Storytelling: What I Want My Kids to Know

My mother is a great storyteller. She was born in 1936 and her generation seems to really understand the beautiful value of storytelling and learning throughout the lifespan. Every single time I speak to her she has a story to tell me, usually it centers around being humble and having respect for others and learning from them.

Last night as I dozed off to sleep my mind wandered and asked me, “If I wasn’t here tomorrow would my children know what I want them to know about me? Have I told them enough stories?” My mom has breast cancer and is undergoing chemo, so the realization that the time is now to do things you love has more clarity for me.

In this digital world, our artifacts are spread out all over. I have a mental listing of where my writings are, where my tax documents are, my favorite photos. However I have tens of thousands of photos just since I started using iPhoto. I easily have a terabyte of data associated with “me.” Of course my will is easily accessible and it has some pointers to info. I’m speaking more profoundly about my person: my experiences, learnings, love for the kids. I will slowly start to curate a (small) set of information I would want them to know. I believe in that process one develops a larger view of time and a deeper sense of gratitude for all we have.

Awesome Books for Kids

In an effort to expand our family vocabulary, I was looking at some of the kids book lists out there. You can put books on hold at the library with a future date. I’m compiling some kids lists in the library catalog so we can get them each week. Here are the lists.

Newbery Medal Winners
Awarded to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.

Colorado Blue Spruce Book Award
The award is unique in being entirely nominated and voted for by teens. Inclusion on the nominations list does not imply endorsement by any adult as this is a program of entirely student-selected titles. Each year teens in grades 6-12 are free to nominate their favorite titles; a list of 12-15 titles is then compiled by the Blue Spruce Award committee based on number of nominations received. Adults do not nominate or vote for books, and publishers are not allowed to submit their books for consideration.

Alex Awards
The Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. (American Library Association)

Pura Belpre Award Winners
Presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrities the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.

Coretta Scott King Winners
Given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.

The descriptions above are from the Denver Public Library and ALA web sites.

Teach, Don’t Judge

This is a small pet peeve of mine, however I’d like to share it. If we are in conversation and you like an artist, just tell me about it.

I can’t tell you how many times people say to me: “I love this artist! Do you know this person?” I shudder to think of how many times curators in museums hear that. Ugh.

I usually shut down when I hear that type of question. First of all, it tells me you don’t know much about art. There are 2.5 million artists in the US alone. Yes, I will likely have heard of the famous and the regional ones. However, far more likely is that my interests don’t align with yours.

So instead of using this silent thermometer to see how much you think I know about art, just tell me what you freakin’ love.

Likely is I will love it too because I’m voraciously curious. And if I haven’t heard about it, I’ll go home and look it up. At least we don’t waste each other’s time.

Teach me. Does it really matter if I have heard of it? Only if you’re trying to judge. And let me tell you, if I think you’re an intellectual snob I’ll act like a complete moron just to disengage.

Students and Art as a Means of Revealing Self

Each year we host some events in support of art programs in local schools. Today was the the opening of a photography show for Denver Public Schools during Month of Photography. It was an open call across the region’s high schools. About 300 submissions resulted in 75 pieces selected.

I’ve never seen so much diversity at an art exhibition in my life. Every museum educator’s dream. These kids were walking their parents through the exhibition. I heard an older Mexican dad say, “Mijo, y eso?” Son what is that? His son explained. Financially, ethnically, in terms of age, wow were there many kinds of humans here today. That was very cool. The best part was that the kids were guiding their parents and grandparents through. High schoolers are asking mature enough questions that the conversation moves beyond a child’s perspective. This is why I love art: these young people expressing themselves to their own families.

Hilariously, the teens playing guitar in back told the organizing teacher they like to play classic rock, like Nirvana! She said: “Oh my, am I that old that their “classic rock” is Nirvana?!”

In the quiet before the exhibition, I was glad to see some students get an award ribbon. I thought of their surprise and how much these kinds of events really serve as tiny stepping stones on a creative mind’s path. Later I saw some of the other students walk in and not get a ribbon. I wondered if the ribbon was worth it? Was this the beginning of the quiet silencing? Someone else saw your work and decided whether it should have a ribbon. I decided that’s the reality of most things in life. It’s definitely worth it for the ones who get that tiny bit of affirmation. I heard one mother say to a teen: “it’s an honor just to be in the show.” A valuable life lesson.

