Monthly Archives: December 2011

10 Things That Changed My Life in 2011

Granted, this list is a bit premature.  It may be another 5 or 10 years before I really know how 2011 changed my life, or which seemingly innocuous events have had dramatically unforeseen consequences.  But, as I look back at 2011 from the vantage point of the year’s end, here are some of the moments that made me think differently than I had been during the moment before.

1. My Own Self-Made Financial Disaster

At the end of March, my finances fell apart.  This happens, especially when you live your life like I did, as a distracted freelancer.  Realizing I had failed to found a sustainable base for my own business despite having been self-employed for 6 years led me to see my whole life — and my means for living it — differently, and more practically.

2. I Stopped Paying Attention to Sports

It’s amazing what removing two items from your Firefox toolbar can do.

3. I Quit My Job

Inasmuch as a self-employed person can quit his job, anyway.  What I really quit was corporate social marketing.  What I’m going to do next is… well, you’ll see.  2012 is right around the corner…

4. The Baristas Began

When I moved to Baltimore in 2009, I thought I’d never make another episode of Something to Be Desired, the web sitcom I’d created and produced since 2003.  And since STBD was part of my identity as an artist / “web personality,” I felt a bit rudderless for awhile, unsure of what my next creative move should be.  But the cast from STBD still wanted to make something, so we devised an alternative: a smaller spinoff I could (theoretically) produce from afar, called The Baristas.  And thanks to our fans, Kickstarter, some publicity, and my own refusal to live a logical life, we produced 20 episodes of a show I feel quite proud of.

5. The Baristas Ended (for Now)

I made a lot of mistakes when I was producing STBD, and I hoped to avoid them when I created The Baristas.  Unfortunately, many of those flaws — like my propensity for stretching myself too thin, biting off more than I can chew, setting unreasonable deadlines, and failing to communicate clearly with my collaborators — proved to be recurring problems, rather than flukes that were exclusive to my earlier work.  Realizing what I do well, what I do poorly, and how I can fix my own negative habits as a creator, producer and leader is imperative if I’m ever going to get better at doing what I love.  And now that season one of The Baristas is over, I have an indefinite amount of time to figure out the smartest way to produce a second season without driving myself, our cast, and our fans crazy.

6. Ann Started Acting Again. (A Lot.)

Long ago, before she was my girlfriend, Ann Turiano was an actress on Something to Be Desired (the show I created).  And she was good.  But by the time she graduated from college, she’d become frustrated with the acting world in general, so she chose to pursue a career in the world of arts management instead.

Then, last year, she was asked to perform in a local Christmas play, and the acting bug bit her once again.  Since then, she’s performed in three more plays, been cast in another one that debuts in 2012, and joined the professional Shakespeare Factory here in Baltimore.  Seeing Ann recommit to something she’d been passionate about awhile ago makes me happy, but it also reminds me that I have my own longtime dreams that I should be pursuing, too.

Such as…

7. Ann Talked Me Into Taking a Screenwriting Class

My girlfriend takes me more seriously when I’m actively pursuing my dreams, rather than just talking (or blogging) about them.  So she talked me into taking a screenwriting class at Johns Hopkins University that was taught by Marc Lapadula, a writer whose students have occasionally gone on to have their scripts produced in Hollywood.  (“30 Minutes or Less” was the most recent film written by one of his students.)

The class was aimed at entry-level students, which means a lot of it was a review for me, rather than a wealth of new information.  But his guest speaker in the closing week was George Mahaffey, a former student and current screenwriter who recently sold a script to “Transformers” director Michael Bay.  Mahaffey’s discussion of how Hollywood really works, coupled with a prolonged exposure to Lapadula’s screenwriting tips, rekindled my oft-considered-but-never-pursued aspirations of working in film and TV, and this has helped guide my new career choices in the wake of my divorce from corporate marketing.

8. Dave Ramsey Got Me Thinking…

When my finances collapsed, I looked for help.  Not just with new work, but with new ways of thinking about money.  Dave Ramsey‘s book Total Money Makeover is a simple, strictly-structured primer for getting your finances back on track.  And while I may not agree with everything he says or advocates — especially as I’m an agnostic, whereas Ramsey has a habit of squeezing Christian themes in wherever he can — one of his comments made absolute sense to me.

To paraphrase him, he notes that people who possess money are usually considered “evil,” or at least the cause of many of the world’s problems.  He points out that the money itself isn’t what makes people act selfishly; it’s their myopic worldviews that corrupt their use of their own abundant resources.  Thus, if we really want to make a difference in this world, we owe it to ourselves (and the people we’d like to help) to make as much money as we can, so we can use it for what we believe is “good.”  Think of it as keeping resources out of the hands of the people we believe would misuse them.  Sure, this perspective is a bit tribal and oversimplified… but, strategically speaking, it also make sense.

