Convention as the Enemy of Invention

I know I’m not 22. I’ve known that for the past 44 years.

I know I don’t have a conventional professional background, having changed careers six times, and earned two advanced graduate degrees, including a law-degree in an accelerated 2-year program at 35 years old, as the father of a young son. In fact, my son, then 7, was the youngest person ever to sit through the “Seven Dirty Words Case” in a  Constitutional Law Class.

I’ve written Haiku, plays, screenplays and essays;  high-level speeches, law review articles,  children’s stories about lop-sided pumpkins and policy papers. I’ve run multi-million dollar organizations and less than profitable non-profits.  I’ve taken chances on hiring a dramatically diverse array of talented people, giving many a shot to prove themselves.  Conventionality repelled me.

And, I know that to some Millenials, it’s a little odd for someone my age to still be seeking new, creative opportunities with a sense of urgency, when their perception of us– NOT reality–  is that we should be shuffling our feet behind a walker or playing shuffleboard.

What rankles me are not my wrinkles, but being stigmatized as “unconventional” as if it were on a par with incontinence. After watching my father get ground down by a conventional blue-collar job as a maintenance worker for nearly 40 years, I grew up knowing that I wanted my life to be anything BUT conventional.   And, while I did work for some pretty “conventional” institutions—non-profit organizations, unions, government, and medical centers—I managed to carve out a career over 4 decades which, while on a seemingly seamless trajectory of public education, public service, public health & non-profit leadership, scares the shorts off of people less than half-my age who view “difference” as a quaint disease.

What’s particularly ironic is that it’s coming from alleged “ disrupters”, who preach–if you buy their hype and survive their Skyped pitches–that convention is the enemy of invention.    On several occasions, I’ve been told by heads of organizations, headhunters, and Human Resource robots, that my background is, while tremendously impressive (blah, blah, blah), was TOO “unconventional” for them.   Exasperated, I finally turn off my interview charm, despite frantic hand-signals from my spouse to turn on my I-phone’s mute button.

Like a gattling-gun with a trigger that became unjammed, I pummel  the interviewer, pointing out that conventional personnel fits were dull and boring. Having done consulting for big and small organizations, I’ve frequently advised them that those that follow a narrow selection criteria in hiring end up losing to their competitors.

“Yes,” the patronizing response is,” but for this position we are looking for someone who’s followed a more traditional path of leadership.”   Suddenly, my years of working for Mario Cuomo and watching him make mincemeat out of morons, takes hold of me.

I reminded the interviewer that she sought me out because of my background and experience. And, not to leave a point of logic unpointed to, I noted that her new boss, also half my age, had absolutely no background nor training in the field.

Ah, but he wasn’t both “old” and “confrontational”, I could hear the sound of her smug silence saying. “Confrontational” is what you get tagged when you merely point out inconsistencies and foolish gibberish in other people’s words or actions. Unconventional might be tolerated, but only if its combined with being non confrontational, and young. This organization was looking for a leader with a lobotomy.

I could argue that a not-so-subtle form of ageism was being used against me, especially since I’ve spent years working against the conventional notion of retirement—a few of them recruiting skilled professionals with Math/Science backgrounds to teach Math & Science in underserved public schools.

But ageism, like many other acts of cowardice, comes with a smile and a shoeshine in sunny, stress-less companies around the country, especially when the object of the smirking scorn is over 60. “Unconventional” becomes a euphemism for “uncontrollable,” and accomplishments, while praised, would be perfect for the “type of employee” the organization is looking for, if only there weren’t an older human being attached to them, with a brain able to process thoughts, as well as tweets.

Fortunately, unconventionality has been the inspiration for quite a few folks, from Steve Jobs to Bob Dylan, Elon Musk to Bill Gates, and Walt Whitman to Tyrus Wong.  Still more,  inspiration comes from Paul Simon, Francis Ford Coppola and my son, who have taught me that, sure, they could always be “successful to the outside world but not successful to themselves,” if they kept doing the same thing, as Jobs once told Fortune Magazine.

“That’s the moment than an artist really decides who he or she is,” Apple’s founder said. “If they keep on risking failure, they’re still artists.”


Open Hands, Open Hearts

The door to the tiny one room apartment was propped open. Boxes piled neatly on top of boxes, almost to the ceiling, made the skimpy SRO living quarters look even tighter.  The notation on the delivery sheet next to the resident’s name said: “Client hard of hearing; speak very loud.”

Phillip Petrasanta, a long-time volunteer for San Francisco’s Project Open Hand, shouted the client’s name past the open door. A tall, frail looking man, greeted us, smiling, and accepted the hot dinner.

“Thank you both for volunteering, “ he said .

“It’s our pleasure, “we said, almost at the same time.

“Have a nice evening,” Phillip added.

We headed back down the stairs in the dilapidated, small old Tenderloin hotel with the balky elevator, which, as one dignified, well-spoken resident told us, “only listens to the last button pushed.”

These were the folks most San Franciscans forgot: the frail, the elderly, the home-bound, those battling cancer, or substance abuse, or living with HIV/AIDS, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, the recently homeless, or those just down on their luck.   Tucked away in tumble-down tenements on Turk Street, and Golden Gate, Taylor & Jones, behind iron bars and attendants shielded by bullet-proof glass, where photo IDs were required of all who entered or left the building, these tenants of the Golden City on the Hill were invisible to most, except the humane beings at Project Open Hand.

The non-profit life-line serves 2500 meals per day in San Francisco and Alameda Counties, relying heavily on volunteers to hand-deliver food, along with a dollop of love and concern each day.  For some shut-ins, it’s the only human contact they have all day long. Supported largely by individual donors, Project Open Hand (POH) also operates a “grocery store” at 730 Polk Street, in the heart of the Tenderloin, where ambulatory clients can pick up fresh produce and grains for their carefully supervised, nutritious diets.

