Skunk Works


1963 Chrysler Turbine Car - Frist Art Museum
1963 Chrysler Turbine Car

Thursday, April 30, 2020. A busy enough night at the job. Free tacos provided. Time passed, I wore myself out a bit walking and lifting and carrying and what have you and made my money. My new international ads are generating lots of impressions and, of course, zero clicks let alone sales. As such they aren’t costing me any money, at least. I spent an hour or so trying to respond to an ALLi call for videos explaining why any of us joined up and what specifically we could point to as a benefit of membership. It struck me as another opportunity to (1) get out of my comfort zone as an indie author, (2) perhaps get a little traction on marketing myself in a different way and (3) just spend time at my proper work. But after a zillion attempts I junked the idea. I just don’t have a flair for it. It’s painful and all my efforts are dull and clumsy and so be it. Besides, the realm of fellow indie authors generally has nothing at all to do with the realm of readers. You don’t sell books, that is, to other writers. A supportive pat on the back is always nice, a sense of camaraderie can help keep us going and the advice from ALLi is indeed useful. Hell, if it weren’t for their list of service providers I probably never would have discovered Robin V. and who knows what would have become of my book design?

Kev sent me an episode from Jay Leno’s Garage– Leno owns one of only a handful of the remaining Chrysler turbine cars and the show was informative, the guy does a great job communicating his passion for the subject. Clearly it’s a key component of his personal mythology and I can’t help but fantasize about attaining something like that kind of success in life: doing what you love and getting paid more than enough to not fret about the money. Leno earns tens of millions of dollars in his lifetime doing stand-up and hosting a late night show and spends his retirement sharing his love of all things automobile related. So that his proper work has been his life, a dream come true for somebody like me. During the show he said something like driving a turbine car makes it seem like this is where we should have been by now. The technology, the classy, forward thinking, inspired aesthetics, all of it, I get it. Kev forwarded something my dad said about it:

“A friend of mine brought one to our six mile apartment & we took it for a drive.  I had a three month assignment at the Greenfield plant mentioned in the clip.  It was the advanced research group skunk works.  Had an early analog computer that filled a big room. Fun time for a young engineer.”

Turbine Car Evaluation Program | HowStuffWorks
Perhaps one of the best automobile rear ends ever – perpetually modern…!

The advance research group skunk works. Such evocative lingo. Fun time for a young engineer. Of course. I love it. My dad is in his eighties now. He rarely talked about his work, at least with us kids around. And never when I was older, either. Unlike me, who never stops talking about it. Meanwhile, how different we are and of course I’ve tried to write my way through the experience. And you know I’m going to find a way to incorporate this into the series. I mean, doesn’t this read like something right out of the novel?


Tuesday, February 21, 2012. A day off from zmo. It doesn’t take long to figure out how you fit in, or don’t fit in, at the place you work. The older and more experienced you are, the less time it takes. It used to be that the first thing I’d do after getting my feet under me at a job was to begin angling myself into position for what I saw as advancement and promotion. That’s all I cared about: how to move up the ladder. How to increase my pay and rise through the “ranks.” Pathetic. There are no ranks worth rising through when you’re working for the man. If you’re like me, the progress you make through an organization will leave your ambitions frustrated regardless of the speed in which it occurs or the heights that you manage to attain. In the end, if I don’t own it, then I’m frustrated and limited; my ambitions feel squelched and my heart feels hopelessly bound.

As time goes by, I see that I haven’t really changed much at all. None of us do. It’s not about changing yourself as much as discovering, revealing and surrendering to yourself. I’ve written about this in a zillion ways and in what seems like a zillion words now. You get to the bottom of who you are and it’s simply a struggle to accept it. The only reason I’m not happy now is because I’m not the boss; I’m not in control of my work life; I don’t have enough autonomy. Neither am I paid nearly enough for what I have to offer. In fact, if meaningful work is a three-legged stool: autonomy, complexity and commensurate rewards, then at zmo, I have no legs at all, because there’s not even enough complexity. It’s just another tedious, light-industrial-style job. Even at zcob you have to figure out the workplace dynamics – who to suck up to and who to stay away from – and accept or reject your future or lack thereof within the organization. Like anywhere else, you can choose to stick it out and maybe wait to see what happens – folks are always coming and going – but it’s not wise to wait too long. For example, I’m ambitious and always end up wanting to run everything – to fix it and make it better. I’m not interested in running people or being in charge of them. But the “mechanics” of a business quickly become evident to everyone who works there, at least to the degree of their interests and abilities. If you have a mind that runs towards the bigger picture, then you end up wanting to run the company towards that bigger picture. We all want to make our work into something that suits us so we all begin our individual “machinations” to make it happen. Unfortunately, what we want and what those who have authority in the organization want, are never the same thing. Neither have the owners set up the organization to accommodate the ambitions of their workers to any degree that goes beyond the bottom line.

