Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Emotional Roller Coaster of Peace Corps

People ask what Peace Corps was like and a stock response I employ is "It was an emotional roller coaster, but worth it." No other job hurtles faster from triumphant ecstasy to heartbreaking defeat. No other lifestyle charms as effectively as it disappoints. Let's take a look at an exultant peak and a bitter valley from this volunteer's experience in the Dominican Republic.

Roasted coffee sales were booming at the cooperative we assisted. Claudette had designed a snazzy new logo and packaging for our organic, high altitude coffee. The operations manager saw that roasted coffee could be a savior for our over-indebted loss-making enterprise. The opportunity that roasting our coffee was vastly more profitable than selling the raw commodity had sunk in for her. For the Asociación de Caficultores de Jarabacoa (ASCAJA) and the small farmers it represents, that's the difference between $1.25/lb for green coffee and $4-$5/lb. Although our costs are higher for a finished product (fuel, labor, and packaging), it still beats our red ink splattering commodity business. Plus, it increases employment in a country where good work is hard to find.

So the orders were rolling in. We were selling to volunteers in the Peace Corps office, employees of the US Embassy in Santo Domingo, artisan fairs, and several Americans entrepreneurs marketing the coffee to tourists. At one point over the summer of 2008, we even ran out of coffee to roast and had to borrow some from another buyer in town. Our limited roasting capacity became a problem. Our "sample" size roaster, capable of roasting only eight pounds at a time, couldn't cope with our projections of hundreds or even thousands of pounds per month. For any struggling business, growth problems are good to have.

Luckily, there was a seed sown in rocky soil nearby. USAID (or another development agency) had donated an eighty-pound drum roaster to a rural farmers group associated with ASCAJA. The machine was rusting in their warehouse from disuse. The donor agency had no doubt hoped to initiate some of the economic benefits of commodity processing I described above. The problem was that no local human capacity existed to market the finished product. These are simple farmers who are mostly illiterate and innumerate. The area has no electricity or phones. These are not exactly fertile conditions for a thriving startup roasted coffee business. The machine also didn't work as delivered, requiring major welding and drilling modifications to function. Dumping broken machines into places they can't be used with no training or followup is standard Big Development practice.

As educated outsiders, Peace Corps volunteers see problem-opportunity sets like these as gleaming nuggets in the muddy pan of routine daily experience. The downside is that nugget might turn out to be fool's gold.

I thought we could bring the eighty-pound roaster down from its isolated mountain community to the ASCAJA factory in town, where it could be put to good use filling roasted coffee orders as its donors intended. The group wouldn't part with their machine easily, holding out hope that orders might suddenly materialize. ASCAJA couldn't afford to purchase it, given their dire financial situation. The solution: pay the group a usage fee per pound roasted minus repair costs to get it running. Brilliant!

It was a fair compromise that kept everyone's interests aligned -- when sales are high, usage fees are high, and when sales are low, fees are low. This incentive structure avoids yoking ASCAJA to a fixed monthly lease payment that could be a burden in lean times. At this point a seasoned volunteer might look down the nose of their miner's spectacles and wonder if this elegant win-win solution has the sheen of fool's gold. That veteran (for once) would be wrong.

I traveled to Jumunuco on the back of a motorcycle down the rutted dirt roads. Flying past rolling hills of pine forest, golden pasture, and shaded coffee I learned my driver is the son of one of our board members. Knowing I was integrated enough to know my motoconchista was a good omen.

I entered the simple concrete block warehouse to introduce myself. Most of the men looked familiar to me and I to them, even if we didn't know one another by name. They all come to the factory office with their coffee and saw me plugging away at the cooperative's accounting. The recognition felt good. My presence, if not well understood, was at least noticed.

I explained the production bottleneck preventing us from reaching our potential in the roasted coffee business. I pointed out the roaster lying unused in the corner. I urged them to have the entrepreneurial vision to see problems as opportunities. I explained what was in it for them: a usage fee for their machine and a higher and better use for their green coffee. I repeated myself and spoke as slowly and clearly as possible so they could understand my accent. I referenced popular culture in illustrative examples. I mustered all my training and all my cultural understanding to make a deal happen.

And they understand! They agree! We reach consensus on terms, and I promise to draw up the contract. A success like this is one of the highlights of a volunteer's career. It's also Peace Corps development philosophy at its finest -- not writing checks and building stuff but instead educating, communicating, and removing the blockage and waste that prevents people from reaching their potential. Oh, triumphant success! Oh, sweet, sweet victory.

