inessential by Brent Simmons

June 2018

Uncle Whisky

When I was a kid we spent more time with my Mom’s family than with my Dad’s, but we still spent lots of holidays with my Dad’s family.

My Dad is the oldest of four siblings. The youngest, his brother, is only 10 years older than me. I remember my uncle and his sisters when they were teenagers.

The thing about the family was that everyone was constantly joking and laughing. I loved this.

I wanted to join in, so I did, from an early age. And sometimes I even got laughs! But most of the time I didn’t.

One day my uncle — who must have been about 20 then — gave me some advice about it. He said, “Hey, you don’t have to say everything you think of. Just the ones that are actually funny.”

Okay, I thought, so now it wasn’t enough to be fast enough to think of something that might be funny — I had to also evaluate it for likeliness? All in the space between sentences? And make it seem natural? Who can think that fast?

I think what he was doing was trying to get me to be less annoying. But I took it as earnest advice. And, well, I remember thinking, after a while, that it worked.

* * *

My uncle, Peter Simmons, became an actor and writer. He lives these days in Minneapolis, and he surely remembers none of this conversation.

* * *

My uncle had a dog named Whisky who was born the same spring when I was born. I called him Uncle Whisky, and I believed, until I was about 10, that of course dogs can be uncles too. Perfectly natural.

* * *

Whisky — sometimes called Wick for short — enjoyed hors d’oeuvres in the afternoon. There was always chips and that sour cream and onion dip. When you picked up a bad chip, you gave it to the dog. Those were called Wicker Chips.

To this day when I get a bad chip I mentally set it aside for Whisky, who was a good dog and a great uncle.

* * *

I’m a terrible introvert. The other introverts around me seem extremely outgoing. I marvel at them.


But I had this weird family training, and so I can, for instance, go around a room at a conference with a microphone and talk to every single person, put them at ease, quickly think of things to say, make it seem natural — and even be a little funny.

Not only that — I enjoy it!

And I can do a podcast. And I can point to the latest episode with Aaron Cherof as one of the better episodes. I suspect Aaron may have had a family kind of like mine.

Om Malik on blogging:

They are incomplete and by nature more mysterious, more episodic, and thus more interesting. Blogs are meant not to leave you with everything. The whole idea is to think to deliberate, and to come back again and again, to finish what was started a long time ago. But there is no end, just a pause, for a voice to start, talking again.

I love that.

I never became the Hemingway or Fitzgerald type of writer that I wanted to be when I was young. No short stories, no novel, no cover of Life magazine.

But I have written a blog for almost 19 years — and that’s something. It‘s still a new medium, and it’s new to have blogs hitting (and even passing) the 20-years-mark.

Here’s a provisional thought (all thoughts on a blog are provisional) — to read a good blog is to watch a writer get a little bit better, day after day, at writing the truth.

On Not Doing Prepared Talks Any More

Some time last year I decided to retire from doing prepared talks at conferences.

I’ve been doing them for 15 years, and I’ve enjoyed some of them. Eventually I started playing with the form, and that was kind of fun.

The best talks I ever did usually had some story-telling parts, and those turned out to be the parts that people liked most. The only problem with that is that my stories usually didn’t have anything to do with the conference. I just like telling stories. Stories about raccoons and squirrels. :)

Preparing a talk is a lot of work, and my standards for my talks kept going up, which meant ever more preparation, and more stress — and since I didn’t love it, I decided to stop.

I don’t mind being in front of an audience, though — I’ll emcee, appear on a panel, moderate a panel, or play in a Breakpoints Jam.

But the actual talks from me are over.

Here’s the thing, though: this means one less middle-aged white man taking up a slot. This is a good thing. If you were thinking of asking me to do a prepared talk at your conference, instead ask someone who doesn’t look like me.

And if you’re having trouble finding someone, just ask me and I’ll help.

Fascism These Days

I can write just about anything I want to on my blog for the simple reason that it doesn’t matter.

Times change. Fascists learn. There’s no pressing need to cut off any websites.

* * *

Fascists don’t leave so many fingerprints these days.

Example: there’s no actual agreement anywhere that makes Twitter a de facto arm of the Trump Executive Branch and all its unofficial partners — but it is.

Twitter bans the people who report abuse and it retains the Nazis and Russians. It amplifies the distractions and fills the pipe with lies and outrage. (And gives us special emoji as rewards.)

The truth can’t be found in the ever-thickening fog.

Though Twitter has been used for good, I’m more and more convinced that giving it anything just feeds it. If the medium is the message, then the message is lies, lulz, and bullshit, no matter what you put in.