If you challenge the idea that folks need to work to feel properly alive, then try being out of work. If you’re lucky enough like me to have a little money in your pocket – my wife has a good job and can support us for example – it won’t be long before the relief of not having to put up with the drudgery and aggravation of your job fades and the freedom to do whatever you want becomes the hardest job of your fucking life. You’re forced to either come to terms with who you are or to give up the selfology fight, go back to working for the man and lose yourself in another soul-crushing job. How long does anyone enjoy doing whatever the fuck they want to do, whenever the fuck they want to do it, whether it’s hobbies or hedonism? People come back to wanting fulfilling work because work can be a vocation – that thing that you bring to the world that the world needs from you. Work can fulfill a person. That’s what it is to be properly alive. Biophycomythologically you can “tell the world to go stink” as Campbell says and get your pipe and dog and let the weeds grow around the gate, to sever your ties to the world-of-action, but I don’t think it’s “work” until it’s brought you back into the world.

So, now that the first version of hh is done and gone, what will I do next? Start a humane slaughterhouse in Ypsilanti? Work part-time at zcob and engage my other vocations? What about the entrepreneur part? Am I a writer? I can hardly claim any foreseeable success with that since I have no “platform” from which to “market” my writing. Biophycomythology will only have an audience if it can be shown to accomplish more for a person than sitting on the couch, listening to music and journaling, as fun and helpful as that can be. Again, a hobby isn’t a vocation. A hobby is something you do regardless of how good you are at it and regardless of how much it’s connecting to the outside world. It’s mostly an internal exercise and if you ask me, a hobby is just a way to practice something or try something out that you think might be a vocation for you. If you’ve no flair for it, I don’t think you continue to do it. It fades and you move on to something you’re more suited to. Unless your biophycomythology is fucked up enough that you’ve allowed yourself to live a life that is not connected with who you are. Then, like I’ve done, you can half-heartedly, or in some cases obsessively, dick around with shit that you aren’t any good at: golfing or crafts for example. There you have it – a “Freudian” slip or whatever because that’s the two things my parents spent time doing. My dad: golf. My mom, at least in the past: crafts. Neither one of them were any good at either of those things. I apparently inherited the desire to work towards getting better at things I’m not good at from my dad and to want to sell things I make from my mom.

So have I got it wrong? Have I made another vocational mistake? I told myself and others that I found my vocation in a food business, in hh. But now it seems I was wrong. That’s because I allowed myself to be distracted by giving people what they want – what they already know and have: mac & cheese, beef brisket, blah, blah. Why did that stuff leave me flat? Why did I instead focus on the headcheese, something almost impossibly unmarketable? Because it has to do most closely and intimately with the pig which remains my guide. Also, because the public connected with me through h-cheese. The connection was deeper and more complete, meaningful, satisfying and fulfilling when I sold h-cheese versus anything else. It was simply more rewarding. More joy-exchange. I’ll always remember how often the relationship with a customer began with either curiosity, trepidation, or a trip down memory lane and ended up with joy – of recognition, surprise and connection. I remember a guy walked through the food court one day, never eating at my cart, and spouted off about how he thought people just ate my headcheese because they felt it obligated, by way of some foodie-integrity angle, to try it, either because of the history behind it or just the curiosity of it. He basically said it wasn’t worth eating once you tried it, so I was only getting curiosity seekers, that there was no future in it. But I don’t believe that folks were bullshitting me when they said they liked the h-cheese hoagie. Hell, almost every single person who bought one tasted it first – my whole philosophy was try it and you’ll like it. It worked. I have a fucking good palate and I’m not that much of a social idiot to get it all wrong. It always surprised me how successful the h-cheese was. I kept thinking the interest would fade after the initial curiosity of it. But it continued to sell. I made stuff that didn’t sell well, so for fuck’s sake I know the difference between a dud product that nobody wants and something that’s connecting. The headcheese hoagie was a winner and it’s too bad that winners don’t always receive commensurate rewards in this world.

