Priorities

2015 appears to be the year of focus so far. I’ve shed a lot of the extra “big plans” to zero in on what I hope to do with the second half of my life. These plans included, but were not limited to: VFX/Gaming/Video school for kids, VFX/Gaming intensive training embedded at a Community College, Super-speed tutorial series, a series of funny/gory VFX shots, expanding my coding abilities, fix up some old vintage audio gear, maybe take on some sound editing jobs… the list goes on. Also in there was my plan to write more, read more, and do more stuff with my wife. Sounds ridiculous when it’s all written out like that. And there were more things! Oh, and we’re having our first child in five weeks.

It’s a little embarrassing to list everything out and realize that it’s not a list of priorities or goals, it’s a list of interests. It’s also a list of distractions. Ricky Jay has a great line in The Spanish Prisoner, “It’s one thing when a man’s hobbies get in the way of his work, but when they get in the way of each other, well…” I’ve found that I procrastinate not by laying around, but by cramming my list so full that I can’t get anything done. That way there’s always potential and never failure. It also feels like a list you might get when you ask a 6 year-old what he wants to be when he grows up, “A racecar driver, a fireman, an astronaut, a submarine captain…” You smile and nod and say, “You can be anything you put your mind to.” Little do the kids know I haven’t put my mind to any one thing, either.

Recently my wife suggested I make a list of true priorities, not goals. Naturally, I searched the internet for examples because research is the best and most readily available form of rationalized procrastination. “I can’t write today because I should read more about these authors who made it big.” When I made films, I spent a LOT of time on DVD commentaries and director interviews, but that’s a lifetime ago. Anyway, I compiled a list of 3 priorities and a list of 3 obstacles.

Priorites:
Family: includes wife, parents, sibling, and 1 (and only one) lifelong friend
Creativity: both consuming and generating
Teaching: best said by Buckminster Fuller, “Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.”

Obstacles:
Research: reading up on the success paths of others is fun, but sucks time
Impatience: changing channels between ideas and interests is counter-productive
Completionism: must finish one thing or series of things before moving on

The obstacles are all forms of procrastination, but they are my primary challenges. When I’m on something that I want to do, I derail it by jumping over to something else I want to do (Impatience), but I also hyper-focus on some things so much that I can’t do anything else whether collecting all the achievements in a video game (Completionism) or reading every interview by the same author (Research) or looking for every issue of a writer’s comic run (Completionism meets Research) or reading up on ways to acquire and refurbish a specific set of vintage Marantz equipment (Research meets Completionism). I could cram a million examples into that one run-on sentence, but you get the idea. My obstacles are accessible, entertaining, and cheap. A steady stream of quick bursts of immediate satisfaction with no long term benefits. Like sugar. Or gambling. Or reddit.com/r/funny.

Even this blog post is a diversion from the book project I have been poking with a stick for the past year. But I can rationalize it by saying that I have a set of official priorities to filter everything I do this year. Instead of setting a goal like “finishing writing a book,” I can say, “Am I engaging in creativity?” Reading a book is good. Researching the author for hours and days on end is bad. Playing a narrative video game (Last of Us) is good. Building the best sword and finishing every side mission (Skyrim) is bad. And instead of marathoning episodes of Chopped on the weekend (not quality time), maybe the wife and I should take a drive to some river town and have lunch (quality time). See what I’m saying?

The filter is engaged. This blog post will count as creative writing and structural thinking. Both good things. Reading it ten times before publishing will be a bad thing, so I’ll try to avoid it and keep moving toward the good things.

Have I Told You This One? Episode 2: My First Billionaire.

I went to Carleton College. It was (and still is) a pricey liberal arts college in the Midwest. It was (and probably still is) a place where the extremely smart and the extremely rich go to undergrad before continuing on to medical, law, or business school. Or if you’re the hopelessly goofy Andy Cheng –  double major in math and physics Andy Cheng – you get head-hunted into a government think tank at 21 years old. And actually, I should say “the extremely smart OR the kinda smart with lots of money” because the super smart kids had no money and the super rich kids weren’t the smartest. I was neither extremely smart nor did I come from money, but the school wanted to keep its athletic programs going so I got in with help from the basketball coach.

