The skills we need now

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Today is Labor Day. I was thinking about work, and how I work, and what I love about it, and what I might be able to offer as lessons to others from what I’ve learned from working online as a freelance writer for the past 4 years.

One of my friends posed an interesting question in response to my blog post about the “New American Dream.” He asked, “What kinds of skills do people need to learn to do the type of self-employment/freelancing/online work that you do? And how can we teach these skills in schools?”

This is a really good question that I’ve been thinking about a lot. On the one hand, much of what I do as a freelance writer is based on some fundamental academic skills – reading, writing, critical thinking. But the way I work as an online freelance writer – collaborating with multiple people on multiple continents, learning new technology, integrating different ideas – requires a certain kind of agility and curiosity that can’t necessarily be “taught” in a traditional academic environment. I sometimes think that the most important skills I’ve learned in my life have come from just doing the work.

But with that said, here are a few ideas for what kinds of “transferable skills” and personal characteristics I would recommend that people pursue – starting at a young age – if they want to be able to make a living working online as a freelancer – or at any traditional “job” that requires digital age skills:

Project Management

Project management, broadly defined, is “the art and science of getting things done.” This is one of the most important skills that is relevant to almost any good job today – you need to be able to organize a group of people, marshal your resources, analyze your budget, deadlines and constraints, and deliver a result. I manage a team of bloggers all over the U.S. Every month we have to deliver a set number of articles to our client. I’m the one who leads the team, manages the deadlines, negotiates any problems that arise along the way, and helps answer questions. I keep a detailed tracking spreadsheet that I constantly update throughout the month to make sure we’re on target to meet our goals. I love writing, but I also enjoy project management because I get to take a bigger picture view of the overall team effort. It’s like being the captain at the helm of the Starship Enterprise.

I wish more kids could get hands-on experience managing projects in school – it doesn’t have to be a “big” thing or a physical product, but learning how to meet deadlines, manage resources and guide a project to completion is one of the most important skills people can have. We’re heading toward a “project economy” where instead of traditional full-time year-round jobs, more people will work in the style of Hollywood film productions, where a team of people with specific skills will gather together for a limited time for a dedicated purpose.


I work “alone” most of the time, working at home from my home office or from a coffee shop on my laptop – but I never truly feel “alone” because I have clients and collaborators all over the U.S. and around the world. I love sharing ideas and pitching story ideas and exchanging feedback to make things better for whatever project we’re working on. Collaboration is more important than ever before, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re all going to be in the same conference room or the same city or even on the same continent. Some of my favorite people to work with during the past 4 years have been in Tokyo, Australia, Germany, London, The Netherlands, and many other places. Most of the people I’ve worked with during the past 4 years are people that I’ve never met in person. But you know what? Even though my collaborators and co-workers and clients and I are separated by thousands of miles, I often feel closer to them and more a part of their team than I did with a lot of the “in person” co-workers I used to work with at my previous jobs. Distance doesn’t matter in being a good co-worker as much as your reliability, your communication skills, and your willingness to get the job done right.

Team Building

One of the underrated skills for working online is being able to build and recruit a team for a project, and inspire that team to achieve success. How does “virtual teamwork” work, exactly? How can you build a team when you’re scattered across continents? The new style of team building does not require in-person interaction, but it does require you to set a clear vision and show each person on the team how their contribution supports the larger goals. For example, I recently built a team of blog writers from around the U.S. I reached out to friends from college, friends on Facebook, and friends of friends in specific cities where we needed writers. (The client wanted to get perspectives and insights from various geographic regions of the U.S.) As part of building my team, I wrote a lot of guidance and detailed instructions about what kind of work we’d be doing and why it was important and how they would benefit by being part of the project (in addition to the money). I had to kind of “sell” the project to the team and get them excited to be part of it by conveying the sense of fun and fulfillment that I get from working for this client. For example, most of the people I reached out to to help with this project are not full-time freelance writers, so I said to them, “How would you like to make some extra money each month with just a few hours of work?” As part of building and nurturing the team, I’ve kept up regular communication – not just via e-mail but also YouTube videos where I can give people regular updates and encouragement. I’m also available by phone whenever anyone on the team needs to talk with me or ask questions.

The new style of team building for the “project economy” and the new way of working online is not about job titles and hierarchy and following orders – it’s about flexibility, humility, generosity and a genuine spirit of helping people get better at what they do. Being a leader of a team is a great challenge and privilege, and you realize quickly that being a leader is a humbling experience – because ideally, if you’re doing it right, you should be learning much more from your team than you knew before.


I can find something interesting about almost anything. During the past 4 years I’ve worked with clients in all sorts of industries, including: animal pharmaceuticals, corporate law, life insurance, mobile apps, virtual events, fire extinguishers, tourism, fine wine trading, relationship coaching, life coaching, sales consulting, restaurant consulting, hospital physician recruiting, and many more. I’ve helped write screenplays (which is usually thought of as being a fun, “sexy” line of work) and I’ve also written brochures for a company that makes high-end paper shredders (which is an industry that I knew very little about), but no matter how “fun/creative” or how “dry/technical” the subject matter might be, I seem to have a knack for finding unique aspects to enjoy and find interesting. I’m often talking with my wife about something fun I learned today from my work, or some interesting facts or knowledge that I had no idea about before I started working for a particular client.

One of the most oddly fun and, well, kind of reassuring things about working online with so many clients all over the world is that the global business world is just so diverse! No matter what strange niche market or problem is out there waiting to be solved, some group of people are out there trying to solve it – trying to make a better paper shredder, or build an app, or develop some interesting solution that saves time and money. It’s not always glamorous and high-profile and sexy, but it’s what makes the world economy work.

People who want to be employable and have success in the economy of the future need to love to learn. You need to be constantly curious and willing to keep pushing the boundaries of your knowledge and get out of your comfort zone. Sometimes I take on projects even if I haven’t done something “exactly like this” before – because I have confidence that I can get up to speed on almost any learning curve, and become conversant in a variety of industries and niche topics. I don’t have to be an expert in absolutely everything – but I try to know a little about a lot.

My personal preference is that I would rather be a “generalist” than a “specialist.” My worst fear for my career is that I’ll become limited to a tiny, narrow band of expertise that makes me feel irrelevant to the larger world. However, that’s just my preference – many people work online as “specialists” in some niche field – whether that means being a freelance writer specializing in financial services, or making apps for a certain industry, or consulting for a certain size/variety of business. There’s nothing wrong with being a specialist (and finding your niche with deep expertise) or being a generalist (and serving multiple niches with a variety of skills) – the Internet makes it possible to do either one. You can either be a generalist like me, riding the wave of ever-expanding knowledge and research available online – or you can be a specialist and use online channels to connect with people who need your specific skills and expertise. But either way, you will be well-served to cultivate a strong sense of curiosity and stay eager to keep learning all the time. 


My mother teaches middle school, my father teaches college classes, and my 4 grandparents all worked as teachers/college professors at various points in their lives. Apparently I have a family gene for working in education. I worked as a teacher in my first job out of college, teaching English in Japan. They say that you never truly know anything until you teach it to someone else, and I’ve found that to be true from my work as a freelance writer.

The biggest part of my work today is content marketing – I write content for companies who want to better explain their products/services, show the value they offer, and educate their customers about why they are different from the competition. Content marketing is different from a sales letter or a brochure or a TV ad – it’s not meant to “sell” directly, it’s meant to build credibility and trust. The Internet has made it possible for people to do a lot more research than ever before when making a purchase – checking prices, comparing brands, reading customer reviews. My work as a content marketing copywriter is all about helping companies show what makes them special and explain how their products work, and exercise “thought leadership” to help guide the direction of their overall industry.

As part of this work, I need to know how to frame questions and offer thought-provoking ideas and make a “soft sell” of helping ideas to spread, but without hammering people over the head with “hard-sell” sales pitches. This is all part of being a good teacher. The best teachers don’t impose ideas upon their students, they help students discover ideas and realize the truth for themselves.