In the end, that’s what has me baffled. HH was getting somewhere in the food biz. I had that elusive combination of the old and the new, a new twist on an ancient idea – I had put my updated spin on a heritage food product and it tasted good and jazzed folks and what just doesn’t sit right with me is how zcob just brushed it off, brushed it away as if it wasn’t worthy. Like it had some problem with flavor. I just disagree with them. My palate isn’t fucked up. Nor are the palates of the folks to whom I sold over three-hundred pounds of h-cheese to in six months from some shitty little food cart. Hell. It’s like a great band that put out a great record, one that was ahead of its time perhaps, never got the right exposure and didn’t make it. Campbell might say the timing is irrelevant to the value; that if the world-of-action accepts it a hundred years from now, then so be it, the boon is valid, that your lifetime is irrelevant to the universe, that what you have to give is to be given, and the outcome in relation to your life is irrelevant. It’s like thinking of yourself as a tool of the universe; a tool with no intrinsic value other than what work it can do. This is a difficult way to see human life becaue it diminishes the self, subsuming it into the Self. But life doesn’t have to be that way, it doesn’t have to be a sacrifice for the All. Why not? Because not everyone who brings back a boon has to suffer with the world’s indifference to it. One just has to look around to see myriad success stories; folks who’ve retruned from a hero journey and been welcomed home, rewarded commensurately, even beyond commensurately. That’s what I want: reward for my effort, despite reading all about how that’s not the way to go about living. I do not want to be a sad story. I do not want to be a tragedy. I’m not in this life to “die trying.” That’s so fucked up. There must be biophycomythological “bliss” in this lifetime or it’s not fucking worth it. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, if I can’t dance, then I want no part of your revolution.

I’m sticking to my guides. The pigs and Ari. Here’s what Ari wrote to me after my pathetic performance at zingtrain:

“hi keith! i’m sorry to take so long to write—it’s been a crazy couple days with all the seminar stuff. i wanted to say thank you for making time to come on thursday afternoon and share thoughts. more importantly probably i wanted to say that i’m sorry to hear about the business situation. that’s so hard. i’ve been there (once only thankfully, when we sold the produce market) and i know it’s a very difficult feeling to parse. i think it’s great that you went after what you wanted and if things didn’t all work out now, maybe they will later. we all learn and then put that learning into place later in other good ways and places. i know it’s not much solace that 9 out 10 food businesses goes under in the first year but if it some solace, you’re in good company. a lot of smart people have opened and not made it. anyways . . . i hope it’s ok to share these thoughts. i appreciate you putting your passions out front and your working so hard to do good things for the food world. i’ll stand by to assist in any way i can going forward. thanks for all your support and encouragement and for helping make the community a more caring place. – ari”

I know he was trying to give me a shot at a possible zingtrain future. He was looking to make his training better by showing zcobbers who were into the visioning concept – he took a risk that I’d make the experience better for everybody at the training. I didn’t make it better, I made it worse, but he takes heartfelt risks. So do I. Sometimes they don’t pay off. But Ari is just a good human being and he seems to connect with me, even at my worst, and I think that probably defines friendship more than anything else. Folks who have your back when it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense for them to have it, when it doesn’t do them any obvious good. It’s this email that helped pull me out of yet another dark place. That black, dead spot, like entropy where energy has ceased to move and you can’t even hear your own heart. My heart seemed to have either fallen silent or I had lost the connection again. It’s discouraging beyond words to think that there I was, in the midst of what I thought were like-minded people – my own kind for once – and I felt as if they didn’t want me and I didn’t belong. I’ve felt that way at zmo and the z-deli too where I expected to find folks intuitively connected to food like me, and the zcob experience, and instead I encountered indifference or even a certain amount of the same old competitiveness that’s been so common in my life. But Ari makes a point to say they don’t have everything right at zcob. How could they? Anytime you involve others in your dream or vocation, they put their own spin on it and bring their own dreams and desires and therefore it’s bound to not match up exactly. I marvel at Ari’s ability and dedication to work through life’s limitations and the limitations of his vocation in order to achieve something higher, something better and closer to his ideals. His ideals, at this point in his life, encompass the ideals of others and he’s able, through experience as he tells us in his writing, to come to terms with stuff that used to really jack him up. I believe in what he’s doing. Here’s what I wrote back:

“ari, no need to apologize for anything at all. your words and actions mean a great deal and i didn’t think i needed a hug until you gave me one – i’ve been agonizing over my clumsy performance at the training; it went nothing like i envisioned and only served to reveal that i’ve still got a lot to work on. i guess that’s me in the workplace sometimes and i’m sorry for any bad energy that i brought – it was my intention to deliver the opposite. “the awkward way the swan walks” only begins to describe it – it’s humbling to realize i’m further from the water than i thought. thanks for helping me out of a dark place. who you are and what you write about keeps me going, i believe in it. now here’s to gtgl2 making a splash – i know you’ll enjoy the busy days it creates! thanks, keith.”