These achievements make one forget all the loneliness, humiliation, and confusion that form the warp of the volunteer's fabric of experience. The pain is forgotten, and, through forgetting, one melts a bit more into the collective moral community that characterizes traditional rural society. One thinks, "I finally get these people and they get me! I've acculturated. I've integrated." This feeling of becoming whole and integrated, to not fractionate oneself into American parts and host country parts, but to feel wholly American and wholly native to the place is Peace Corps Nirvana.

Buddhists say the surest sign you've not reached enlightenment is to believe you have. In other words, if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. My smug feeling from securing the larger roaster was a fleeting illusion cemented by my desire to fit in, and to be a good volunteer. A good Buddhist would notice my attachment to success and remind of the second Noble Truth: suffering is caused by desire. As per usual when breaking a universal truth, a cosmic smackdown was in order.

Like all proper cosmic smackdowns, this one took me by surprise. We were waiting for a hitched ride down the mountain when a large Isuzu work truck stopped for us. The two men in the cab motioned my beautiful wife up front while I climbed into the bed. I set my backpack in the puddled wet bed while I stood hanging onto the bar that runs behind the cab. Standing was my custom for bolas (what we call hitched rides in the DR) to provide optimal scenery viewing, wind-through-the-hair, and leaning into the sharp mountain curves as if carving down the hill on a six-ton snowboard.

The reverie of my slalom through tropical scenery stuttered. I caught a whiff of diesel fuel. I thought, "Must be some engine fumes." I noticed the odor several times, and continued to ignore it. Unburnt diesel didn't fit the joyous high of my recent roaster achievement.

Little did I know, the wet puddles were spilled diesel and that sticky dead dinosaur juice was soaking through my entire backpack, making a blotchy chromatography experiment out of my important papers. I shouldered my pack and promptly soaked my lower back with fuel. Now the fumes were undeniable. I was a walking oil spill.

I began to cycle between rage and dejection. My backpack, laptop case, papers and shirt were covered with sticky hydrocarbons. Feverish efforts to wash the pack with detergent and water proved futile. (Geeky aside: Since then I've learned a polar solvent like water doesn't work on nonpolar chained hydrocarbons like diesel fuel. Dry cleaning fluid would have been better.) I asked my Dominican friends at the factory how I could get the fuel out. Feeble replies to wash it and put it in the sun didn't satisfy. They were really thinking, "Best remedy for diesel fuel is don't get soaked with it in the first place, pendejo."

These minor snafus can precipitate extreme existential anguish in the volunteer. We construct mental dams to hold back the days, weeks, and months of stress and awkwardness we feel. Then a neighbor's goat devours the garden, a bat crawls up your calf, or your backpack is soaked in diesel. Right then the camel's spinal column shatters and life doesn't seem worth living. Your American upbringing just doesn't prepare for this stuff. You think, "This would never happen to a Dominican," and you're right.

The good news is such suicidal moments are as short as they are frequent. Moments later you might be treated to a delicious lunch of barbecued pork ribs, eggplant salad, and fluffy moro by a family that treats you like one of their own children, a five year old might greet you with a bear hug in the street, or a coworker might tell you she's really learning a ton and she's so glad you're here. The magic of Peace Corps draws you in again. Another ride on the roller coaster?

Monday, July 20, 2009

First Shadowing Day in the ER

There may be nothing like a busy ER for the rush of constant, purposeful action. Every patient is a new puzzle, a medical and social jigsaw to be solved by the emergency physician. I saw it firsthand on my first shadowing shift with a third year resident at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. Flowing from patient bedside to the flashing queue of tasks on the screen, from teasing out a cogent medical history to presenting that story to one's colleagues, the practice of healing in a crowded urban ED appears a chaotic synchronized dance.

This is not a purposeless or formless chaos. There is a distinct algorithmic cooperation operative in the Emergency Department. Like a school of fish swarming to bait, workers converge around a cardiac patient fibrillating on a bed. Charge paddles are charged and discharged. Patient recovers. The school flutters to the man choking on the fish bone or the other who's fallen from scaffolding.

Other moments are more sedate. They can be solved with a medication. This patient has a relapsing vertigo that left him immobilized on the sidewalk. His heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol concerned us but his normal EKG and lack of chest pain or shortness of breath rule out a heart attack. That coupled with the way his feeling of the room spinning worsens when tilting his head forward or backward is classic vertigo, a problem of the equilibrium system in the inner ear. The resident orders an anti-dizziness medicine called meclizine and he perks right back up.

