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Scientists have estimated the probability of you being born at about one in 400 trillion. Those odds are ten times greater than winning the Powerball and four thousand times greater than being hit by lightning. (As for winning the lottery and getting struck by lightning together, well, our math skills don’t reach that far.)

It turns out the amount of available DNA is so vast that the chance of it combining in the certain specific pattern to form the person you see in the mirror is virtually impossible. No scientific chance whatsoever. And yet, here you are.

But the news gets more amazing — since those odds of one in 400 trillion against don’t take into account the chance of your parents meeting, finding each other attractive, consummating their relationship, and having a single sperm and a single egg unite in joyous conception. We are now up to one in 400 quadrillion. (Even more if you add in surrogates.) And in case you’re wondering how big a quadrillion is, think of it as 1,000 trillions. In other words, a f***ing huge number.

Are we finished? No, not yet. Factor your ancestors going back four billion years, all the variables that could have prevented them from ever meeting, dating, mating, and so on …well, by the time you add up all the coincidences in this long tail scenario, the chances of you being here are one in ten to the power of 2,685,000. So the odds that you exist are basically zero. But because you do exist, and you’re now aware of how precarious that is, you’re the big winner today in the jackpot of life.  Even if all you’re doing right now is eating a chicken burrito with extra hot sauce.

That makes today a “fall on your knees, cry-tears-of-joy” kind of day.  Dancing is an appropriate response to this news. So is finishing your burrito and thanking the server for the extra hot sauce. Congratulations on that too.

Why are we writing about snow days in August? Because they are one of the great spontaneous joys of life. There should be more of them, and they shouldn’t be relegated to bleak days of winter. And they’re especially important when the heat index reaches 105.

With the right attitude, you can experience a snow day any day of the year. One way we like to get started is by placing a snow globe on the nightstand. When you wake up, give that snow globe a good shake and watch the flakes dance merrily in the glycerin contained within. You can even create your own personalized snow globe for added merriment. 

Now decide whether this day should be a “regular day” or a “snow day”. If it’s the latter, go back to sleep for as long as you like. (Naturally, it helps if your snow day falls on a “summer Friday” or you are self-employed, but this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. A veteran snow-day conjurer can always create an excuse that passes mustard with the powers that be.)

Granted, it’s a bit harder to conjure a snow day when the heat index creeps up to 105. The higher the temperature, the more you’ll need to visualize the snowflakes dancing down from the sky and piling up on your windowsill, with the news declaring your school or business shuttered for the day.

And like an India yogi, you can learn to cool your body through simple exercises and meditation.

Yes, a snow day just might be the best feeling in the world. And with a box of cocoa mix and some comfortable pajamas, there’s no reason why you can’t declare a snow day any day of the year. Here’s School Superintendent Rydell singing its praises. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Right or wrong, good or not-so-good, sane or mad, making a choice and then committing ourselves to it can be considered the most valuable practice in life. To set out on a course of action and eliminate any route of escape reduces the chance of compromise.

The expression “Burn one’s bridge” comes from the very act of burning down a wooden crossing after marching over it during a military campaign, leaving no choice but to continue moving forward while making it more difficult for your enemies to follow.* When there’s no turning back to the cushy existence you enjoyed before rowing away from shore, you have only your goal to go.

When it comes to his goal, the captain is “all in.”

Think of Ahab and his pursuit of the great white whale. He could have cut bait, steered the boat back to harbor, propped up his feet and puffed on a fat cigar. Instead, nothing would deter him from that final face-off with the great Moby D.

Of course, things didn’t turn out pleasantly for the captain. But there’s no arguing that it made for a more striking obituary.  And herein lies the point. It’s the story you wind up with that’s important.  Lashed to a monstrous mammal with your own rope? Now that’s the way to go!

Joe Heller wasn’t a whale hunter, but he did warrant a memorable send-off.

Who wants to die sitting in an easy chair trying to digest another big meal? Achieving a goal requires a climb up a steep, steep mountain, even at the risk of leaving behind a job, a relationship or a soft, comfortable couch that beckons to you when the pursuit becomes difficult in the extreme.