I recently was contacted by a guy who lives in the Bahamas who hired me to do some coaching via Skype to help answer some questions about how to get started working online as a marketing consultant. This was a great experience for me, because I felt like I really helped him clarify some goals and feel more confident in making a specific plan to start his own business – and I think more people will be able to make money like this in the future, just by sharing their knowledge and teaching people “how to do what I do.” The Internet has enabled more of these one-to-one connections. If you find someone’s website or follow someone on Twitter or read someone’s blog post and you feel inspired by what they do, it’s easier than ever to ask them for help. (Seriously, if you’re interested in learning more about being a freelance writer or making money online by utilizing your existing skills, please send me an e-mail:  


The Project Economy and working online are not for everyone, and they’re not for the faint of heart. Working online as a freelance writer or other self-employed consultant presents some unique stresses. Sometimes projects get cancelled, budgets fall through, people make promises that they cannot ultimately keep. Sometimes clients go silent. Sometimes (rarely, fortunately) people don’t pay their bills. The Project Economy and working online offer more freedom, but they also offer more uncertainty.

Perhaps the most important skill for people working online is to stay resilient. Be agile, be flexible, be able to bounce back quickly from disappointment or frustration. Keep your momentum going. Keep moving forward. Keep creating a pipeline of new business opportunities so you always have options even if a big project gets cancelled or a big client goes away.

And look, this style of work isn’t everyone’s idea of a dream job. If you want/need the predictability of a 9-5 routine, if you like the reassurance of having a physical location to report to for work each day, if you struggle to make good use of your time without a boss to guide you and help create structure for you, then maybe being a freelancer or working online isn’t the ideal fit for you. And that’s fine. But I think more people are going to seek out opportunities like these as the Project Economy expands in the years to come. More employers will realize that they can get good results without the expense and overhead of full-time employees – and more workers will realize that they can take their skills directly to the market and make more money and have more freedom than any traditional “job” could offer them.

I almost never work 8 hours a day. Sometimes I take a few days off, and then work very hard for 3 days in a row. I fit the work into my life, instead of the other way around.

I’m working today, on Labor Day, but I’m happy to do it. When you’re self-employed there are no “paid holidays,” but there are also no “Mondays,” no anxious Sunday nights dreading going back to the office the next morning. I never, ever resent a single minute I spend working, because the work is all for me and for my family, and if I do a lot more work, I make a lot more money.

I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the skills I’ve developed during these past 4 years of working as a freelance writer. I hope many other people can do the same.

We need a new American Dream

Today is the 4th of July. This has always been one of my favorite holidays – I love the summer weather, the fireworks, the grilled meats, and the occasion to reflect on the meaning of America – this baffling, often exasperating country that I love. (But mostly I love the grilled meats.)

Even though today is a “holiday,” I worked for a couple of hours. When you’re self-employed, there are no “paid holidays.” But you know what? I don’t resent a single minute that I spend working for myself. Being a freelance writer has truly been a new birth of freedom for me. I am grateful that I can earn a living on my own terms, working from home, spending lots of time with my wife and kids, without all the bureaucracy and organizational stupidity of a corporate job. (Being a freelance writer means that I only have to put up with my own stupidity.)

But seriously: I never knew what “freedom” really meant until I was running my own business as a freelancer. I’ve been doing this now for 3 years full-time, and I have never once regretted the decision to quit my old corporate job. Every day feels like a paid vacation. I work when I want to. I work from home, or from a coffee shop, or from a hotel room while on a road trip with my family. I can make more money during the two hours when my wife and kids are taking a nap in the afternoon than I used to make from spending 8 hours a day in a windowless grey fabric-padded box.

I recently started a new freelance project where I had to recruit a team of writers from various regions of the U.S. I reached out to old college classmates and friends from Facebook – I happen to know a lot of talented writers – and quickly built a great team. It’s been a lot of fun for me to be able to hand out some lucrative, fun projects to people I know and respect. And this experience reminded me, that many more people could work the way I do – if they could get past the old way of thinking about work, and redefine their idea of “success.”

America needs a new “American Dream.” The old American Dream was all about having a steady 40-hour-a-week job and a nice car and a big house in the suburbs. I think the new American Dream is going to be more mobile, more inter-connected, and more diverse. We don’t need “a” job anymore – it’s easier to get connected to 50 clients who will each give you $1,000 worth of work (or 100 clients who will each give you $500) than it is to find a single $50,000 a year job.

The new currency of the American Dream will be connectedness and sharing and trust. Instead of wealth being defined by having access to scarce resources, now it’s about “who do you know” and how connected are you to what is going on. Who would you rather be right now: a business owner of a big, entrenched business in a stagnant industry (with a six-figure income but slow growth), or a 24-year-old recent college graduate with 2,000 Facebook friends, making a living in social media and developing apps with Facebook friends at night? My money’s on the 24-year-old.

As part of our new American Dream, we need to change our ideas of “success.” For example:

Social capital is more important than money. If you have a strong network of people who care about you and who will support you and spread the word about what you do, the money will take care of itself. I have seen this happen in my own “side venture” as a stand-up comedian. Using nothing more than my own network of “fans” on Facebook, I have produced and performed in sold-out stand-up comedy shows at various venues in our city. For one of the shows, I didn’t even have to pay any money to the venue as a deposit, because my Facebook audience bought so many tickets so quickly. With the new American Dream, we all have the opportunity to build our own audience, on our own scale, and ask them to support us in doing great things.

Free time is more important than wealth. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about being self-employed is that free time is the new “wealth.” Having control over your own schedule is more powerful than having lots of money in the bank – but having no time to spend it. Why spend 40 years doing a job you hate, just so you can eventually (maybe) afford to buy the freedom to do what you wanted to do all along? Yesterday my wife and I had an impromptu “Date Day” where we sent our kids to my parents’ house for the day, and we just spent the whole day together – we went out for a great lunch, we went shopping for some new shoes and clothes (for ourselves – the kids always get whatever they want, but I hadn’t bought myself a new pair of shoes in 4 years. I had holes in my soles). I love being able to have control of my own schedule so I can make my work fit into my life, instead of the other way around.

Generosity and trust are the ultimate status symbols. Instead of showing off your big house or your expensive car or your expensive possessions, the new American Dream’s measure of prestige is: “How much of a difference are you making for others? How influential and giving are you to your community? How much do people trust you and want to follow you and listen to what you have to say?” As Kevin Spacey says in “House of Cards,” power is more valuable than money. And there are more ways to influence people and wield a new kind of “power” than ever before – even if you don’t have a traditional “powerful” job or title or office. Who is more powerful in today’s world: the Governor of a small Midwestern state, or a blogger with 500,000 fans on Twitter? Who has more people who are eager to listen to what that person has to say, and who will eagerly take immediate, meaningful action as a result? I’d rather be a blogger than a Governor. Seriously.

Failure is to be welcomed. With the way we are all interconnected, with the amazing apps and tools available online to help us be more productive than ever, with the ease in which we can get connected to the right people and resources to launch any project…the cost of failure has gotten cheaper than ever. The riskiest thing you can do today is to NOT take a risk. I quit my steady job with good benefits 3 years ago, even though we had a new baby and two kids under the age of 3, and I was terrified to fail. I was afraid that I was making a terrible mistake by venturing away from the safety of the corporate “nest.” But the thing is, I hated that job. I felt like there was no future in it for me – if I had stayed at that job, my skills would have stagnated and I would have gotten trapped in a career path that I didn’t give a damn about. Today, I feel more fulfilled than ever by my work. I feel great optimism for the future – because I’m conversant in lots of new industries and subjects, I’ve been through good times and tough times, and I’m no longer afraid to fail. The new American Dream requires us to redefine our idea of “failure.” New college graduates need to try lots of things, even if some of them don’t work out. You’re going to be more successful in the long run if you have a spirit of inventiveness, agility and courage – and it’s hard to get those things if you just go and get on a corporate career path without ever trying anything else.

