my immature business out there, I don’t expect most people want their past dredged up, as cute as it may seem.
Over the summer of 2004, I had hoped to get to know a friend I’d met in musical theatre better. A “friend.” The kind of friend whose kiss on my cheek as the curtain rose on our last performance caused my heart to skip several beats, and never quite recover.
I played phone and e-mail tag all summer long. As much as she was open to hanging out, I couldn’t take the hints, or take action.
I was still too much a boy to be the “guy in the relationship.”
This year, suffice to say, was not a successful year with ladies. Of the two “relationships” I had, I didn’t e-mail either of them. At all.
The e-mails instead went to people it never quite worked out with, in no small part due to the cutesy style of flirting I had adapted.
When it came down to laying out the details – and there are a half-dozen planning e-mails for this bowling date – it was far easier for me to hide behind my e-mail and negotiate the best night for bowling than to actually make something happen. I never pulled the trigger.
One recurring theme for the year: the haunting pains of too many hugs. Early into the year, I rejoiced after getting…
THE BEST HUG EVER.
Is there anything women like more in a potential man than the way he celebrates her hugs?
At the time, I thought not, because one week later…
Ambush hugs and a proficiency in beginning Spanish – the groundwork for any romantic pairing.
It’s at this point I’d like to mention some of the sign offs I was using in my early days of Gmail. Here is a random sampling:
Much Love, My Dizzle Dawhg
Write me back.
I’m outta here.
Call me though, seriously!
Your wittle Awex
The photo at the top of this post shows me at three different date dances during my junior year.
I never e-mailed any of those girls ‘luv heaps.’ Correlation? Causation?
We’ll never know.
E-mail in 2004 wasn’t widely used by my friends. Because of that, I didn’t email everyone. So to communicate about them, it either meant talking to people face-to-face, or e-mailing other people about my problems.
One particularly tragic series of events unfolded during the fall. I had kept up correspondence with another friend who’d graduated and we talked about life in college, life in our hometown, and things were great.
Then, I met her younger sister, and got to know her younger sister, and things seemed romantic with her younger sister until, suddenly, dramatically, things were not romantic any longer.
She just wanted to be friends.
Now – I recall all this not in vivid detail because of the pain of young heartbreak (though I certainly have memories of throwing my phone on the floor and jumping on my bed in a fit of sorrow). I recall it in such detail because I e-mailed her older sister updates at each moment, and asked for her insight and advice at every turn.
I tried to hide in these e-mails my desperation by asking cool questions about college parties (“study those beer bottles good!”), but I didn’t hide my anxieties very well, because I mentioned her younger sister in Every. Single. Email.
What follows is a condensed version of the most emotional two weeks of my young life.
And still – I was shocked, weeks later, when we remained just friends, despite hugging every day!
Clearly hugging had a lot of significance to me.
How much more serious could two people get than hugging regularly in the passing periods of public school?
Being 15 is hard.
One uncomfortable takeaway from my e-mails to friends is how much I tied up friendship with productivity and creativity. There are very few messages to high school friends that are concerned with their well-being or scheduling some non-project (“fun”) activity.
While I maintained that relationship with some friends in college, the more local friendships are filled with plotting, nagging, and a desire for feedback.
Mildly Dangerous was this very clever idea I had about a series of filmed sketches that were all mildly dangerous, like riding a bike over a small ramp, or jumping into the pool backwards.
I wanted nothing more than to work on these ideas, and I did not empathize with the poor friend who had this misfortune of being my partner on the project.
After only a month of prodding about scheduling film dates, he snapped.
My demanding nature – especially over e-mail – earned me my first recorded rebukes, of being called ‘a complete dick’ and being told I was too serious.
Maybe I was being too serious.
Maybe I was trying too hard to make something happen.
Maybe I was using that friend more as a body, as someone who was there, than actually listening to what he wanted to do or the spirit he wanted to do it in.
What I’m certain about is while I said I was using e-mail in the name of collaboration, it’s clear I was out for my own interests.
