DOLAN MORGAN / excerpt from EIGHT WAYS TO GET BETTER AT THE THINGS YOU CARE ABOUT
1. Do Background Research
Alan remembers the exact TEDx Talk that prompted him to change his life: a short piece called “Eight Ways to Get Better at the Things You Care About.”
“Eight Ways to Get Better at the Things You Care About” premiered in the unkempt bathroom of a basement apartment just outside the city (by this point, no location remained safe from the arrival of Sudden Motivation or Surprise Inspiration, with TEDx Talks appearing everywhere from hallways to kitchens to gas stations to office supply closets), and this particular “ambush style” talk in the apartment bathroom was at least indirectly (if not outright directly) responsible for the deaths of that same apartment’s two elderly occupants, the first of which was shocked into cardiac arrest upon 1) returning home alone, 2) entering the bathroom to remove her teeth, and 3) catching a glimpse of the “hyper-local” TEDx Talk just as its terrified and unwitting presenter emerged trembling from behind the shower curtain to unveil the first quote in his uplifting slide deck (projected upon the white and blue tiles of the bathroom wall behind him, mold and all), featuring a hopeful message about everyone’s innate potential, the glowing words of which animated their way playfully into view at the same moment the elderly woman hit the ground, very much dead, only minutes before the second occupant, her companion of many decades, arrived to great consternation at the state of things, and who can only be described as having died from grief, inasmuch as “running to the roof with the last ounce of your long life’s strength to toss yourself furiously from the sky into the pavement below but actually failing to do so because there’s basically nothing left of your useless legs after ten flights and so many years (so many years, all those years, how I loved you, oh my god) and then finally just slumping over the edge and sort of halfheartedly tumbling down the side of the building like an old sock kicked unintentionally from the end of a bed” can be called something like grief, which it can, as it has been in the subsequent TEDx Talk, “Your Pavement, Your Grief: Thirteen Ways of Not Looking at Retirement You Fools” (which premiered violently in the walk-in closet of a single mother just as she was getting ready for work on a Thursday morning).
“I was a sound technician on that TEDx Talk in the bathroom,” Alan says, “and I’ll never forget it. I was holding a boom mic right there in the bathtub, and I saw it all, right up close. That woman died three feet from me. It was terrible, and I recognized the implications instantly: after nearly 67 local events, for which I had labored faithfully and tirelessly, often at great personal risk, I needed to get out of the chaotic TEDx business for good, and fast. Too dangerous, too raucous. So, in a blink, I left and never looked back. I mean I was fired. But let me tell you: getting a new job these days? Not easy. Dark times,” he says with a sigh. “And now? I guess I’m, uh, getting better at the things I care about?” He starts shuffling some nearby papers to uncertain purpose. “Because apparently what I care about is driving ‘the talent’ around and getting people coffee?” Today, Alan is a Production Assistant for the central office of TED Talks proper (the main and “official” purveyor of “ideas worth spreading”), working 70 hours a week at minimum wage. His job, while a significant step down in title, is a sufficient step up in job security—both physical and financial. “It’s much better to be out of the terrifying and violent world of hyper-local TEDx programming, a lawless noman’s land essentially, and to be here instead at the real TED Talks office, where fine work happens,” Alan says, standing at the loading dock of a large production stage, “because, you know, it’s a stable environment, relatively. Sure, there are some awful practices, but overall it’s a progressive place. We give good advice to people who need rejuvenation and a sense of purpose, all from one central and safe location. Design, innovation, the future, you know? The world is getting better, one little thing at a time, and we’re part of it.” He considers a large truck backing into the lot and the twenty or so cages loaded on its flatbed. “How I see it? There are two kinds of people in the world. The kind who think, hey this place actually kidnaps people—and so that’s it, I’m out, I could never do this, I have principles, and the other kind who think, you know what, I’m lucky to even have a job at all, let alone one where I don’t personally have to burst into people’s homes, hide in closets and guest rooms, or bathrooms or garages, holding a microphone on a long stick while people die, just to offer sage advice that nobody will ever hear. Screw that. Now I get the coffee, which is okay, but I know I’m helping a bit, which is great, and I can count on a regular paycheck, which is the best. And, yeah, in some ways it’s half-a-dozen-of-oneyadda- yadda, because this new job hurts people too, I know I know, but everything hurts somebody somehow, no matter what you do. I don’t care if you’re a shoemaker or bank teller, every job is built on the back of some other poor schmuck. But this one hurts a little less, so far as I can tell. I mean, don’t blame me. I’m just here, doing my job like anybody else, and I can’t help it if I find myself standing on some backs. I don’t even know where all these backs came from and there’s nowhere else to stand. Some people, I guess, can’t bear it, and so they lie down on the ground with the rest and become one more back to be stood on, but not me, not anymore.” And with that, Alan uses a long cane to prod the first newly arrived “talent” from their cage. The talent is young and portly. The talent is crying and saying “I don’t know where I am I don’t understand what’s happening I want my mom.” Alan ushers the round little weeper, bound and gagged, toward the green room. “Almost show time!” someone calls out from within the boundless TED expanse. “Places, people!” Positive energy flows through the open doors.
