What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • On Privilege

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and start with Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.

First: a word from our sponsor, Privilege

Before I move on to Part IV, I want to talk about something that’s been gnawing at me since I started writing this series.

I considered it a privilege to work on such a special show with an amazing team of talented people. But that’s not the privilege I want to talk about.

If you read Part I, you heard me say a lot about how I worked hard, stayed determined, and wrangled my way into jobs and circumstances where I otherwise might not have been granted access very easily. All of that is true, of course. However, I also had things going for me that were inherently and firmly in place long before I tried to achieve my dream.

I was raised in the 1970s as a white male in a middle-class, Christian, American family. That means that I saw myself and my family reflected in the TV shows I watched and the ads I saw. We were the default, as far as society was concerned. I never knew about white or male privilege because I lived it. I was on the inside, and you can’t see the rest of the forest when you’re surrounded by all the same trees.

For many years I considered myself enlightened simply because I was conscious of the wrongs perpetrated in history, especially against people of color and women. I had a lot to learn.

For example, I grew up in a household that championed the independence of women in society. I can give you a perfect example of how different it was back then. When my mother went to get a part-time job in 1983, her boss asked her if she had her husband’s permission.

I never understood how girls were raised, sometimes in very subtle ways, to be subservient to males. We still live in a society where men expect to be in charge. If they find themselves in a situation where they’re not in charge, they will find a way to subvert the female leadership and “make things right.” I’ve seen it happen many times. Sometimes it’s not even an overt act. It’s not immediately obvious to the men that that’s what they’re doing, but they are.

I never understood the fear of getting gas late at night alone or going into a public restroom in a badly lit area. Even being the lone female in a crowd of rowdy dudes is a danger that I never considered.

I never understood what it was like for a woman to apply or interview for a job. Over the years, I’ve learned about the subtle ways hiring managers make it more challenging for women than they do for men.

I also never considered myself racist. And even though I hated racism itself, I had no idea what being Jewish or a person of color was like, apart from what was represented on TV. I didn’t know about the experience of being a black man in a suburban store. I recently learned how many black men are conscious of not appearing threatening or making sure they’re being accommodating, just to avoid suspicion of being a danger to the white customers. Growing up, I never gave a thought to the fact that Band-Aids were made for white skin and how that affects the mental well-being of black kids growing up in a white world.

Now, I can imagine that the simple fact of your race not being represented in simple ways must change the very basis of how you think about the world. The overtly racist ways of white supremacists are obviously hard to deal with. I can only imagine how the subtle, quieter ways are just as hard.

I’ve talked a lot in my series about motivating myself to get to the next step in my career. That’s my experience as someone who has always had a lot of privilege. You can’t just hand a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking to a marginalized person and expect that they’ll suddenly overcome all their issues. It doesn’t work that way. Someone who grew up in poverty doesn’t necessarily believe that a better life is right around the corner if only they could just think better. Sometimes it’s a matter of survival first, motivational posters later.

I’ve seen perfectly competent and personable individuals turned down for jobs because of race, gender, age, and even weight. Yes, it’s against the law. Yes, it still happens. Everyone in those situations knows why, but no one talks about it. The privileged can compartmentalize their shame and move on without much trouble. I’ve been complicit in some of those situations simply because I didn’t speak up. Being a silent witness doesn’t make me any less guilty.

Over the years, I’ve learned more about what privilege means. As a trans/non-binary person, I’ve also experienced firsthand some of the non-inclusivity and fear that comes from being in certain situations. That experience has helped me understand a lot about what other marginalized people go through.

My privilege doesn’t take away from my hard work. I did work hard and I did achieve the things I wanted because I stuck to it and didn’t give up. I had an incredibly supportive family. Acknowledging my privilege is important to understand the context in which this series is set.

I hope you’ll keep reading.

Next Up: Part IV

Next week, I’ll show up with Part IV, where I’ll talk about the juicy details of what it was like on the inside of Blue’s Clues. The stars, the writers, the meetings, and the day-to-day experience of creating a TV show for kids.


Tune in next week for the continuation of What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues!


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What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part III

What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part III

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and start with Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.

Part III: Okay, I’m here. Now what?