*Of course, you can also use the expression “break the kettles and sink the boats,” an ancient Chinese saying that refers to Xiang Yu’s order at the Battle of Julu in 207 BC.  

1. Travel to your local library.

2. Closing your eyes, walk down an aisle.

3. Pull a volume chosen at random from the stacks.

4. Without looking at the book, turn to a random page.

5. Now open your eyes and read the right-hand page.

6. Whatever is on the page, allow it to inspire an action corresponding to its contents.

They say “when you look good, you feel good.” So what change can you make to improve how you feel?

According to scientists from Harvard and Boston University, applying bright color to the lips not only makes the wearer feel more confident, others will perceive you to be more reliable and competent than those going without.

Researchers also discovered that students who wear makeup actually score better on tests. Wearing cosmetics apparently leads to overall enhancement in self-esteem, attitude, and personality that carries over to the exam room.

Now while these studies were conducted on women, we’re confident in this age of experimentation and fluid gender roles, men can also benefit from a bold choice of color.* After all, guys weren’t shy about applying foundation a few hundred years ago. An 18th century gentleman usually owned a dressing-box that held his razor cases, scissors, combs, curling irons, oil and scent bottles, rouge and powder. Even  soldiers wore wigs throughout the 18th century.

A hundred or so years later, androgenous rock stars of the 1970s (and 80s and 90s…) weren’t shy about accentuating their attitude with makeup. The New York Dolls made red lipstick the cornerstone of their first album cover.

So if you want to give your day a boost, score better on multiple choice tests, and provoke discussion on that next zoom call, you may just find dabbing on some Tom Ford Scarlet Rouge provides the spark you’re looking for. **

*The market for men’s cosmetics is predicted to grow $49 billion this decade.

**Of course, if you prefer using your natural gifts to win friends and attract people, remember the words of Dale Carnegie: “A smile costs nothing, but creates much. It enriches those who receive, without impoverishing those who give.”

 

In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd. — Miguel de Cervantes

That which seems the height of absurdity in one generation often becomes the height of wisdom in another. — Adlai E. Stevenson

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.  — Steve Jobs

When someone calls you a fool, do you take offense? Or thank them for their perspicacity?

The wise among us realize that our foolish nature is something to be embraced — and as often as possible. The godmother of show business reinvention, Cher, says, “Unless you’re ready to look foolish, you’ll never have the possibility of being great.”

Elon Musk was thought to be a fool to the 10th power when he began an electric car company from scratch, and a reusable rocket ship company after that. Both agree that you must free the wild child inside you rather than timidly hide beneath a veneer of “respectability” if you want to make your mark.

So the question is, how will you embrace foolishness today? What pranks are you planning to shake up the status quo? What could you do tomorrow, next week, or next month that will have the office, locker room, or family den buzzing with conversation (after the shock wears off)? And is one day really enough to play the fool card, or should we advocate for more time to really explore this vitally important side of life?

At the very least, the United States could follow the example set by the city of Odessa in Ukraine.  Here, the first of April is a holiday, complete with a festival that includes a large parade, free concerts, street fairs and performances. Festival participants dress up in a variety of costumes and walk around the city playing pranks with passersby.*

Based on the ideas generated by the fools among us, one could argue that businesses giving their employees the day off to act foolishly could wind up generating the brainstorms that lead to a better planet for all. (Or a 22% boost in productivity, one of the two.) Let’s try it and see what happens.

*In 18th Century Scotland, they did Odessa one better, as the April Fools tradition was a two-day celebration, starting with “hunting the gowk” in which people were sent on phony errands (gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool) and followed by “Tailie Day,” which involved pranks played on people’s backsides, such as pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on them. Not that we want to give you any ideas.

 

Do you ever feel like you’re being held captive by societal norms?  (You know, all the nonsense you’ve absorbed over the course of your life from well-meaning parents, teachers and authority types.) It’s as if you were Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, tethered by ropes. Except yours are internal and prevent you from unleashing the full power of your imagination on the universe.

