Savage Harvest: Among the Cannibals

Carl Hoffman, author of Savage Harvest
Carl Hoffman, author of Savage Harvest

Humans were made to eat like Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, not farmers.
– Chris Kresser, Your Personal Paleo Code

Americans are in love with the Stone Age. They long for the nirvana of the Paleo era, when we ate nothing but free-range mammoths and were strong, healthy and free of neuroses. Chris Kresser claims that our health has declined since the Stone Age while doomster Jared Diamond has called agriculture “the worst mistake in human history.”

It’s the ultimate form of liberal guilt. Our civilization has ruined the land with freeways, processed food and vaccinations. And there’s far too many of us. Man is a plague on the earth, according to Sir David Attenborough.

If only we could go back to when we lived as hunter-gatherers and ate nothing but locally-sourced organic food.

You can. And it all takes is a trip to New Guinea.

Savage HarvestIn researching his book Savage Harvest, author Carl Hoffman spent months with the indigenous Asmat people of New Guinea in his quest to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller. When he vanished in 1961, Rockefeller was one of the wealthiest men in the world and was collecting primitive art for his new museum.

Hoffman told the fascinating story behind this mystery at Salon Contra, an arts salon sponsored by Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project. He spoke before an intimate audience of the culturally curious who sipped white wine and politely asked questions.

To understand what happened to Rockefeller, Hoffman realized he had to understand the Asmat people and their culture which, until recently, included head-hunting and cannibalism. Living in huts in a swamp, the Asmat subsist on the sago palm and small crabs. Hoffman said he didn’t see a green vegetable for months. (There’s some speculation that cannibalism is a necessity for hunter-gatherers who don’t get enough protein and fat.)

In the patriarchal Asmat culture, the women do all the work, traveling every morning to the sea to cast nets for crabs. Most children are unschooled. The men spend the day smoking, drumming and engaging in sex with each other.  While nominally Catholic, they believe that spirits cause people to die and that the world must be balanced between the living and the dead. This need for vengeance to balance out the world has had tragic consequences – the Asmat live in two feuding villages separated by a no-man’s land.

But they are also known for their beautiful woodcarvings, which is what drew Rockefeller to the region in 1961. In Savage Harvest, author Hoffman retraces the steps of Rockefeller in an attempt to solve the decades-old mystery of his disappearance. It’s a true journey into the heart of darkness, conducted by a man who immersed himself inthe spiritual world of the Asmat.

Before you seek nirvana in the Stone Age, check out Savage Harvest. Read this fascinating mystery from the comfort of your air-conditioned home, with a glass of clean water at your side, protected from cannibals, and ponder the benefits of civilization.

Tell It Slant: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsLiterary fiction gets a bad rap. It doesn’t have to be ponderous, inscrutable, unreadable. Literary fiction doesn’t have to mean some doorstop of a book that will be earnestly discussed in quiet voices on NPR, the kind of thousand-page novel that everyone buys and no one reads. Literary fiction can be more than just a marker of elite taste – literary fiction can be fun, inventive and playful. It can have a plot. It can be enjoyed.

Authors like Michael Chabon, TC Boyle and Gary Shteyngart demonstrate that you can write sophisticated fiction that’s loved by the public.

Kristopher Jansma shows how its done in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. This debut novel, now available in paperback, follows the worldwide travels of the ultimate unreliable narrator. It’s like ten books in one – a Southern coming of age story, an academic farce, a New York excursion and an expat’s tall tale – propelled forward by neatly contained chapters (which are like stories within stories). The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is compulsively readable, filled with oddball characters, strange situations and sudden turns of fate, all told by a sort of Nick Carroway, looking on enviously at the Gatsbys all around him.

My only criticism: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards switches scenes too quickly. Plot threads are picked up and dropped. Sometimes, you want to know more about that couple in Dubai. You want more – a good sign in a novel.

Ultimately, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a book about stories, the ones that are true, and the ones we tell ourselves. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson says, a mantra that runs throughout this novel. With their ability to tell it slant, novels contain truths that you won’t find in the newspaper.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards demonstrates the power of literary fiction to provide enlightenment through entertainment. Great storytelling is a kind of trick, an ancient one that we’re programmed to enjoy. Like listening to some stranger’s shaggy dog tale, we know that what we’re hearing is not technically true. But we have to know how it ends. Great literary fiction is like that, wrapping us up in an engaging story that tells it slant.