1515 Broadway today. It doesn’t look much different than it did in 1999.

Imposter Syndrome-zilla

I still remember my first day walking into The Viacom Building at 1515 Broadway. I felt like a country mouse. Taking the N train from Queens and navigating Manhattan was pretty easy, but I had no idea what working in an animation studio would be like. Thankfully my boss, Nancy, was friendly and made a big effort to make me feel welcome before I even got there.

Email from Nancy to me, welcoming me on board at Blue's Clues.
Yes, I printed this email. It was 1999. We printed emails, okay?

When I got off the elevator at the 46th floor, I was worried that I was in the wrong place. It looked like a storage space, or my old art school. Later on I learned that sometimes new shows got placed into less-than-optimal spaces in case they didn’t catch on. Blue’s Clues was into its third season, very much a hit, and we soon moved up the street to swanky new digs (more on that later).

Nancy and I met up and she took me to meet my fellow storyboard artists, Kevin Cardinali and David Levy. Even though the furniture and walls were lacking in style, the equipment was all top notch. I was surprised to learn that the storyboards were mostly compiled in the computer, and everyone had two monitors (two!). Back then they used behemoth CRTs, emitting their special rays from the tubes inside. It’s a wonder that anyone over the age of 25 can still see.

Nancy then led me to a conference room where we crashed the Animation Department’s weekly meeting. It was a little intimidating to be introduced to the group, mostly because I realized that I was wearing a striped shirt and khakis. What was I thinking? I’ll never know. No one harassed me for it or threw anything heavy at me, so I took that as a testament to the friendliness of the crew. These people were the lifeblood of the show, so their opinions meant the world to me.

I can’t remember if I met the creators of the show or Steve Burns that day or later. I was mostly trying to keep myself from peeing my pants and wondering if I would fit in. Any moment, I expected someone to come out of a room, point at me and shout, “That one! That’s the imposter!” Security would escort me off the premises and that would be the end of my career in animation, before it even got started.

Today, I can gladly report that did not happen. I just met a bunch of informal, friendly, and sometimes weird artists – at least as weird as me, so I increasingly felt like I would fit in just fine.

D.J. in Wonderland

First of all, it’s New York City. Love it or hate it, nothing compares to the experience. The difference between living in NYC and being a tourist is kind of like looking at a bottle of whiskey and getting drunk on a bottle of whiskey. I got drunk on NYC. I love living in big cities and NYC is the big city. It’s not for everyone. It’s gritty. It’s loud. You learn quickly how to dodge taxi cabs. But hey, you want a coffee? Its right over there. A slice of pizza? Take your pick, which corner? Want to pick up a book or a funky old lamp? No problem. NYC has you covered, my friend. Also, the diversity of people just can’t be compared with anywhere else. And who’s taking the subway? Everyone. Lawyers, actors, bakers, construction workers, homeless people. It’s the great common denominator of life in New York.

Working in the Viacom building was not boring, either. It was MTV HQ, and on any given day walking through the lobby, I would see actors and musicians from my favorite bands. There was a coffee bar in the main lobby and a company cafeteria called the Lodge on a 4th floor enclosed terrace. As a teen, I had been glued to MTV all day, every day. In 1999, I still had my MTV geek card glued to my forehead. One day while waiting for coffee I turned around and saw MTV VJ Alan Hunter standing behind me. Suddenly, I was thirteen again and I couldn’t manage to say a word.

The Lodge was more of the same. You never knew who would be waiting in line with you while you picked up your stir fry, pizza, pasta, or whatever special they were creating that day. The only way you could get in was by swiping your building badge, which also served as a way to pay for your food – the money came right out of your paycheck. After only a week, I felt like a veteran when I helped Dan Schneider figure out how to fix his key card at the entrance. I was in ’80s heaven.

I also learned to avoid leaving the building around 4:00 PM. That was when Carson Daly was hosting Total Request Live and Times Square was wall-to-wall teens. We could hear the screams on the 46th floor.

Time to make the storyboards

Sometimes it was easy to forget that I was actually hired to do a job and not gawk at celebrities all day. It was time to get down to business and do the work.

I was terrified.


Tune in next week for the continuation of What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues!


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What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part II

Family portrait. I’m hiding behind the Thinking Chair.

What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part II

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and Read Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.

Part II: I Got the Job!

Getting in: The Dark Horse

Previously on WILFWOBC, we learned that I desperately wanted a career in animation, yet somehow managed to find myself in the U.S. Air Force.