9. Occupy Wall Street Got Me Thinking, Too…

It really doesn’t matter if they have a list of demands, or no demands at all.  The fact that disparate groups of American citizens from all walks of life were compelled to demonstrate their disgust at the current state of the American system speaks volumes to me about the disparity between what we think our country stands for and what we actually empower our citizens to achieve.  No, the 99% isn’t entirely correct in their accusations, and no, the 1% isn’t entirely wrong in their manipulation of capitalism to suit their own ends… but it’s nice to see bored Americans finally getting off their asses and coming together to discuss what America should be, instead of allowing us to be defined strictly by what we purchase and what we allow our politicians to get away with.

10. My Aunt’s 50th Anniversary of Becoming a Nun

In October, my dad’s side of the family convened upon our hometown of Erie, PA, to celebrate the golden jubilee of my aunt Mary Lou Kownacki‘s 50th anniversary of becoming a Benedictine sister.  Nothing makes a man rethink his life quite like the one-two punch of A) having to explain himself to a wide array of cousins, uncles and family friends who wonder why he still isn’t married with kids, and B) realizing that no one — especially religious devotees — does anything for 50 years anymore.  When I’m almost 70, what will I have achieved with my life?  What have I accomplished thus far?  Sobering questions that I hadn’t expected to consider during an otherwise mellow family reunion.

BONUS: My Assorted Cultural Influences of 2011

Everyone has their favorites, and your tastes may vary from mine.  Nonetheless, here are:

15 Songs I Played a Little Too Often in 2011

“Insatiable,” CLP featuring White Gold Princess(This party girl puts Ke$ha to shame.)

“Hold the Line,” Major Lazer featuring Mr. Lexx and Santigold — (Basically unstoppable.)

“VCR,” The XX(Ah, minimalist puppy love…)

“The Step and the Walk,” The Duke Spirit(Currently on endless repeat in my mind.)

“Lost in My Mind,” The Head and the Heart(introspection + getting on with life = win)

“I’ll Form the Head,” MC Frontalot(The best mighty morphin’ rap battle ever heard…)

“Wanna’ Get,” Reggie Watts(For them special times…)

“Bohemian Like You,” The Dandy Warhols(Not new, but never unwelcome.)

“Stomp and Holler,” Hayes Carll(“I’m like James Brown, only white and taller…”)

“Grounds for Divorce,” Elbow(The pub ballad Tom Waits wishes he wrote.)

“Clementine,” Sarah Jaffe(So beautifully uncomfortable.)

“Repetition,” TV on the Radio(It grew on me, due to… wait for it…)

“Mouthful of Diamonds,” Phantogram(The thematic descendants of Portishead.)

“Up in the Clouds,” Darwin Deez(Is “post-hipster” a genre yet?)

“New in Town,” Little Boots(Your new Friday night anthem, if you’re still single…)

11 Films I Don’t Regret Having Seen in 2011 (in the order I saw them)

Somewhere — Sofia Coppola’s story of nothing in particular, which is actually the problem.

Another Year — Mike Leigh creates the screen couple we all want to grow up to be.

Biutiful — Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Javier Bardem turn tragedy into poetry.

Marwencol — Unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, I bet.

Blast! — A documentary about NASA, balloons, Antarctica and God.  (And it’s funny.)

Milking the Rhino — You’ll understand Africa in a way you never did before.

Proceed and Be Bold — The true story of a printmaker who pisses off a lot of people.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 — The high point of blockbuster season.

It’s Always Fair Weather — A Gene Kelly musical that, inexplicably, no one knows about.

Moneyball — Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill deserve any accolades their performances earn them.

Anonymous — The “who really wrote Shakespeare?” mystery you owe it to yourself to see.

3 Books I Read in 2011 and Can Unashamedly Recommend to You

The Art of Immersion, by Frank Rose (read my Q&A with the author)

Game Boys, by Michael Kane (read why I think it’s a perfect example of story structure)

Crafty TV Writing, by Alex Epstein (explains why television works the way it does)

21 Things I Read Online in 2011 That Stuck With Me

A eulogy for golfer Seve Ballesteros that made me reconsider my own life.

Why Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts is my rock and roll hero.

Terrifying sandwiches.

“Make no little plans.”

Stop bullshitting yourself.

How to talk to little girls in a way that makes (almost) everyone feel better.

Why it’s a good thing we’ll never know what this photo means.

Super heroes are real.

One of dozens of Dear Photographs that really don’t need words.

Visual proof of just how fucked up the London riots were.

… and anecdotal proof of how fucked up American politics is.

