Not that anyone would notice (who notices when someone they aren’t listening to goes silent?), but I have been absent from the world of publicly recording my thoughts for a while now. I will give credit though: I have so many wonderful and caring friends around the country who have been there for me, rooted for me, supported me, and inspired me. Thank you all! In case you were wondering, here is a little update of what I’m up to…
Problems in the Land of Dreams
Dreams seem to have taken front and center in my life over this past year. Not just the kind you have when you are sleeping, but the aspiration sort as well. Actually, both, to be quite honest…
For years of my life – pretty much after my second year in the Air Force – I could not recall a single night’s dreams. This past year has pretty much made up for that. Every night I have intense, action-packed movie dreams. I wake up exhausted, physically and emotionally. Sometimes my dreams are so vivid and real and I feel trapped inside them – as if I can’t wake up. It is… well, like I said before: exhausting.
I can’t really say what it all means. Obviously I have a lot on my mind – in my subconscious – that I probably need to get off my shoulders. I just wish I knew what it all was so I could cast the burdens aside and rest.
As for the other kind of dreams, what is the problem with them you might ask? I suppose the problem is that I don’t know how to not dream too big. My head is filled with big ideas and big aspirations. I’m really not good for much else besides just coming up with ideas if I think about it… I wish there was a job where I could get paid to do that!
At any rate, my dreams are always too grand, too big, and too far out of my reach. That wouldn’t be a problem except it is because it couples with my other problem and that is a general listless lack of motivation…
Look, I know I’m depressed. There’s another thing I haven’t really dealt with in years: Deep and gut-wrenching depression. It isn’t the slash-your-wrists, oh I wanna die kind of dramatic depression. Its more of a voice in my head that won’t shut up – a voice that keeps telling me I’m worthless, I can’t do anything right, I shouldn’t even be trying. Anything seemingly good I accomplish is accompanied by that voice telling me I’m a fraud. Its like getting punched in the face during every waking hour of the day. And the trouble is that most of the time I find myself believing it.
Trapped in bed. With my dreams. The good ones and the bad ones. It generally takes every ounce of my being to pull myself out of bed in the morning… or afternoon depending on the day… Whenever I think I am going to get up a hand comes and presses me down. Sometimes I do get up, but I can’t seem to focus or concentrate on anything long enough to accomplish anything. By the time I get going at all, it is night time and time to go back to bed again. But I fight it. Not wanting to face the emotionally draining dreamworld and wanting to feel some sense of accomplishment, I fight to stay awake and doing something – anything that feels like an accomplishment – before I finally surrender to the Sandman.
But I think I was saying something before about dreaming too big and a general lack of motivation, right? You see, part of this depression – shoot, I can’t really even call it that anymore, its just normal life to me… Part of life for me is that I cannot seem to muster even an ounce of motivation for anything beyond basic survival… and even that is a feeling that registers when it wants to, which isn’t always.
However, what little capability for motivation I do have tends to find itself nestled in that part of my brain that thinks up outlandish ideas that seem to be beyond my capabilities – whether it be my monetary capabilities (basically nonexistent at this point), my talents, or just what is possible given where I am, who I know, and what I have time for. Someday, perhaps, I am going to dream of accomplishing something that I am actually physically capable of doing. Until then I only wonder what that might feel like.
This, of course, works wonders on the motivation engine of my brain. I generally find myself gazing off at vistas that are across unfordable rivers only to notice the nonexistence of a path to those plateaus and then come crashing down either with the mere realization of the impossibility of my dreams or the confrontation with the reality of being unable to move forward when I attempt to embark.
So what are a few of those dreams that have the rare ability to get me excited about living?
And big ideas, I’ve had a few…
Here are a few of the “too big dreams” that have been plaguing me of late…
KnowBeforeYouVote.com – For years now I have envisioned starting a not-for-profit online tool that provides simple, straightforward information about political candidates, their positions, their record, and their record on the positions. The “brilliant” idea of KBYV presents information in a way that satisfies the level of depth that any person wants to get into. On the surface, candidates and positions are put into a cross-reference chart – like the features list on products – that has simple quantifiable answers to questions and positions. This chart can be expanded by the user to look at issues more in depth and deal with more complicated and nuanced questions and any single issue can be expanded upon to get detailed quotes, and references about that particular candidate’s position on those issues.
Meanwhile, the site also has a series of short videos and articles that provide simple explanations on hot political issues – the facts, the history, and the various arguments. This, of course can all be cross-referenced and accessed through the candidate positions section of the website. Finally, the site provides simple, easy to understand information about how to register to vote, where to go to vote, and all of this will be customized by geographic region.
