Farmer Josh

When I started elementary school at Ohlone, it had just inherited an acre or so of weed-ridden, fenced-off land at the very back of the campus, which the students called “no-man’s land.” A few months into the year, the staff decided to put the space to use, converting it into a small farm.

Each class elected a representative to the ‘farm council’ to help with planning, and I was elected from the kindergarden class. Kids, parents and teachers cleared out the weeds, and laid in plot markers. And then, class by class, we planted collective plots. I was hooked from that first year, planting carrots, lettuce, herbs. I remember pulling radishes from the ground, rinsing them off and eating them raw. I didn’t even like radishes at the time, but I couldn’t help but relish something I’d planted and grown myself.

Throughout elementary school, my love for the farm deepened. I spent my free time studying seed catalogues and gardening manuals. When I was in third grade, I planned out an elaborate drip irrigation system, which the school later purchased and installed. I served on the farm counsel every year, and, by the time I was in sixth grade, was appointed honorary ‘farm historian’, and ceremonially given a key to the farm.

But what I loved most about the farm were the animals, which the school slowly accumulated. By the time I graduated, the farm housed ducks, goats, potbellied pigs. And, nearest of all to my heart, chickens.

I’m not sure what it was about the chickens that I loved so much, but I found them endlessly fascinating; I could sit with them happily for hours on end. To this day, my mother reminds me that when she washed pants or jackets I’d worn to elementary school, she’d have to empty handfuls of chicken feed from my pockets.

One spring break, with new chicks just out of the incubator, I convinced my parents to let me take the dozen of them home, to roam in our fenced backyard rather than stay at the farm alone over the vacation. Several of the birds had terrible intestinal distress, trailing diarrhea everywhere, but my parents were remarkably game about it; I remember my father hosing the patio down, while talking on the phone with the farm’s vet to make sure we didn’t need to do anything but wait it out.

Each year, the farm would have a parent-child farm work day, when helpful hordes would descend, spades and power drills in hand, to fix up what we could. After just a few years of use, the chicken roost the school had purchased initially began to fall apart. So at one year’s work day, my father suggested that we make a new chicken roost from scratch. I remember shopping for the wood – a trunkful of 2×4’s and dowels – and then learning to use various power tools under his watchful eye as we pieced together an elaborate setup. At the end, we soldered in an inscription: Newman & Sons Chickenworks.

About fifteen years after I graduated, my father got a call from the then principal, who had previously taught me in third and fourth grade. After long use, that roost was in need of repair or replacement, and he had remembered our bringing it in. He wanted to see if we still had contact info for the Chickenworks. Laughingly, my father explained that we were it, then shared the plan we’d used so that a new parent-child duo might build the next generation’s.

I still think about that farm occasionally, and I’m proud of the hand I had in getting it up and running. But whatever impact I had, I’m sure it’s had a far bigger impact on me.

Down to Work

“I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business.” – Ben Franklin

Elementary

Growing up in Palo Alto, most kids attended one of a dozen neighborhood elementary schools. But parents also had the option of sending their kids to two ‘choice’ elementary schools.

One, Hoover, was extremely structured and disciplined; if the class was doing math, everyone was open to the same page in the same book working on the same problem at the same time.

The other, Ohlone, was the complete opposite. No tests, no grades, no homework; kids learned in mixed-grade classes, called teachers by their first names, and met in small seminar groups with the teacher for part of the day while self-supervising project and problem set work the rest of the day.

I went to Ohlone.

As a result, by the time I headed off to Yale, I still couldn’t place all fifty states on a map. (Seriously.) But I had mastered the kind of learning I’d be doing at Yale, and the kind of work I’d be doing thereafter running companies.

As the old saw goes, I really did learn everything I needed to know in kindergarden.

Todoist

For years and years, I managed all of my tasks, projects, goals and ideas using a handful of text files that I wrangled in the text editor BBEdit. It was nerdy and time-consuming, but also completely bespoke; the approach fit my workflow, and evolved over time as my working style did, too.

Along the way, I briefly tried out pretty much every task management software that existed. Some, like The Hit List or Omnifocus, I even stuck with for a couple of weeks. But, inevitably, I’d end up chafing under a program’s structure, or run into problems with its stability and data security, and return to my free-form text.

About six months ago, for reasons I can no longer recall, I decided to test out the online task management program Todoist. An extremely fast and fluid web app, it also boasted polished iPhone and iPad versions. So I dumped in my text files, and started using it. And then I kept using it. And using it. Two months in, I reverted to my text approach; after an hour, I started to feel that it was text, not Todoist, that fell short in comparison.

Six months later, I still use Todoist all day, ever day. If you haven’t tried it out, you should. (And sign up for the trial of the premium features; they make the app vastly more powerful, and are certainly worth the the $0.08 a day they cost if you decide to stick with it.)

Time Machine

Courtesy of my parents, a birthday look back at where it all began:

Zero

One

Two

As Jess points out, while I don’t yet look like myself at a day old, I do by a year; by a year and a half, I’m apparently already more or the less the guy I am today.

Countdown

Last day of 34.