The happiest man in Los Angeles.

The Bad Lip Reading video that’s actually better than Russian Unicorn.

Matthew Ebel proves you can be among the 99% and still be a good American.

You’ll never see food the same way again.  (But it’s awesome.)

The ultimate truth.

Your kids are really screwed up, in a good way.

Things you’d rather not know about Guantanamo, but should.

The best baby Halloween costume ever.

The good kind of riot.

The other ultimate truth.

Bloom like an artist.

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10 Lousy Excuses for Being Bad at Life

Lately, I’ve realized I really do have enough time to accomplish the things I want to do in this life.  But just because I have that time, it doesn’t mean I always use it properly.  Or responsibly.

Or at all.

Sure, I may not get everything done that I want to do.  And sure, I’m usually behind schedule, slightly broke, and searching my closet for a shirt that looks “ironed enough.”  Who isn’t?

But there’s a difference between having a perfectly legitimate reason for not getting something done on time (or ever), and all the shoddy excuses we invent when no legitimate reasons exist.

Here are 10 excuses I’ve used (repeatedly) over the years, none of which are worth standing behind.

  • “I didn’t want to wake the dog up.”
  • “I’d rather not walk / drive in the rain.”
  • “I should really save up for ___ instead.”
  • “I think I’ve earned one more game of Madden…”
  • “___ might be there, and I wouldn’t want to make him / her uncomfortable.”
  • “Half an hour isn’t really enough time to accomplish anything anyway.”
  • “I should cycle through Facebook, Twitter and Gmail one more time before I ___.”
  • “I’ll do it after the holidays.”
  • “I’ll do it after a nap.”
  • “I’ll save that action for a day when I feel more efficient.”

Why are these bad excuses?

Because…

… by and large, whatever I’m putting off now isn’t something I’m going to be more excited about later.  In fact, if I do feel more motivated later, whatever I just postponed now is going to later seem like a loose end that I should have tied up earlier, and it’s likely to derail my newfound sense of momentum.

… with rare exception, I usually don’t end up buying whatever it was that I was saving up for instead of attending the event or buying the equipment I talked myself out of.  Why not?  Because I find something else more impulsive and enjoyable in the interim.  (“I didn’t to [Conference X] because I wanted to buy [Item Y], but that was before I knew there was a sale at the Gap…”)

… rewarding myself with a premature break before I accomplish something is like buying something on credit, under the presumption that I’ll eventually have the money to pay it off later.  Sure, I may, but when I do, it won’t feel like I’ve earned it; it’ll feel like I’ve escaped from an unwise obligation.  So why deny myself the positive feeling of accomplishment now by trading it in for a sigh of relief later?

… deferring my own accomplishments for the sake of someone else’s mental well-being is noble and all, but when I’m on my deathbed, I doubt that I’ll be able to justify having lived a less interesting life simply because it saved me (or you) a moment of awkwardness, embarrassment or conflict.

And if I have to wake the dog up?  He’ll get over it.  His to-do list is shorter than mine.

What lies are you telling yourself in your delayed pursuit of your own dreams?

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What I Learned by Doing Nothing

Before Thanksgiving, I quit doing social marketing for a living, but I haven’t transitioned to a new job yet.  Instead, I spent the past week not doing anything, on purpose.

Sometimes not doing anything is exactly what I need to do so I can better understand what I want to be doing.  (I almost said “what I should be doing,” but as Penelope Trunk points out, there’s no such thing as “should.”)

Here are some things I realized during my week off from (almost) everything.

It’s Not About Unplugging Completely, but Unplugging Voluntarily

Even on a week of “doing nothing,” I still did things.  Errands, groceries, walking the dog.  Neighborhood meetings.  Laundry.

If you wait for a week when you have absolutely nothing to do, at all, in order to get your head together, and you’re a normally functioning adult with friends, lovers and pets, that week will never happen.  But some weeks are less busy than others.  And your amount of busy is, ultimately, always up to you — even when you don’t think it is.

Need some breathing room?  Do less.  It’s okay to say “not right now,” or “no.”  And once you do, it gives you a chance to ask a valuable follow-up question: “Why did I ever start doing ___ in the first place?”

Be Honest About the Importance of Money and Time

My main goal for this past week was to wrap my mind around how much money I actually need to make in 2012, and how much money I’d like to make in order to accomplish some non-necessities (a vacation, some new equipment, etc.).

Guess what: it’s actually not that much money.

So my next step was to find a rhythm for my life.

In a week when I didn’t really have to do anything, what did I enjoy doing with my time?  What hobbies or pastimes was I drawn to, and how much time did I find myself wanting to spend on them?