2. Specify Requirements
Julibel is a new talent, too, and she watches from her plastic cage as Alan upvotes little Brian from his prison-like confines into the next phase. After the production assistant and his charge have waddled around a corner, Julibel takes stock of her surroundings. Next to her on the truck’s flatbed are four more cages, each housing additional inspirational speakers like herself. Some terrified, others in shock. One inspirational speaker has a bag over his head and a bloodied shirt. “Must be important,” Julibel thinks. Behind the truck, a wide door opens up onto the TED Talk sound stage, where various crew members flit about doing almost nothing, in the busiest manner they can muster. The parking lot surrounding the truck extends hundreds of feet in every direction, ending in long rows of barbed wire fencing, arranged not in spirals but instead to spell out common platitudes and aphorisms, like “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink; or CAN you?” Shredded shirts dangle from the sharp letters. Beyond that rests the city and everything it has to offer or demand. Along the wall of the main TED building, box after box of “solutions,” “iterations,” and “moon shots” are piled two or three stories high.
Julibel observes a man who has taken a seat on one of those boxes. He wears a blue technician’s jumper and smokes a cigarette. He is crying, too. The technician has a hood, but—unlike Julibel’s pummeled truckmate—this hood is not on the technician’s head. It is clutched in his fist. And like her truckmate, the technician also has bloody clothes, but Julibel assumes that this is not the technician’s blood—because there is another person laid out at the technician’s feet, a man who is covered in so much blood that his body seems more like an afterthought, like an idea that this pile of blood had once long ago and is trying hard to forget. The afterthought is not even moving, save for one arm that is reaching up and grasping blindly at the smoking technician’s pant leg. The technician swats the desperate hand away and steps on the afterthought’s arm, holding it in the dirt. Julibel sees that the technician and this bloody, barely there ground-person are exchanging a kind of meaningful look now, the exact import of which eludes Julibel. It is a long look, or at least a longing one, and quite intense. She thinks of Eric, her friend, who is also just an afterthought, or at least someone who can only be thought after now. She thinks of the “meaning” supposedly contained in eyes but wonders if they are instead not windows to souls or anything at all, but merely blank pages written on by the world around them, and especially by the people who read them. What else could make sense of how desperate Eric’s eyes seemed, even after he was gone from them. Julibel is unable or unwilling to answer that question, or even to see where this new intimacy before her will lead, between a bloody man and his afterthought—because Alan has arrived to drag Julibel from her cage and bring her to the green room as well.
3. Brainstorm Solutions
As a lead TED producer, it is Dylan’s primary role to extract the purest, most efficient form of inspiration from new talent. This is not an easy job. Especially because, as Dylan puts it, “the talent is rarely talented, and hardly inspirational, and, you know, usually just random people we’ve kidnapped and forced to do this. It’s not ideal,” Dylan continues, “but, it’s like they used to sing: ‘we fell in love in a hopeless place.” He crunes this as if to add meaning to an empty room. “Anyway,” he says, “hope has to come from somewhere, so why not these idiots.” For example, the average mind might be stumped when tasked with deducing how Brian—the newly arrived and wet ball of misery—might be rendered as a symbol of the unstoppable human spirit here to explain the intersection of cutting edge design philosophy and its implications for the future of whatever, especially when this moist dumpling man can’t stop saying “what is happening to me what is happening I don’t know where I am” and smacking his face on the wall as if trying to crack open a jar of pennies, but an undaunted Dylan snaps his fingers almost instantly and says, “Okay people, this is a standard cut and paste job: I need five lines from some choice Hallmark graduation cards, templates for three stunning infographics, two high-res photos of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, a picture of a guy on his cell phone, one image of the Earth looking glorious and alone from space, two paragraphs of a Malcolm Gladwell fanfiction essay, and some basic facts about income disparity. You know the drill.” In seconds, a team of writers, artists, researchers, and designers gets to work building the core outline of a new deck. “If there’s anything in this world that I can be sure of,” Dylan says, “it’s that my creative department can pretty much take a five pound bag with ten pounds of shit in it and turn that sucker into the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
But Dylan still has a problem: the weeping goober man who “clearly has not bought into my vision yet.” It is for this reason that Dylan’s colleague, Dr. Sarah Porter, is summoned to remove Brian’s sweaty T-shirt and replace it with a stylish “inspiration polo” that, according to Dr. Porter, “not only looks great but is calibrated to deliver such a precise level of pain to its wearer that it nearly goes beyond our ability to calculate or even comprehend.”
Dr. Porter pops the collar on Brian’s inspiration polo and adds, “now, of course, anybody can deliver a dose of pain to get people to cooperate, in one fashion or another, but what this inspiration polo can do?” She points to a nearby monitoring system as Brian convulses, “is land and then maintain that perfect dose of anguish so delicately that not only will someone go along with pretty much anything we suggest, they’ll do so in a manner that basically looks composed and borne of free will and human agency. And, of course, they’ll look handsome doing it—because of the shirt, which is cut very nicely, as you can see. Frankly, it’s amazing. And ultimately: Humane. Because what’s the alternative? To have Alan, the production assistant over there, beat Brian until he submits to Dylan’s vision? Come on. That’s cruel. For everyone. It could take hours, days even. Alan, do you want to have to do that?” Alan stares at Dr. Porter as if at an extra fork he doesn’t know what to do with. “And, so,” Dr. Porter nods, “the inspiration polo it is. Right, Brian?”
Brian nods and sort of smiles, then says, “I know exactly where I am and definitely understand what’s happening.”
“Now, as you can see,” Dr. Porter adds, pointing at Brian’s clenched mouth, “occasionally presenters do appear a little constipated, but that just sells the whole package even more as it turns out. Who knew.”
Dolan Morgan is a writer and illustrator living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He is the author of two story collections: That’s When the Knives Come Down (A|P, 2014) and Insignificana (CCM, 2016). His work can be found in The Believer, at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, on NPR, in a comic series on The Rumpus, and in the trash. Look for him online at dolanmorgan.com and on Twitter, @dolanmorgan.