Orthodox Films was a film group that a set of friends ran – they produced sketch comedy and feature-length parody films, and did it with such a professional air that I couldn’t help but be jealous. They also had a line on their website that essentially said “stop asking to join us – start your own thing” and I was trying to do that – hence, Mildly Dangerous.
At 15, I was comparing myself to other 15- and 16-year-olds and feeling left behind in terms of skill, creativity, and accomplishment.
The honesty in this e-mail is striking. I would be hard-pressed to find examples of other, more recent exchanges of such bare envy of someone else’s success. I did what I could to turn it into motivation, but it wasn’t a useful fuel, as many of my early projects flamed out.
As I move forward with My Archived Life, correspondence with teachers will become more and more regular. During this year, there is only one main example, and it’s an example that I fought with my family over, that nearly kept me from getting into journalism, and that I would write about in college essays the following fall.
One of the longest e-mails I wrote that year was to my junior English teacher, in response to a class we’d had that day about propaganda our government uses (she’d shown these “Patriotism Means No Questions” on slides in class). I brought it up at dinner, and my dad challenged me on the images. I looked them up online, and he was proved right.
So, I assumed our teacher was either being ignorant, or worse, liberal (I’ve since learned what liberal means), and told her as much over the course of 10 paragraphs.
A few are excerpted below.
I felt empowered and cool and smart writing this e-mail late into the evening. I had caught a teacher! I was building an argument against her!
I was so full of Thoughts from all the thinking I did.
Before we had ‘MIC DROP’, I used the dreaded ‘Hm.’ to similarly devastating effects. She replied with an apology and said this amounted to a sincere misunderstanding. I must not have believed her and kept on with an air of arrogance, because when I returned later that spring to ask her for a letter of recommendation to become an editor for the school paper, she denied my request.
From the very first e-mail I sent from my Gmail account, I have pursued creative endeavors. Some have been with others, and many have been on my own.
In those first few months, I wrote to friends about short films, feature films, mini-documentaries, building guitars, coding web forums, comics (I think I have my New Yorker rejections somewhere), a parody newspaper, and making Flash animations.
As much as I pushed my friends to create, I was equally merciless on myself.
Here, just a week after opening my e-mail, I take myself to task on how I can be more productive.
I wanted to have these projects, but I did not always want to put the time into developing the skills necessary for the projects to succeed.
“Would appreciate having someone to write to” = a quiet cry for help and/or MORE E-MAILS PLEASE.
Having e-mail must have also created a sense of intimacy with other people on the internet. Rather than look up information on video compression online, I just asked other, likely busier people, and many responses included some form of “couldn’t you just google that?”
His advice on putting in time, research, and learning is totally spot-on, but it didn’t speak to any shortcuts that would help me get any of my half-dozen projects up and running any faster.
In addition to producing and editing short videos, I also fancied myself a writer. In the summer between my junior and senior year, I wrote my first ballad, “The Untimely Fall of the Gingerbread Man” and promptly sent it to everyone I knew.
I craved feedback, until I got it. Much of it was harsh – the rhymes were off, the lines were uneven – but it was all accurate and necessary. But once you Give An Alex a Feedback, He’s Going to Want Some More…
The ballads are a format that have haunted and mesmerized me for years. I still tinker with them to this day. So to see the kernel of an idea I developed at 16 persist until today is pretty awesome, especially when considering just how many ideas I’ve had that died quick, often public deaths.
Fun side note on my unrestrained ambition: I also sent an excerpt of ‘Untimely Fall’ straight to a Simon & Schuster e-mail account, which I believe is the correct way to be considered for publication.
I am still waiting to hear back.
I wrote stories about the hijinks and happenings of our teenage years, often loosely fictionalized so I wouldn’t get in “trouble.”
I posted these stories online, and in return, I got my first first hate e-mail. Though it stung, it wasn’t inaccurate. The stories were bad.
The stories were bad, but for the most part, I kept going. This was the cycle for much of the winter and spring of my junior year – time spent online, working on websites, writing e-mails to friends about our ideas.
In the real world – outside the inbox – though, life kept happening.