So what’s a simple way to unglue yourself  and experience blue skies again?

At SuperOptimist headquarters, when the walls start closing in, we turn to artists of the Dada period for inspiration.  Emerging from the ashes of World War I, Dadaists saw society’s view of “normality” as irrational and created art that completely challenged traditional views of class, religion, politics, technology and morals.

Their reactions to society’s hollow constraints are just as valid in 2021 as they were a century ago, when Tristan Tzara published a short poem on how to free yourself from rigid thought with an act of anti-authoritarian aplomb.

Découpé (or cut-up) is performed by taking any piece of linear writing — say, a newspaper article, a page from a book, or the instruction sheet for plugging in a wifi router — and remodeling it in a spontaneous and uncontrolled way. By doing so, you will bypass the inner critic who demands that things be neat, ordered, and understandable.  Here are Tzara’s instructions, slightly modified.

Take some scissors.

Cut out each of the words that makes up the piece of writing.

Put the words in a bag, a hat, or shoebox.

Shake gently.

Remove one word at a time from the bag.

Copy the words in the order in which they left the bag.

According to Tzara, the poem that you construct will resemble you.

While a newspaper article is a perfectly good material for your initial foray (after all, they’re basically publishings the same stories now that they were in Tzara’s time), we prefer taking an expensive book that society has deemed important and valuable, and cutting up a page to prove that even “great art” should not be held in such high regard. This is a good step to freeing yourself completely from the social construct, and letting your superego know who’s boss!

As you contemplate your next act of non-compliance, enjoy this short film that brings Dada into the present, and see if that doesn’t shake you loose from whatever’s holding you back. Better to embrace nonsense like this than the nonsense we call “success.”

 

Life throwing you curveballs? Sometimes it’s best to sit back and let Jianzhi Sengcan, the Third Patriarch of Zen, remind you that you needn’t be troubled by slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Here are the first stanzas of Sengcan’s “Hsin Hsin Ming,”* containing all the instructions you need for avoiding suffering and removing every obstacle to enlightenment. (And all in just 151 words.)

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

The Way is perfect like vast space
where nothing is lacking and nothing in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
that we do not see the true nature of things.

Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things and such
erroneous views will disappear by themselves.

While this might sound easy, it takes practice to step away from what society labels “reality” and march to the beat of the one universal drummer.  To remind ourselves to practice at every opportunity, we’ve boiled “the Ming” down to it’s key component and wear it close to our hearts. (Four words even harder to forget!)

*Perhaps you’re wondering what “Hsin Hsin Ming” actually means. Different translators have rendered the title in different ways. Here’s a few to ponder:

  1. On Believing in Mind (Daisetsu Teitarõ Suzuki)
  2. On Faith in Mind (Dusan Pajin)
  3. Trusting In Mind (Hae Kwang)
  4. Trust in the Heart (Thomas Cleary)
  5. The Perfect Way (translator unknown)

**When it comes to t-shirts, you could always wear one of these. (Although we have no preference either way.)

Whether you’ve got a cold, or Covid, or melancholia, or something that’s not yet in the medical textbooks, take comfort in the fact that many have been in worse shape — and even survived to become president.

Before George Washington concerned himself with the health of our nation, America’s first commander-in-chief had to contend with an amazing array of personal afflictions. During the course of his life, he dealt with smallpox, malaria (six times), diphtheria, anthrax, dysentery, tuberculosis (twice), quinsy, carbuncle and pneumonia, to say nothing of losing all his teeth.* It’s only fitting that there’s a hospital in D.C. named after him.

While George needed some luck to make it through these gauntlets (not to mention a brutal war with the British), it’s important to recognize the capacity of the human organism to fight sickness. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to take care of your body along the way. To this end, George exercised faithfully, supped and grogged in moderation, tried to get the proper sleep, and avoided tobacco.