Certain patients drive home the need for health care reform in our country. One gentleman came in with some severe congestion due to allergies. The resident I was shadowing asks if he's ever seen his primary doctor about the issue. He has no primary care physician and no insurance. The resident explains he's probably one of the unfortunate working poor who make too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to purchase private insurance. Another patient comes in with persistent rib pain due to a fall the previous week. They had done a thorough imaging workup (x-rays and a CAT scan) to rule out broken ribs or spleen laceration. The real problem was that he had run out of pain medication and couldn't afford the $20 it would take to refill it. We asked the ED's social worker for help but she said they don't help out with narcotics purchases, a reasonable policy for addictive drugs but little solace to our indigent patient. The country's Emergency Departments are the safety net for those who fall through the cracks of our dysfunctional health care system.

Though the velocity of patient turnover in the ER prevents the doctors from getting to know their patients on a personal basis, the pace and justice aspects of the job can be exhilirating. Like a a NASCAR driver taking the high banked curves at 150 mph, emergency medicine is all concentrated action and reaction with little time to reflect or interrelate. Emergency medicine is a field for those who crave the rush of immediacy. I wonder if it's for me.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The professionalization of help is not help

I often find myself in meetings with some well educated people. My friend, Victor Amauris, is one such person. He's good natured, clear headed, and a peacemaker. We’ve both had business careers before our development jobs, he in the cacao trade and me in commercial real estate. We’re the same age. Victor Amauris is a good guy, me cae bien.

So I’m at this meeting with a group of small coffee producers seeking low-interest loans from a new microcredit fund, financed as a “gift from the American people” through USAID. Before the start of the meeting, my friend Victor greets me with a pristine ¿Cómo estás?, and asks if I know what a mecanismo (mechanism) is. I stifle a laugh knowing this was not a joke, but rather a sort of password to enter the dark, smoky speakeasy of the development business in-crowd. I’m not one to quibble with a little intellectual challenge, so I launch into something about a mechanism being a set of procedures to bring about a desired end, that the component parts must be well defined and properly delegated, and more such nonsense. I finish and Victor smiles, “That’s exactly what it is.”
Cultural Sidebar: To explain the pronunciation of S issue, an example is in order. ¿Cómo estás? in Dominicano becomes just ¿Cómo ‘ta? The plural form of banana changes from los guineos to lo guineo. The educated, having seen their language written with all of its resplendent S’s, know how to pronounce them in formal settings. Some people, knowing their countrymen drop the S, will overcompensate, adding S’s indiscriminately, donde quiera. This is extremely annoying. The Case of the Missing S’s is not mysterious or difficult to understand once you’re used to it. It’s just the standard pronunciation of Caribbean Spanish (Lo cubano and lo puertorriqueño do it too).
Okay, now I’m “in.” I can traipse around and drink cocktails with professionals from USAID and UNDP and Plan International without seeming out of place. I should feel accomplished. Instead I feel no better than I did drinking chilled top-shelf tequila shots with our fat cat clients back in my brokerage days.

While Victor and I prove our stunning intelligence to each other, the coffee producers mill about, nervous and guarded. Each one worried for their families, who exist in a permanent state of indebtedness because one coffee harvest rarely leaves enough profit to harvest the next. Their precarious balance sheets and dismal literacy and numeracy often leave them prey to usurious lenders. Every year is a total crapshoot with the weather. Too much rain or wind at the wrong time and the precious berry-producing flowers, or the coffee berries themselves, tumble to the ground. Too little rain and few flowers even appear. Nasty beetles called broca burrow into the beans, reducing weight and quality. Few have the money to apply chemical or organic fertilizers, or practice the pruning and soil preservation techniques that help increase yields. These worries, smelling of mud, rot, and desperation, cloud the air while Victor and I prattle away up in the sunny stratosphere.

The farmers, dressed in plaid shirts and battered baseball caps, show up to these meetings to show their commitment to the new proyecto, the way peasants came humbly to the courts of their lords to request favors. The powers that be, namely USAID, require a semblance of community participation and training for projects they fund. Don’t get me wrong, a participatory process is admirable as an analog to our open comment legislative processes in the US, but the education gap between those managing projects and those supposedly benefiting from them makes it difficult to execute in the Dominican Republic.