* * *

That’s not to say that fascists won’t ever take our freedoms away. The fascists grow stronger and bolder, and those who would check their power chicken-out.

But it won’t usually be laws, or even executive orders, that take away freedoms. Think of the NFL, which — utterly disgracefully — now mandates against kneeling.

Samantha Bee survives on TV this year — but will she survive next year?

* * *

What if agents in the Secret Service or FBI begin quietly talking to bloggers or tweeters who express an anti-Trump point of view? No law needed. No take-down notice. It’s just agents doing their jobs.

Would you keep blogging after having a quiet meeting with a couple armed men who — politely and calmly — explain that they’re just checking to make sure you’re not a threat to national security?

Would you even tell anyone about the meeting?

This hasn’t happened to you. Okay. (Or to me.)

But how would you know if this is already happening to other people? If a friend told you a rumor that it was happening, what would you think? Is it plausible from the team that already works so hard to discredit the free press? If you thought it might be true, would it change how and what you write?

Consider that there wouldn’t have to be any order or directive at all from the White House to the Secret Service or FBI. The White House wouldn’t even have to know about it.

This is one way fascism works. It leaves no marks. It doesn’t even have to lift a finger sometimes.

They don’t have to do this at all, in other words. They just have to get to the point where you wouldn’t put it past them. At that point they can let our imaginations and rumors do the rest — and people will surrender their voice.

For the record — and this is super-important — I do not believe this is happening. This is merely illustration, and I’m not that paranoid, and you shouldn’t be either.

The Easy Target

The United States of America was the easy-to-choose target for the fascists.

It was the richest and most powerful country in the history of countries. How could any fascist not want to take it over?

It was the work of several decades.

They built up a giant military/industrial partnership — mixing government and unaccountable corporations with secrets — with almost no resistance.

Sure, they faced some setbacks from time to time: the end of apartheid in former slave states, for instance. But they fought back by privatizing the prisons, instituting mass incarceration, and militarizing the police force — and ensuring that it remained a tool of white supremacy.

They stoked fear of communism, as if adding just a penny of tax meant imminent Sovietization; as if labor unions were anti-American insurgents; as if a social safety net would make Jesus cry. As if “equal opportunity” meant Fidel Castro walking into your house with a machine gun.

They gutted the education system and fought knowledge with mass disinformation. They made sure that corporations could and would hook Americans on opioids and blather and outrage.

While some of us did learn that the beauty of America is our constant striving to better understand our founding creed — and finally live up to it — they made sure that half of us believed in America as a land and as a race.

And now that they’ve won — they’ve gotten their orange leader with the red cap, they’ve gotten their system of cruelty — they’re carving it all up for themselves. They’re cutting it all up with jigsaws and burning what they can’t use right now.

There were, and still are, leaders who could fight back, but who just plain refused.

If we’re lucky enough one day to have a true history, those people will go down as among our greatest traitors. Every day I long for that day.

What I Actually Do

Now that I’ve switched over to marketing, people — co-workers, even! — keep asking me what I actually do all day.

Fair question. Since I’ll probably get asked the same thing in San Jose next week, I figured I’d write it up.

The team

Our team could be a small software company on its own — we have engineers, testers, designers, and a person who makes movies. Everything I do is part of working with that team.

If you think I’m being paid to be a blogger and podcaster, you’re not too far off the mark, but that description misses some things.

I’ve traded in Xcode for BBEdit and Marked, since most of what I do is writing. I write for the blog and for the podcast, of course, and also lately I’ve written:

  • Inside OmniFocus blog posts
  • App Store editorial pitch
  • Sponsorship blurbs for podcasts
  • App Store description for OmniFocus 3 for iOS
  • Product pages and related pages for OmniFocus 3 for iOS and OmniFocus 2 for Mac
  • Some first-run text in OmniFocus 3
  • Press release
  • Other release-related email
  • Omni microblog (OmniDogs!)
  • Newsletter
  • Various tweets

Note: again, though, it’s a team effort. Some things go through extensive feedback and editing before being finished.

And some things — like the product pages — will evolve a bunch during design and production. As it takes shape we can see where the writing needs to change.

And some things I write — especially anything that ends up in an app — will probably get revised by other people before it ships.

I do some things besides writing. I edit customer stories for Inside OmniFocus. I work with people who write to Omni’s marketing email address.

And even the writing isn’t just writing — I help figure out what to write, and when, and how to talk about things.

So there you have it. I’m part of a team, and my particular role is the words. And there are a lot of words.

PS See How We Do The Omni Show for what all goes into making the podcast.