As a birthday gift to myself, I’m dropping my worst habit: bullshitting / lying / ‘selling’ / whatever. It’s gotten me into trouble in the past, and I’m sick of it. I’m calling a do-over, quitting it cold turkey, and starting 35 fresh. Wish me luck.

As Samuel Butler once observed, “life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”

Haiku

“Barn’s burnt down –
Now
I can see the moon.”
– Masahide

Homeward Bound

I remember, when I was younger, watching the movie Homeward Bound, and wondering how good a dog’s sense of direction was in real life.

At least in the case of Gemelli, I can now say: problematically good.

Gem not only remembers where things are, he also has strong ideas about when we should visit them. When he comes with me to work, for example, he always drags me to the pet store, many blocks away, even if it’s been months since his last visit. He knows where all the pet stores are in our home neighborhood, too, as well as all the TD Banks (where he can find water and free biscuits), and not a walk goes by that he doesn’t try to take us to a least a couple of those stops.

A few months ago, my younger brother got a cockapoo, a little girl named Brooklyn. Gem loves Brooklyn. Not in a ‘where the ladies at?’ kind of way (his other focus on walks), but in a platonic, member of the same pack, besties-for-life way. The two of them will wrestle and play for hours on end. Fortunately, and unfortunately, Brooklyn lives just ten blocks from our house. So on any afternoon or evening walk, Gem now also tries to drag us down to see her. And, a few times a week, we let him.

Last night, Jess and I had dinner at a restaurant near Columbus Circle. We brought Gem along, and ate at an outdoor table. Post-dinner, we walked into Central park.

So far as I know, I don’t think Gem had ever been to Columbus Circle before, nor to that corner of the park. But, even in the relative darkness, he looked around, and then started pulling us northward. A few blocks up, he veered out of the park, and onto Central Park West.

“He’s trying to take us to Brooklyn’s house,” I told Jess.

“I don’t think so,” she replied. “That’s still twenty blocks away, and he has no idea where he is; he thinks this is near our house.”

But, in fact, Gem knew precisely where he was. And he was on a mission. Up CPW, then across some street in the mid–70’s, and up Columbus. When we were two or three blocks away, Jess conceded. A few minutes later, triumphantly, Gem dragged us in my brother’s building’s front door.

Sure, those excellent navigation skills are at times a pain in the ass. But they’re also kind of a comfort. As Jess has a terrible sense of direction, it’s nice to think that, so long as she’s walking Gem, the two together are likely to find their way home.

A Frayed Knot

My great-grandfather, a prolific inventor, dreamed up the machine that’s used to this day to mass-produce men’s ties. (Not a savvy entrepreneur, he sold the design for a flat price, rather than taking a cut long-term, so my grandfather [like my own father] was born on the Lower East Side, rather than up on Park Avenue.)

My grandfather, a far better entrepreneur, ran a silk import business that sold fabric to a slew of high-end designers, for dresses, for shoes and in large part for ties.

A second generation tie guy, I remember my grandfather standing in front of the mirror, carefully forming his tie’s dimple, key touchpoint of sartorial sprezzatura. When my grandparents stayed with my brother and me at one point while my parents were out of town, he was the one who taught me how to tie a tie in the first place.

My own father provided much-needed touch-up lessons; like learning to drive a car, it’s easy to lose steps before the motor pattern is fully engrained. So tie-tying, it seemed, was sort of a family art. But I’d never given much thought to what kind of knot I was tying – four-in-hand, Pratt, half-Windsor, full Windsor, etc.

My grandfather was a believer in moderation in all things, a common-sense kind of guy. (At one point, I dropped my towel while ‘surfer-changing’ into a bathing suit at the pool near our house. Distressed, I told my grandfather I was worried a girl might have seen me. “Don’t worry about,” he advised; “If she’s never seen one, she won’t know what is; if she already has, it’s nothing new.”) From that, I assumed the family knot must have been something down the middle, like the half-Windsor.

Recently, hearing the phrase four-in-hand three times in one day, I decided to look up how to tie that knot. And, to try and make sense of the online diagram I found, I pulled up the half-Windsor, to compare to something I already knew. But neither the four-in-hand, nor the half-Windsor, were close to the knot I had grown up tying.

Instead, after some further Googling, it appears the Newman knot is a full Windsor, described by one tie instruction site as “a thick, wide and triangular tie knot that projects confidence” and by another as “the knot for special occasions”. It’s the kind of knot for a guy who takes ties seriously. A family tradition for a tie family. One that makes me think, even in today’s casual world, I should find a way to wear one more often.

Recommended: Mr. Lid

Normally, I’m a savvy consumer. Rarely susceptible to impulse buys, skeptical of unreasonable claims, thorough in my research and careful in my buying approach.

Unless I’m watching an infomercial, in which case all that goes out the window.

That’s the only reason why, a year or so back, I ended up buying a set of [Mr. Lid containers](https://www.mrlid.com):

3145

By rights, these should have been terrible. But, in fact, they’re so good that I bought more, and chunked all of our other Tupperware-esque refrigerator storage. And then my sister-in-law saw them, got jealous, and did the same thing.

The sanity saved by never having to search for a lid – along with the space saved by easily stacking containers without worrying about those lids – has been more than worth the price.