So what does a meeting about microcredit mechanisms look like? Having attended these sorts of things before, I had braced myself for another Sahara PowerPoint, with words as numerous as grains of sand, and not a single image to whet my parched visual cortex. Sadly, I would not even enjoy the melancholy desolation of the desert. Instead, I was subjected to the same discombobulated Word document the local project bureaucrats had submitted to USAID, projected onto the big screen. There were complicated tables and procedures and bullet points galore. There were pointless cyclic diagrams and organizational flow charts. Believe me, this presentation was just dripping with synergy.

Maybe the fine print Word Doc writ large on the big screen demonstrated breathtaking intellectual power, maybe not. What I’m sure it didn’t do is communicate. Let me summarize in five slides what Victor wanted to say:
  1. We (the Cluster de Café) just got one million pesos to lend.
  2. You must fill out a form listing your land in coffee production with the amount of money you want.
  3. Your neighbors will review the form and tell us if you’re good for it or a lazy shyster who’ll never pay us back.
  4. Based on your land with coffee and the judgment of your character from your neighbors, we’ll either loan you the money or not.
  5. No double-dipping. You can’t have loans with the Cluster and ASCAJA (the coffee cooperative I work with) at the same time.
My slides aren’t exciting and probably wouldn’t have helped get the million pesos from USAID in the first place, but they do communicate with our target audience, the humble coffee farmer.

So why didn’t my friend Victor just say what he meant? What’s with all the statistical misdirection and highfalutin vocabulary? Well, Victor gets paid a lot of money. If he just spoke like everyone else, maybe they’d stop thinking he was worth it. Victor must be a professional, to prove his dominance to those below and his competence to those above. Seeing the realities of the small farmer in la Dominicana, you might think, “Wow. Look at all these poor people. Look at the almost total vacuum of managerial capacity amongst these poor people. I think I need…a professional.” Then you would hire Victor and give him a million pesos to solve the problem.

The professionalization of help is not help. The long, text-packed PowerPoint presentations and hideous fourteen column Annual Plans are not help. Help is not white elephant infrastructure projects that are worse than plain vanilla welfare payments. Help is not attracting all the country’s best and brightest into grant-writing and project administration positions, when they should be starting businesses, creating art, inventing new products, and agitating for government reform.

Help is sacrifice. Help is altruism. Help is taking risks. Help is donating your time and treasure for the common good, while postponing personal gain. Help is art and entrepreneurship and invention. Help is becoming a teacher or mentor and sharing your knowledge with others. Help, as currently practiced by Big Development, is not help.

Capitalism and the Hacker Ethic

One American cultural trait I try to demonstrate in my Peace Corps work is persistence. In the design of the accounting for the coffee association I work with, we were met with a number of obstacles. I would design the account hierarchy in one way, modeling the business as I understood it – one expense account here, another inventory account there, all these account payables over in aquel lado. As we continued entering the mountain of paper receipts into the program we would inevitably run into problems in the account model. I had understood the business one way, and it turned out to work another. No big deal right. These things are not set in stone, we’ll just rework the model.

But my project partner, the association’s operations manager, would get very dispirited. While I frowned and scratched my head and tapped my fingers, puzzling over the solution, Arelis would sigh and fuss and worry herself. She’d lament, "Oh, I guess this won't ever work. We'll just have to give up and try something else." This spoken by someone who had watched the association pay professional accountants thousands to try and fail to wrap their heads around the business. I said, "No, Arelis. That's not how we do it. We enjoy puzzles. We like challenges. We finish what we start."

Sometimes we'd resolve the issue within minutes, other times it took days. But I never doubted for a minute that the brilliant GnuCash system could not be molded to our will. I knew it was sufficiently flexible and robust for any business of our size. If there was a problem, it was to be found in our own thinking, our own creativity. This was not how Arelis, the association's Dominican secretary saw things. She'd see the puzzled look come over my face and would be ready to give up. This stick-to-it-iveness, this Hacker Ethic, is an essential skill for a small Caribbean island, with few comparative advantages but its own charming people. If these people can develop the persistence to educate themselves in modern commercial arts and technology, this place might get a reputation for more than sunny beaches and great cigars.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

My Dream Nonprofit: Low Cost Custom IT, Wizkids, and Microenterprise

I've been dreaming of starting my own nonprofit. I mean, I like the freelance web design stuff I've been doing, but I just feel so darned fulfilled (slash jazzed, elated, stoked) every time I have a one-on-one session with one of my entrepreneur clients at the nonprofit PACE. Nothing in my workweek makes me happier. This must be my life's work.