It was the sort of plan that friends and family members did not exactly understand or support. Sometimes even I couldn’t see where things were headed, exactly. I would be loading cargo onto a C-5 Galaxy somewhere in the world and suddenly take stock in my situation. On one hand I would be in awe of where I was and what I was doing and on the other hand be wondering how the hell this made any sense for my future in animation.

I just had to hang in there and trust that I had known what I was doing when I signed up.

As it turned out, four years went by pretty fast. Somewhere in between assignments, I even managed to get married. Jenni and I eloped in Las Vegas and spent our first two years of marriage living in a cozy German apartment. I was only 22 years old, and as much as I loved our time in Germany, I was getting itchy to continue my noble quest to become an animator.

In September of 1994, I was honorably discharged and we moved to Chicago where I had started my education in art. I was ready to get back to school and my G.I. Bill was burning a hole in my pocket. It was an exciting time. That is, until I discovered that my old college didn’t accept the G.I. Bill.

If you’re thinking that I might have wanted to check into that before joining up four years previously, you’re correct. What I lacked in checking details, I made up for with blind enthusiasm. I just started making art and tried to think of a new plan.

Spoiler: I never did make it back to school and to this day I still don’t have any kind of degree. When a prospective employer asked, I would deflect the conversation and talk about my experience in the military. It worked many times over the years.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans

John Lennon

Learning about babies and animation at the same time

Over the next five years, Jenni and I had moved back to Phoenix, she birthed two beautiful babies, and I worked in several jobs that had very little to do with animation. How’s that plan coming along? I would ask myself almost daily. I was happy in my personal life, yet massively frustrated in my career movement.

We lived in a tiny apartment, had almost no money to our names, and I had no idea what I was doing. I did know that I wanted to make animated films. One day, I realized that I could still do that without getting hired somewhere. I studied books, analyzed films and learned the mechanics of 2D animation.

This was the 90s, so there were no affordable animation programs for the home computer. But I soon realized that making films in the computer was the way to go. First I would animate frame-by-frame using the old school method of pencil and light table. Then I devised a system using Corel PhotoPaint where I would scan my drawings and assemble them into GIFs or AVI files. It was crude, but it did the job.

Looking back later, I would realize that I didn’t achieve the things I wanted in spite of having a family and very little money. I achieved them because of those things. Nothing motivated me more than trying to show my kids what was possible, and no one encouraged me more than my wife. I was extremely fortunate.

I entered my first film in a NYC animation festival and waited. At the same time, I was applying to studios like crazy. I would send out portfolios, some of them several times to the same person, every three months. I agonized over them. Sometimes I never heard back. Sometimes I got encouraging notes from HR or directors. A few times I got back tests to do storyboards. I was winging the whole thing, but at least I was moving forward.

I also spent a lot of time in the forums at a site called Animation World Network. In the late ’90s, it was my social media. I talked to other animators, both fledgling and pro. I got feedback, advice, and even managed to give some advice and how-to info. It was a hugely valuable resource and, as we’ll see later, was the linchpin in getting a job.

Okay, now we talk about Blue’s Clues.

In late 1998, I saw an ad for a little show on Nickelodeon called Blue’s Clues. They were looking for a storyboard artist and I seemed to fit the qualifications (except for that whole degree thing, but, well, you know). I had never heard of the show (we couldn’t afford cable), so we got some videos of the first season. After we started watching, the first thing Jenni said was, “That’s like your art!” She was right. Aside from the animated characters, there was a scene where Steve was sitting in his Thinking Chair with his Handy Dandy Notebook open, and images were floating above his head. It was almost as if I had made the little drawings myself, in my own style. One of my first film experiments had been a combination of live action (my son) and animation. The show was everything I wanted to work on. Great art, fun music, and a show for kids that I could get behind wholeheartedly.

I immediately sent in my portfolio and resume and sat in my own Thinking Chair to wait.

It didn’t take long for a test to arrive in the mail. Nancy, the lead storyboard artist who was doing the hiring, wanted me to get it back to her as soon as possible because the producers needed to make a decision. It suddenly occurred to me that the studio was in New York City. I told Jenni that maybe there was no point in doing a test for a position that was all the way across the country. The other tests I was doing were for jobs in Los Angeles, which seemed more reasonable. I was already getting discouraged and I had barely cracked open the test. She cut off that line of thinking right away and convinced me that I needed to do the test anyway.