Despite previous reservations, I had started to take college preparation seriously, I had been getting involved in some school activities, and I had begun dating someone.
All of these things were happening, and yet, there are so few e-mails about them.
Could I have been so consumed by life and love that I forgot to e-mail?
Toward the Future
While there will be much more said about college in year 2, this response to my mom’s request that I balance my computer time with other things is very telling about my priorities as a 15-year-old.
Didn’t she understand I’d only had Gmail for a MONTH?
Lots of “fine” and “whatever” and “I don’t care” and “I don’t really care.”
As mentioned in the beginning of this post, my school year started off with me at Maximum Indifference. I was in neutral, unimpressed with teachers, unsatisfied with friends, and unhappy with myself.
Which is why, I believe, the transition to who I was and how I acted just eight months later is so surprising. An e-mail to a friend – written with remarkable zest – outlines the recent flurry of activity.
Rather than being indifferent, like the kind of person who would skip out on school rallies, a good friend and I were up for election to be Spirit Commissioners. Now, it is quite difficult to lead rallies – shouting in front of 2,000 people, cracking jokes, staging sumo battles between teachers, encouraging “spirit” – and also be the kind of person who skips out on rallies. Instead, I saw it an opportunity to write scripts, to perform, and to be rambunctious.
Also, my knee was getting better, and I could play basketball well enough to “school all the homies” (SPOILER ALERT: we lost every game in the tournament).
Being in a real relationship, not one that I’d constructed over e-mail, or via note-passing, or anything else, was encouraging.
In just this one e-mail, I see the positive effects of building a life outside of the internet.
With that, I headed into my senior year of high school with a modest amount of steam: I was set to be the pep rally commissioner and involved with student government, I’d end up on the varsity cross country team, and I could finally drive myself wherever I need to go.
With the upcoming joys of college applications, my first long-term relationship, and the opportunity to embarrass myself in front of thousands of teenagers on a regular basis, what could go wrong?
As I stood there at my wedding, next to Amy, the friend I’d chosen to give a speech about me, the friend I believed knew me best, preparing to read aloud a Gchat we’d shared five years earlier, I couldn’t help but feel a little panicked.
Amy and I had shared many conversations over the preceding decade, both online and off, from our earliest pings in journalism class about late-breaking high school sports news, to roadtrip tips, summer plans, loves, life decisions, and, most of all, so many pictures of bunnies. In and amongst these messages, there were comments I had made to her about Glory, the woman I had just married, and these were the comments I was about to read aloud in front of our friends and family. Presumably, they were good comments, but one never knows.
I didn’t feel any embarrassment for professing early feelings of affection, but rather, I felt embarrassed more for how I expressed just about anything over e-mail ever. In chats, I used terrible shorthand and slang, comments that in the moment seemed breezy and effortless, but upon closer inspection, died an excruciating death on the examiner’s table. Anytime I’d stumbled backward into the depths of my inbox, whether by intention or accident, I grimaced at who I was, how I conducted myself in conversation with friends, family, potential employers, professors, and the general weirdos out there in the internet. So, knowing full well the potential for complete mortification, I put on a half-smile, half-grimace, and we began to reenact our conversation.
me: have you heard of work spouses?
me: i guess it’s this thing where your’e intimate and close to people at work
over-sharey and secrets and everything
but nothing physical
so like a regular spouse, but you get paid
On August 2nd, 2004, I opened my very first Gmail account. I received an invite to the then-exclusive Gmail product at a time when a person had but five invites to hand out, causing us all to become very selective of just who got exclusive access to the newest email offering. When my brother mentioned that a friend of his had an extra invite, I just about jumped for it. I recall the one THOUSAND megabytes of storage they offered free of charge, along with the early promise of never having to delete anything ever again. Never mind that my e-mail at the time (firstname.lastname@example.org, backed up by email@example.com) was nowhere near full. This was my chance for a distinguished, adult e-mail account, something every 15-year-old needs. My days of quippy, smoothie-themed e-mail accounts were now behind me.
amy: oooh yeah yeah
are you developing one?