Connectedness is more important than control. Here’s what I mean by that – lots of traditional corporate jobs are a matter of doing things “the right way” and controlling your own little domain of knowledge and resources. (“That’s not how we do things around here.” “Follow the established procedures.” “Check with Legal.”) The new American Dream, powered by working online and being supported by our own “safety nets” of social connections, will be about not “how well can you control” your little domain of expertise, but “how connected are you” to the right people and the right ideas? This new idea of connectedness is also going to transform our lives outside of work. For example: have you heard of Airbnb? It’s a site where you can rent a room in people’s houses, all over the world. Instead of paying big money for hotel rooms, you can crash at someone’s house for a fraction of the price – and you can check them out on Facebook in advance. This is an amazing new reality – instead of only “hotels” being able to offer you the value of a clean, safe place to sleep, now we can rely on the invisible safety net of thousands of “strangers” – but most people are trustworthy, and not everyone is a “stranger” for long. Have you heard of Lyft? It’s a new ride-sharing app (available only in select cities, for now) where people can use their mobile phones to immediately locate a nearby “citizen taxi-driver” who will give them a ride. Instead of owning a car (and paying the huge costs associated with that), perhaps in another few years, the new definition of success will be about living close to downtown and sharing rides with “strangers.” And Google is working on driverless cars – which could also be used for ride-sharing.

Here’s the point: instead of creating our own individual safety net with wealth and savings and physical assets (“I want to have a nice house and a safe car for my family”), the new “American Dream” is going to be about relying on the invisible safety net that was always around us all the time – but that we are now able to connect to and see and touch. Does this all sound like fantastical, overly optimistic techno-enthusiast hippie nonsense? Imagine how much your life has changed from having a smartphone. What if, instead of using your smartphone to find a restaurant or take photos, you could use it to hail a driverless Google car “taxi?” And then save thousands of dollars a year by not having to own a second car (or maybe not even own any cars at all)? The technology is almost ready.

Community is more important than individual wealth. As part of the new American Dream, I think more people are going to buy smaller houses, closer to their friends, closer to the communities and amenities that they care about. Why sign up for a big house in the suburbs and a big time-sucking commute, when you can work online and spend your “real-life” time with the people you love? We don’t have a big house, but we love it. We never want to move – unless it’s to a smaller house or condo closer to downtown. I love being self-employed because it gives me more time to hang out with my friends. This summer, I’ve spent most of my time taking my kids to the pool, going to movies with my wife, meeting my friends for drinks at our favorite neighborhood bar, having coffee with awesome, talented people, and eating at my favorite restaurants. And I’ve still managed to somehow make more money than I used to make from 40 hours a week in a cubicle.

Side projects are the new social currency: In the “old days,” watching TV sitcoms and watching Johnny Carson were the ways that Americans got their “social currency” – their sense of what is worth caring about and knowing about so they can have something to talk about with their peers. Today, I hardly ever watch TV. (Unless it’s a massively critically acclaimed show like “The Wire” or “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards” that I get recommended to me by my hilarious, savvy Facebook friends.) The reason? There is too much other great stuff to do today! Why passively watch TV when you could be writing a blog, or building a website, or coding an app, or starting a band, or hosting a wine party, or starting a business to make some extra money on the side outside of your day job? Moonlighting is easier than ever before – and more lucrative. That’s how I started as a freelance writer – I got started on Elance in January 2009 as a way to make extra money outside of my day job, and then it blew up and took off to the point where I was making so much money in 10-15 hours per week (and enjoying the work so much more) that I wondered, “What if I did this full-time?” People have the opportunity now to do so many more interesting and valuable things with their time other than watching TV. And the best way to make new connections in the world of the new American Dream is to share your passions with people. Talk about that new side business you’ve started. Share your artwork with people on Facebook. Post YouTube videos of songs you wrote. I want all Americans to be more creative, to share their talents, to share their gifts! Stop wasting time at jobs you hate. Stop watching lousy TV. Go online and make a difference instead. We are still barely scratching the surface of what is possible.

During the past 3 years, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in some really great projects and amazing experiences. I love working online. I love working with clients all over the world. I love having Skype calls with clients in London and Australia and Germany and Japan. I love writing creative website content and brainstorming ideas for blog articles. I love being able to be part of multiple collaborative teams and learn “a little about a lot,” without getting pigeonholed as “only” being an expert in one particular subject area (as tends to happen at too many corporate jobs).

I’m grateful to truly be free. I hope I can keep the momentum going with my freelance business, and stay as busy as I want to be, and keep earning more money, and keep making more of a difference for my clients and my community.

I think more people are going to live like me. Not to brag, or anything – I don’t mean to suggest that I’m a trendsetter. (I’ve never been particularly “cool.”) But it just makes too much sense! The way the economy is changing, the way people’s social and cultural preferences are changing, the way we spend our time – it all points to a new sort of American Dream where we all hopefully can enjoy more freedom and a truer kind of wealth and a more democratic form of “success” that anyone can enjoy, no matter how much money they make.

Does this sound so impossible? I used to think it would be impossible to earn a full-time income working from home and getting paid over the Internet from clients all over the world.

Happy 4th of July!

Six people I knew who died by suicide

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It took me a long time to write this.

I first started writing this article 4 years ago, then I stopped short of publishing it. I wasn’t sure how or whether to write about this topic. I wasn’t sure how much of this was really “my story” to tell. But since May is Mental Health Awareness month, and since I read this really amazing article about the new suicide epidemic, I wanted to share this story about depression, suicide, grief and loss, in the hope that it might help someone else.

During my life, I have known six people who died by suicide.

I have changed/omitted most of the names here (and some identifying details) to protect their privacy, and because I don’t want these people to be defined solely by the way they died. But I felt that it was important to write this.

In my own small way, I want to honor the memories of these six people – classmates, friends, childhood friends, co-workers – by sharing the stories of how I knew them, what I remember about them, and what they meant to me.

These are their stories.


Stan was one of my high school classmates. I didn’t know him very well at all, but I remember him from gym class – we were in the same group one time when we did archery in gym class. (Sometimes they would have us try some alternative types of sports and activities in gym class, so that it wasn’t always about who was the most naturally athletic and good at team sports.) Stan wasn’t very talkative. He didn’t seem like a particularly sociable, outgoing high-achiever, but he didn’t cause trouble or talk trash or bully anybody. He seemed like one of those regular “average” (for lack of a better word) kids who didn’t seem to have a lot of outlets for his skills at school – he didn’t particularly stand out for any reason, but he also wasn’t making life worse for anyone else. (In high school, “not making life worse for anyone else” can sometimes be high praise.) Stan was really good at archery – he hit close to the bullseye almost every time. He must have had some experience as a bowhunter.

So I don’t remember much about Stan, other than the archery. He killed himself during our junior year in high school, if I remember correctly. He was found by his younger sister. He left a note.


Todd was the oldest son of some family friends of ours, and we used to play together when we were children. Todd’s family moved away a few years ago, but I remember that there were several occasions when I was growing up when our families would get together, and the kids would all play together in the basement of Todd’s parents’ house. I don’t have many clear memories of Todd, but after he died I remembered thinking how strange it was that someone who was once a little kid around the same age as me, playing in his parents’ basement, was no longer in the world.

I hadn’t been in contact with Todd or his family for a few years, but I heard about them from time to time through my mom. She said that Todd had struggled with depression and had dropped out of college and moved back home with his parents. He used to play soccer in a weeknight rec league with his younger brother and their dad. The night Todd died by suicide, his family found a note that he’d left on his computer saying that he felt like he was never going to find a place in the world where he fit in, but he loved his family and that his brother was his best friend.

Todd was 21 years old when he died, I think. He was just a few years younger than me – I have a brother who was the same age.

Dr. Galway

The next person I knew who committed suicide was a former chief of staff for the Governor who I used to work for. (This person was a public figure, and his life and death were very public, but I’ve still changed his name here.) Shortly after he left the Governor’s office, Dr. Galway came forward and admitted to having struggled with painkiller/prescription drug addiction for years. He announced that he had relapsed and that as a result of his addiction, he expected to lose his medical license. A few months after this news came out, Dr. Galway was found dead at his home – he died by suicide. He left behind a wife and several children. Dr. Galway had worked in public health policy in the Clinton White House, and President Clinton delivered the eulogy at his funeral, saying, “Sometimes when people spend so much time helping others, they don’t hold enough back for themselves.”

Dr. Galway was a uniquely energetic, creative thinker. I always enjoyed working with him and he was one of the people at the office who I always tried to impress. The year before Dr. Galway died, I happened to run into him at a football game, and he gave me his business card. I kept it in my wallet for a long time. I remember when I left the Governor’s office, Dr. Galway wrote me a really nice, heartfelt e-mail that was full of encouraging words and compliments. I really wish I would have kept a copy of that e-mail.