I was also impressed by how many kids took books off the shelf. Kurt’s dad would have been very happy. Usually adults walk in, admire the bookshelf and walk on. These kids were curiously pulling them off and looking. I tried not to stare in disbelief.

A community needs spaces like this, spaces to experiment, to be seen and to see, to walk through safely and learn. Thanks, Alexa, for having the show at the Gallery and Mark Sink for connecting us.

What Would You Do If Money Was No Object?

In my journey with digm, the most important question anyone has asked me was:

“What would you do if money was no object?”

Laura Merage, the founder of the art space RedLine, asked me this question on October 13, 2014, when I met her for coffee to show her my prototype of a new magazine for Colorado’s art community. Her husband owned Hot Pockets and so likely money is not an object for them, but for me with two kids in private school, a mortgage, a small business, money is very much an object.

Still it doesn’t matter who you are, that is the most fundamental question to ask yourself.

For the first 24 hours, I felt like a hammer fell on my head. I’d been working on this on the side with the Gallery for a year.

Yet, I knew my answer in my gut immediately! It was: “I certainly wouldn’t be doing this!”

I thought to myself. “Well, what would you do?”

My answer? “I would start a new tech startup to make aggregating cultural content efficient and I would make it so that you could see communities from around the world. A print piece might be one output of that, but the fundamental core technology would enable many outputs.”

I’m going to keep note of that day. For it was really on October 15th that digm was truly born. Until then, I was just pregnant.


Where I End, He Begins

Kurt and I have been married 15 years. We have worked together that entire time. Here is an analogy of how Kurt and I work together.

Let’s say we were going to do a documentary on migrating birds of North America. First of all, I would be the one who suggests we do a documentary on migrating birds of North America. Kurt would say “OK” because that’s why he loves me.

I would say: this flock goes from Canada down to Mexico. We want to document them at Point X, point Y and point Z.

Based on that Kurt would figure out (a) the most efficient and least expensive route, (b) the best possible equipment we could use (and if we can’t afford it how to make it himself and (c) the itinerary. I would agree and be duly impressed as always by how quickly he can research the best way to do something, *anything* really!

We would get in the car together on the appointed day and start our drive to Point X. On the way, twenty hours into the drive, despite all our plans and risking his getting mad at me, while he is driving en route to Vancouver, Canada, I say: “Keep north, we need to go to Toronto.”

At this point he will get frustrated with me. We have an elaborate plan based on sound research. I however have been voraciously reading and researching the entire time we were driving. I realize that due to global warming, the migration path has changed. If we go to our first destination, there will be no birds.

It takes me a few hours to even be able to explain the new pattern I have seen in the research because I lack the new vocabulary. I show it to him. His powerful intelligence understands what the data mean despite the very many hours he put into the existing plan, he trusts me and drives towards Toronto.

We get there, there are birds, we finish our documentary, and somewhere along the way over a beer and probably next to a campfire I met people who (a) would edit it for us (b) would help us promote it (c) would monetize it (d) would help us figure out the next documentary.

Sometimes this takes months, sometimes years.

The End.

Opportunity + Preparation = Justice

TechStars represents the most social justice I’ve seen in my lifetime on the question of whether the U.S. is a meritocracy. Granted it’s extremely competitive and the bulk of the startup funds are debt terms. However, hear me out.

TechStars is a startup accelerator in Boulder, Colorado (and now other cities around the world). If you’re accepted they give you up to $120,000 in seed capital ($100k of that is convertible debt) to start your business, coach you on how to pitch to other investors by the end, and most importantly rigorously try to prepare you to be successful in your business. They connect you with mentors and an ecosystem of entrepreneurs trying/failing/succeeding just like you.

I feel you cannot get enough lift bootstrapping it alone. My friend who was the largest chocolate distributor in North America until he sold his company said to me once: “When I was a young man I wanted 100% ownership. Now I’d much rather be sitting at the table with very bright minds and own a smaller piece of a bigger pie.”

So last year I explored the Small Business Administration. They offer loans for small businesses. On the surface this seems like great access to capital, except that you have to personally guarantee the loan. That means if your business fails you lose your house. And while they give some lip service to preparation and training, mostly it’s business plan writing courses. It is 1/1000th of the fierce reality TechStars is putting on the table. Mentoring requires so much more than learning to write a business plan: networking, hiring, fiercely guarding cash, working quickly, grooming yourself to be a leader.