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where there were a few families I thought were rich. You know, pool in the back yard, all their kids drive new Grand Ams or Cameros, and the mom doesn’t work… that was my idea of “rich.” Cut to my first day at college. I met a guy who got $1000 every month from his parents. “Allowance.” We became friends and we had to invent ways to spend the money. He would ask, “What’s fun?” I would answer, “Ever shoot off model rockets?” And off we’d go to the hobby store and drop $400 on rockets and engines and igniters. Then we’d glue everything together, paint them, and go fire them off. Invariably, we lost them in the woods, but so what? He would get more money next month and we’d buy softball mitts or tennis rackets or comic books. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I stopped hanging out with that guy since he was also on the smarter end of the spectrum. (hint: it probably had to do with a girl.) Up to that point, I thought he was the richest person I had ever met. Then I became aware of the next level.

Sidebar 1: Right out of college, I was an IT guy at a small software company that was trying to revolutionize medical documentation. The owner/president was a distinguished surgeon who had major backing for the company. He told me a story where he was standing on a cliff in the French Riviera with his son while on a family vacation. They were looking at the ocean (Mediterranean, actually, but he said “ocean” when he told the story) and his son looked up at him and asked, “Daddy? Are we rich?” The doctor opened his mouth to answer when a helicopter zoomed overhead, descended, and landed on a yacht in the bay. “No,” he answered. “That’s rich.” Keep that in mind as we get back to the story.

Pick-up basketball allowed me to skip through several layers of the social strata and I met some people whose fathers worked in “investment banking.” I had no idea what that was. But these were kids who used laundry delivery services, had their hair stylist come to the dorm (boys, I’m talking), and who never wore the same shirt twice.

Sidebar 2: My roommate Tom dated this girl from Boston. One hot June night a bunch of us hopped the fence at the kiddie pool and cooled off. She looked perplexed and asked, “Where’s the sand?” She was used to her club where the kiddie pool had sand in the bottom. I had never even heard of a pool with sand. I also had never been to a club.

But the tops were the students who never carried any form of payment. Seriously, I knew more than one guy who would just walk out of a bar after running up a $300 tab and the staff knew to send the bill to a local accountant who relayed information to some international accounting firm. He even had an open account at Domino’s. “Just order whatever,” he’d say. The local Domino’s branch billed the accountant monthly. That was about as mind-blowing as the 19 year-old me could manage.

My first two years at Carleton, I was a terrible student. Then I changed majors from Computer Science to English and everything went much better. It was dicey for a while because the college had a strict four-year policy. If you didn’t have enough credits to graduate in four years, you got the boot. You could only qualify for a fifth year if you had traveled abroad or had a serious illness. I had neither excuse to use for my appeal so I took some Summer school to catch up on credits. Once I was cruising along in English, getting B’s instead of D’s, I had much more time for basketball and general screwing around. One guy I played hoops with was this Class A prick I’ll call Blamson. He was a year ahead of us and still remains as one of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met. I’ll qualify that a little later, but you need to understand that everyone hated him. The people who hung out with him only put up with him for the money. He was stinking rich. But man, what a dick. You couldn’t play hoops with Blamson in the game without him taking a swing at someone or getting in a shoving match. He was big, like 6’4″ and broad, so people didn’t like to mess with him. We couldn’t wait until he graduated.

So finally it’s our Senior year and who should come to our little six-plex dorm door but Blamson. We all thought he graduated the year before. Turns out he F’d a bunch of classes over the years. He should have flunked out, but there he stood. “Can I hang out with you guys?” My five roommates and I stared open-mouthed until one of us said, “Sure, man.” What followed was a year of fairly regular hanging-out, appearances at parties, and general social interaction with Blamson. Turned out he was smart, funny, and overall a pretty normal guy. He bought kegs for the parties and once he ripped a guy’s shirt by accident in a hoops game and bought him a couple new shirts. Not the Blamson we had known by a long shot.

