Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

Monthly Archives: March 2019


Over the years I have learned to recognize what motivates me to push myself, and one of my primary motivators is a very specific thing, one that can be hard to put into words, but I’ll try.

If there is something I am interested in (i.e. obsessed by), I get highly motivated to see if I can pull it off – in my own mind I’m thinking “can I do this?” I see this play out over and over again in my life. The more difficult the better.

Now I’m not saying that I always succeed, because to have this mind set by definition means that you are going to fail, quite a lot actually. But it’s the moment of trying to do something that I can’t quite do where I feel the most alive.

Music always provided the ultimate challenge – I can remember the grim terror of going on stage trying to pull off a performance of music I had written and rehearsed with my band and it was fucking exhilarating. I wasn’t great but I was striving to be great, and that’s where the fun is.

So now I am writing fiction and it’s exactly the same thing, without the terror of failing in front of a live audience. I get an idea for a short story, and then it becomes a question of “Can I pull this off?

Likewise for this blog – “Can I write something everyday that expresses an idea? Do I have the discipline to do it for a year? What about two years?

I am motivated by the same thing in ER nursing – I love the challenge of administering the best care in an impossible situation. That’s why I secretly like it the crazier it gets, because it becomes more and more challenging to pull it off. You are just totally in the moment of trying to make something happen and nothing else matters. It’s great when you succeed, but that’s not the payoff.

The payoff is the actual act of trying to do it.

Hopeful or Hopeless?

An excellent argument could be made that we live in the best and most exciting time to be alive in the history of humanity.

There is, however, one area where things really seem to be going south at an alarming rate, and I’m not quite sure how to square that circle.

I’m talking about leadership, or at least what seems to pass for it. This is the part I don’t get: if the people are indeed the ones who actually pick their leaders, and things are, generally speaking, so great, then why are our leaders so shitty? Don’t these leaders reflect the society that elected them? And if so, how is this the best of times?

It doesn’t make sense, and it really interferes with my understanding about what a great time it is for humanity. I mean these are the people making the laws that govern life? Really? And this is somehow a good thing?

I have this nagging feeling that there is a point from which you can’t, as a society, return. Especially if you factor in that it was the culture that elected these people into office in the first place. Maybe we were always this bad, perhaps even worse.

I guess Dickens had it right when he wrote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” in 1859.

Maybe some things never change.

Puzzle Solved

Why do the ones with no discernible chief complaint come to the ER?

Probably for a variety of reasons, but here’s one that surely ranks high on the list:

They just need someone to listen. To acknowledge that they are a human being worthy of educated people’s attention.

They are the lonely ones, sometimes confused and broken by life, desperately seeking some human connection.

We’ll be waiting, always there, in a place that never closes. Not judging, just there to try and help.

Oh, did I mention we also have free sandwiches and juice?

How To Affect Change on a Micro Level

Be present for those around you.

Treat everyone you see with respect (at least until proven otherwise).

Don’t be an asshole.


Why? Because we are social creatures who watch each other closely.

Others will see how you comport yourself and imitate it.

Gunplay (Part 2)

The second time someone pulled a gun on me was during a robbery. At the time I was living in a tenement in a poor inner city neighborhood in Boston. The rent was cheap and it was situated between two major music schools – The New England Conservatory of Music and the Berklee College of Music. I was a struggling and very poor musician so it was an ideal situation. The thing was, I actually really liked my building and street, which was only one block long – it was filled with itinerants and fringe types which somehow made me feel comfortable. I lived in that apartment for almost ten years and had grown from a troubled teenager into an adult there. Lots of good times and plenty of bad, but it quickly became my home. I had finally escaped my wildly unstable and unsupervised childhood and the toxically poisonous family that went along with it. I was really happy for the first time in my life.

So late one night after living there for five years or so, I was coming home from a gig and it was probably around two in the morning. At the time I had a close friend in the band who would drive me home, and he’d usually come in and we’d smoke some pot, have a couple of beers and listen to some music before he’d head out.

It was one of those big old apartment buildings that was probably built in the 1930’s and my flat was in the basement. It was perfect for me.

To get in you had to first climb up some steps from the street, then pass through an unlocked door that would open into the little foyer, and finally you’d use your key to unlock the main door into the building. It was pretty big with maybe 60 apartments, every one of them filled with people who were strangers to me. Even though my street was near some colleges, it was considered too rough for students.

There was an old black lady, Mrs. Lewis, who lived immediately on the left as you walked into the lobby and she was the only one I really knew. She had lived there forever and for some reason took a liking to me. The feeling was mutual and she’d often invite me into her apartment to talk. Even though I felt close to her, I was young and always had somewhere to go. But I digress…

On this particular night we parked on the street and walked up to the front door, both of us stoned and tired. Even at this time of night there would be some people out, so seeing someone on the street or coming and going in building was completely normal.