I’ve discarded so many friends in my life. Brad L. and Roy M. contacted us through Angie’s facebook account (I don’t have a personal account). I’d love to be able to reconnect with folks from a position of achievement and accomplishment and biophycomythological success. But here I am again, the definition of screw up and going-nowhere-fast. I have a masters degree in making mistakes and I’m studying for my PhD. That’s about it. That’s all I’ve got to offer. Just “dreams and train-smoke” to borrow a line from a Tom Waits song. I hope to stick with Ari as long as it makes sense. Maybe we can help each other out. I’m just looking to be better at being alive and I think he has good answers and he’s got a talent for artful living. “Follow courage and knowledge.” That quote has appeared in this “book” at least once before. I still think it’d make a good tattoo.

What to do now? I’ve got six vocations but only five active. I have a portion of my Mandala – the hh h-cheese image – that does not apply to the future. I’ve gone back and re-researched the other entrepreneurial interest I had – a humane slaughterhouse for pork, and I can see a $2M investment requiring money I don’t have. Such a venture would attempt sustainability in a market that has proven to be unsustainable – what value would I possess to make it work where others have failed? Connection to zcob and the value-added product angle – pork products marketed through the deli, rh and mail order? Is it likely or unlikely that southeast Michigan farmers would pay more to have their animals slaughtered at a facility claiming a focus on humane handling and slaughter? Could consumers be convinced to pay attention to where their meat is slaughtered and to likely pay more for that product? Would zcob be interested in co-investing in yet another low-margin business? If zcob were interested in slaughtering their own animals to supply meat for their own products, would it also be interested in providing cost-effective usda-inspected and uniquely humane handling and slaughter for other farmers in the region? Could the slaughter segment of the biz be sustainable or would it necessarily be subsidized by the sales of value-added meat products, thereby increasing the cost of those products and increasing the risk of biz failure?

Is the lack of humane handling and slaughter facilities in southeast Michigan, in a transportation radius that is within a day of A2, causing a catch-22 situation whereby more local hogs would be farmed if a facility was available but since it’s not, then more local hogs are not farmed? Could the speculative construction of a new A2-area facility create its own new market by surviving long enough to inspire increased local hog production? In other words, “if you build it, will they come?” Should the facility focus on one animal e.g. hogs and show success in that area before expanding to other animals (cattle, sheep, goats, fowl, etc.), or should it attempt to service as many types of animals as possible from its inception?

Thursday, February 23, 2012. Several days off from zmo. I worked in the kitchen yesterday and while I’m now on board with “running” what they call the prep area (as opposed to the employee meal-cooking function, which is a different job) and I can see how most of the system works, it’s clear that it’s another job that will not be my life’s work. No surprise. I never expected it to be anything more than something to do until I figure out what the fuck the next step is, and it’s a “problem” that all businesses have that I’ve always found interesting – this small or large quantity of so-called “unskilled” positions that must be filled yet inspire no one. Whether it’s a line worker at an auto plant, or a dish washer in food service, these jobs suck and the only way you can get folks to stick with it for any reasonable length of time is to 1) pay them two to three times more than everybody else does for the same work, or 2) pave the way for them to move out and up so to say within the org – to get out of that unfulfilling job and into something more challenging, more suited to their passions and talents, more in line with the three-legged stool of autonomy, complexity and commensurate reward.