One night we were all having beers and one of my roommates finally asked the question we all had in mind, “So Blamson. Fifth year?” Blamson nodded and kind of made a wince face. He looked up and said, “I’m legacy. Like four generations back.” So what? “So I kinda had to get a degree from here.” That doesn’t answer the question. “Yeah. So.” He took a deep breath and said, “You know that new math building?” Then he just nodded.

The new math building was a multi-million dollar construction project that came out of nowhere. All new computers, classrooms, servers… everything you can imagine. Blamson Sr. paid for a major chunk. Either that’s how much it meant to him for Junior to get a degree from Carleton, or a few million dollars didn’t mean that much.

The Bad Dream Reset

I sometimes take these afternoon naps where sleep so hard it’s like time just skips ahead. I call them “death naps.” They’re not restful at all since I just turn off for an hour or so, but the big problem is that there’s no departure from my mental timeline. I wake up thinking about the things I was thinking about when I went to sleep. Sleep is supposed to clear things up. A mental vacation. I need that break from reality.

When I go to bed for the standard nightly sleep cycle, I dream. A lot. Sometimes my dreams are so vivid and so far removed from my daily life that I wake up in a state of amnesia. And it can last for a couple hours. I mean, it’s not like I don’t remember my name, but I have no attachment to anything. I don’t feel a sense of urgency to be anywhere or contact anyone. Any previous obligations I had no longer carry any weight. I just walk around the house. Eat something. Stare out the window. Flip through a magazine. Then something – usually the phone – will remind me that I have a job and have places to be.

But even then, it can persist. I go to the job and wave to people I know, but in this detached frame of mind. I feel like I’m inside a fishbowl and the rest of the world moves by outside. I’ll have whole conversations with other people where I’m interacting and replying to questions, but in my head it’s like I’m listening to an analog recording of something that happened years ago. I’ll think, “Weird that I said that right there.” But I won’t correct myself because it’s on the recording that way.

It’s not that I’m dwelling on the dream and think I’m still there. I’ve already forgotten it. It’s as though I’ve picked up a book and opened to the middle and started reading. Nothing around me has any context. I’m living in the middle of this book that someone else wrote and I haven’t read the pages leading up to now. The whole experience can be extremely refreshing. It’s like a reset button and I wake up without feeling any stress at all. I have no connection to any consequences after nights like these. All because I had a really strong dream.

I’ve heard dreams are the off-gassing of the sub-conscious. All the thoughts you don’t have the chance to process over a few days or even years come out in dreams. Pressure is relieved and the sub-conscious comes out cleaner. Maybe what’s happening to me is that my off-gassing goes too far and doesn’t leave enough pressure left. When morning comes, I’ve lost all my bookmarks and footnotes. I’m not waking up shouting, “You’re not my father!” But it takes me some time to remember who I am and what I do. I have to research my timeline to figure out where I need to pick it back up.

Nightmares are the best for this phenomenon. The worst of these bad dreams make me I feel like I wake up and they’ve come true. I try to discreetly go around interviewing my friends and co-workers to make sure they’re the same people. Just to make sure I haven’t skipped over to some other thread of reality where people are different… but the same! Is that crazy?

When I was really young, like around five or six, I had really intense nightmares. Wake up screaming kind of deal. They said it was common in highly intelligent children. So I went around for a couple months terrified to go to sleep, but happy that I was smart. Then my grandmother (who just passed away a year ago at 103) said I should stop eating sugar before bed. Doing that causes bad dreams, she said. So Mom cut off my bedtime snack and guess what? The nightmares stopped. Then I wandered around for a couple months wondering if I wasn’t very smart and only had nightmares because I liked ice cream.

In recent months, the stress levels at work have fluctuated wildly. Sometimes weeks go by and everything is fine, but then there will be a huge push for some number gathering or a deliverable will be pushed up a month or two. It’s these latter times that make me wish I could have some crazy dreams and have that micro amnesia on purpose. The problem is that the stress causes me to lose sleep and have more death naps. People say I should exercise more. So I do. But then that gives me energy so I don’t even have the naps anymore. Lately, I’ve taken to eating before bed in hopes of inducing my dream detachment. Maybe one night I’ll eat a whole birthday cake and wake up the next day with no memories at all.

If I don’t get back to you about this experiment, you’ll know it worked.