Jenni took the kids out so I could focus, and I dove into the script.

It all happened so fast.

After I mailed in my storyboard test, it was hard to focus on anything else. I went back to work at the sign shop where I had managed to talk my way into a graphic design job. It was good to be getting paid for creating art, and at least I was in the neighborhood of where I wanted to be. I still had my eye on animation.

A week later, Nancy emailed. She wanted to set up a phone interview with her and one of the producers. Even though I wouldn’t be seen and only heard (thankfully this was pre-Zoom era), I was more nervous than I had been since the 8th grade talent show. Nancy and Wendy were both friendly and it felt more like chatting than a formal interview. Then the $600,000,000 question came up: Will you be able to relocate quickly if offered the position?

Without hesitating, I said that of course, it would be no problem. In reality, I had no way of knowing what the hell I was doing or how it was going to work. I wanted the job so bad, I decided to leap and hope the net would appear.

The next day at work, I got a call from Nancy. She said that I had been the “dark horse,” because the other candidates already lived in NYC. She had been pulling for me, because we had chatted in the AWN forums and she remembered my film. Somehow the producer also liked what I had to say on the phone. Then she offered me the job, and the salary was double what I was making at the sign shop. After I accepted and hung up, it took all my strength to get up and tell my boss that I to run a quick errand. I got in my car, drove around the corner, and screamed.

I gave my notice at work. At the time, my friend was looking for a job and he was able to fill my spot quickly. After that, everything seemed to happen in a blur. Jenni and I had to figure out how we were going to make a move from Phoenix to NYC with two little kids. It was going to be a challenge, but we were too excited to worry about the exact how of things. Like Steve sings:

You know what to do! Sit down in our Thinking Chair And think, think, think! ‘Cause when we use our minds, And take a step at a time, We can do anything…

It happened. I was in. After I arrived in NYC, everything changed. Not only the new job and a career in animation, but the perspective I gained from experiences working with some of the most talented artists, actors, musicians and writers in the world. From the moment I walked in the door, I knew it was going to be an amazing time.


Ready for Part III? Let’s go! Read Part III


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What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part I

We just got a letter!

What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part I

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. Maybe you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, that’s okay. You can catch up on the show’s Wikipedia page. It was an immensely popular cultural phenomenon in the U.S. in the 1990s. I worked on the show from 1999 – 2002 doing storyboards, animation and voice over work. This year (2021) being the 25th anniversary of the show, I thought it would be fun to talk about my time there and what I learned being part of the team.

This is a long story. I have a lot to say and it’s a fascinating tale that sometimes I can’t believe I lived. It’s all true, as much as my memory will allow, anyway. I broke this up into parts. One, to make it easier on you to read and two, to make it easier on me to write well.

Read it already? Jump to Part II!

Part I: Before Blue’s Clues

Getting in

With a quick look back, it could seem like an easy, natural step in my life and career to have worked on Blue’s Clues. Sometimes I can forget that I didn’t just walk into Nickelodeon one day and start working. It was a long, challenging road to get into the animation industry and I had no idea what was in front of me, or even possible. Let’s start before the beginning, before anyone had ever even heard of a skidoo-ing blue puppy.

In 1990, I was accepted to a private art school in Chicago. I had never taken an art class in high school, but I created hundreds of drawings and paintings on my own. One night, after seeing The Little Mermaid premier, I was overcome by an intense desire to become an animator. The movie captivated me like no other animated film ever had. The animation was fluid and beautiful, the songs were amazing and the story kept me hooked from beginning to end. I spent the rest of the night fantasizing that I could work on something so incredible. The only thing standing in my way was that I had no clue as to how I could become an animator.

I had been yawning my way through community college with no real direction and I certainly had no connections to anyone in the animation or film industry. This being 1989, there was no email, social media or even internet I could use to find a contact. Living in Phoenix, I couldn’t just drive over to the Disney studios on any given Wednesday and simply knock on the door. I had to get resourceful.

At the time, I worked in a movie theater tearing tickets and cleaning up during the credits. Instead of watching the whole movie over again (which I did later anyway), all I had to do was wait for the end of The Little Mermaid and write down the name of a producer, find an address in Burbank and take a shot at asking, “How can I become an animator?”