For my job now, which is one of the lowest-level jobs you can have within zcob (I’m thinking dishwasher or janitor is probably the only job that is less skilled) the choice is mine, especially since I’m part-time and have not been incorporated into the fold so to say which includes the employee orientations and the opportunities to complete what they call a “training passport.” The choice to do my best within the parameters of what is offered to me and to not get bent out of shape by the limitations of the work is mine. Just because I know Ari doesn’t mean I’m going to expect better treatment or special privileges. Ari knows everybody who works at zcob anyway – if they didn’t treat people across the board fairly (with the rare screw-up) then they wouldn’t be where they’re at with the cool workplace culture that they have. No, zcob hasn’t reached the utopian ideal that Ari strives for, but I think it’s getting there. I’ll help build the cathedral, for now at least. That’s what I’ve agreed to. Am I being exploited Emma Goldman-style? Maybe. Would Emma Goldman think I’m being exploited? Maybe. She might say the job doesn’t pay a living wage; the work itself is focused on production at the expense of people’s talents and skills; the capitalist machine of zcob which is slave to financial sustainability necessarily crushes the individuals who work within it because a society based on the exchange of money can’t work. But neither does socialism except on a very small scale. But I won’t philosophize about Engles, Marx, socialism and anarchism here, anything I have to say has already been said, and far more eloquently I’m sure.

There is potential in negative energy. The person who doesn’t like what they see or criticizes what’s out there because they see a better bigger picture is a positive force because they are comparing their life and the outside world to something they see as better – they have a better version that they can see and want to create – what’s more positive than that? It’s not “negative” it’s positive. It’s life-affirming versus life-denying. When you really, totally, completely give up on yourself and the world; when you determine you can’t or won’t ever belong, is when you walk into the sea. And that’s always a mistake I think, to do that. You’ve not opened your heart enough or you’ve given up on yourself and others too early – I want to have the energy to engage life until it is taken from me, up until that very last breath. I feel in my heart that there’s always hope of becoming who you are. It sucks that for some of us, it takes so fucking long. Absurdly long. Long enough that a life looks utterly pathetic and tragic because a person has not connected – their personal myth has not produced anything but suffering, anything but one biophycomythological fiasco after another. I’m now describing myself. But I believe in the biophycomythological process – it’s the only thing that makes sense to me – the only thing that feels right.

First, and I’ll be brief because I don’t see this as arguable – I’ve thought about it and fucking lived it for years – I’ve got enough empirical data to make these judgements:

  • Hire based on the best information that you have, don’t disregard credentials, but use your guts.
  • Explain the expectations of the job including the thirty or ninety-day “trial” period that the employee and the org have agreed to by accepting the job and agreeing to hire.
  • USE THAT TIME PERIOD. In other words, communicate, monitor, and otherwise work with the new-hire to make sure both parties are happy with where things are at and where they’re going. The responsibility for making sure this communication happens rests almost entirely with the org at this point – you can’t expect a new-hire to voluntarily complain or offer suggestions about what they’d like to change unless you very carefully establish this open dialogue. Otherwise, the new-hire is just too afraid to “blow” the opportunity of keeping the job. They may need the job very badly. Or not. But the trial period is the opportunity to evaluate the fit from both sides and then, at the end of it, if it’s not working, if it’s not a good fit, you part ways amicably. It may not be the most pleasant thing to do, but it’s better than the following.

Keeping the person on past the ninety days so that now it’s more technically and maybe legally difficult to fire them if things aren’t working out. Here’s where the employee can become a ping-pong ball, bouncing from one department to another either because they keep applying for internal postings to find a better fit or because supervisors and managers move them along to avoid working with them At this point, the people in the org, not the org in general, have fucked up. Yes, they have to admit the they’ve made a fucking mistake that they have to fix. Of course the only mistake anyone admits to is hiring the person in the first place and not firing them earlier. So the performance-improvement plan process gets rolled out in order to “document” performance issues so that in anther several months the new hire that started with such promise (why again was it that we hired them?) can be fired even though in the minds of management the person is already fired – they’re a dead man or woman walking so to say. Horrible. AND, fucking humiliating for the person getting fired.

Of course there’s technically nothing stopping you from just firing them and moving on like nothing’s happened, which is what usually happens. It’s been done to me. No performance improvement plan, even when I requested to be put on one (that’s correct, that’s how on top of this shit I am – I can feel it fucking coming and I try to make the attempt to fix it in spite of everyone else’s complete lack of constitution, courage and compassion). How about asking how much you, as manager, supervisor, owner, boss, whatever, contributed to this terrible and trying situation (terrible and trying for all involved) so that YOU QUIT MAKING THE SAME FUCKING MISTAKE OVER AND OVER AGAIN? Why not try to change it, fix it, and make it better? Once you’ve blown the 90-day grace period there’s now some serious skin in the game so to speak and yes, you have to do the right fucking thing which is to work with that person and either find a new place within the org where that person fits better or change the person’s job to accommodate their skill set (maybe even ask them to help you with this stuff themselves – wow, what a concept!) .