Martha was one of my first clients in the advertising business, and I learned a lot from her. Everyone on our team loved working for her – she was funny and determined and cantankerous, and was a big fan of our work. More than most clients, we genuinely enjoyed finding new ideas to bring to her and we loved to win her approval. She had several children and a granddaughter; she was planning to spend her retirement volunteering at her granddaughter’s elementary school and going on volunteer mission trips to Mexico.

Less than a year after Martha retired, she committed suicide. She had come home one day and discovered that her husband of 40 years wanted to get a divorce. She had also recently had to deal with the long illnesses and deaths of two of her siblings. Who knows what goes on in a person’s mind when they decide to go through with suicide, but it’s clear that she was going through a lot of grief and stress. I was really shocked to hear that Martha had died by suicide. She always seemed like a plucky, optimistic, can-do person.


Justin was one of my roller hockey teammates. He was young – maybe 20? 21? And he was a veteran of the Iraq war (he was in the National Guard and had spent a year in Iraq). He went to war and saw a bunch of horrible things. After a few months at home, his girlfriend broke up with him, and he killed himself later that night.

Other people who knew Justin better than I did said that Justin had been struggling with some traumatic memories from the war, but they thought he’d been doing better lately. Everyone at the roller hockey rink was in shock. A lot of them had grown up with Justin, skating together and hanging out on weekends for years.

Justin was a really good hockey player – scrappy and quick and fearless. He played tenacious defense and was really good at interfering with the other team’s attack, taking the puck away from the other team and then quickly pushing it up the floor. He never seemed sad or morose to me. I never saw any signs of depression in him. I didn’t even know that he had been to war. He just seemed like a solid, fun-loving, happy-go-lucky kid who had many good years of life ahead of him.


Three years ago, shortly before the birth of our youngest son, my friend Jubal died by suicide.

Jubal is the person on this list who was closest to me, and his death was also the most recent. His funeral was held just a few days before my younger son was born. There were 500 people in the church for Jubal’s funeral, all of them crying hard. Many of my friends were there, but I didn’t even talk to anyone at the service, I just sat in the back with my wife and cried by myself.

Jubal was known and loved by so many people in our city. He had grown up here, he loved going to bars and hanging out in coffee shops, he loved his job teaching Spanish at various elementary schools (Jubal didn’t have a college degree, but somehow had carved out a niche as an independent contractor Spanish teacher – he was just that kind of person; he knew how to improvise and work outside of the established system.) Jubal was charismatic and outgoing and was respected and influential in his many social circles. He was a leader and a good listener and a party-starter. Many people would have described him as their best friend.

Entire classes of school kids came to the funeral. Jubal left behind a wife and a baby son. He left behind a big, loving, creative family of brothers, sisters and step-brothers and step-sisters.

Jubal was one of the first people I met when I moved to Des Moines in 2003. I had been living with my parents for 7 months, I had a demanding job, all of my old friends from high school and college had moved away, and I wasn’t really sure where my social life was going to come from. I sometimes wondered if moving back to Iowa had been a mistake, or if I should have moved to a bigger city instead. But I remember being impressed with Jubal and his circle of friends – they were talented, smart, fun-loving people, and I remember thinking, “If people like Jubal enjoy living in Des Moines, then maybe this will be a good place for me to live too.”

In the year or two before he died, I had kind of lost touch with Jubal – not for any particular reason, but we just weren’t seeing each other as often as we used to. I remember being excited to hear that he and his wife were having a baby. I thought that now that we were both fathers, it would be a good way for us to reconnect and have something new in common.

We were all really shocked by his suicide. No one saw it coming. Any one of those 500 people at the church would have happily done anything to help Jubal, if we would have known that he was so desperately sad.

Suicide is not Inevitable

If anyone ever happens to read this who is thinking about suicide, please don’t do it. Get help. Talk to someone now. There is always hope, and there are always other answers – no matter how bad your situation might seem, there is always a way to get back into a positive place.

Suicide is not inevitable. Suicide often results from opportunity – a loaded gun close at hand, a bridge to jump off of, some easy implement of self-destruction. (Many of the people I knew who died by suicide used a gun.)

Most people who feel suicidal can be helped and can recover and live a normal, healthy life. Just because someone wants to kill themselves in a single desperate moment doesn’t mean that they are ALWAYS going to feel that way. There was a study called “Where Are They Now?” published in 1978, which followed up on a number of people who had tried to commit suicide, and most of them went on to live many more years without ever trying again to take their lives (my emphasis added in bold):

“Where Are They Now?,” published in 1978, followed up on five hundred and fifteen people who were prevented from attempting suicide at the bridge between 1937 and 1971. After, on average, more than twenty-six years, ninety-four per cent of the would-be suicides were either still alive or had died of natural causes. “The findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature,” Seiden concluded; if you can get a suicidal person through his crisis—Seiden put the high-risk period at ninety days—chances are extremely good that he won’t kill himself later.

I read an article a few years ago about the Golden Gate Bridge, which is a popular spot for suicides, in part because the bridge doesn’t have a suicide prevention barrier, which makes it quite easy for people to climb out onto the ledge and jump off. 26 people have survived jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge. There was an amazing quote from a formerly suicidal man who survived his fall from the bridge. He said, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”

Suicidal People Can Be Helped

One of my favorite comedians is a guy named Rob Delaney, who has struggled with alcoholism and suicidal depression. At one point a few years ago, he was having constant thoughts of suicide. His brain was constantly telling him, “Kill yourself.”

Rob writes in this very poignant and personal blog post:

I tried very hard to step out of myself and look at the situation with a modicum of objectivity and “imagine” that I was someone who deserved help. Quite literally I thought, “I don’t think anyone else would shoot me with a shotgun, so maybe, temporarily, I’ll postpone that and try this Lexapro that everyone who knows me is recommending…”

While great strides have been made in mental health over the years, certain stigmas still exist. I strongly resisted medication at first. But after having been through depression and having had the wonderful good fortune to help a couple of people who’ve been through it, I will say that as hard as it is, IT CAN BE SURVIVED. And after the stabilization process, which can be and often is fucking terrifying, a HAPPY PRODUCTIVE LIFE is possible and statistically likely. Get help. Don’t think. Get help.


Life is really hard and depressing sometimes. Americans live in a country where people are expected to always be optimistic and “have a nice day” and put a happy face on things all the time – and in a way, this makes it worse. Because depressed people are left to feel even more isolated, like “What’s wrong with me? I live in the greatest, happiest country in the world! Why should I be depressed?”

We’re surrounded by impersonal communication and sales pitches, we’re bombarded by disturbing stories in the news, we’re constantly short on time and money, we’re starved for authentic human connections and affection. No wonder so many people despair.

I don’t know how to get people to stop dying by suicide. But I think the solution starts by being able to talk more openly about the problem.

There’s no shame in feeling depressed. Even the greatest failures can be overcome. No matter how disappointed you feel with yourself, or how badly you’ve disappointed the ones you love, they would always rather have you stay alive.

If you feel depressed, or if you know someone who does, please know that you are not alone. None of us are ever truly alone. Reach out. Share your story. Now.

Year in Review: Ben Gran’s best moments of 2012

the "Sister Wives" photo shoot

In no particular order…

1. Doing a sold-out stand-up comedy show at the Des Moines Social Club in March with Zach Peterson!

2. Visiting New York City in April.

3. Hosting a foreign exchange student from Brazil (Jan. – June).

4. Hosting my friend Satoru from Japan in July.

5. Hosting Japanese exchange students for a week in October.

6. Doing a really fun stand-up comedy show in December with Janelle James and Randy Burk!

7. Meeting some of my favorite freelance writing clients in person!

8. Doing the “Sister Wives photo shoot” (photo above) for my comedy website. Every man, at least once in his life, should get to experience a Sister Wives photo shoot.

9. Celebrating our 6th wedding anniversary.

10. Having semi-regular lunches with my friend Gordon.

11. Going out for beers with my friends Mike, Scott and Zach.

12. Driving up to Ames and going out to lunch with my brother Luke.

Our family with Sakura and Mafuyu - at Zombie Burger

13. Picking up my son from pre-school and then going out for donuts.

14. Taking my kids to visit their grandma and grandpa – or as the 2-year-old says, “Ham-ma and Ham-pa.” (Which is appropriate, because his grandparents LOVE ham.)