Understanding that, and seeing what a normal workday really looks like when I start making time for “real life” (like not going online in the evenings), helped me realize how much time I could spend working per day, vs. how much time I want to spend working.

Because I actually do want to work.  After two days of having nothing to do, I found myself missing the structure that came with deadlines and obligations, because I feel that accomplishing things incrementally is a productive way to spend my days and weeks.

I just don’t want to be working constantly.

And now I know that I don’t have to.  In fact, I know exactly how much I need to work in order to make the money I need (and the money I want) next year.  And that helps me feel like my goals are within my grasp without having to sacrifice my time, health and sanity in order to “keep up” or “get ahead.”

There Are Some Things You’ll Just Never Get Done

My desk is still a mess.  My receipts are still in a giant, unsorted pile.  And the floors still need a good sweeping.

Having the time to do all the things you keep telling yourself you need to do does not mean those things will get done.

*shrug*

Most of My Internet Addiction Is Self-Created

One of the big positives I’ve learned from this past month is that I can live without checking Gmail, Twitter and Facebook every waking moment.  Getting to this point has been an incremental exercise in downsizing my online activity, but now I can not check email or social networks for a day or two and I find I’m not missing anything.  And if something’s truly important, I get a call or a text.  Otherwise, life goes on.

This is a vital step in understanding a larger truth:

I Actually Have More Time Than I Know What to Do With

Even if I limit the time I spend working in a day, I still get things done.

Even if I force myself to relax and read, watch films or play video games, I still get things done.

Even if I go out with friends, or Ann, or walk Rufus, I still get things done.

All those days when I don’t get anything done?  Those take work.  Because those are the days I have to consciously seek out distractions to which I voluntarily surrender myself for too long.

Compartmentalizing my day into “work time,” “home time” and “me time” helps.  So does reducing my access to things that often distract me.  So does understanding what my realistic financial goals are.  And so does realizing that my life won’t collapse if I don’t get something done.

After that, it all becomes a matter of finding the way I want to spend my time.

Doing the Things I Want to Do Feels Better Than Finding Reasons Not To Do Them

For someone who loves film and books as much as I do — and whose long-term goals involve being a writer and producer — I watch a lot less films and read a lot fewer books than I’d like to.  Why?  Because I usually convince myself that there’s something more important that I should be doing — an easy trap when you’re a freelancer who’s in charge of his own revenue streams.

So unyoking myself from the burden of “should” this week was a blessing, because I finally had no reason not to watch films and read books and magazines.  And, like everything else this week, I realized that watching films and reading books actually takes less time, and generates more ideas and fulfillment, than I normally anticipate they will, thus negating the “time trap” argument altogether.

Now, instead of being the guy who tells himself I don’t have time to enrich myself the way I want to, I’m becoming the guy who responsibly makes time in his life for that enrichment because it’s important, enjoyable, and worthwhile.

Some of My Distractive Tendencies Are Useful After All

I write a lot about reducing distractions, but the truth is, sometimes surfing through Twitter and Facebook is exactly what I need: a momentary respite from whatever I’m working on.  Especially when I work alone, which means Twitter and Facebook are my primary connection to the outside world.

I no longer feel compelled to comment on everything I see, or to share twenty items a day in a desperate effort to trigger a daylong trickle of dopamine from being liked and retweeted.  But if reading a shared link to a newspaper article is the five minute break I need in order to return to my work with a renewed focus, so be it.  And if reading those articles and watching those videos gives me ideas and insights into what I’m doing — or what I’d rather be doing — even better.

Dreams Get Deferred Because We Don’t Know How to Reach Them

Maybe the biggest part of this week’s mental housecleaning was finally admitting to myself what I’d rather be doing.

Ann had sent me a link to some tips for remembering what you actually want to do with your life.  They resonated with me, so I started making lists — not just of what I wanted to do, but what I actually enjoyed (and didn’t) about the things I was doing.  What do I like about creating The Baristas?  What did I dislike about social marketing?  And what themes keep popping up repeatedly, both in my work and in my worldview?

In other words: what would the ideal me be doing with his life, if the life I’ve invented for myself hadn’t gotten in the way?

Because I can always take it apart and redesign it.

Some of my new ideas for what I’d like to do next are startup ideas… but I don’t know how to start them up.  Others are creative (screenwriting, media production, essays, etc.)… but I don’t know whom to show them to when they’re ready to be seen.

I could defer those dreams because I’m not sure what the next steps are, and figuring that out is time that I could (“should”) be spending making money…

… or, I could realize that I can’t keep denying what I’d rather be doing, and I can turn the act of finding those answers into the work I will do next.

If I never do that work, I’ll just find some other lie to tell myself in-between.

Not a bad set of conclusions to draw from a week spent doing nothing.

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