I remember as soon as I opened the front door with my key being aware that somebody had slipped in right behind us – but that wasn’t all that unusual, it happened all the time. As humans we are, however, keenly attuned to our environment, even though we might not be aware of it. Clearly my antenna had picked up something unusual.

As soon as the door closed I heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked and we both instinctively stopped and slowly turned around. There, maybe ten feet behind us was a man pointing a pistol right at us – and I immediately saw his hands were shaking. I remember thinking “he’s scared – there’s one of him and two of us,” immediately followed by the realization that this is exactly how people get shot.

He was a skinny black dude with pants that were too big for him – like the kind they give you on your way out of Walpole when you don’t have any clothes of your own, ‘cuz all you’ve been wearing were your prison issues. I could see a car on the street right at the bottom of the steps with the engine running – it was cold out and you could see the hot exhaust condensing in the frigid night air.

Once again, time seemed to slow down as my mind became focused on giving him what he wanted and making it clear that we presented no threat. This was all instinctual, mind you – there was no time to actually think – only to react. But I was definitely hyper-aware that he had a loaded gun and was nervous in a neighborhood where it wasn’t unusual for people to get shot. Fortunately, my friend kept his cool.

We went through our pockets and gave him what little we had, which wasn’t much – a little money and our watches and wallets. But then he asked me to hand over my trumpet – at the time it was my life! I probably told him it was worthless but it made no difference. In a flash he was gone, with all our stuff – he got my friends guitar too. I remember being relieved he didn’t march us into my apartment and steal what little recording gear I had managed to save up and buy.

The coda to this story was my trip to the local precinct the next day to file a report in a desperate attempt to get my trumpet back. I never did, but my visit with the detective was hilariously disturbing. He was sympathetic to my situation, clearly recognizing me as a poor musician who had just lost his only instrument. I remember he got out a stack of large, dirty binders – the kind that hold photographs.

They contained the pictures of everyone in my neighborhood who had a record for theft and armed robbery. I was dumbfounded as I flipped through page after page, recognizing all the characters I saw in my neighborhood all the time. It seemed like everyone was in there – as if everyone I knew who wasn’t a musician had a record! After a while, all the mug shots just started blending into each other, there were just too many. When I gave up and said I didn’t see him, the detective helpfully offered to get out more books of mug shots of people in my neighborhood who had been busted for other crimes – assaults, sex crimes, murder, etc.

I declined.

I remember thanking him and he offered to have one of the cops drive me home. I accepted and felt defeated and dejected but grateful to be alive.

I had lost some stuff, and although it was very distressing at the time, he didn’t take my life.

I would live to see another day.

Not Dead Yet (Part 1)

Lots of writing today – coming to the end of my latest short story and it’s so wrong it’s right! Or at least I think it is. Whatever, I’m having fun doing it…

For the blog – tomorrow I’ll post “Gunplay ( Part 2). Took a little longer than expected, but I wanted to get it right.

Today I showed up and made something happen.

I’m not dead yet.

Gunplay (Part 1)

Twice in my life I‘ve had a loaded gun aimed point blank at me with great malice. Since I’m obviously still alive, I think we all know how that turned out.

Each time it happened so quickly I didn’t really have time to register what was happening until it was too late. Not that I could have done anything to stop it anyway. It’s a weird feeling – like everything stops and time slows down. Both times I remember feeling eerily calm, like “let’s take this nice and slow,” as if I somehow innately knew my best chance for survival was to be cool and figure out what they wanted so I could quietly give it to them.

The first time I was probably about 16 and had been smoking pot and drinking with two attractive (at least I thought so at the time) biker chick sisters in the middle of the day, and we had fallen asleep on their waterbed (if you’re young and reading this wondering WTF a waterbed is, here you go). I honestly have no idea who they were or how I met them and ended up at their place – I had never seen them before and would certainly never see them again. Nothing sexual had transpired, but for the purposes of our little story that was an unimportant detail. We were too fucked up to do anything anyway. What can I say – I admit I was street trash at the time. Don’t judge me. I was just young and lost and trying to find my way out.

Anyway, the older sister’s biker boyfriend came home and found this long haired punk asleep on his waterbed bed with his chick – and her goddamn sister no less! If that’s not time for some gunplay, I don’t know what is. Somehow I was able to talk my way out of this very uncomfortable situation, but not before I was rudely woken up with a cocked .38 caliber pistol pressed firmly to my temple by an enraged biker. How I pulled that one off is lost in the fog of time, but suffice to say pull it off I did. File that under a mistake I won’t make twice.

Once I got out of there I probably enjoyed the adrenaline rush for a bit and then just went about my business. At the time it just another intense moment in a young life filled with them.