And everything is designed with a user interface that works like an app on a smartphone so you can, theoretically, pull up the site and get information from it while in a voting booth. Contributions for much of the information would come in through a form of crowdsourcing – with an editorial board and layers of vetted fact-checkers to provide quality control. And the the entire tool could be scaled to work in national elections in every country in the world, a mayoral election in a small town, or even a local student government election at a small high school or college.
What would be interesting is if this idea could work in conjunction with my next idea below.
The Argus 2.0 – Learning from the struggles and mistakes of the original Argus newspaper that we started at UIC, this idea provides a content management and publishing platform that also works as an RSS feed reader (like Feedly.com) professional, open-source journalism and media studies curriculum (like Treehouse does for IT), a topic based wiki platform (like Wikia) and hyper-local news outlet (like Patch.com).
The basic idea is to launch Argus websites at colleges across the country (although this could be available for high schools as well) that start out as empty shells with a just few features. The site aggregates customized content feeds from web and news sources relevant to that institution (such as current newspapers, athletics websites, etc.), includes a customized local wiki and offers students and teachers an opportunity to publish their own blog on the site.
Rather than take a top down approach of traditional news media outlets in which you have an Editor in Chief, an Editorial board, department heads, etc. this idea organically grows its staff and fills positions on demand from the bottom up and uses gamification as a means of motivation. Users start out as simple bloggers who can write about anything they want. However, they can earn badges and feature space on the site by completing specific micro-tasks and completing professionally developed education modules broken down into small pieces that unlock new opportunities (and new education modules) upon completion. As a blogger progresses through their career, they eventually are faced with collaborative tasks, mentoring tasks, and other activities that, before they realize it, has them functioning as part of the well-oiled machine that is a professional news outlet with assignments, fact checking, and editorial review.
This deals with many of the problems that the original Argus faced relating to our staff’s sense of autonomy, self-motivation, and lack of a piecemeal reward system. The training aspect not only educates in the broader sense, but deals directly with the problems many blogs and media organizations face regarding professional standards of journalism, integrity, and accuracy.
The platform is designed to open up avenues of collaboration for individuals in various roles: From people who simply want to submit ideas for things to be reported on – or written about – to people who are good at copy editing, fact checking, photojournalism, video journalism, and writing. As the number of users – and ambitions of those users – grow, so does the capabilities of the platform for providing collaborative tools and the necessary training along the way to complete the desired task.
The wiki portion of the site would function in a similar way, although it would be slightly more open-sourced. This is designed to deal with the problems of finding information about a college department, program, professor, class, etc. that is faced by many universities around the country. Schools are using hundreds of fragmented, outdated, poorly designed websites that are built on multiple platforms, managed by dozens of different departments, and are bursting at the seams with information, but they almost require a PhD in data mining to find the information you want. The Argus 2.0 would provide a unified platform with a simple user interface, information taxonomy, and cross-referencing system, that makes finding the information you want as easy as looking up an article on Wikipedia or any other modern information website.
Each individual school’s site would be part of a larger family of sites that also provides opportunities for information sharing and collaboration between individuals at various schools around the country. Revenue would be largely based on advertising, and individual school sites could be “owned” like franchises by individuals (via a licensing and ad-revenue sharing agreement) who want to oversee and manage that particular school’s website – although many of the sites would be centrally owned by the parent company (much like McDonald’s and its 20/80 franchise model). This site would provide a robust advertising network for large national advertisers as well as tools for each individual site to set up simple and scalable advertising contracts with small local advertisers.
The other major source of revenue would come in the form of a physically published anthology that is comprised of the best work from a school’s site and in a way functions as a new kind of year book that is actually interesting to read and has collectible value. Think of it as an giant-sized special-edition annual magazine with a nice sturdy cover.
Oh, and in case I didn’t mention it, this idea would also be a not-for-profit. As the news should be! Although this idea would hopefully not rely on donations, all revenues would be put back into building the platform and increasing the educational opportunities for the users and participants. Its ultimately about slowly but surely replacing the current army of untrained bloggers that is beginning to replace traditional media with an army of “well educated and professionally trained bloggers who maintain high standards of integrity, ethics, and quality journalism.”
Your Music Your Life – This idea is based on a business plan project I did back in college for a finance class and could really be a subset of The Argus 2.0. This idea is designed to provide actors and AV students the opportunity to participate in a contest in which they produce custom made music videos. Although big-name, nationally recognized bands would be idea for collaborating with on this, it could just as easily be done with smaller, independent and local artists. Ultimately, the exposure and promotion from the contest would be enough to motivate just about any artists or forward-thinking record label to want to participate.