15. My kids getting old enough so we can send them to grandma and grandpa’s house by themselves for a Saturday afternoon visit.

16. Getting to go to a year-end “bonenkai” (“forget the year party”) with my wife’s Taiko drumming group at Miyabi 9, the best sushi restaurant in Des Moines.

17. All the times we ordered takeout from Thai Flavors.

18. All the visits to Zombie Burger and Hardee’s and Culver’s. (I have a weakness for cheeseburgers.)

19. Bike rides on Des Moines’ wonderful bike trails.

20. Taking my kids to the zoo, the playground and the swimming pool.

21. Picnics and trail hikes at Gray’s Lake.

22. Late-night nachos from Abelardo’s (24-hour Mexican drive-through).

23. Meeting many amazing new friends, too numerous to list them all here.

24. Family weekend vacations to Omaha and Sioux City. I love getting out of town with my family for a few days and staying in hotels and going to restaurants, and getting away from the clutter of everyday life.

25. Finally getting around to watching Game of Thrones. It’s the best pop culture I’ve seen in 15 years. If you’re not watching Game of Thrones, you are wasting your life. 

26. Celebrating my children’s 4th and 2nd birthdays.

27. Walking in the woods.

28. Being fortunate enough to be able to get paid to express myself creatively.

29. Getting to be a guest blogger for Des Moines is Not Boring.

30. Celebrating another year of not owning a dog.

31. Summer barbecue dinners on my parents’ deck.

32. Knowing that there is still so much to look forward to.

How to ace your Rice University admissions interview

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this blog article are not endorsed by Rice University and this article should not be construed as official advice from the Rice University admissions office. I am an alumnus of Rice University and a long-time admissions volunteer, but I am not a Rice University admissions officer. All opinions expressed here are my own.

I’ve been doing Rice University interviews as an alumni admissions volunteer for 9 years now. Some years I only do 1 or 2 interviews, some years none. (Not very many kids from Iowa apply to Rice, although I wish there were more – Rice is a really good school, and they could use more Midwesterners in their student body, in my humble opinion.)

Here are a few observations I’ve made over the years, that might be helpful for students who are trying to prepare for their Rice University interview, or any other college admissions interview:

Don’t hold back.

You only have one hour during your Rice University interview to show us what makes you special, to show us your personality, to demonstrate your passion for learning and your excitement to go to college. In a way this is not fair, because not everyone is at their best during a single 1-hour conversation. Not everyone is an extrovert and not everyone is full of easy verbal dexterity and charm.

But for that 1 hour (or less) that you are talking with your Rice University interview volunteer, try to be as outgoing as possible. Give full, detailed, colorful answers. Ask inquisitive questions. Show some enthusiasm. There are thousands of kids applying to Rice for less than 1,000 spots in the freshman class. Many kids who apply to Rice have perfect SAT scores and perfect grades – one way to stand out from the crowd is to show your admissions interview volunteer what really makes you excited about learning, what you’re hoping to get from the experience. Share your aspirations and ambitions. Don’t be afraid to show the creative, quirky side of your personality. Don’t be afraid to banter a bit with the interviewer – don’t be afraid to have an opinion. Be real. Be yourself.

Lovett Hall - Rice University, Houston, TX

Ask good questions.

Your Rice interview is not just a chance to tell us about yourself, it’s also a way for you to “interview” Rice and find out more about whether the college is the right fit for you. Show why you’re interested in Rice by asking good, detailed questions about the university, about the student experience, and about the programs you’re interested in, whether it’s the Architecture school or the Music program or the intramural flag football teams. Ask questions that only a Rice alum could answer – go deep. Such as:

  • “What’s it really like as a student at Rice?”
  • “What was most surprising about the reality of life at Rice compared to what you expected – was it better or worse, and in which ways?”
  • “Was going to Rice ‘worth it?'”
  • “Would you recommend Rice to your kids and younger family members? Why or why not?”
  • “What’s the one thing about Rice that you wish you would have known before you decided to go there?”
  • “What’s one thing you wish you would have done differently while you were at Rice?”

Tell us: Why you?

Again, there are many thousands of very bright students competing with you for a very limited number of spaces in the Rice University freshman class. Your Rice University interview can help you stand out from all the other very compelling candidates, especially if you make a memorable impression. Here are some examples of things I would love to hear from a student during a Rice University interview:

  • “I want to go to Rice because I love studying Spanish and I want to volunteer with the Latino community in Houston and get to learn more about all the cultures of the city.”
  • “During my summer internship at the hospital, I realized that I really want to be a doctor and so I’m excited to work at the Texas Medical Center while I’m a student at Rice.”
  • “I want to be around really smart, talented kids who have big ambitions in life. I want to really test myself and push myself to the limit and find out what I’m capable of academically.”

Be socially graceful.

One of the reasons we do Rice University interviews as part of the admission process is to answer the question, “would this student fit in at Rice?” Rice University has a lot of social events, not just with students but also with faculty and staff. You might often find yourself having lunch with your professors, or being invited to dinner at the home of your residential college Masters (faculty who live on-site with the students and serve as unofficial “parents” for each residential college).

Being a student at Rice brings an expectation that you’ll know how to act in social situations with lots of different people of different ages, not just other college students. Try to demonstrate your social skills and good manners. A good handshake and eye contact go a long way. Be confident. Act like you’re meeting with one of your parents’ friends – somewhat of a formal, professional conversation, but still at ease.

My most common “complaint” (and it’s not quite a complaint, but just a missed opportunity) is that I often find myself thinking, when I write up my Rice University interview reports and recommendations, “I wish that student would have told me more about themselves.” Don’t be afraid to open up a bit and tell us what you think and how you feel. This is your one best chance to really put a human face on your application.

Above all, don’t worry. Just the fact that you’re applying to a highly selective college like Rice University is a good sign that you have the motivation, focus and confidence to succeed in college and in life. No matter where you go to college, you’re going to get as much out of it as you put into it.

As an interviewer, each year I’m really impressed by the intelligence and poise of the high school seniors who are applying to Rice. I often joke, “I don’t think I could get admitted to Rice if I had to try again today.” I’m grateful to have gotten such a good education, not just at Rice, but also in my 2 years at Iowa State University, and in my 12 years of public schools. There are so many kids all over the world who never get a chance to learn to read and write, who toil at menial, dangerous jobs that will never lift them out of poverty. Even in our own wealthy country there are many people who never get a chance to reach their potential, whether it’s due to bad choices, bad influences, a bad environment or bad luck.

Just the fact that you are getting to interview for a chance to attend Rice University is a magnificent privilege. Make the most of it.

Why we love hosting exchange students from Japan

Our family with Sakura and Mafuyu - at Zombie Burger

This past week we hosted two high school students from Japan who are here in Des Moines on a sister state program from Yamanashi prefecture – their entire homeroom class of 40 students has come to Iowa for a week to take intensive English classes and stay with host families.

We had the pleasure of hosting two wonderful girls named Sakura and Mafuyu. We hosted students last year through this same program and it was such a great experience that we decided to do it again.

Hosting international visitors is one of my favorite things to do. I love sharing our home and our city with people from another country. Each year we host my friend Satoru from Japan for a week’s vacation (he’s been coming to Iowa every year since 2003, using his precious, rare days of vacation to fly 14 hours each way and stay with us – we are honored to have him each year).

Earlier in 2012 we hosted Daniel, a high school exchange student from Brazil, which was also a great experience. And now this year we’ve welcomed two new high school students from Yamanashi-ken.

Japan has a special place in my heart. I lived there for a year in 2001-2002, where I had my first job out of college teaching English in the Japanese public schools on the JET Program. It was one of the most influential years of my life and I’m glad to be able to keep up a connection with Japan as the years have gone by.