Instagram Does Video!

I’ve never been much of a YouTube user. I never saw the point in Vine. I was impressed with the video capability of the iPhone 5, but didn’t use it much, without the ability to share the clips.

Until now. Instagram does video!

The little square photos that Instagram produces are cheesy and amateurish, like Polaroids sitting in an old shoebox. That’s the point – Instagram is a fun way to share pictures of daily life.

And now you can create short video clips in Instagram. It works the same as taking a picture except you the hold down the video camera button in the app. You can take 15 seconds worth of video, in one long clip or several smaller clips. Video stabilization is on automatically. Once you’re done, you can apply filters to give it that Super-8 look or just use it as is.

You can’t edit your clip. It’s pretty much point, shoot, share.

For photos, I shoot with the iPhone Camera app first and then import the ones I like into Instagram. You can’t do that with videos. You can only shoot clips using Instagram.

Without the ability to edit, and having to use the Instagram app, you have to plan out your video shoots. You only have one take to get it right.

I shot this at Gravelly Point, near Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. I wanted to get a video of a plane of going over the bike trail as it came in to land.

In my first take, I ran out of film. I hit the video button when the jet turned toward National but it didn’t reach me before my 15 seconds were up. For the next shot, I waited until the airplane got closer and panned up as it went over my head – the video stabilization was impressive!

Instagram Video is not quite dummy-proof (it took me a couple tries to figure out) but it’s pretty damn close. While it has some major limitations (no way to edit), it’s the easiest way to share short video clips.

You can save your clips to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even FourSquare but not Flickr or YouTube.

Mind-boggling to think how far iPhone video has come in just the last couple of years. In the old days – 2010 – you needed a video camera, a Mac and Final Cut Pro to make a movie. Your iPhone has replaced all those tools.

Oh, and I used Embed Instragram to embed this video.

Always Right: Margaret Thatcher and 1979

Always RightBritain in 1979 was the sick man of Europe. Militant trade unions controlled the country, overthrowing successive governments. General strikes made life miserable. Britons suffered through a “winter of discontent” with power cuts, transport strikes and trash piled up in the streets. Inflation as high as 21% wiped out the savings of people who had scrimped and saved their entire lives.

This is the context that’s been missing in discussions of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, and one that’s provided by Always Right by Niall Ferguson. In this Kindle single, he shows how the benefit of hindsight has diminished our view of Thatcher’s achievements.

As Thatcher stated before taking the job of Prime Minister in 1979, “My job is to keep Britain from going red.”

This was a real danger. I did a study-abroad program in London in the mid-80s. As part of the class, we visited a Labour MP in Parliament. After he got done insulting us as spoiled rich kids, he shared his aim of imposing socialism across the country. Real socialism, not the Obama kind, but a political system where the government controls where you live, what you do and how much you make. The Soviet Union was held up as a model to emulate.

It’s hard to believe but millions of people shared this belief.

Thatcher was right, of course, and they were wrong. And the elite classes of England hate her for it, to this day. Despite being the most famous graduate of Oxford, the university never gave her an honorary degree. The middle-class grocer’s daughter is not one of us…

We’re fortunate to live in a better time. As bad as things are, it’s not 1979. Always Right is a look back, without the benefit of hindsight, at the parlous era and the Iron Lady who changed it.

Book Launch: I'm Scared & Doing It Anyway

Book launch for I'm Scared and Doing It Anyway
Lauree Ostrofsky at the book launch for I'm scared and doing it anyway

Lauree Ostrofsky had a brain tumor. Twenty-nine years old and it seemed like her life was over before it had really begun.

This brush with mortality was a clarifying moment. She didn’t want a brain tumor – she wanted to be healthy. Sometimes we only discover our true wants in opposition to something else. For Lauree, she wanted to be healthy once again.

And she wanted so much more – she wanted to live a life where she was scared and doing it anyway. Lauree would meet her fears and go past them.

Three surgeries later, the tumor was gone. But the changes had just begun. This experience with death taught her the importance of a positive outlook on life and how much potential we have to affect change. Over the past decade, Lauree has been a speaker, author, PR strategist and life coach, as well as leading a hug tour.