I believe it was Disney producer John Musker who wrote back to me, giving me some advice on a path and three top schools where I should apply. The best choice for me was the American Academy of Art in Chicago. I could live with my recently-widowed grandfather and we could help each other out – he would give me a roof over my head and I would supply some much-needed company and help around the house.

I was accepted on my hastily-prepared portfolio and essay, and I soon headed to the snowy Midwest. Going to that school was the first time I worked with peers on art projects and learned real fundamentals, outside of Stan Lee’s Learn to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (a method I still stand by for young artists). Unfortunately, towards the end of my first semester, the school administration started asking me annoying little questions like how are you going to pay for next semester? They were annoying only because I had no clue. I had got in on some of my parents’ money and a small student loan. Those options were no longer available, so once again I had to get resourceful.

At 19, I wasn’t qualified for anything other than retail or restaurant work. Working at minimum wage would take me so long to save up for school that I could only picture myself as old and wrinkled, sitting in a classroom and repeatedly asking the professor to speak up. In hindsight, that’s a very unrealistic outlook but at 19 it was the only future I could imagine, complete with dystopian 1984-style jumpsuits and cubicles.

My answer came in the form of the the G.I Bill. I would contribute $1200 and in return the government would give me $24,000 in money for school. The tiniest little wrinkle was that in order to collect it, I had to serve four years active duty in the military. Hmm. It certainly wasn’t my original plan. In fact, when a friend had previously joined the Air Force, I swore off ever joining the military in any form whatsoever. Joining the military was for other people, not me. Never, no way.

Then I thought about my potentially perpetual floor-mopping future and I joined the U.S. Air Force.

It seemed like I was light years away from my animation dreams. But I had a plan. Sort of.

Read Part II now!


Not to fear! We will get into tales of a blue puppy and a manchild in a Fruit Stripe gum shirt very soon. Tune in next week for the continuation of What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues!


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You’re going to die anyway.

You’re going to die anyway.

“You know you’re going to die anyway, right?”

It was 1999 and I had just temporarily moved into my Uncle John’s studio apartment in New York City. He very generously let me stay with him while I found an apartment for my family. After several years of trying to break into the animation industry, I had just accepted my dream job at Nickelodeon. Jenni and our two babies were packing up our home in Phoenix and I had to find a place for us, fast.

My uncle and I were getting reacquainted after many years. He had just learned that I was a vegetarian, and was grilling me on the why’s and wherefore’s of abstaining from a carnivorous diet. In contrast, John was a lifelong chain smoker and loved rich meat dishes. We both hailed from Omaha, Nebraska, that gloriously flat land teaming with beef, corn and ham. I was the odd one in my family (in many ways, but we’ll stick to diet for now). It seemed that everyone on my father’s side started smoking young and couldn’t resist a juicy steak or burger. For John to learn that I no longer ate meat of any kind, it was hard to comprehend. In true pragmatic, midwestern fashion he assumed that I might be trying to achieve some sort of immortality.

To put this in better perspective, my grandfather died of a massive coronary in his early 40s. My own father has suffered several heart attacks, multiple bypasses, stents and, like many people over 40, takes blood thinners to keep the arteries from blocking. My Uncle John himself developed advanced heart disease, eventually required a heart transplant and sadly passed away a few years ago in his 60s.

With both sides of my family steeped in heart disease lore, my genetics say that if I follow the same path as my ancestors, I will suffer the same result. It’s guaranteed. So I work hard to go in the opposite direction. I haven’t eaten meat since 1993 and I haven’t touched dairy since 2001. I don’t smoke, either, but I do drive too fast and I love my bourbon (not at the same time, of course). I’ve been known to consume large quantities of French fries and chocolate. I’m not infallible to the lure of gastronomic decadence.

I am far from immortal and I have no desire to live in this form forever – especially sans chocolate. While I eat pretty well and get regular exercise, I have no illusions that I am making Death twiddle its thumbs waiting for me to kick.

Living to infinity is not the point.

See, I didn’t expect to feel this good in my 50s. My observations of older family members growing up is that “Getting old is hell!” – a direct quote from my grandmother in her 80s. I had always assumed that what happens to you after 30 is that you start sliding down a steep slope into decay. At some point I made a conscious decision that shuffling around the mall in support hose would not be my fate.

I know I’m going to die. I’m not afraid of dying. What strikes ugly fear into my hammering vegan heart is the prospect of suffering through preventable disease. I don’t want my kids (or my wife) to worry about how long I’ll be with them, or put aside their lives so they can care for me in my old age. Or my middle age, for that matter.