In a nutshell, students would be assigned a song and asked to film their own custom music video for it. Hey, kids are already doing this on YouTube without the artists’ blessing anyway, why not turn it into a regularly sanctioned contest? We would provide guidance with forming teams and designating roles – an education aspect, if you will – as well as special opportunities to access equipment and tools that students otherwise wouldn’t have access to or know they need in the first place, depending on their knowledge level.
Submissions could win in a variety of categories as well by popular vote, judges’ selection, and selection by the featured band. There would be various types of relevant prizes as well as a few big cash prizes and even an opportunity to compete nationally to bring one of the featured bands to their school for an exclusive end-of-year concert/party that honors the school, the contestants, and winners.
Crowd-source-it – This is just a sort of silly idea that I have that could be a huge flop or the next Instigram. The idea is a phone app that has two functions: You can either ask it a question or you can answer a question. Think of the “phone a friend” option on “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” combined with the “poll the audience” option.
It is basically a way to poll all the other users on a decision you are making – ranging from the mundane, “Should I order a Carmel or Mocha latté at Starbucks?” to the serious, “Should I ask her on a second date?” Questions and responses would be generally anonymous and would come in almost immediately with the ability to break them down by categories such as overall, by demographics, people you know, and a list of “people who generally agree with you” that is created based on the similarity of your responses to other people’s questions.
To keep the questions and responses flowing, the app would work very much like a game and have limits on how many questions you can ask without providing your own responses to other people’s questions. It would have badges and rewards for levels of participation as well as other fun things like correctly predicting the answers that “the crowd” will give.
So what isn’t too big to fail?
Currently, I have a few “dreams” and ideas that I think (perhaps delusionaly) are achievable that I am working on or planning for. Here is what I am doing…
Writing a musical – A few years ago I was inspired to develop a story that is loosely based on a conversation that occurs between Ethan Hawke‘s and Julie Delpy‘s characters, Jesse & Celine, in Before Sunset. Originally this was supposed to be a 30 minute short in the format of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but once I started outlining the script I quickly realized that it was a full 90+ minute feature with a dozen or so songs in it.
The idea has been incubating for a couple of years now, but I decided to get serious about it over this past summer. Unfortunately, I became side-tracked and took an unplanned break from my writing process, so I am already behind the schedule I set for myself. However, I am happy to report that I am back at it and have made progress on a number of the songs for the musical and have also started to revisit my original script outline and begun writing it out as a full script.
Ideally, I would like to film this as a musical movie – but the budget for that would be huge – especially since I want to film in a few locations in California and Chicago – plus I might need a few other locations to film in to simulate the passing of seasons without stretching the shoot out over a full year… So, yeah the budget would be huge – at least to my impoverished self – so I am going to try and raise funds via Kickstarter. Before I can even do that, however, I would like to at least record the soundtrack and shoot a teaser reel – which is going to cost a lot of money again… Maybe I should do a Kickstarter or apply for a grant just for that!
I already have several roles tentatively cast – which makes even recording the soundtrack somewhat complicated since one of the main actors lives in Dallas and another lives in Washington, D.C. One of the main roles will be (hopefully) played by my little sister, Sabriah, and I would like my brother-in-law, Brantley, to be involved in the cinematography/directing/producing as well – if his schedule permits. Who knows, though? Almost everything really depends on when I complete my writing…
…which I forgot to mention involves me “hiring” a musician to help me arrange and score the songs I am writing. The one person I have received a tentative yes from (but again… schedules…) lives all the way out in Hawaii, and if he does fully sign on with the project, I would want him to be the musical director and to actually come out and be very heavily involved with the recording of the soundtrack.
So, its a complicated beast. But the first part is quite simple: Get the thing written. And I’m working on that right now. I’ll worry about the rest after I get through that.
Merry Christmas, George Bailey – Another project I would like to do is to produce and direct a staging of the live radio play of It’s A Wonderful Life. I have a somewhat unique method in mind for this, however…
Because the performance does not require extensive sets or costumes, I would like to book several performance locations throughout the Chicago and north-shore area – preferably in churches – for shows that run the three weekends leading up to Christmas. The performances would be on Friday nights, two on Saturday, and two on Sunday. I would like to partner with a not-for-profit, such as Solid Rock Carpenters, to donate ticket proceeds towards (although it would be nice to split proceeds between a partner organization and one of my incubating nonprofits listed above).
I really should be getting locations nailed down for this within the next month or two and by the summer have a budget and pre-funding goal set. I would cast the show in October and hold rehearsals in November. This show wouldn’t require a ton of rehearsals since it is essentially a staged reading. Then, it would just be a matter of marketing the show – which I would really be doing from the beginning before it is even cast (pre-marketing will hopefully help build interest and get more people to audition).