He also believed in balms and nostrums to keep the grim reaper at bay. According to records from his presidential library, among the items he ordered from an English apothecary in 1759 were the following:

6 Bottles Turlingtons Balsam
8 Oz. Spirit of Lavender
1/2 lb. Ipecacuane powderd
1/2 lb. Jallop powderd
12 Oz. Venice Treacle
4 Oz. best Rhubarb
12 Oz. Diascordium
4 lb. Pearle Barley
4 Oz. Balsam Capevi
5 Oz. Liquod Laudanum
5 Oz. Spirits Hartshorn
4 Oz. Spanish Flies
3 lb. Bird Lyme
6 lb. Oyl Turpentine
2 lb. Linseed Oyl—cold drawn
4 lb. Allam
1 lb. Spirma Citi
4 Oz. Tincture of Myrrh
4 Oz. Balsum Sulpher
4 Oz. Pulvus Basilic
2 Oz. Mer. Dulcis
4 Oz. Salvolatile
10 lb. Hartshorne Shaving
2 Quarts strong Cinamon Water
While many of these treatments are no longer popular, rhubarb has plenty of antioxidants and lavender is used for insomnia, acne and hair loss. But please take it easy with the laudanum. That’s a very powerful concoction.**
For more on this amazing survival story, try the  Washington Post,  the Library at Mount Vernon, or Doctor Zebra.

*Yes, George ultimately died of epiglottitis at age 67, but that may be because they practiced blood-letting back then and removed 35% of his plasma. And besides, 67 was elderly for the early 1800s. Men like Washington were lucky to survive into their late forties or early fifties. Women had it even tougher.

**Laudanum was considered a cure-all in Washington’s day, and why not? It contains a mixture of opium, alcohol, morphine and codeine. It’s doubtful a doctor would prescribe this today, but you can ask.

Many centuries ago, zen monks of the Rinzai school disavowed the notion of man’s superiority to animals, plants, water, fire, or even the earth itself. These monks spent years communing with nature, never seeing another person as they retreated to the mountainous caves to meditate. They reached out their hands to the universe and became one with it. Their meditative skills equipped them with the skills to handle both the isolation and the elements in good health.

Zen Teachings of the Rinzai

Later, 19th Century naturalist Henry Thoreau wrote of his fondness for solitude, wandering alone through the forests, beaches and back roads of Massachusetts. In fact, he gave himself a position which demanded he strike out from his one-room cabin no matter what the weather.  “For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully…”

Today, we find ourselves in the crux of winter, amidst a pandemic, with more snow forecast in the coming days. What would Henry do? He’d bundle up, head outside and lose himself in the day. Not content to simply traipse through the cold, he would pause to listen to a storm and it’s special characteristics.  He’d look closely at the snowflake, marveling at the amazing symmetry of each hexagonal formation. He might measure the accumulation.  (And if he had a smartphone, he might take some pictures.

So the next time you see the flakes start to fall, why not go inspect them yourself. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to cozy up to a tree and offer your hand. Give a plant a warm greeting. Say hello to a small pile of dirt, or a nice fat rock, or a bird that has seen fit to remain near rather than flying south. All of a sudden, you have an infinite number of new friends* who remain constantly by your side, in “good” weather and “bad.”

*But take care with the snakes, you never know if they are poisonous.

Celebrities

These questions are developed in tandem with writer John Fox to help clarify any artist’s goals.

  1. What art subjects bring you to your knees?

So many artists avoid their true subjects. Perhaps they’re afraid to shine a light into the darkest corridors of their heart and paint what excites, obsesses, or terrifies them. But the only way to discover your true subject is to create freely, wildly, without a plan, and to see what subjects crop up repeatedly. What thoughts can’t you ignore? Many times people don’t want to show their inner obsessions, demons, or embarrassing pain. Because “odd thoughts” can appear as a personal weakness to stolid Americans. Don’t avoid the subjects that wound you – head directly for them. If you show us this kind of very personal subjects, we’re sure to be interested in seeing the results.