The whole point of separating corporate entities from private individuals in the US is that if a corporate entity fails one can close it down. If you then also get wiped out personally you can suffer irreparable harm depending on your age. That’s why the IRS watches closely any commingling of business and personal funds; you pierce the veil of corporate protection by doing so. Given the SBA themselves tells you something like 80% of restaurants fail, for example, one has to question how personally-guaranteed-loans by the middle and lower classes is good for society. It just seems like a transferring of wealth to me, in the wrong direction, from the weak to the strong. It’s an unintended consequence of the harsh reality.

In the Venture Capital world, on the other hand, you sign Term Sheets, that yes, repay the investors first upon a sale of the business. And yes, there are some predatory VCs. However if you choose carefully the investors have some real skin in the game too. If you fail, they fail with you. You close the corporate entity, they lose money. That portion of the portfolio was non-producing and the Fund Managers get paid to make money. Since they don’t want you to fail, a mentor is put on your board. You get mentoring. They beat the heck out of you to consider your shortcomings and risks. They pick carefully and they pick few, sharing the risk with those who can afford some risk. To me this is more just than handing out loans to small businesses that are likely to fail, much like the housing mortgage bubble.

In March of 2014 I went to Cuba with a group from the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. On the plane there I was reading a German book and was moved by this one line:

“In the US the focus is on equality of opportunities while in Cuba the focus is on equality of outcomes.”

I reflected on that so much. Indeed my observation was that the Cuban Revolution has achieved equality of outcomes. The tour guide and the brain surgeon make the same amount of money. However that’s also created a situation that one senior historian there kept calling “absurdo” (absurd) because no one wants to study the difficult careers if they will make the same or less than others. Today, in reality, our tour guide operator was making $2,000 a month compared to my cousin’s friend who is a retired engineer making $12/month. The fact is society needs surgeons and we compensate differently because it’s damn hard work.

As I was there I thought about my high school years. I was in the top few in my class of about 450. I had nearly perfect SAT scores (1560/1600). I had a 4.4 GPA on a scale of 4. I volunteered hundreds of hours around town at a homeless shelter, in a facility for developmentally disabled adults, a single parent childcare facility. I busted my butt. And I remember one of my peers said to me: “you’re so lucky, you’ll definitely get a scholarship because you’re a minority.”

I felt so mad at that statement. If I got a scholarship I wanted it to be based on merit. Indeed I did get merit-based scholarships.

What I understood more profoundly, though, was that OPPORTUNITY without PREPARATION is no opportunity at all. In fact it’s a formula for failure and feeling like a loser the rest of your life. If you get accepted because you’re a minority but aren’t prepared for the situation into which you’re thrust (emotionally, mentally, academically) you will suffer greatly. Perhaps you’ll even suffer twice as much as the person who didn’t have the chance because you feel the burden of being one of the few. I was preparing myself.

TechStars is the first model I’ve seen that actively tries to form you, to PREPARE YOU, for the difficult road ahead. I’ve been going to their “8 Weeks of Awesome” series and it’s been very formative even without applying to the program. It’s the most profoundly “right” model I’ve seen in my lifetime.

In the end, if I had to say what I concluded on my Cuban visit, I would say that neither Equality of Outcomes (Cuba) nor Equality of Opportunity (US) is the right answer.


Yikes! Did she just say that?!: The Best Thing About Our Product Is That When It Fails People Blame Themselves

I waitressed at night, took art history classes at night, interned at MoMA by day…worked 100-hour weeks every week. I saved my money.

I’ll never forget my joy when I was finally sitting there in my first graduate class at Columbia University in the Business School. I used to calculate how many hundreds of dollars I was paying to listen to that class and considered it a great privilege. I savored it.

I was in the second or third marketing class of the semester and the guest lecturer was the Marketing Vice President of a major, national “Diet” company. Yes, that one that just popped into your mind without me saying it.

And she said proudly to us:
“The best part of our product is that when it fails people blame themselves and come back for more. We understand that and so we structure our marketing accordingly: after the holidays, etc.”

I remember a sense of white light surrounding my head. I thought, did I just hear that correctly? My disbelief was lessened only by the fact that the entire remaining hour and a half was spent discussing how to do that effectively.