Project Open Hand was born 30 years ago out of the heart and hearth of Ruth Brinker, a special individual who began by cooking meals in her own kitchen for seven friends with HIV/AIDS related illnesses. Today, POH provides some 900,000 meals and 730,000 bags of groceries per year to its clients, who are battling many diseases and disabilities, including poverty, in uber-wealthy SF where micro-apartments command macro-rents. In too many cases, the food provided by 125 volunteers per day–and supervised by a registered dietitian–is the only nutritious food the human beings helped by Project Open Hand receive. Astounding to acknowledge in a progressive urban mecca that runs on the “Open Table” App, and brags about brunch dates and Bellinis.

For over four-decades I’ve worked with dozens of non-profits across the country, serving on Boards of Directors, as a volunteer, and as a CEO. Very few are as immediately life-saving, and essential to the human spirit as Project Open Hand, where the impact of your dollar, or devotion, is received the moment the person behind the peephole sees a friendly face, props open the apartment door and pays you back with a shy smile or grateful eyes.

This weekend, as you are about to access the Open Table App, opt for Project Open Hand instead. ( Donate the cost of your brunch, a shot of bourbon or a Bloody Mary to nurture your spirit, your soul and your neighbors whose existence depends upon you opening your heart, the way the team at Salesforce has in the attached YouTube video. Food is indeed love, and in more and more lives in our communities, it has become an essential medicine for survival.








From Apple Watches to Cell Drones?

With Apple unveiling its newest gizmo, the Dick Tracy watch, it’s time to look at two  technological toys that have come under attack.

Drones, those darting, dive-bombing Deus Ex Machinas, are finally facing a few flimsy regulations, after one landed on the White House lawn in the middle of the night, because its operator was drunk. Fortunately, that DWI delinquent drone was not carrying a nuclear payload or deadly chemicals.

At the same time, museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, are banning the use of “Selfie-Sticks”, as dangers to their own users and other patrons, as well as to the priceless artwork that self-absorbed numbsculls might knock over in their headlong haste to capture a head-shot of themselves right next to the sculpture of the Head of King David, which dates back to 1145 AD.

In the spirit of Apple’s new Watch, I’ve got a creative solution to these techie mind-twisters,  eliminating the need for “Selfie-Sticks” and putting responsible limits on drones, holding “droners” directly accountable for their operation.   It’s called the CellDrone, and I’m offering my idea to Apple or China’s DJI Technology Company, the world’s biggest maker of drones.

The CellDrone would work something like this.   Designed to fit in your pocket like an Iphone, the CellDrone, is twice the thickness of your average mobile phone.  Once turned on, the CellDrone can be used as a normal Iphone to make phone calls, send texts, scan social media, find pizza places, play music, search contacts, or take photos.

However, here’s where the CellDrone soars!   A new button on top of the phone, when pressed three times, transforms it into an Optimus Prime-like Drone before your very eyes.  In order to operate the CellDrone, you’ve got to turn on your matching CD (for CellDrone) WristWatch—way cooler than the Apple Watch– and press the “activation” button three times as well.  Multiple, coordinated button-pressing is required to avoid accidental activation, like “butt droning” especially if the CellDrone user is in a tightly enclosed space, like a subway car, bus, bathroom stall, or a micro-apartment.

Once the CD Watch is coordinated with the CellDrone, the user can give voice commands to the CellDrone through a microphone in the CD Watch.  The new voice recognition system in the CellDrone/CD Watch is highly sophisticated and precise, able to distinguish a Brooklyn accent from a Southern Drawl or Mandarin Chinese, as well as the slurred speech of inebriated or stoned users.  Sorry, Siri.

When the CellDrone user wants to take a “selfie” photo from a distance greater than arms-length, he or she simply activates the CellDrone, sets the distance on his CD watch (cannot exceed 10 feet) and speaks into the CD Watch the word “Photobomb.”   The CellDrone then snaps multiple photos of the user and others with the user.  Unlike a “Selfie Stick” which can poke people in the eyes, puncture art canvases or knock over statues, the CellDrone is programmed with a remarkably sensitive sonar field which can “feel” the presence of any object within a few inches.  Upon sensing a strange object within its field of “photobombing,” the CellDrone will, bat-like, automatically land and attach itself to the CD Watch, which acts as its control tower.

If the CellDrone user tries to move more than 10 feet from the device, the CellDrone will not fly, regardless of the volume or number of voice commands.  If the CellDrone user tries to abuse the CellDrone for other than “photobombing” purposes, the CD Watch is pre-programmed to immediately contact 9-1-1.  Tweet that, ISIS!

While the CellDrone is intended for close, personal photographic use only, and not for the delivery of packages, bombs or anthrax, nor intended to cross the flight paths of commercial jetliners potentially causing deadly air collisions, the CD Watch will be required for ALL Drone users, commercial or personal.    What the CD Watch technology would mean for every “droner”, is that ALL drones, regardless of size or payload, once activated, will automatically return to the wrist of the user.  The used drone can only be removed from the CD Watch at a fully licensed Drone Removal Clinic (or, DR. Clinic), where a full history of the usage and user of the Drone will be taken, along with the user’s picture.   CD Watches—and this should please potential producers — can never be removed from users’ wrists,  are waterproof, and can register how far you run, walk, bike or swim.

This advanced CellDrone technology and CD Watch system will wipe out “Selfie-Sticks”, protect priceless art, and avoid accidents between humans and drones, holding “droners” strictly liable for their actions.  Now, for the swarms of military and spy drones being used…