Honey, no one ever paid to see under the top. – Joel Schumacher.
I gave a talk at MIT back in August.
A Curious Student: “Do you consider yourself more of a HOPEFUL romantic or a HOPELESS romantic?”
A Confused Student: “Do you think you would be a happier person if you had NOT studied philosophy?”
A Concerned Student: “Are you OK?”
I guess it went OK, because it’s only September and I’m already back.
The only time I’ve ever owned a car – an old, beige-gold Nissan Altima – was during my junior and senior years of high school. I drove back and forth to school, to soccer, to cross country – always blaring music – always singing along – always way off key.
Probably the genre I sung most off key was emo – stuff like Dashboard Confessional. I love emo, but if I were going to criticize it, I would say it suffers from the same problem as most contemporary fiction. It dips into these brief and intense moments of emotion without painting any sort of broader arc.
You might say this makes emo ballads fleeting and ephemeral. But, then again, you might also say there is a sense in which this is a truer representation of life.
Either way, I’m a fan.
Neil Young Louis Armstrong, by Ben Guo.
I used to think creativity was a synthetic process – where you generate new ideas by juxtaposition or by combination or by sheer will power.
Maybe there are cases where this is the case… But I no longer think this is the case for me.
I now think creativity is all about listening.
For the past few years, I’ve been working on a script for a feature film. At the end of 2022, I had a draft of the script I was ready to shoot. I had hired a creative producer. I had started fundraising. I had done a table read with a bunch of wonderful actors and a small test audience.
Things were going great. And in January, I decided to make “one last revision” of the script before getting into full on pre-production and fundraising mode.
And I just got lost at sea. Pulled out the wrong jenga blocks. Tore everything apart. Left a mess on the floor.
Wolfpack Tower Lego Kit.
I spent the first few months of 2023 trying page-one rewrites. Completely different directions. Trying anything.
By April, there was no end in sight. There was no instruction manual for getting back to a tower. There wasn’t even a photograph like on the side of the Lego box where they show you the alternate builds.
The dopamine molecule, via wikipedia.
One of the things I like about making things is this dopamine hit that you get when you hit publish. It feels good to put something new into the world.
I had lots of irons in the fire, but was focusing all my attention on this feature film because I still thought I had a chance of shooting in 2023 – so it was April and I hadn’t had that feeling in a long time.
Dirty Franks. Philadelphia, PA.
The thing I had that was the closest to complete was a short doc I’d been working on since October 2021 with my buddy Rob. It was about my other friend Jason. He’s a saxophone player from Philly.
When I moved back to the east coast a few years ago, I met up with him at a classic dive in Philly called Dirty Franks. He told me about how he had recently bought a mattress. He hadn’t ever bought a mattress online before this, and he was worried about not being able to test it out before buying it, so he made sure to get one with a ninety-day return guarantee.
The mattress showed up, he and his wife tried it out, and they hated it. But when they tried to return it, the customer service agent told him the company didn’t take back the mattresses, “technically.” Technically, it was up to the customer to try to donate the mattress and report back their results to the company before getting a refund.
As a result, they had to go to absurd lengths to keep this three-day-old mattress out of a landfill.
It struck me as the perfect subject for a Kafkaesque doc, so Rob and I returned to Philly a few weeks later to interview Jason for a short film. We got a great interview in the can, but this doc ended up being a side project for Rob and for me. We both worked on it only sporadically. So, by this April, it still had a long way to go, and the path to finishing was unclear.
Stay Gold Deli. Oakland, CA.
Back in 2015, I moved from New York to California to work on a software project with my friend Sam. He had a wife and kids in school out there, and I had no such claims on New York, so I moved to California.
I have always tended to pivot major decisions around working with my close friends – the people I most love and respect and trust.
But pretty quickly, I could tell California was not really for me.
Park Life. San Francisco, CA.
And San Francisco was really not for me. Imagine a version of Disney World built by thirty-three year old business school graduates.
“Gift shops” – those boutiques that seem to sell an assortment of things that can only be grouped together by some label that is not actually a physical property but a sentiment. If only they didn’t sell so many things that were not made of paper you might call them stationery shops.
Juice shops. Also – ironically – donut shops. Coffee shops that sell t-shirts. T-shirt shops that sell coffee.
Blue Bottle Coffee T-Shirt.
I used to find it funny – in a kind of grotesque way – how many coffee shops sell t-shirts. But I guess they need to do whatever they can to make the rent.
What still puzzles me is this:
Who buys a fifty-dollar “versatile soft goods made for comfort with a minimalistic style” Samra Origins t-shirt from Blue Bottle Coffee? And why?
(Apologies if you own the proud owner of a fifty-dollar “versatile soft goods made for comfort with a minimalistic style” Samra Origins t-shirt from Blue Bottle Coffee.)
Flower in a crack in the sidewalk. Oakland, CA.
So, pretty much right after I moved to California I was ready to return to New York. But a startup is a many-year commitment. I found ways to cope.
I pretty much stopped traveling internationally. The only flights I took were back to New York.