So that is another idea that I am trying to figure out how to bring to light. More than anything, though, I need a co-producer with experience who can collaborate with me on this to really get things moving. If you happen to know anyone who might be interested, send them my way.
B to Z Creative – This fall I decided to form my own “creative consulting” company and offer freelance design services to small businesses and individuals. I call it “B to Z” because the idea is “You provide the A. We provide the rest.” Right now, my work focuses mainly on doing small website design, print media design (such as posters, business cards, ads, etc.) and my brother-in-law has even come on board to do some video production for a client.
Things have been a mixture of good and bad – all of the bad, of course, coming from my side of things. While I do have a certain creative skill, I feel like my skills are very unpolished – I have received no formal training in graphic design, programming, anything really – and I would be much better at just going over the big picture on projects and developing creative/operations/business/marketing strategy and then outsourcing work to other individuals who can produce better work than I am able to produce. Part of the problem without having formal training is that I am able to produce a certain high caliber work but it takes me two, three, four, and five times longer to produce than someone who has training on the tools I am working with. Again, I would be a better creative director than designer/coder…
This puts me in a difficult place – I find myself taking on what at first are small, simple projects, but they quickly grow in scope and scale to a place I am not really able to efficiently produce at. Which has been extremely discouraging. I have found myself putting way too much time into tiny projects only to becoming overwhelmed and completely freaking out and become incapable of dealing with anything anymore.
All this, mixed with my lack of confidence, perfectionism, depression, and cronic health problems that I have had this year (along with everything else I mentioned earlier) have lead to me nearly running my my business off the road several times before it can even get anywhere. Even now, as I write this, things seems precariously balanced on the edge and I may soon find myself without any clients and insolvent.
Which is a real bummer, because not only is this pretty much the only thing I am capable of doing at all right now that could possibly earn me any income, it is something that I actually have somewhat of a predisposition for – if I could just figure out exactly how I myself fit into the business overall and how to get the right kind of clients/projects to work with. One thing for sure is that if this is going to be successful, I am going to have to bring in additional collaborators and position myself in more of a sales or creative direction role and less in a hands-on design role.
That’s the rub, though: I have to do a significant amount of work on my own where I wear all the hats first so that I can even be in a position to bring in others to outsource work to or hire on as part-time collaborators. So, its tricky. And frustrating. And considering my track-record over the past six months, probably not going to ever go anywhere substantial or at least grow into something I can provide for myself with.
Ultimately, coming full circle here, and pardon the expression, but my head has been way up my ass for the past six months and I sure as heck don’t have any idea how to dislodge it yet. Considering everything I have been going through – with both my mental and physical health – this is probably the worst time I could be starting my own one-man business. It is a wonder I have had what little success I have had with the business thus far. We’ll see how things continue to go. I sure as heck would kill to have a business partner on this though. I don’t do very well by myself…
Other than that, what have I been up to?
Moving Words – This fall, I taught in an enrichment program for K-2nd grade at an elementary school on the south side of Chicago. The program, called Moving Words, was a literacy program designed to assist kids with basic reading skills and enrich their interest in books and the arts. I got to play theater games with the kids, read books to them, and work with them on their reading.
It was one of the most rewarding and wonderful experiences of my life. I don’t know why, for the life of me, I didn’t go to school to become a teacher. Well, its too late for me to back to school now – or at least at this point in my life – so unfortunately that is something I will probably never have the chance to turn into a career. The most satisfying times in my life ever were when I was teaching: When I taught English in China, when I directed and taught in the Drug Education for Youth program in the Air Force, when I taught Sunday school at Lakeside and worked with the kids at the summer camp, when I taught journalism classes to the staff of the Argus, and this fall when I taught in this enrichment program.
One thing about the teaching is that it was a regularly scheduled Monday-Friday morning program that gave me a purpose to get out of bed every day and commute to the city and be excited. The bad thing is that it wasn’t a lot of hours and so it didn’t pay very much which meant I had a hard time doing other income earning things and really just barely got by paying my bills and certainly didn’t have any money left over to do much of anything else.
In fact, it was about the time after the teaching stopped, and my schedule started to free up more that my depression and lack of motivation really started to kick in. Perhaps it was also partly due to the “winter blues” that starts to set in around November, but there certainly was a noticeable change in my motivation, productivity, and overall mood once this program ended. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe not.
Democracy Burlesque – Another project I became involved with this fall was a political sketch-comedy group called Democracy Burlesque. I originally volunteered to help MC one of their shows and before I knew it I was doing a few bit parts in some sketches here and there and even co-hosting their musical review show as a radio DJ character that did bits with my co-host between numbers.