I didn’t know enough to realize how much danger I was in.

That being the story of my youth you can begin to see why I have a natural sense of gratitude for my life now.


“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: 

All mimsy were the borogove
And the mome raths outgrabe. 

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! 
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! 

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun 
The frumious Bandersnatch!” 

He took his vorpal sword in hand; 
Long time the manxome foe he sought— 

So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought. 

And, as in uffish thought he stood, 
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, 

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, 
And burbled as it came! 

One, two! One, two! And through and through 
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! 

He left it dead, and with its head 
He went galumphing back. 

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? 
Come to my arms, my beamish boy! 

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” 
He chortled in his joy. 

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: 

All mimsy were the borogoves, 
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

Lewis Carroll, 1871

Well That Explains A Lot

Think about how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half of ’em are stupider than that.”

George Carlin

I keep running across this quote and it stops me in my tracks each time. Point of fact: Not being an Einstein makes it even scarier. I’ve probably always given the average person more credit than they deserve, but WTF, statistally this is true.

What’s the lesson here? Welcome to the real world.

Lower your expectations. You’ll be a lot happier.

God Left the Phone Off the Hook

Five cardiac arrests in eight hours.

Two packed up and sent to the ICU.

Three zipped up in body bags and sent to the morgue.

I kept my necessary professional detachment except for one brief moment of human connection.

Someone handed me the wallet of an unknown male found down in a public place in cardiac arrest. If we don’t know who this person is, we have to go through what they have on them in an effort to figure it out. On opening his wallet, the first thing I see is a picture of his son. Smiling, he looks about 12, in a school picture.

I pause for a brief moment and register the humanity of this person who has left his loved ones behind for whatever may or may not lie beyond this mortal coil. We did our best to save him.

Then I’ve got more work to do, because there’s other sick people who need my attention. A lot of them. All the while thinking I love my job.

What’s wrong with me?


The difference between being delusional and being great is that someone else recognizes the greatness in what you are doing.

As soon as one person “buys in,” it is now undeniably great, at least to one person. But because we are social animals, that one person will start to talk about it to other people, and soon a network begins to build.

At that point you know that whatever you made is providing real value to others, which is the ultimate affirmation.

This utility may have a short or long shelf life, regardless, it’s a significant achievement.

If you ever get this, take a moment to celebrate it.

The Intersection of Art, Ideas, and the World

I am listening to one of the most provocative podcasts I’ve heard recently and the ideas being discussed are stimulating and honestly a bit mind-blowing, at least to me. Mark Andreeson is being interviewed by Brian Koppleman on “The Moment,” and the clarity of his thinking is stunning. Listening to these two guys talk is like taking a drug that sends your mind into hyper speed.

Mark is probably best known as the co-creator of Netscape, the first widely used internet browser, but that’s not what they are discussing. There are so many novel ideas being thrown out per minute (Mark talks very fast, almost like his speech can’t keep up with his mind) that it’s hard single out one, but I’ll try.

They spend some time talking about “systems thinking,” and if you think that’s programming vernacular you’d be very wrong. It’s really about making intelligent predictions that relate to how your art (or “thing” in the broadest sense of the word) interact with the world (a complex adaptive system).

Because we are such highly social creatures, he argues that whatever we make, either for art or commerce, must be exposed to the culture from which it sprang.

How it interacts with that world is where systems thinking comes into play. I am doing a poor job of communicating this highly provocative idea, but if this sounds interesting check out the podcast. It’s really about a) why would you create something and b) what greater purpose does it serve?

Being able to answer these questions implies a thorough clarity of thought and intention, without which we are left stumbling in the dark.

You’re Only Real Option

When the shit hits the fan – you have to make it happen with whatever resources you’ve got. By “It” I mean whatever needs to be done. Sure, you can complain about it, and if that makes you feel better, knock yourself out.

But complaining in the middle of a shitstorm isn’t going to get the job done.

However – and this is a key point I didn’t fully understand until late in life – whatever deficit in resources was encountered when dealing with said shitstorm must eventually be addressed and dealt with.

For the longest time, I thought just getting the job done was enough. But it isn’t – because if you keep delivering without the proper resources, nothing will ever change.

You’ve got to follow through and try to fix whatever is broken, and for me, this is the hardest part.

Being good in a crisis is natural for me – following up and making changes to the system is hard.

My Mother

Just writing these words creeps me out, but here we go…

My mother was crazy as hell. I’m not talking about “she’s so crazy, ha ha,” no, I’m talking crazy that would send you running for your life. The kind of crazy that would confuse and panic grown men.