Satoru arrives in Des Moines for his 9th visit to Iowa

As time passes and I reflect back on my experiences in Japan, and on our experiences hosting these Japanese students, there are many things that continue to impress me more and more:

1. This Japanese high school sends an entire class to America for a week. The kids from Yamanashi are so mature and responsible and well-behaved! If you had sent a typical class from my (American) high school on a weeklong trip abroad, there would have been an international scandal. There would have been shoplifting and vandalism and teenage pregnancies. (OK, I’m exaggerating, but not by much – on my high school band trip to Orlando, several kids got caught shoplifting from Universal Studios.) It would have been a disaster – because  a lot of American kids just can’t handle the responsibility that goes with traveling overseas and representing their school and their country. And of course, I’ve taught in the Japanese public schools and I know that not all Japanese kids are polite and well-behaved; some of them are obnoxious and rude and immature. But both years participating in this program, I’ve been truly impressed by the way these kids from Yamanashi behave in a foreign country. They are a real credit to their school, their parents and their community.

2. The kids from Japan are interested in learning about other countries. They’re grateful to be here and appreciative of the opportunity. We asked the girls what they were most surprised to learn during their time in America, and they said that it was surprising to them that so many strangers said “hello” and were friendly to them. “In Japan, strangers don’t usually greet each other,” they said. “But in America, so many people said ‘Hi’ to us.” I told the girls that Iowa is unusually friendly by American standards, not that other parts of the country are rude, but if you go to a big city in the U.S. most people are too busy getting through their daily schedules, and they don’t always have time to talk and make conversation with people they don’t already know. It’s fun to hear even these basic observations from people seeing your home through new eyes.

3. The kids from Japan are very helpful and easy to have around. Both years we’ve done this program, the girls have been awesome guests – helping play with our kids, cooking dinner one night each week (last night they made Japanese beef curry and soba – two of my favorite dishes from Japan), and generally making daily life a lot nicer. It’s so much easier to deal with the daily needs of two kids under the age of 4 when you have some “big sisters” there to help keep the young ones entertained.

4. I believe that it’s important to help young people experience life in another country and culture. Living in Japan and traveling abroad have been some of my favorite and most influential learning experiences. You learn so much just by being in another country, surrounded by unfamiliar sights, learning a new language, learning how to navigate your daily life. You notice so many things and appreciate so many things about your home country and culture. It makes you a more tolerant, open-minded, well-rounded human being. I wish every young person could spend a year living and working in another country. I feel a sense of gratitude toward Japan for being a welcoming place for a young guy from America, back when I was just beginning to learn how to live on my own as an independent adult after college. I used to go to the grocery store after school each day and pack my groceries in a basket on my bike and ride up the hill to my apartment. Every weekend breakfast of successfully-prepared homemade scrambled eggs felt like a small triumph. I learned to walk into any ramen noodle shop in the city and order confidently in Japanese. I met new friends and stayed out drinking Asahi beer into the wee hours. My apartment had a tatami mat floor where I slept on a traditional style Japanese futon, and I slept very well, except for nights when there was an earthquake. (The walls would shake, slightly but noticeably, and I would hear the dishes rattling in the cupboards.) A friendly neighborhood housewife would see me walking to school in the morning and happily gave me a ride to school so I wouldn’t be late. (How many Americans would do this for a random foreign person walking down the street?) I got to know a whole circle of awesome Japanese friends through my friend Satoru and I got to see many amazing places in Tokyo that I never could have found on my own. I ate the best sushi I’ve ever had, right outside Tsukiji, the world-famous, world’s largest fish market in Tokyo. (In a year of living in Japan, I never once had a bad meal. You could spend your whole lifetime trying every restaurant in Tokyo and never be disappointed.) I got to climb the steps of ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. I got to see the old gravestones standing watch in the forest on the way to my school, containing the cremated remains of generations of ancestors. Living in another country gives you a new appreciation for the seasons, for colors, for food, for sensations, for time itself. I want to help other young people experience this same feeling, in whatever small way I can.

So I think we’re definitely going to keep signing up to host students like Sakura and Mafuyu. I feel a special connection with Japan and I want to help young Japanese people have a good experience in America, just like I had as a young person living in their country.

If anyone in the Des Moines area would like to participate as a host family for the Iowa-Yamanashi sister state program, please send me an e-mail at and I can provide more details and put you in touch with the program organizers.

The glutton’s guide to the Iowa State Fair

Cross-section of a Corn Dog

The Iowa State Fair is one of my favorite summer traditions. Every year my wife and I pack up the kids, crowd into a State Fair shuttle bus, and wander the fairgrounds stuffing our faces with grease, pork, cheese, ice cream, milkshakes, cookies, beef, breading and butterfat. It is a beautiful sight to see hordes of halter-top wearing women and mullet-sporting men crowding around the communal feeding troughs of the State Fair.

As a veteran fairgoer and dedicated year-round glutton, I’d like to share a few of my favorite State Fair eats:

Corn Dog:

You can’t go wrong with a State Fair corn dog. I usually buy one as soon as I set foot inside the Fairgrounds, just to start the visit off on the right track. Corn dogs, in case you’ve never had one, are hot dogs dipped in batter and fried on a stick. The batter is sweet and greasy, crunchy on the outside and mealy on the inside, like eating a hot dog wrapped in a pancake made of French fries. The best way to eat a corn dog is to slather the length of the dog with ketchup and mustard. If you manage to go home from the Iowa State Fair without ketchup and mustard stains all over your face, throat and chest, you’re doing it wrong.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Sometimes I like to eat one corn dog at the start of the day as an appetizer, before I eat my actual “meal,” and then I eat one more corn dog before we go home – kind of like dessert.

Cup of Cookies:

Cup of Cookies! (image credit:

At the Varied Industries Building, there’s a restaurant that sells wonderful, freshly baked Toll House chocolate chip cookies. They bake them by the dozens and hundreds on vast silver sheets the size of aircraft carriers, each little cookie proudly arrayed in disciplined rows, ready to take flight into your mouth. Gazing upon these pristine rows of cookies is like gazing through the window of a hospital nursery full of newborn babies, except you want to eat the babies and smear their chocolatey innards all over your face, chest and throat. The Cup of Cookies includes approximately 20 cookies, all stacked at impossible angles. You WILL get chocolate all over yourself. You WILL get buttery greasy goodness all over your hands, face and pants. It’s OK. Just go with it. Revel in the buttery love. Your heart rate will elevate from the salty, fatty goodness of these warm, sweet, crisp-yet-soft cookies in a cup. Cookies in a cup! Who would’ve thunk it?

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: If a Cup of Cookies isn’t enough, you can also buy a Bucket of Cookies for like $10. But that just seems excessive, even for me.

Bauder Pharmacy Peach Milkshake:

If you only eat one milkshake per year (and my wife does, because she has a dairy allergy), make sure it’s the Peach Milkshake from Bauder Pharmacy (an old-time Des Moines pharmacy soda fountain-type place) at the Iowa State Fair. The Bauder Pharmacy peach milkshake is so delicious, it will make you overlook all of the less-than-admirable qualities of the state of Georgia (“the Peach State,” I think – whatever). It’s the taste of summer, poured into a tall plastic cup and served with a straw, although a more useful serving implement would be a trowel, because I want to spoon large spadefuls of this milkshake straight into my hungry gullet.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Bauder Pharmacy’s mobile ice cream serving station also dispenses tasty ice cream sandwiches, one of which involves Mocha flavored ice cream. One year, I ate a Peach Milkshake and then went back for a Mocha ice cream sandwich, and spent the rest of the weekend in a sudden-onset diabetic coma. (It was worth it.)

Pork Tenderloin:

This is the sandwich served only in Iowa – a slab of pork tenderloin, pounded flat, batter-dipped and then fried, served on a bun with pickles, onions, ketchup and mustard. The breading is light, crispy and ever-so-slightly greasy. The pork is thin, juicy and flavorful. This is the sandwich that tempts Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims to abandon the faith of their forebears – and why not? It’s goddamn delicious.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Make sure to get a plentiful side order of fries or Onion Rings to go with your tenderloin. If not, you are a weakling and a coward and a failure.

Fried Things:

The Iowa State Fair is home to an exotic cavalcade of Fried Things on Sticks, like a Fried Twinkie, Fried Pickle, Fried Oreo, and Fried Butter. (I made that last one up – I think. Who knows, it might actually exist.) I have never actually tried any of these Fried Things. Although I have eaten Fried Pickles before at my favorite brewpubs, so that one is probably OK.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Funnel cakes really aren’t very good. Seriously. You’re better off saving your money to buy a box of donuts at a convenience store.