It was a seminal moment for me. I realized that if we fail to look at things as systems we’re doomed. Those poor people were probably failing at their diets for many reasons: work stress, relationship stress, endocrine problems, bad habits…all kinds of systemic factors that contributed to success or failure. And as much as choice played a role, simply blaming themselves and going back for more was just a vicious cycle.

That was in 1995. My sincere hope is that segment of marketing has improved in some way.

Ever since then, I’ve been a relentless observer of systemic forces.

Action Over Theory

Actions often hold more sway than ideals. As we work to stem extremism around the world, we need to think about what it means to support fragile populations.

I have a friend who belongs to a church that many of my other friends would consider religious fundamentalists. My friend is pretty moderate though very devout. She is a very productive member of society economically.

This friend came from Cuba. She arrived penniless with a few kids. She received help upon arriving from people in this church because that’s part of what the church community did.

30 years later she’s still a part of that church.

I ask my friends who question the fundamentalist church where they were when she landed on these shores? Were they home reading The New York Times thinking about the dangers of communism and fundamentalists?

Because while they engaged in that act, what she needed was food, companionship, clothing and help with her children.

I read The New York Times. I am thankful we have policy debates about political asylum and immigration– the two factors that made it possible for her to be here in the first place. I also try to donate to the African Community Center in Denver, for example, which helps African refugees and actively prune what I own giving it to others I think will pass it down to other immigrants.

I’m not trying to preach; I’m no saint. I’m just saying that we cannot forget the *physical urgency* the bereaved/poor face. If we don’t step up someone else will. We can’t then stand there wondering what happened, how the extreme ideas got so entrenched.

Misconstrued Information Used Against You: Aaron Swartz was a canary in the coal mine

My father-in-law was arrested in East Berlin in the late 1960s and held for 9 months for inadvertently photographing the Stasi headquarters. He was a U.S. Citizen who was a teaching assistant at Columbia University researching the Bauhaus in Germany (one of the most influential architectural movements of the past century). He was studying art history and architecture so he went about the city photographing architectural elements. They misconstrued his photography around the city as spy behavior. He just disappeared one day and it was a ultimately a US ambassador to Italy that got him out. In an effort to get him to confess to being a spy, the Stasi told him they had collected lots of information on him.  It was 30 years later when he was first allowed to view the files that had been collected but only through changes to laws in Germany.

Similarly, my father was arrested in Cuba, also in the late 1960s. He was involved in a youth group at the Catholic Church. His friend owned a printing press and the press had been used to print some brochures for the youth group. They were not anti-revolutionary brochures; they spoke of the importance of the family unit. The next day a false report appeared in the newspaper stating my father was the regional director for distribution of this information. Fortunately, an influential friend of my parents wrote a letter stating that was completely fabricated and he was released, but not before being put on a list for a firing squad and imprisoned.

I can understand why Europeans get so upset with Google about privacy; they have pretty real, pretty recent memories with all this.

The death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz tells us the conditions ahead are too toxic for humans. Our Internet laws and privacy policies are not safe. For those who may not understand my meaning, in the mining of coal in the US, it was a practice to send a bird (canary) ahead before the men. If the bird died, it meant the conditions were too toxic to breathe.

I was thinking about the use of misconstrued information as a legal weapon. In the film, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” there was mention of a manifesto Aaron wrote being used against him in his trial proceedings. He basically wrote that the poor should have access to information and this was deemed radical.

At the recent Silicon Flatirons conference in Boulder two weeks ago, I wanted to ask the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and the broader group, what was being done to protect US citizens from information collected on the Internet being misconstrued and used against them legally. This isn’t a radical idea. We see it already happening with people posting stuff on Facebook and getting arrested as they deplane in other countries. We’d like to think we’re immune to that kind of radical thinking here, but it doesn’t take much to spark fear. There wasn’t enough time to ask my question; I’ll be keeping my eyes on the activities of EFF and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Recently I overheard my 78-year-old mother on the phone yelling at my dad in the background to turn off the Ferguson news. She grumbled: “The last thing anybody needs is pictures of black people looting stores; that is totally twisted. Your dad of all people should know what happens when information is misconstrued.” The mere fact that a black man has a 30% chance of being incarcerated in his lifetime tells you this is a real and present danger, not just online. I’m worried about where we are as a country in the US and how we are using (mis)information against one another.