I remember one time when my wife was first “getting to know her,” and she was old and weak and already debilitated by early onset Alzheimer’s. She kind of “went off” and scared the living fuck out of her. My wife had never grown up with violence so it was really unsettling, I’m not quite sure but there might have been some tears involved – it was a long time ago. I tried to laugh it off because she was old and weak, but I could see my new wife look at me and I immediately saw the thought cross her mind “what kind of a person grows up in this and comes out normal?” The answer of course is that children don’t get to pick their parents, and to survive they’ll make up a narrative that includes them being loved, and that their parents are “good,” even when neither one is true.

The confusing and unsettling thing was, she could also be funny as hell, someone you really wanted to be around. Unfortunately for you, she could flip on a dime – one minute she’d love you, the next minute she’d want to kill you – and I don’t mean figuratively. I could tell when she was getting dangerous when her eyes would start bouncing back and forth horizontally in her eye sockets like her brain was short-circuiting (I later learned that this was called nystagmus). I couldn’t ever let my friends come to my house because I never knew what she’d do next.

She broke my heart and terrified me at the same time, which can be hard to process when you’re a little kid. The beatings were the least of my problems, the psychological abuse was way worse. The weird thing was, at the time I thought it all was the most normal thing in the world, because it was all I had ever known. Unfortunately, the older she got, she more dangerously crazy she became. When I was a young teenager, I reached the point where I couldn’t take it anymore.

I had to get out.

I’ve always been ashamed of all this, but as I got older I realized it was no ones fault – it’s just the way it was. I could never escape it, so I had to learn to accept and make peace with it. Plenty of other people went through childhoods that were cripplingly traumatic, I’m just grateful I got through it and came out alive. My sister didn’t.

Whether or not your past completely defines who you are as an adult is up to you. You can spend a lifetime trying to undo the damage inflicted on you as a child, and that’s OK. Nobody ever said that life was easy, and if they did they were lying.

It’s just part of who I am – although it was pretty fucking bleak, there were positive things I got out of it as well. I know how to handle myself in violently unstable situations, so there’s that.


Being in the zone.”

Most people experience this at some point in their lives, even if they’re not artists. But for artists this is the state from which all the best work springs, yet it seems so mysterious and fragile. Fear is probably the biggest killer of this state of mind, but fear of what?

It could be anything: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of sucking, fear of being great but not being able to maintain greatness, fear of alienating others, fear of being ostracized. You get the picture. FEAR.

Steven Pressfield has written some great books on the subject, but the essence of how to achieve flow is about as simple as you can get. Obviously, first you have to have a burning desire to do something, but assuming you have that, the real secret is actually the title of one of Steven’s books.

Do the work.

In other words, just fucking do it. Every day.

You won’t always achieve flow, but it will only come if you give it a chance to appear by actually working. I am experiencing this now because I’ve started writing fiction, and it’s weird. Some days are definitely better than others, but I find if I just give myself time to do it, and actually start writing, shit happens.

I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating because it’s so obvious and freeing if you’re trying to create. The greatest and most productive artists, the ones who created massive bodies of work, would all be the first to acknowledge a dirty little secret. It’s not all great. In fact, some of it isn’t even that good. But because they just keep creating, day in and day out, their work ethic gives their greatness an opportunity to show up.

Think of Frank Zappa, Woody Allen, Andy Warhol, Ray Johnson, Miles Davis, Picasso, George Carlin, Prince, and Duke Ellington. These people just never stopped, they just kept compulsively creating, giving their genius a chance to emerge fully realized at times, because they kept creating without fear.

The flow is where the fun is.

Prepare To Be Disturbed

None of these “people” exist – they are all images generated from scratch by artificial intelligence. They utilize a specific type of AI called Generative Adversarial Networks (GANS), something I talked about in an earlier post.

For more unsettling examples, please feel free to visit “This Person Doesn’t Exist.” Try not let any of these avatars haunt your dreams (or nightmares).

I’m afraid we’ve left the uncanny valley – next stop unknown.

Here’s A Thought (Part 3)

Maybe the real goal is to live each moment appreciating how fucking magical it is just to be alive. ‘Cuz if you’re alive you get to read “To Kill A Mockingbird,” or watch “Chinatown,” or listen to Miles Davis, or go to a museum, or help someone else, or spend time with people or animals you love.

Goals, dreams, accomplishments and disappointments all take on a different hue if this is your default. Just waking up and starting your day is a little miracle in itself. I’m not sure we really need anything else to make life fulfilling.

So take a deep breath and try to experience the world through this prism of gratitude.

Don’t wait until it’s over to appreciate it.

We All Just Need A Little Human Connection

It doesn’t even have to be a big deal; could be as simple as just smiling and saying hello. That might be just enough to help that other person get through their day.


Just acknowledge the existence and value of another human being and pay attention to what happens.

You might be surprised.