me: well, i think i’m developing a real relationship maybe
but i just tried to sneak a joke in on you
For the most part, Google’s promise has been upheld. I have never had to delete anything. The All Mail section of my inbox has some 43,000 messages covering the rise and fall of my first serious relationship, my departure for college, my entry into the entertainment industry, and my ascent from producing terrible sketch comedies to an Emmy-nominated daytime talk show. My inbox has my earliest friendships and fall-outs with those friends. It contains the way I antagonized my teachers and came close to suspension. The way I nagged my parents. And so much more. Unlike the box of notes I was passed as an 8th grader, this inbox was a two-way street of terribly punctuated communication on its way to becoming an archive of me learning how to interact with the world.
amy: ya devil
tell me about it
she’s very funny
more interesting than any one person has the right to be
and we have that eye contact thing
where you don’t really want to break away
So Amy and I read our lines from all those years ago. She chose a selection that foreshadowed the love of my life, my future Mrs., that was also filled with my own awkward turns of phrase and meanderings – a perfectly embarrassing dialogue which made for a charming moment. We got through our back-and-forth with laughter, and I was soon relinquished of my duties and everyone got to go back to enjoying themselves and the antics of the rest of the speeches. Yet, reenacting that conversation struck a chord in me, as I realized I could draw a line from that instant message exchange to standing in front of dozens of close friends and family, professing my feelings for my now-wife.
amy: magical thing
been hanging out a lot?
me: we had dinner last week
at work some hang outs
I know many people use Gchat on a daily basis for just about everything in their lives. At work, they message friends. On the weekends, they message coworkers. As far as Gmail and Gchat usage go, I’m not unique. In fact, I’ve since stopped using IM altogether, for fear of its distracting powers.
I also know many people use Gmail as their primary email account, and they have also used it for years, and they have also never had to delete anything. Some people have more emails than I do; some have less. But knowing that I started using it as a 15-year-old, in the midst of figuring out friendships and relationships and the impending Future, and that I have been steadfast in using it ever since, fascinates me. If one chat from five years ago could be summoned on my wedding night, to such a moving effect, what other chats or emails foreshadow my development?
me: she’s very busy
but maybe this weekend breakfast and farmers market, if she’s around
me: but i think it’s best not to force
this workplace thing is tricksy
What else could I draw lines to? In reconstructing my own life, would I see paths not taken? Conversations unfinished? Friendships undone?
In scouring through my inbox, and my interactions with the key players of my teenage years, would I begin to understand myself a little bit better?
We all have a perception of ourselves that is shaped by our memories. There are moments of my high school years that stand out to me that I’m sure I didn’t write about. There are others, no doubt as formative, that I did. One integral part of my personality that stretches as far back as my early Gmail days is my compulsive need to create. My first sent e-mail is to a friend setting up a day to shoot a short film, and to discuss starting a parody newspaper.
Within a month, I had pestered him with a series of good ideas. You can tell they are good ideas because I call them “semi-brilliant.”
Since then, I’ve created countless short films, music videos, comic strips, pilot scripts, animations, essays, and small business ideas. But – through it all – what was I expressing? Was it purely for attention? Was there some bigger aim?
I think about how we express ourselves now in a much more instantly gratifying way through Twitter and Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. We broadcast our present moment. We showcase what we’re viewing, eating, reading, thinking now. Where we’re walking while we’re Pokémon Going. How we’re dressing, feeling, living. Now.
But what about the produced projects? Do we say anything differently by taking time to create ideas? And what about the time spent talking about those ideas?
To that end, I’m putting on my archaeologist hat and excavating the first decade of my Gmail to see what artifacts I find, and to see if there truly is meaning in the minutiae.
I want to go back to understand better how I became me, so I’m going to dive into the pains and pleasures of growing up online in an attempt to make sense of the silliness that was my first ten years on Gmail.
In combing through the gigabytes, I hope to find growth, so I invite you to join me, as on the first Friday of each month, I post the recap of another year, including highlights of the excruciating e-mails that contain my firsts, my projects, my friendships, my failures (and abundance of failed flirtations), and see how it all plays into what became my future.