And in 2017, I moved to Oakland. That helped. A lot. Oakland is sleepy, but sane. Wildflowers grow in the cracks in the sidewalks.
The streets are potholed, but mostly flat, and there’s not much traffic. And the weather is almost always great. It’s one of the best places I have ever lived for biking.
During the pandemic, I got into the habit of going on long bike rides on the weekends with my [sister][aenny].
Point Richmond, CA via google maps.
This one weekend, we were looking for a new ride on Google Maps. The Point Isabel Dog Park caught our eye, but wasn’t quite far enough. We set our sights on Brickyard Cove, up in Point Richmond.
We biked up the Ohlone Greenway to Point Richmond, picked up a few cans of Lagunitas at the Point Richmond Market, went down to the pier, sat, and talked about nothing.
The Rake. Alameda, CA.
We also got into the habit of biking to The Rake in Alameda – an hour bike each way, a twenty-two mile round trip.
The Rake has an excellent Firebrand soft pretzel on the menu, an outdoor patio, and pilsners on draft. We almost always ordered multiple rounds of soft pretzels. And we always ordered multiple rounds of pilsner.
We started bringing a larger and larger group of friends, but my favorite times were the first few times that it was just me and my sister. We did Halloween there. My sister dressed up as a Bud Light. I was Freddie Mercury.
Our neighbors John and Kent came with us on Halloween. John is a painter, and Kent is a retired anesthesiologist. They’ve both lived in the Bay Area since the mid eighties at least.
One time John led us on a weekend debauch to The Warehouse Cafe in Porta Costa. Google Maps describes it as a “rugged & eclectic American bar hangout popular with the biker crowd.” A grumpy waitress hustled us at the counter when we took too long to order. I loved it.
EMPIRE Bench. West Oakland, CA.
So, back in April, I was feeling lost at sea – yea, we are back to this story. And I wanted to feel that dopamine hit of making something, and there was no end in sight on anything I was working on, and I thought, I gotta just make something quick.
John Was Trying to Contact Aliens (2020).
I go to film festivals every now and then, and my favorite part is always seeing the shorts. Cause every once in a while you get a weird one. Something that has evaded the Hollywood machine, managed to slip through the cracks with a bit of personality intact. Usually, it’s the non-narrative, experimental stuff.
Bigger on the Inside (2022).
Stuff like John Was Trying to Contact Aliens. Or, even weirder stuff, like Bigger on the Inside.
How does stuff like this evade the totalizing efficiency of capitalism?
Monograph by Miranda July.
Last week, my buddy Rob and I went to this event hosted by one of our favorite artists, Miranda July.
Here’s the description:
Artist, writer, and filmmaker, Miranda July selects some of her favorite moments in film, on TikTok, and YouTube that describe the moments of uncertainty, failure, doubt, and rediscovery that inevitably erupt in the creative process. By blurring the line between expertise and amateurism, July spotlights the experimentations, processes, and explorations that rarely take center stage.
It was real casual. She read her notes off scraps of real paper, spoke in half thoughts, trailed off mid sentence. It felt like we were hanging at home, watching YouTube with her.
The videos were almost all outsider art – a concept which was commodified as soon as it was named.
Business Time by Flight of the Conchords.
Sometimes, when I’m contemplating a major life decision, I like to ask myself is the thing I’m thinking of doing inevitable?
Said another way, is it a good business? If yes, someone else will probably do it.
Lost Gloves (2023).
So, it’s April and I’m dying to make something. And I have this one idea for something I can execute quickly and it involves my neighbor John – the one who led the charge to the rugged and eclectic biker bar.
So I text John:
are you free on the 26 or 27? maybe we could get together for a bit and record some stuff for this lost gloves project [that I mentioned to you]?
Is it April? It is. I will be here
So, on April 25 I fly out and we record an interview that’s one hour and fifty-nine minutes long. And John says something like, wow, I can’t believe I talked for that long.
And I fly back home a few days later to continue slamming my head against the wall with rewrites of my feature film. And before I know it, it’s July. And – you guessed it – I’m still lost at sea.
In May, in May my buddy Ben released an album called to Ascend is to Transcend that I loved and was listening to on repeat all summer.
I’ve always found his music so emotionally honest. Consistent with my subjective experience of the universe. Bittersweet, I guess is what I would call it.
So, as I’m listening to his album on repeat I finally get motivated to do a scrap of additional work on this lost gloves project. I start looking through this Google Drive folder that John and I use to share photos of gloves that we find on the street, looking for the best ones.
And by this point, I’m into the deep cuts of Ben’s music, which I have saved in another Google Drive folder, because one day earlier this year I was listening to his music and thinking this is so good and if – by some act of god – simultaneous natural disasters take out all the SoundCloud and Bandcamp data centers – I need a backup. So I wrote a little script to download all the music he had ever published.
And as I’m looking through the photos of gloves Ben’s track
lullaby1.wav comes on.
lullaby1.wav in Finder.
And I just felt this sense of wonder.
Yes, this is it, I thought.
I immediately texted Ben:
any chance you want to get together one day this week to do a little session w that track i found of yours and this slide show / lost gloves project?