Turkey Leg:

There are lots of places at the Fair where you can buy freshly grilled Turkey Legs, roasted over an open flame. These are massive, meaty Turkey legs with loads of flesh hanging off of them – you can tear pieces off with your teeth and pretend you’re a caveman. It’s a primal experience to rip into piece of animal that still looks like the animal it came from – none of this civilized “ground turkey” or “turkey patties” – this is a real, honest to God LEG of an animal that used to be alive, and now you’re stuffing it into your hungry carnivorous maw. Just like Nature intended.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: There’s not a lot of seafood at the Iowa State Fair (this is a landlocked state with massive amounts of beef, pork and poultry production), so eating a Tenderloin and a Turkey Leg is the closest State Fair equivalent of “surf and turf.”

A&E Dairy Barn Milkshake:

I know, I know – I already sang the praises of the Bauder Pharmacy Peach Milkshake, and you really should try it – but in case one milkshake isn’t enough for your hunger, check out the A&E Dairy Barn, where you can see actual cows being milked to create the fixins for your chocolate, strawberry or vanilla milkshake. (Quick aside: How badass is it that humans have basically enslaved other animals and forced us to give them their milk? It’s like, “Yeah, cows – maybe you’d like to feed your young with that milk, but I have a hankering for a milkshake and a cheeseburger, so GIVE IT UP.”)

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Is there anything better than a milkshake? If I ever got diagnosed with a dairy allergy/lactose intolerance/diabetes, I think I’d just keep enjoying milkshakes, and to hell with the consequences.


Avoid overpriced beer and soda and head for your nearest Lemonade stand. The Iowa State Fair is home to dozens of friendly, family-run lemonade stands that shake up a fresh glass of lemonade, with actual lemons and lemon pulp floating in it. Raise a glass of citrusy refreshment!

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: The Lemonade stands are usually conveniently located to ice cream/milkshake dispensaries, so you can get all your liquids in one place.

Beef and Pork places:

There are various cafeterias and Iowa Pork/Beef Association barns that serve pork ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, loose meat sandwiches, and other Fairground favorites, but I don’t usually eat there because I’m too busy stuffing my face with things on sticks that have been batter-dipped and fried in vats of grease.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: Did you know that Iowa is home to a Pork Queen? Is this the greatest state in America, or what?


There’s this one place, right next to the Giant Slide, that sells Watermelon in a cup for $2. It’s amazing. I don’t know why, but somehow watermelon tastes even more delicious after you’ve just consumed 4,000 calories worth of grease, pork fat, butter and salt. The guys who work at the watermelon stand are out there chopping up watermelons all day long – two and three melons at a time – and it’s mesmerizing to stand there and watch them effortlessly strip away the melon rinds with a few deft strokes of their carving knives. It’s like watching samurai swordsmen, or master shipbuilders carving a massive tree trunk into a main mast. With just a few simple strokes of the knife blade, they transform a massive melon into a tasty, fleshy pile of diced pink fruit, ready to apportion into plastic cups (or buckets – I think they serve the watermelon in “Bucket” sizes as well). So anyway, get some watermelon, because its high water content will help to counteract the effects of the 5,000 milligrams of sodium you just consumed today.

BONUS GLUTTON TIP: The watermelon stand also serves hot dogs.

How to do small business marketing

Several friends have been asking for advice on how to do small business marketing. I have a friend who runs her own home-based pottery business and I have another friend who runs her own construction business, and another friend who runs his own home-based glass-blowing art business.

So, based on what I know from almost 2 full years of successful small business marketing, here’s what I think these friends should do. You can take this advice, or leave it. It’s free.

  1. Set up your own Website: Every small business needs its own website with its own hosted URL. (Not “” but your own URL – “”) The reason: if you own the URL and host it yourself, you totally own the site and aren’t bound by any “commercial” restrictions that some of the publicly hosted services like WordPress have. I know a guy who had his site shut down b/c they said he was “violating their Terms of Service” by trying to sell books through the site – even though that’s ridiculous, because everyone in the world uses websites to sell things. So the point is: get your own URL and host it yourself. Costs like $10 a year for the URL and $60 per year for hosting on Super cheap!
  2. Set up a blog on your website. I recommend using WordPress because it’s easy to use (relatively) and there are lots of cheap (or free) “themes” that you can use to build your site. You don’t need a super complicated site, just a Home Page (“landing page” with your business name, your name, location, short bio introduction, etc.) a Blog (where you can share news updates, articles and especially PHOTOS of your great work) and maybe a few other pages like Photos (to store photos in a permanent central location) and Videos (“behind the scenes tours” to show people how you work, the types of projects you’ve done, etc.?) Find some other people in your field whose websites you like, and copy theirs. You can probably even find the same basic (free) WordPress Theme and use it for your site. If you need help with WordPress, I can recommend a WordPress developer in India named Tamil who set up my business website for an affordable price, and he was very reliable and easy to work with. You can hire him here on Elance:
  3. Set up a Facebook Page for the business. This is different than your personal Facebook “Profile.” Your business page is a public Page that anyone can see and access, it’s a way to collect a list of fans on Facebook. I’m rather new to this myself, but you can also advertise on Facebook to build up your fan list. I’m doing pay-per-click Facebook ads and it’s helped me find like 3 new fans so far – maybe not worth it (paid over $10 for those 3 fans) but I’m still learning and you can quit the advertising at any time.
  4. Do Twitter. It’s pretty easy. Or if you want to focus on just Facebook for now, that’s fine.
  5. HootSuite. Whether you use “just” Facebook or both Facebook and Twitter, use HootSuite! It’s awesome. You can schedule your Facebook posts in advance. You can post the same blog article a few different times to catch people at different times of day. You can load a bunch of photos on your website and then send links to the photos via Facebook, and stagger them out over the course of a week or a month, etc.
  6. Build your own e-mail list. I just signed up for Emma and it is AWESOME. I’ve been blown away by the service and support. If you sign up soon (like, by end of April) they will give you a free HTML e-mail template design. They also have online classes so you can learn how to build up your own e-mail list. E-mail marketing still works – as long as you get people’s permission first, don’t spam them, etc. and the big advantage of e-mail over Facebook is YOU OWN THE E-MAIL LIST. Even if Facebook screws you over and changes their Terms of Service and shuts down your business Page for no reason (which has happened before to others – leaving the business suddenly bereft of thousands of valuable contact names), if you have your own e-mail list, you have a “permission asset” (as Seth Godin calls it) of dozens/hundreds/thousands of people who love your work and want to hear from you. Emma only costs $30 per month for up to 1,000 e-mails per month. I recommend looking into it. It will make your business look much more legit and “bigger than you actually are” – in a good way.
  7. Get Business cards: If you don’t have them already, get some done. You can get like 500 business cards for $75 (including Rush shipping) on They’re an old-fashioned way to market but they work – there’s no better way to quickly introduce yourself to people and give them something to carry home with them that reminds them to look you up later when they’re ready to buy. Put a special offer or special discount or something on the back of the business card – don’t leave it blank. Like, “Call for a free consultation or 10% discount” or whatever you want to offer. Lots of small businesses have less-than-impressive business cards, and there’s no reason for that in 2012 – you can have good looking premium business cards for very little extra expense and effort. (This one should be much higher on the priority list – like maybe even #2. Once you have a website, you need business cards.)
  8. Incorporate as an LLC or other business structure: This is a case of “do as I say, not as I do” because I haven’t incorporated yet, myself, but as a sole proprietor/independent contractor you are often better off incorporating your business as a corporate entity. There are liability protections (unlikely but always possible – if you get sued, someone can go after your personal assets – house, savings, etc. – whereas if your business is incorporated, creditors can only get the assets of the business). Sometimes there are tax benefits too, but the biggest benefit is peace of mind. Plus it makes you look more “official,” plus it gives you an “LLC” or “Inc.” to put after your business name when signing contracts, makes it easier to get a business bank account, etc. If you’re interested, one of my favorite clients is an online incorporation service called CorpNet. Nellie Akalp is the CEO and I’m sure she’d love to hear from a friend of Ben Gran. (I don’t get a commission or anything – but CorpNet are great people, they really know their stuff and they’ll give you a free consultation if you call.)
  9. Write a marketing plan: This doesn’t have to be too complicated. Ut doesn’t have to be written by an MBA or a dissertation, etc. But just take an hour sometime and give some thought to these questions:
    • Who are my biggest customers?
    • Who do I want to sell more to?
    • What is the ideal way for me to sell?
    • Who are my target markets (types of customers, types of projects)?
    • Why do people buy from me instead of a competitor?
    • Who are 5 people in my local area that I should introduce myself to and tell them about my work?
    • Who are in my “inner circle” of people that love my work and would be willing to spread the word to others?