I’m going to do everything I can to avoid spending my later years farting in an overstuffed chair watching reruns of Friends. I want to do things, not watching them being done.

Yes, I’m going to die anyway. But I’m not going without a fight.


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The frustration and magic of being a slow thinker

I’m a slow thinker. Not slow in that I don’t understand what’s going on, but slow in that my thoughts tend to percolate a little longer than others’ do. I guess you could say I’m more of a pourover thinker than a Nespresso thinker.

I’ve always been a slow thinker. In school, I was never the one with their hand up first. I hated being put on the spot. Back of the room, that’s me. When a teacher would call on me for an answer, I would freeze up. Even if I knew the material well, I just couldn’t give it up right away.

Let’s just say the debate team was not going to miss me. Even debating friends on any subject wasn’t something I had any interest in at all. I could spout off a quick answer, but it was usually some kind of non sequitur-ish funny comment linked to the last movie we saw. Forced to comment on the actual subject at hand, I was typically at a loss.

It’s not that I don’t understand things, or think my own thoughts. Obviously, because here we are in this post together. No empty vessel, me. I just like to linger in my thoughts. When I read, hear or see something new, I go into processing mode. I’m not one for quick reactions to things, unless it’s on the freeway. I like to absorb things, let them soak into all my brain pockets before coming up with thoughts about them.

You might guess that this did not go over well during meetings in the corporate world. After taking in a slide presentation or an info dump about a new project, I was percolating. Unfortunately, bosses and clients don’t want percolating, they want fast answers and verbose dialogue. Whenever I heard the words “Let’s have a brainstorming session,” I started looking for the closest fire alarm to pull.

Brainstorming is not only not my forté, it’s my Kryptonite.

Currently I have a writing gig with a media company. Once a month, we have a writer’s meeting where we share our ideas for articles and talk about our writing processes. I enjoy them because I genuinely like the people I work with there, but the big clouds of dread start to roll in as soon as we start discussing ideas. I love listening to everyone’s ideas. It just takes me a bit longer to jump in with helpful insights or feedback. Because everyone can’t hang out on a video call for two days while I percolate, I’m usually quiet during those portions of the meeting. Two days later, I’m full of thoughts and feedback on what I heard.

The flip side to this personality quirk feature is that I can also be very quickly witty in certain situations. When there’s any room to comment in a way that links the current topic with an absurdly weird observation, I slide right in like my brain was coated in grease. It’s usually funny to someone. And yes, it’s a coping mechanism because it draws attention away from the fact that I have nothing solid to contribute, yet it seems that I’ve somehow contributed something of value. It’s not actually a conscious tactic, I just drew that conclusion retroactively. Insert witticism = Take that, farty old brainstorming session.

I’ve learned to adapt my slow thinking ways to be a mostly functioning member of society. I’m also not as freaked out or bothered by the way my brain processes information as I used to be. When I’m working with clients I’ve become very adept at saying things like, “Tell me more about that,” or “Hmm, yeah. That will require some focused thought and I will get back to you.” It works most of the time. The other times I probably look stupid, but I’m becoming more okay with that, too.

While I sometimes envy people who can jump in and provide ideas or feedback seemingly without effort, I also think my percolating nature is kind of a super power. I think slow, but I think deep.

I’ll leave you with two quotes on this.

“If I look confused it is because I am thinking.” — Samuel Goldwyn

Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?” — Winnie the Pooh

Coding Journey Update

I first started learning to code in grade school – which is not that strange these days but in 1982 it was pretty groundbreaking. I wrote more about that on my dj-codes site.

I started coding again in the early days of the web. I created sites from scratch and tinkered with HTML wherever I could. I didn’t really do much more, except for adding some ActionScript to my Flash animations (another relic of a bygone era).

After I started using WordPress to build websites around 2009, I didn’t really move beyond HTML tinkering. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always thought I would go back to learning to code so I could create applications or make robots move. Someday…

Last year, I decided to start learning to code again for real. Partly because I’m just a geek and partly because as a software developer, I can build really cool things that may actually be fun or useful. I would also make a lot more money than in any of my current freelance gigs or screen printing business. And of course, I just like to learn new things.