[the project is] based on a string of text messages between my old neighbor in oakland and me, where we started sending one another photos of gloves
it will be a short essayistic / expressionistic video… and i was thinking this track of yours could be good… I wanted to mess around and get your thoughts on how it might work / timing etc
Lost Gloves (2023).
So we do a (very) brief session, mostly talking about the time signature and BPM of
And then I’m rewriting again until the last day of July, when I need to return to California.
Now, in the many weeks I had known about this trip to California, I had been telling myself I would use the trip as an opportunity to put something together for this lost gloves project to show John and get his feedback. And I bet you don’t need more than one guess to know what I accomplished before the flight…
So I tell myself, well, at least I can use the cross country flight to get a solid block of work done. When I get to my seat, I open DaVinci Resolve, and before I know it the flight is over. And I have a really respectable rough cut of a short film that uses
lullaby1.wav and two other tracks from Ben’s new album.
Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.
In Japanese aesthetics, “ma” is the negative space that helps define the subject of a work of art.
This is a photo of a leaf I found on my camera roll when I was hunting for photos to use in this talk. It’s not in the lost gloves film, but when I was looking for a photo of a glove to insert at this point in the talk as a bit of a breather, I saw it and thought there is just no way to for a human to manufacture something this exquisite.
I had to include it…
For the past week few weeks, my girlfriend has been hounding me to get to work on this talk – the one we are doing right now. So, as you may have guessed, I got done quite a bit of work done, tweaking that lost gloves project. It feels pretty wrapped up. Past the point of diminishing returns.
Then, when I ran out of work to do on the lost gloves project, I turned my attention to the other doc I mentioned. The one I’ve been dragging my feet on for years, now. The one about my buddy Jason, the sax player. And that’s almost done now, too.
So, I owe you all a thank-you.
So, thank you.
Note to self about potential talk topic.
I ran out of ways to procrastinate, and I finally turned my attention to writing this talk.
Originally, I had this idea that I would talk about game theory and this wonderful game that Nicky Case made called The Evolution of Trust. It explains the prisoner’s dilemma, how we perfectly rationally get caught up in these traps where parties with competing interests “defect” and the global outcome is worse than what have resulted if everyone had cooperated.
I recommend you check it out… Because I ended up writing about something else entirely, which I guess is obvious by this point.
Principles for Radical Tax Reform and a Universal Dividend.
As is also obvious by this point, I like to use personal anecdotes. I’ve always liked doing this, but I distinctly remember this moment in 2019:
I was working on the final essay in a year long series of essays on tax reform – making some final edits to the essay before publishing it – and I noticed that both Principle One and Principle Two deployed the adverb “montonically…” – and I remember thinking:
Who is going to read this? I’m writing it, and even I’m struggling to pay attention. This is so abstract. I need to get more concrete – tell stories with emotion and characters.
Since then, as a rule, I try to make sure every essay and talk I do is at least fifty percent personal stories.
“Submitted to Sundance but actively tweaking.”
So in August, I was looking for a hook for one idea that I had for this talk about the prisoner’s dilemma, and I had this email exchange with a filmmaker friend of mine.
He asked what I was working on, and I had a ROUGH version of the gloves project I felt was ready for feedback, so I sent it to him.
He said: Before I send feedback, can you tell me about the status of the film?
I said: Submitted to Sundance but actively tweaking.
He responded: I feel like we could put “Submitted to Sundance but actively tweaking” on a T-shirt and sell it.
And I said: On the day the world ends, 99% of humanity will be standing in line at t-shirt shops. I moved back to New York, because I want to be in Red Hook listening to bluegrass when that happens.
“What is the story?”
There was something about that phrase – “the t-shirt shop at the end of the world” – that I really liked. It feels like that’s where the world is headed. So I sat down and started writing, and you can see what we got out of it.
When I finished a draft of this talk on Wednesday, I sent it to Nam for feedback. Her text message response was… guarded.
Then, last night, as we were walking to dinner, she was a bit more open – I always love your talks, so it’s ironic that the one I’m going to have to read is one I don’t really understand the point of.
They can’t all be home runs, I said.
There’s a fine line between on-the-noseness and subtlety, I said.
Do you know that line from Rumi – “trade your cleverness for bewilderment,” I said.
There’s a twenty minute q&a, I said.
She looked unconvinced by any of these answers.
So, let’s just do the q&a. But first, one last thing:
Please don’t build the t-shirt shop at the end of the world.
Please don’t build the t-shirt shop at the end of the world.
⥂ ❧ ⇲
Originally delivered as a talk for the MIT StartLabs Entrepalooza event in Sep 2023.
- Another Day in Paradise talk at MIT
- Bigger on the Inside by Angelo Madsen Minax
- F-F-Fearless by Miranda July
- Fifty-Dollar “Versatile Soft Goods Made for Comfort with a Minimalistic Style” Samra Origins T-Shirt from Blue Bottle Coffee
- John Was Trying to Contact Aliens by Matthew Killip
- Principles for Radical Tax Reform and a Universal Dividend
- The Evolution of Trust by Nicky Case
- To Ascend is to Transcend by vaportown
- With You Now by Past You