Why being a freelance writer is NOT preparing me for the zombie apocalypse

"The Road"

Scene from "The Road" (2009) starring Viggo Mortensen

As a freelance writer, I often feel like my skills are kind of, well, silly.

I get paid to write stuff. I think of things, I write them down and post them on the Internet, and people send me money for this.

Isn’t this kind of a ridiculous way to earn a living? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and I’m grateful to be able to make a living at it, but I often feel inferior compared to people who really know how to “do” stuff, fix stuff, build stuff, grow stuff.

For example, my brother and his wife run Table Top Farm, an organic vegetable farm in rural Nevada, Iowa. Now that is REAL work. Farming is INTENSE. Farming is HARD. They make things GROW out of the GROUND. They raise food to feed hungry people. I can barely buy groceries.

Our friend Jessica Fisher runs a “handy woman” business where she helps people fix things around the house. She helped us install a new door and we’re going to hire her again to replace our bathroom fan and perhaps our kitchen faucet. I couldn’t handle doing any of these things.

Whenever I have to try to fix something around the house, it’s always a disaster. I always have to make 3 or 4 trips to the hardware store, I drop heavy things on my feet and/or hit my thumb with a hammer and/or break something. The work always takes 5 hours longer than I had estimated and I don’t enjoy a minute of it. I’m helpless. Instead of trying to fix things in my house, I might as well just curl up in a ball and cry.

So someday when civilization inevitably collapses into a hellish, dystopian part-Mad Max/part-Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” future, I will be at the mercy of others.

I hope the people who have actual useful skills to survive in our post-Apocalyptic hellscape will give me food in exchange for telling humorous stories around the campfire.

How being a dog owner taught me to hate dogs

Several years ago, before we had kids, my wife and I made a terrible mistake and decided to adopt a dog.

It was a Labrador retriever, big and yellow, over 100 pounds. We adopted the dog sight-unseen from some friends of friends who were looking to find him a new home. His name was “Bo.” We drove 2 hours to Southwest Iowa to meet Bo’s soon-to-be-former owners, picked up Bo and drove him back to our house.

We don't have any pictures of Bo. This is not the actual dog.

We don't have any pictures of Bo. This is not the actual dog.

I really don’t know what we were thinking. This was back in the days before we had kids and we had no other responsibilities or worries in life. We thought we wanted a Lab. They were the most popular breed in America – known for intelligence, loyalty and athleticism. We had visions of jogging with our dog, walking with our dog, playing fetch off a dock while the dog happily plunged into the frigid lake, again and again.

Unfortunately, we quickly realized that Bo was going to present a bit of a change to our otherwise orderly, happy lifestyle, starting on the first night at our house when he compulsively chewed through all of his toys.

“That’s strange,” I said as Bo chowed down on another stuffed animal. “He sure seems to like chewing!” Little did we realize, until it was too late, that Bo was expressing stress and anxiety by gnawing everything he could get his paws around. Pillows, ropes, frisbees, and stuffed animals all got shredded into an indistinguishable mass.

Bo was a very anxious dog. He was constantly chewing and licking and smacking. I don’t blame him, really. After all, the only owners he’d ever known had just given him away to a couple of strangers. This is one of the things that annoys me about dogs – their neuroses.

Seriously, what’s the point of having a neurotic dog? I thought dogs were supposed to provide emotional comfort to their owners? I thought dogs were supposed to help you feel more peaceful and centered, since they have no awareness of mortality and all that. But most dogs I’ve known have just introduced me to new levels of anxiety.

Bo needed a lot of attention. He needed daily walks. He needed lots of things that we couldn’t give him because we were too busy and self-absorbed. We worked long hours and left him in the house alone all day. We’d let him out to go pee and poop in our tiny urban backyard, but then he’d chase squirrels across the street and get lost and run onto the neighbors’ front porches. We were constantly chasing him around the neighborhood and cursing the fact that our small lot didn’t have a fully-fenced backyard.

We would have given him more attention, but our personalities just weren’t the right fit. He was a friendly dog, but he was overbearing and off-putting, like a guy at a party that you can’t wait to stop talking with. Even though his constantly wagging tail was as powerful and painful as a baseball bat, he was kind of a wuss, really. Whenever we gave a command to “come inside” or “stop destroying the neighbor kid’s toys,” he would slump his shoulders and skulk around and defy us, quietly, in a passive aggressive fashion.

I was so disappointed. I figure, as long as you’re going to have a dog that’s destructive, messy and painful, he might as well be a stronger personality, more of an Alpha Dog, you know? Take my parents’ dog, Milo, for example. He’s a total jerk, but we love him for it. He’s the dog you love to hate.

And he shed EVERYWHERE. All of our clothes, furniture and rugs were soon coated with dog hair. Dog hair blew threw our house like tumbleweeds. We were idiots. We never should have gotten a dog that shed so much. My wife quickly noticed that she was sniffling, sneezing and having sore throats all the time, and we realized that she was allergic to the dog.

Bo was too neurotic to eat dinner in the basement, so we had to move his (HUGE) food and water dish up to our tiny 1920s-era kitchen, where it took up precious floor space. He was too neurotic to eat by himself, so we had to be near him while he ate, or else he wouldn’t eat at all and would later vomit all over the floor. He vomited all over our living room rug and ruined it. We ended up donating it to the animal shelter.

As you might imagine, a 100 pound dog creates a lot of poop. Our yard was soon covered with little piles, scattered about like monuments. I scooped poop as often as the winter weather would permit, but I still couldn’t keep up with the supply. We couldn’t walk him as often as he needed because we were too lazy and couldn’t wake up early enough to walk him before we left for work. (Again – we were idiots. I don’t know what we were thinking. We never should have gotten this dog. Or any dog.)

And whenever we did take him for a walk, it was no fun because he was constantly straining on the leash, wouldn’t listen to instructions, and wouldn’t do what we needed him to do. (My mom has to have rotator cuff surgery because her dog Milo pulled her to the ground during a walk. That’s right – she has a “dog-related injury.” Why do people put themselves through all this dog crap? How desperate are we for companionship?)

It all would have been worth it if we really loved this dog and wanted him in our lives. But the truth was, we just weren’t that into Bo. Eventually we realized that the personal chemistry wasn’t there. So 4 months after we brought Bo home, we decided to take him to the pound and had him euthanized.

No, just kidding – ha ha! We were lousy dog owners, but we’re not monsters.

No seriously – I know that dogs getting put to sleep due to lack of shelter space is a big tragedy, and I don’t mean to make light of it. I was just trying to see if you were still paying attention.

We didn’t have him euthanized. Seriously, I swear. Instead, we found him a new home. With a family in the country that had a pond in the backyard. The father of the family loved to go fishing and hunting, and wanted a dog to go fishing and hunting with. They had 2 young kids who wanted a pet. The whole thing worked out perfectly in the end. Bo happily climbed into the car with his new owner and rode out of our lives, and we were all better off as a result.

My four months of abortive dog ownership taught me several valuable lessons:

  1. I’m not very patient.
  2. I’m too self-absorbed.
  3. I’m not really that interested in or fascinated by dogs. They’re not people, they’re not children, and they don’t deserve the lofty status that American culture has assigned to them. In some ways I’d feel more at home in Muslim countries where dogs are seen as filthy rat-like creatures. I know people love their dogs, and I sometimes enjoy visiting other people’s dogs, and I don’t wish any harm to come to dogs, and I hate cruelty to animals just like any other form of cruelty, but the bottom line is, I don’t love dogs and I don’t want to own a dog ever again.

Unfortunately, now we have kids, and both of our kids love dogs. So it’s probably just a matter of time before we have to get one. It won’t be another Lab, or any other dog that sheds. It would have to be something hypoallergenic, housebroken and easy to live with, that requires no outdoor exercise and minimal involvement on my part.

Ideally, my next dog will be a really smart, hairless cat.