So far I’ve been learning on my own through Udemy courses, YouTube, books and other developers who know more than I do. It’s slower to learn that way, but I think I’m getting more depth of knowledge than if I did a quick-start bootcamp kind of thing. Nothing against bootcamps, I just know how I learn best.

I’m going to start documenting my journey into coding here and I may also start a YouTube channel. I’ll try to stay more on the journey side and less on the code side. I don’t want your eyes to glaze over in case you operate heavy machinery while you read my posts.

The last six months has been really fun. I’ve loved every minute of my learning, even if sometimes it makes me want to scream (looking at you, PHP). I’m learning to fail more often and pick myself up more quickly. I don’t really have a set deadline for when I’m supposed to be “done,” I’m not thinking of it that way. I’m just doing what I can, as much as I can and building projects that might be fun and useful.

Earlier this week, I got my certificate in Responsive Web Design. It represents about 300 hours of course work in HTML and CSS. Now I’m moving onto JavaScript, where the rubber meets the road.

Free code camp certificate

I hope you’ll follow my journey. I need all the encouragement I can get. And if you’re on a similar journey, I’d love to hear about it.

Get off my lawn

A pair of feet jumping off a lush, green lawn. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon.

Phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst…

On one of my morning walks in our suburban Los Angeles neighborhood, I took a detour around a home where a mass of sprinklers was dousing the lawn in little arcs. The lawn was green, lush and beautiful. If I played golf, I probably would have been tempted to tee up. Instead, I skirted the yard and went into the street to avoid getting my ankles splashed and my feet wet. Puddles formed on the sidewalk and the excess water not soaked up by the grass and dirt ran down the street in little streams.

Rather than pause to revel in the splendorous high pile of Kentucky blue grass, I thought about the fact that Southern California is in the middle of another drought year. As I watched the water run down the gutter, I imagined how much of it could have been used for drinking, cooking or bathing. Like the two expensive SUVs parked in the driveway, the lawn seemed like just another upper middle class trophy. Look! the lawn seemed to boast, they are doing so well they can even let their water run down the street!

Don’t get me wrong, I love grass. I love trees and thick, green forests. I grew up partially in the midwest, where lawns were ubiquitous. Unlike in the Southwestern desert, they didn’t need much tending to keep them going. They got plenty of rain and shade from the tall, mature trees in the neighborhood. It was a rare occurrence for my parents to put out the sprinkler on a scorching summer day to water the yellowing patches in the yard. For us kids, running through the sprinklers was an exciting rite of passage, a signal that school was still months away. It was also likely defeating the purpose as we trampled the grass on every pass. Somehow it always grew back anyway.

When I was ten, we moved from Chicago to Phoenix and I was full of questions. If it’s a desert, where will we get water? Will we have water? What if we run out? My vision of the desert at the time was taken from old TV and movies, where someone was always dying of thirst or covered in dust. I was surprised and relieved to find that our new home was in a suburb not unlike the one we just left. We had showers, sinks, toilets, running water and eventually even a pool. We were going to be okay.

Our yard, however, was a completely different story. It was covered in little rocks. There was a small tree and some bushes, but the ground cover was definitely not play-friendly. In fact, we were lectured not to ever walk or run through the yard because we would disturb the black plastic sheeting underneath that was keeping the weeds from growing. Because I was bad at listening, or following rules, or maybe just because I was ten, one of my favorite pastimes was running at full speed and seeing if I could clear the bush in the middle of the yard. Once my activity was discovered, I was given the job of pulling the weeds that were now popping up all over the place. If pulling weeds out of grass is annoying, digging your knuckles into sharp rocks is torturous.

A house in suburban Phoenix with rocks in the front yard.
A recent photo of the house where I grew up in suburban Phoenix. It looked almost exactly like this in 1980.

It didn’t take long for me to stop worrying about where our water came from. I splashed around in our pool without a care of water sources. I was satisfied after I learned that we had plenty of water because it was piped in from the Salt and Verde rivers, as well as the Colorado River. Plenty!

That’s still the case today. Phoenix largely gets its water from outside sources. Similarly, Los Angeles gets the majority of its water from the Owens River Valley, which in turn depends on snow melt from the Sierra Nevadas. If there’s little to no snow pack in the winter, there’s a drought in the spring and summer.