  1. Who are you drawing or painting for?

It’s presumed that artists only need to please themselves and follow their private North Star. But even if we agree that a please-yourself ego-driven approach is an OK way to approach art, you still need to be aware that your art will have a larger audience of viewers. If you are a normal human, you want a huge audience on Instagram that beams love at you. But to be a more effective communicator, you need to imagine and target a specific group of humans to connect with. It could be Cubans, Mormons, teenagers. And even if you do that targeting, aim yourself even further: Cuban designers in Miami, Mormons who own art galleries, short-attention-span teens that crave Day-Glo pop art. Even better, choose a single person and direct your art to them.

If you can’t imagine a specific person that will like your art — then the truth is nobody will like it much.

  1. Why are you painting?

Burn through the easy answers quickly:

  • Want to do something with my hands.
  • Want to make money and be famous.
  • Because you have something to say.
  • It’s the only job I could get.

Drill down to the true depths:

  • Because you want to express the unsaid.
  • You want to understand trauma you experienced.
  • Because someone told you that you couldn’t.
  • You want to see what kind of artist lives inside you.

Sometimes it takes years for you to realize that the reason you make art isn’t what you thought it was.

  1. What is the one thing you want to paint before you die?

Many people make art because they feel it’s marketable or because it’s popular or they enjoy copying what others do in imitative fashion. But what do you really want to say before you leave the planet? You better figure that out and paint that painting, because the one thing I can guarantee you is that you will be leaving, and maybe sooner than you’d ideally prefer. So get busy and leave us a masterpiece, OK?

Art shown above: Woman with a Coffee Pot by Paul Cezanne. Monsieur Cezanne obviously had an affinity for Arabica beans which he didn’t shy away from.

It is not an uncommon circumstance that an artist will be invited to place a single painting in a group show or submit a single painting into a contest. Larger shows like the BP portrait competition get nearly 2,000 entries. At BP, the top 50 paintings get exhibited and four finalists are picked by tweedy British judges.

Is there any strategy you can use to help yourself psychologically or productively in this situation?

The big problem is that all your wonderful talent must be distilled down into this one painting. It alone represents you. No viewer is giving you extra credit for listening to your clever podcast talk or studying your dense sketchbooks. Judges can’t see the 573 paintings you did previously that got your talent where it stands. Nobody can see any of your tear-stained hard hours of lonely labor. The A+ you got from your beloved art teacher who set you on the path is invisible. All your good intentions for dolphins and trendy politically-informed ideas for radical justice are hidden from the viewer as well.

All we can see is the one painting you did.

BOOM!

GOOD OR BAD?

We are jolted awake or bored. Love it or walk on by. Sorry. “It didn’t work for me.” Or “I don’t like it.” Or “Who would hang that on their wall?”

Obviously, if award-winning painting strategies were easy, people would be grabbing awards like greedy children snapping up free chocolates. Actual winning strategies are few, but I will share four thoughts (and I welcome any comments if you have a good strategy I overlooked).

1) Do a lot of paintings. If you can only enter 1 painting in a show or contest and you only have 1 sad lonely painting in your studio you are severely limited at the outset. All paintings do not come out equally good and we all know this. Some remain failures no matter how hard you try to revive them. If you can challenge yourself to do the extra work and paint three, seven, or nine paintings for the contest and then select your best favorite one, you have already given yourself a huge advantage. Human nature tends to resist this approach because we are such lazy dull horrible beasts.

2) Figure out what wins before you start. This is a slightly corrupt strategy untrue to the higher realms of art but still a good cheat. If you look at the last twenty winners of the BP contest you can see a clear trend in the kind of subject, approach, and style that wins. At BP the judges will immediately look fondly on you if you paint a representational single figure soberly seated in a venerable chair.

3) Never paint an idea. Viewers respond to ideas slowly and poorly if at all because their brains are weak and seldom challenged. If you think you can win by painting about ecology, post-colonialism, or quantum physics it is an unlikely proposition. Winners paint “things” and ideally important things. Important painters paint important things like the pope, the queen, Elvis, Hitler, JFK, Stalin, and Marilyn Monroe. Painting a human being or the human form is always an advantage because the homo sapiens primate species is endlessly in love with watching itself.