So, here's the plan. Every single person who walks through the door at PACE and JobStarts needs better software for their business. They need a simple database that they can cold call from. They need a tool to design, price, and present floral designs to brides-to-be and high-end hotels. They need an automated, paperless system for buying, upgrading, and selling used cars. They need to keep track of twenty real estate opportunities in a busy brokerage office. They need custom software.

The market for good software is infinite. Every small business could run better if they never had to touch the kludgy, unintegrated wreck that is Microsoft Office. Copy-and-paste, "where's that file on the network," and "why can't I layout text and spreadsheets for my proposals in one simple document?" -- this is the tortured existence of every small business around the globe.

I want my clients to run their entire business from a web browser. I want an interface where data about clients and data about products isn't scattered across twenty files. (It should all just be in the database!) I want software designed to mimic an actual business process, not processes molded to sucky software.

Building this will be hard, but not impossible. With cool tools like Ruby on Rails and Flex, my genius Brazilian development partners, and the manic flood of software architecture gushing out of my brain, we can build anything!

The other ingredient should be kids who want to build stuff. Kids who don't think of computers as immutable consumption products -- glorified televisions for typing out long-winded blog posts and watching YouTube -- but kids who have a feeling that computers are meant to be molded, fiddled with, hacked, and changed, but aren't quite sure how.

Geeks who want to give back will teach the kids how to build cool stuff with Photoshop and Illustrator, XHTML and CSS, databases, and Flex and Ruby on Rails. They'll build some toys for fun, but also what our small business clients need. It will be an after-school program, or maybe a whole charter school. It will be hella fun.

I'm envisioning some sort of hybrid between Npower, Y Combinator and BUILD:
  • Npower is a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits apply technology to serve their clients better. They build custom software, help people plan what they need (including a neat little web app called TechAtlas), and provide training.
  • BUILD teaches underserved kids how to start their own businesses. The result? Kids do better in school, go to college in higher numbers, and hopefully make a few bucks in the process. They become confident leaders and discover their potential to do anything.
  • Y Combinator is a venture firm that gives seed money to smart young people who want to build the next Flickr, YouTube, or Basecamp. They're part VC and part incubator, meaning they help the companies through their first year, as coaches and advisors who've been there. They fund startups in batches, as many as twelve at a time, summers in Cambridge, MA and winters in Mountain View, CA. Everyone has to move there for a few months and hack together. They've launched quite a few nifty products.
Almost every custom software product we build can become a subscription product. There's lots of used car dealers, floral designers, and real estate brokers. Build it once, start selling subscriptions, and keep making the products better. Subscription fees will help subsidize our education activities. It's a social enterprise model that could end up serving young wannabe web geeks everywhere.

Designing and building software should be something everyone does, not just computer scientists. Something doctors and lawyers do, something social workers and teachers do, and most definitely something kids should do. John Maeda wrote about just this topic a while back:
As computer science enrollment goes down worldwide, I am hopeful that there will be an increasing number of students from the liberal arts and non-technology minded fields that take on software development efforts wholeheartedly. Creating software systems that can not only think, but also have a conscience, shall be a critical factor as we move forward in this odd century of extreme proximity and ever-present distance.
The world can seem pretty dark these days. But like computers, reality can be changed. Alan Kay, one of the finest humanist technologists is famous for saying: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." My hope is that we can replace today's hopeless apocalypticism of failing schools, corrupt governments, and endless war with the hard work of building a whole alternative society right next to the old one. At first a trickle, but then droves, can then just walk away, hand-in-hand.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Simple Web Tools for the Small Business

There's nothing like watching someone's eyes light up when you crack some of the problems that have been holding back their business. I've been volunteering for a while at a microenterprise organization called JobStarts, where I pontificate on the power of cold calling, a solid database of contacts, and systematic, well-designed marketing campaigns. My clients are existing or aspiring entrepreneurs in the businesses of child care, construction, event security, catering, and chakra-aligning panties.

I'm supposed to be doing what they call "technical assistance" but I call it coaching, mentoring, and just plain fun. I get to sit down and take an objective and caring look at how people can take their business to the next level. Sometimes it's a money constraint -- like not enough working capital to build up inventory and fulfill orders -- but most of the time it's a shortage of the right kind of marketing. And with my background in commercial real estate, my solution is almost always: GET ON THE PHONE AND START CALLING!