She describes the journey in her new book, I’m scared & doing it anyway. As she explained in the book launch at the Science Club, she wrote the book that she wanted to read after her tumor diagnosis. It’s a book for anyone going though a trying situation. Which, sooner or later, is just about everyone.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Nominated for Best Picture Oscar!

beasts of the southern wildBeasts of the Southern Wild has been nominated for Best Picture! I had a chance to interview director Benh Zeitlin over the summer and write about the film for On Tap.

Beasts was a labor of love for Zeitlin – he spent two years editing it – and the film features non-actors in lead roles, like Quvenzhané Wallis, who was nominated for an Oscar for an Actress in a Leading Role. This brave little kid is the heart and soul of the movie, the eyes through which we experience the story.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a crazy film and unlike anything else you’ll see all year.

Finding True Intimacy in The Sessions

The SessionsI have a new movie review for On Tap – Finding True Intimacy in The Sessions.

Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy, The Sessions is about Mark O’Brien, a paralyzed writer determined to lose his virginity at the age of 38. Hunt plays his sex surrogate.  It’s a different kind of Hollywood film, in that it explores intimacy in sex rather than titillation.

But after watching the movie, I was much more interested in Mark O’Brien. A polio victim, he was paralyzed from the neck down and spent most of his life in an iron lung. Despite this, he was determined to be as independent as possible and found success as a journalist and poet. The fascinating story of his life is told in the documentary Breathing Lessons, which is free online and inspired The Sessions.

Find Small Business Success with The Pumpkin Plan

The Pumpkin Plan

Around this time each year, you’ll see a news story about a farmer with a record-sized pumpkin, one much bigger than anything grown by his neighbors. How did he do it? How did he find success in the pumpkin patch?

He did it by nurturing his best pumpkin, a principle that can be applied to any small business. That’s the message of The Pumpkin Plan, a new book by Mike Michalowicz.

To make your business thrive, you must weed your garden, like a good farmer. This means removing the pumpkins that are too small or not worth your time, so as to focus on the one great gourd that can grow bigger than all the others.

In other words, the Pareto Principle. 80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients. The key to growth is to focus on the most profitable activities of your business.

(I satirize this idea in my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block, where my narrator chooses to eliminate all distractions – even family – to concentrate on getting rich.)

The most interesting section of The Pumpkin Plan is where Michalowicz talks about failure. So many entrepreneurial titles gloss over the hard work of building a business – yet, this is the norm. Each year Americans start one million new businesses, nearly 80 percent of which fail within the first five years. Michalowicz frankly discusses how his company was eating him alive, consuming every waking hour and ruining his family life. Only by concentrating on what he did best was he able to escape this trap. He learned to weed out the activities that weren’t worth his time so as to focus on his best customers.

Michalowicz is a serial entrepreneur who started his first business at the age of 24, moving his young family to the only safe place he could afford – a retirement building. With limited resources and no experience, he systematically bootstrapped a multi-million dollar technology business, sleeping in conference rooms to avoid hotel costs. After selling his first company, Mike launched a new business the very next day, and in less than three years, sold it to a Fortune 500 company. In the Pumpkin Plan, he describes his life story as well as the stories of similar entrepreneurs.

This is not a book of theory. It’s chock-full of real-world examples from people who have had to sell products, make payroll and keep themselves sane. Chapters expand on the Pumpkin Plan concept, with checklists on how to discover what you do best and how to get back on track if you stray.

What’s your Great Pumpkin? This Halloween, find out with The Pumpkin Plan.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Born on the Bayou

On Tap Magazine
July 2012

Opening July 6th, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a mad fever dream of a movie, filled with evocative images that will remain in your consciousness long after the film has ended.

Beasts of the Southern WildThis eco-drama was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the top award for dramatic (fiction) film and for cinematography. Beasts of the Southern Wild has also been honored by the Cannes Film Festival.

“This is a simple movie about fighting for your home,” says director Benh Zeitlin.

The movie follows Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who lives with her father in a swamp community of rebels and misfits. Played by Quvenzhané Wallis, she is fierce heroine who struggles to keep her father alive and survive environmental catastrophe. Playing amid broken glass, rooting pigs and wandering drunkards, she is braver and stronger than any first-grader you have ever met.

Casting non-actors like Wallis is one of many risky decisions made by Zeitlin. For his first feature film, he violated the unwritten rule that directors should avoid working on water or with child actors.

Beasts of the Southern Wild embodies the can-do spirit of the Louisiana bayou, where it was filmed. Everyone involved in the film pitched in, providing boats and suggesting locations, in a community still struggling from the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

“We invited chaos in intentionally,” Zeitlin said, describing the makeshift filmmaking process.