These systems worked okay when there weren’t almost 4 million people needing fresh water. It’s getting increasingly hard to serve such a huge (and growing) population. It’s fascinating to me that a majority of people seem to live as if the supply is endless. I don’t know if it’s willful ignorance or a genuine misunderstanding of the environment in which we live. It’s also both amusing and maddening that we blame avocado and almond crops for greedily sucking up all the water, when my own observations have shown me:

  1. Several cars waiting in line at the local car wash, all of them without a speck of dirt
  2. The aforementioned over watering and maintenance of golf-course level lawns
  3. The massively wasteful animal agriculture industry. If you’ve ever driven on I-5 through central California and held your nose for several miles, that’s what you smelled. But sure, almonds are evil.
  4. Overshowering, when George Carlin’s “four key areas” method works just fine.

Aside from just being cranky about the water waste from lawn maintenance, I am fascinated by the fact that in spite of all the gorgeous green carpet I see in our neighborhood, I notice one odd thing. I never see anyone actually using the lawn. No one ever sits on them, naps on them, or plays on them. They are purely decorative.

When we moved into our current home, the lawn had been very carefully built and maintained so as to attract renters like us. I admit that it worked. However, my just-spent-four-years-in-Oregon sensibility changed when I realized how much water we were losing every time the sprinklers came on. We slowly dialed it back until our landlord started complaining about how some of the grass was dying. To appease him, we dialed it back up until we started noticing mushrooms growing in the yard. So back down it went. We wondered how the trees and bushes could thrive without much water, but the grass could not. Our neighbors have beautiful rose bushes and other plants but they never water their yard at all. I started looking at my favorite yards, the ones with dirt and colorful desert plants, and decided that was really the way to go. Over the years our landlord has softened on the grass issue. We water the plants in the front yard with a hose a couple times per week, but I even wonder if maybe they’re getting enough water from the ground anyway.

Sometimes I miss the “accidental” green lawns of Germany, Chicago, or Oregon. I also miss the desert of Arizona. When I think about missing those things, I realize that what I miss is experiencing them for exactly what they are. I’m starting to understand what I used to hear people say about Los Angeles being fake. It’s not the people and it’s not Hollywood. It’s the day-to-day manufacturing of a different environment instead of experiencing the one we’re in at the moment.

How I choose to link my reading list

If you’ve ever checked out my Now page, you’ve seen my monthly reading list. Sometimes everything changes and other times it looks like I take months to read the same book. That’s because sometimes it does. Sometimes I give up on a book that’s not really happening for me. No guilt. I read for pleasure, mostly, so if it’s not pleasing, why torture myself?

In fact, I think kids should be allowed to be more honest about the literature in their school curriculum, rather than be trained to believe that just because someone like Twain or Hemingway wrote it, it’s automatically good or entertaining (I love both authors, by the way). While it can be good to understand why society as a whole has declared a book to be great literature, it’s not necessary to agree.

I list almost everything I’m currently reading, even if I’m not really getting into it. So if you see something on my list and are curious what I thought about it, you can check out my Goodreads page. It probably needs updating, so you can also just ask me.

I like to link to the books I’m reading. I’m just nice that way. Most of the time I link to books in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. Mostly because I live here, but also because I believe that our local libraries are one of the most important public institutions we have. I grew up in the library, my wife and our kids grew up in the library. It’s an amazing, free resource. I want to see more people taking advantage of them.

While I love our library, I do also like to buy books and keep them in my own collection, or give them as gifts. For books to be bought, it’s probably easiest to link to them on Amazon. That way, almost anyone, almost anywhere in the world can find the book quickly and buy it on the spot.

I’m not going to do that. I have two reasons:

  1. I don’t think things always need to be so easy. Yes, you can get a book delivered to your home or office sometimes the same day. But when you consider the cost of the human and environmental resources it takes to make that happen, it’s a luxury that we can easily do without. Sure, I order things from Amazon, I won’t lie. But usually it’s something that I can’t get locally very easily without driving all over town – another waste of resources.
  2. I want to support small, local bookstores. I think the days of the behemoth bookstore are going to be over soon – because… Amazon – and I want to see small, independently-owned shops become the go-to source for book-buying. Many times I link to Skylight Books here in L.A., but if you have a local bookstore you love just let me know and I’ll link to it when I can.

That’s about it. That’s my great linking manifesto. I love sharing what I’m reading here and I hope you find some juicy books to check out. If you have some to share, get in touch. I always love to hear about new (or old) titles!