More about that in a forthcoming post, in the meantime, here's some essential web tools for the new entrepreneur:
  1. Take out some ads on Craigslist -- Write a quick explanation of what you do and how someone will benefit. Write a snappy headline. Include a great photo. Get an account to make reposting the ad simple.
  2. Get a website. The simplest way to an online presence is with the software I use for this site, Blogger. You can write passionate posts about how your business changes your customers' lives for the better. You are passionate about your business right? If not, do something else. You can also post great photos of what you do (cakes, panties, parties, whatever). A few fabulous photos are better than lots of okay ones. Choose carefully.
  3. Get a database. You can use a free one here. You should also check out DabbleDB or Basecamp. They're the coolest little Web 2.0 thingamajigs out there. They're cheap and worth it.
It can be hard to get started on the web. Using these few simple tools, I think it will be a little easier for you.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Readers want to Learn

It pays to give away all your secrets. Your clients want to know how to do everything you do, and they'll pay you to teach them. Don't worry, you're not giving away the recipe for Coca-Cola or the plans for a nuclear reactor. I'm talking about the little tips for making better investments, writing better code, or closing a tough sale.

The always brilliant Kathy Sierra hopes for more teaching blogs for learning the little secrets in 2006:
The more we help our users learn--through any means (formal training, better docs, a product that encourages discovery and deeper engagement, an experience that seduces the user into wanting to practice)--the more time they can spend in flow. And ultimately, the more likely it is that they will become passionate about whatever it is they're doing.
I hope to see more teaching blogs (or websites, etc.) rather than comb blogs used solely for announcements. One of my favorite examples of this new kind of 'learning blog' is the new one from my horse coach/whisperer, cowboy Darren Wetherill. (Side note, Darren's Horse Bliss blog was mentioned by Hugh of Gaping Void, and the next thing you know, Horse Bliss was mentioned by Businessweek online as an example of what a business blog could be.
Readers enjoy discovery, give it to them. The more they learn from you, the more credibility, respect, and trust you build online. If you concentrate on posting all the secrets of your business (little by little now, you've gotta drag it out), you will build a reputation as an expert in the field. Even with all your secrets in hand, people will now there's more in that head of yours, and that nobody does it like you do. At the end of the day, most will realize you're better at this stuff than they are, and you'll get paid.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

How to solve the drafts problem

My Blogger dashboard has way too many half-baked posts in languishing in the wretched purgatory of "Drafts." I come back to them at times and they never seem to work. I despise them. I get angry at myself for writing them in the first place. Who are these bastard children? These broken ideas, these run-on sentences, these fancy phrases that go nowhere? Do I really write this drivel? Well, yes. Please accept it. The past happened and no amount of present day contempt will solve it.

There is one good thing about these drafts. They remind me that I have not mastered writing as a process, as something to be worked on, labored over, massaged and tweaked and cajoled. They are opportunities to practice acceptance of imperfection, knowing that it can only get better, even if it has to get worse for a short time on the way.

It's funny what this blog has become. Originally, a lofty place for the hottest ideas floating around in my head, it's become more of a notebook of good advice to myself. It's a place to store those rare moments of clarity, the tiny breakthroughs, the small beam of light shining through a crack in the wall of my confusion. Those moments can pass unremembered and unreflected, as so many things in my life seem to do. Or it can be recorded and cherished for days when I need refuge from a dark mood.

Today's lesson is one I must learn over and over, the problem of overthinking. So many things are left trapped in my head, unspoken for fear of not saying the right thing, unwritten for fear of never finishing. So much fear in overthinking. So much denial of reality. Such a stingy hand of thought that will not release the small sparrows of conversation, the bounding rabbits of a fresh paragraph.

Step One in my writing process must be release, must be opening. I'm so good at closing, boxing, defining, that I don't let things escape to take on their own lives. Living such a caged existence, my thoughts sit in their own excrement, breathe in the gases of their own waste and decay. Given some fresh air, allowed to escape into the wild, the thoughts might go on living for a long time, or might be killed by fitter thoughts. But at least there would be a fossil record, a pile of bones, some tracks in the wilderness. Those fragments can be shaped. They can be made new.

Step Two must be a search for essence. "Omit needless words," say Strunk & White. "Om," says the void. Things to put in, things to take out. But it must get thinner first.