Beasts of the Southern Wild was a labor of love for Zeitlin, a project that he spent two years editing. Over time, the story focused more and more on Wallis – she literally carries the film on her tiny shoulders. There is already Oscar talk around her striking performance.

A coming of age story and a tale of a community’s survival, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a crazed American jalopy of a movie. Packed with stunning imagery of the Louisiana bayous, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the harrowing saga of a little girl trying to survive in a world where the ground is literally disappearing beneath her feet.

 

The $100 Startup – Chapter Three: Follow Your Passion… Maybe

screenplay

Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau. Follow along as I delve into the book, chapter by chapter. I’ll breakdown each chapter, providing a sort of Cliff Notes summary. And I’ll include what you can’t find in the book, such as links to the businesses he discusses, ideas for additional reading and my own thoughts.

I’ll post my breakdown of each chapter every couple days. Get the book and follow me on Twitter at @joeflood as we read The $100 Startup.

I’m a writer. I’ve written screenplays, short stories and even two novels. Writing and (more recently) photography are my passions. I’ve followed my muse, as much as I could afford to.

But make a living at my passions? I had the dream of being a Hollywood screenwriter until I actually visited LA. And I’d love a book deal but the publishing world is in disarray these days. And the dream of being a professional photographer is undermined by countless photographers (including, at times, me) willing to work for free.

Besides, I really do like working on web sites. I love the immediacy and creativity of web publishing.

The idea that there must be some way to combine my writing, photography and web skills into some sort of coherent business is why I bought The $100 Startup.

In chapter three, Guillebeau addresses the artist within all of us, the countless people who have wanted to turn their hobbies into money-making operations.

$100 Dollar StartupThe key is to find the overlap between your passion and the what people will pay for. He puts it in this somewhat clunky formula:

(Passion + skill) -> (problem + marketplace) = opportunity.

The best example comes from Guillebeau’s own life. I first started reading his blog during his quest to visit every country in the world. Did he get paid for this? No. He gets paid through related services, like his books and guides. As Guillebeau expains:

…you don’t get paid for your hobby itself; you get paid for helping other people pursue the hobby or something indirectly related to it.

Another example is Benny Lewis. He loved learning new languages and discovered that total immersion was key to picking up a new tongue. He learned seven languages in just two years. Pushed by his friends, he developed Speak from Day One (check out the insane video).

But how do you determine what the market will pay for? A tough question, but Guillebeau offers a checklist. You need a hobby that you’re passionate about. And have other people asked you for help with this hobby? Are they willing to pay for your expertise? These questions will be explored in greater detail in chapter six.

Remember, too, the admonition from chapter two that business success comes from helping people. So, how do you use your skills in a way that helps people?

art jamzThis chapter has a lot of relevance for artists and other creative types. Not everyone wants to turn their art into a business, however. It’s one thing to take photos that you enjoy; quite another to try to sell them at a farmer’s market. Guillebeau underestimates the difficulties people may have in exposing their art to the cruelties of the marketplace.

If you decide to turn your passion into a business, choose wisely and have a thick skin.

Local Examples

I have a couple of inspiring examples of my own, people I know in Washington who have turned their passion into businesses.

  • Jon Gann created the DC Shorts Film Festival, with a desire to put on a show. Now in its ninth year, it was named as “one of 25 festivals worth an entry fee” by Moviemaker Magazine. Jon created DC Shorts because he believed that filmmakers deserved to be treated better.
  • Everyone loves stories about ex-lawyers doing something other than law, like Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project, a local web site covering the arts.
  • Julianne Brienza has the occasionally impossible task of running the Capital Fringe Festival every year. This Montanan has successfully brought oddball theater to serious Washington.

Full disclosure: I’ve worked with all of these people and they’re all awesome.

Bonus

Artists are at war with themselves. Creating art is making something imperfect, that’s not going to match the perfect vision in your head. On Writer’s Block is an excellent little book on overcoming this hurdle as is Do The Work.

Reading this chapter, I was reminded of Do What You Love and The Money Will Follow. Sounds like flippant advice in these dour economic times but the book’s message is that what you’re passionate about, you will do better than anyone else.

A nice companion to this chapter would be The Art of Possibility. It’s a beautiful little book about envisioning your future.

Next: Chapter Four – The Rise of the Roaming Entrepreneur