4) Leverage what exists. If you are entering a show of floral paintings, pick an existing floral painting you like by Klimt, Monet, Haverman, or whoever floats your boat. Be willing to stand on the shoulders of dead art giants. No one will care if you try to flawlessly copy a vase by Matisse (I guarantee you can’t.) But take some inspiration and maybe even borrow some composition. This is the idea of starting from something already great. And you can never go wrong making “art about art” because that is the work that museum directors love best.

Seeking awards is a terrible reason to paint in any case, and can only be a sign of a fragile ego that seeks sustenance sipping from a golden cup filled with the milk of vanity. If you never win any damn award but your art fills you with deep private joy, this is the only true victory.

We’re particularly impressed by the powerful and iconic paintings of the artist Haddon Hubbard “Sunny” Sundblom (June 22, 1899 – March 10, 1976.) This stuff is brilliantly painted and aims an artistic arrow into the heart of Americana. We’ve done some research into exactly how he approached oil painting and we share it with you here:

When painting, Sundblom would work from dark to light, and thin to thick, utilizing a wet-into-wet (or ala prima) approach in laying down heavily loaded strokes of color. This technique of working while the oil was still wet allowed Sundblom to complete many of his illustrations in only one or two sittings. He was a remarkably fast painter, and his speed helped him to maintain a sense of freshness and spontaneity in his work. When Sundblom first sat down to consider a picture, he would start by making loose, rough sketches.

According to Harry Ekman, an artist who worked with Sundblom in the late ’50s, “He would sit down, and roughly—I mean quite roughly, sometimes on monogrammed stationery—make very abstract sketches. You could recognize some substance to the doodles, but they were mostly value sketches. He would make many of those and just keep going until he got an idea. Then he’d call in his models and take photos. When he started out he used models and worked from life, but by the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, you’d have to pay $30 to $50 an hour for models, so it became prohibitively expensive.”

Not surprisingly, Sundblom often used his neighbors, colleagues, and three young daughters as stand-ins for many of his illustrations. After taking the black and white reference photos, he would make a quick but highly accurate charcoal drawing on his canvas, and seal it by fluffing pumice across its surface, blowing ethereal varnish or shellac on the board with a spray atomizer. Unlike some other illustrators, Sundblom only used the photos for a reference, never trying to copy the actual look of the photograph. Sundblom very rarely used a Balopticon projector, as many other illustration artists of the day were doing to save time.

“He believed that if you were doing an illustration for a story, you should enhance the story. You should always add to it,” Ekman said. His goal was iconic powerful images and copying photography alone would never deliver the iconic power he sought.

Alexander Kortner, an illustrator and protege of Sundblom’s, said, “He was a terrific draftsman in his own right. He would first make a sketch from nothing, just out of his head. Then he would use some reference photos to construct his drawings on canvas with charcoal. He very seldom used a Balopticon, and he never stayed too close to the reference photos. He drew with the brush as he painted. His drawing on canvas was never very detailed, but it was beautiful in and of itself.”

Then he would start in painting, and it was miraculous the way he mixed colors from a rather ordinary palette of 12 tube colors and his only medium was turpentine. Few people ever actually saw him paint, but I did,” Kortner said. “He would start with big bristle brushes and rough in the whole thing in an hour or two. He was very, very fast. It’s surprising how much he could do with a big brush. in a demonstration for an artist’s group in Chicago, he’d make a painting in about an hour and a half at the most, and it’s a beautiful thing. At the end of the demo, they would raffle it off to whoever was there. He didn’t do demonstrations too often because he wasn’t fond of it, but he would do them occasionally for the Chicago Artist’s Guild. He would start with a raw canvas and start right in. Some of the best illustrators in the city would come to the demonstrations just to watch him work.”

If you want to try to work in the Sundblom style, one of the best ways to modify your current habits and be more Sundblom-esque may be to set a 60-minute timer while you paint. Try to force yourself to work faster than you normally do. Don’t be fussy or precious but strive for accuracy and efficiency. Get that idea down in paint! Remember, the client expects your great iconic art done by tomorrow. Better get moving

 

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