DB was very fun – and it was a nice opportunity for me to get out and meet other interesting people. However, the amount of time necessary to do the shows and really be involved was very high and considering that my only source of income has been my business – and that isn’t a very reliable or efficient source of income – it turned out to be more time than I was able to commit in the long run to participating in as a regular cast member. I did have a minor interest in being involved in the writing, but I very quickly realized that the kind of sketches I wanted to write were not very well suited for this company’s particular sense of humor and format.
One thing I did do was work up a marketing plan for their 2013 season and I was even going to execute the marketing plan through my company, B to Z. However, things did not turn out very well with that at all. Part of the plan required redoing their website and adding some online ticketing capabilities which turned out to be much more difficult than it should have been. It turned into a nightmare where every time I fixed one problem with the programming three more would pop up and that goes back to the whole formal training issue and how I would have been much better off if I had just developed the plan and outsourced much of the work to others to do.
Then, there was a scheduling issue with getting their poster and flyer designs in time from their designer to order on time to distribute before their first show. Rather than come in that Friday as was planned, everything came in the following Tuesday – the day the show was supposed to open. At this time I was already neck-deep in working on another show, Really Rosie, which I’ll discuss below and the weather was horrendous out making the other part of my marketing plan very difficult to execute as a one-man-team, and that was the poster and flyer distribution.
Over the fall, I scouted out over two hundred locations in various neighborhoods and college campuses near where Democracy Burlesque puts on their shows and my original plan was to hire a couple of assistants to distribute the posters and flyers at those locations. However, the entire project came upon me faster than I was ready for – and I was already spending an ungodly amount of time working on Really Rosie which I hadn’t at all planned for, and the website modifications which were problem after problem that was gobbling up all my time – so I never was able to hire anyone.
In the end, I went into full panic-shutdown mode and didn’t do anything. I know, its terrible, and I’m am embarrassed to admit it, but that’s what happened. This was a great opportunity to really accomplish something meaningful – for my business, for myself – and I completely screwed it up, got in way over my head and wasn’t able to figure out how to dig out or even reach out to anyone for help. The worst part is that I am completely confident that had I been able to execute this marketing plan that I spent so much time developing it would have had a tremendously positive impact on Democracy Burlesque’s attendance and ticket sales and really turned things around for them. They were certainly struggling with audience attendance during the fall when I was acting with them. Unfortunately, this one gets to go down as a giant red mark in my epic failure column rather than the epic win column.
The worst part is, this isn’t an entirely unique picture of how things are going for me and for my business. I honestly feel like I am at a point where no one is ever going to want to hire me to do anything… ANYthing… ever. It is a very crushing feeling that doesn’t really help with the motivation and depression problems…
Really Rosie – Another “doesn’t pay enough for the time spent” project I have become involved with is stage managing a children’s musical that is actually closing this weekend after a six-week run. I originally was asked to design the posters and flyers for the show and before I knew it I had volunteered to stage manage and even oversaw the design and building of the sets and managed lighting and sound for the show.
I must say that looking back I am extremely proud and happy to have worked on this show and wouldn’t undo the experience. But on a practical note it did take way too much of my time and distracted me from other things I should have been focused on. One week I did nothing but work on the set from morning to night, breaking only for rehearsals which ran five nights a week four weeks prior to opening. I also noticed that the marketing for the show wasn’t very well planned out or organized so I ended up getting involved in that pretty heavily and spend numerous days just traveling around distributing posters and flyers to libraries, schools, after-school programs.
What’s worse is that because I wasn’t involved in the marketing from the beginning, much of my efforts ended up being “too little too late” and as far as I can tell didn’t do a whole lot towards bringing in the kind of audience we needed for the show. I felt an obligation though – for one thing, I had designed their marketing materials and wanted to see them go to productive use – for another, I was stage managing the show and had a bit more of a vested interest in is succeeding. Eventually I hit a wall with that effort and had to forcable pull back from it – which felt like a defeat, but in all honestly I had stretched myself to the limits with the amount of time I was putting into this show.
Still, all that being said, despite my over commitment of time, it has been a wonderful experience and something I would like to do more in the future… provided that I am able to keep my time investment at an appropriate level and hopefully earn compensation that matches the time I am spending. Which, is probably too much to ask because unless you’re a professional, it is unlikely you can find much work on the amateur theater circuit that isn’t on a mostly volunteer basis. And I don’t have the background or resumé to work in theater professionally I suppose, so that’s just a dream. Here’s to dreaming anyway…
And that, my friends, is what’s up.