2015

Tea Sloane SmithThis is Téa Sloane Smith, penning our Happy Thanksgiving letter. In a surprising, debatably controversial move, I’m sending the letter out by Thanksgiving, thereby justifying the rebranding. I’m betting that by calling it a Thanksgiving letter: 1) expectations will plummet, 2) people will be less irritated by its early arrival, and 3) lack of temporal competition will increase readership.

For 2 months (OK, 6 weeks; OK, 5 weeks and a day. It rounds up), we moved to Australia. Why, you ask? Well, first, our parents favor designing for memories over designing for experience. As a result, we’ve had an inordinate number of truly awful family experiences. The upside: in 20 years there is a decent chance we will have some pretty sweet pictures to look back on fondly. Instead of hoping in vain that we might not need therapy, our parents are aiming for the clearest, most direct path to it.

Second, they believe that the key to leading a happy life is persistently low expectations, and that frequent family travel can do that effectively. Unfortunately, they could not lower them enough. On the 10PM flight out, Cooper and I designed the seating. Mom would sit in the middle to create healthy space between us. We then lay down across all 3 seats to sleep. How does one do that you ask?  Well, it turns out if the person in the middle scoots up a little, one of us can lay his feet behind her and the other can put her legs on top of her. Then she can sit upright for the night, resting her forehead on the chair in front of her. Sweet. Then, the row behind us collectively began a loud and painful-sounding vomiting episode, and we still had 14 hours to go. At that point, Cooper helpfully remarked, “My friends are all on the beach in Hawaii right now.” My mom decided that was a good time to launch into one of her unbidden life-lectures. The key, she said in life, was to keep needs low, expectations moderate, and dreams big. To Cooper, any difference among these three nouns is nuanced, arguably undetectable. He believes needs = expectations = dreams = big, with variables such as dream = NBA versus dream = US Open, subject to sudden and irrefutable change without notice.  Life should be sweet and stimulating. All the time. Party, party, party. This means most of reality often falls short. His hope, though, never fades.

Going in, we didn’t fear the animals, the long flight, or the foreign language (Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 5.16.04 PMAustralian); we feared the school uniforms. The day before departure, Devon made a last minute appeal to ditch the trip entirely because of this unfathomable constraint. The day before school began, I learned that mine was a plaid wool onesie dress, complemented with a floppy sun hat. I resembled five-year old Bindi. The boys stopped grumbling quickly after they put theirs on though, as jacket and tie uniforms made them look older and almost respectable. And then they would open their mouths.

There were so many high points though; here are a few:

  • All Australians. They are 1,000 times braver than any American. Exhibit 1: their perspective on snakes.  When you see one, no worries, just: “Man up.  Get used to it.  Don’t overthink it.  You don’t want to get paranoid about these things.” If you do find yourself ‘overthinking’ a snake in your path, at least make yourself useful by knowing the three categories:
    • Diamond Python: “No problem, you can handle it.”
    • Red Belly Black:  “Wouldn’t pick it up, but you could survive.”
    • King Brown:  “Don’t think about it.” (As in, there’s no point, you definitely will die).
  • Cultural Norms and Behaviors. Many people don’t have cars so as to “protect the earth” and “be healthy.” As a result, you see a lot of people biking, running and walking as you whiz by them in your taxi.
  • Tim Tams, the would-be love child of an Oreo and Reese’s.
  • Russell Crowe. Mom kept peeking out the window to catch a glimpse of Russell, which sounds crazy until I tell you we lived next door to him, and then it just sounds lightly criminal.
  • Family time.  We learned new things about each other, all the time. For example, Coop and Devon made ground rules for parents (mom) for where they (she) can post pictures of the trip. Here they are:
    • Snapchat: Never. It’s not for you. It’s embarrassing to hear you mention it. Please stop.
    • Instagram: One post every three days. If you post more, you clearly don’t have a life which is embarrassing.  Also, leave the photo captionless.  Whenever you try to write captions, it always comes out awkward/wrong.  Also, it goes unsaid but don’t write a comment. Never ever use an emoji.
    • Facebook: Always. Go nuts. Knock yourself out. You can post literally anything anytime on FB. It’s like a cruise ship, an experience for grandparents only.

In other updates, I’ve converted my gymnastics momentum into yoga prowess, and am on track toward my goal of being the youngest certified instructor ever! At first, Cooper decided that anything I could do, he could do more nimbly and louder. After a Taraksvasana (handstand scorpion) that apparently wasn’t as easy as I made it look, he’s decided tennis takes more skill and is more fun. Also, yoga is really just lazy people finding new and uncomfortable ways to be still.

It’s not really a sport, but Cooper and Devon have taken up golf. Devon because he stopped ignoring Papa’s compliments on his long drives, while learning how to tune out his accurate, if constant advice on how to improve Devon’s putting game. It’s just another thing that Coop takes naturally to and is supported by the fact that cool people like Steph and Obama play it. So golf isn’t just boring business guys doing boring business deals – though he believes that such boring activities will be useful in the future.

Never without projects, my Dad is converting our toolshed into a clubhouse/disco because he has run out of things to connect and automate. My mom will enjoy it because the mess inside it will not visible to her. For Devon, this clubhouse will serve as a peaceful oasis outside the fishing limits of casual familial interlopers. He enjoys walking around without a shirt on; this place will actually be appropriate for that. I will enjoy it for singing while doing yoga; I call it yoga-singing.  Cooper will ignore the clubhouse then forget it’s there at all. After a month or a year, he will stumble on it for the first time and be amazed, then never go down there again, but will remember it when he needs to hide candy. And then it will become a party, party, party.

We are grateful for all we have, for all of you, and for all the love and light in the world.  Here is to keeping needs low and dreams big.

Love,

Téa Sloane

 

2014

Hey, it’s Devon writing the holiday card this year. Ironic, because I conserve words like Téa Sloane hoards nickels. I see the world clearly, and it just doesn’t take many words to say what I mean. I recently learned that the average woman speaks 3 times as many words per day as the average man. Not a surprise. What did surprise me was that the average man is that chatty. The AT&T bill shows that Dad talks one-third as much as mom, but 12 times as much as me. Cooper talks two and a half times as much as me. Necessary? Clearly if there’s a pilot in this family, it’s me.[1]

devon 2014 byline A year ago we wrapped 4 months of Big City Life in NY. We grew used to:

  • Getting up early, jamming to 63rd & Lex (avoiding toppling / squashing Park Av old lady/micro-dog combos)
  • Catching the 8:05 F-train, doors closing (door-nipped backpacks = cred)
  • Playing pick-up basketball in The Cage at Washington Square Park
  • The Halal Guys and wondering what voodoo they put in chicken over rice.

Returning to Lafayette, we built new routines:

  1. Finding fashion true north. Téa Sloane learned hats and scarfs work even outside City Limits, and that both compliment Iviva yoga apparel – which should be worn 24-7. Cooper upped his A game, and has been seen repeatedly in team-insignia-free clothing. Weekly, we go to “cotillion” – a Cold War remnant where we dress like waiters and hold hands with girls for an hour while listening to an instructor repeat “1-2-3, 1-2-3.” Sweaty palms, stepping on other people’s feet. It’s full of all that good stuff you remember. For me, formal wear begins at jeans, and shirts are entirely optional. I find that going shirtless is an effective power move (surprise = dominance), and valuable for expectation management (you can only improve in others’ minds after they meet you half-naked).
  1. Building stuff.  TSloane and Dad took a long hard look out the window and together decided the dirt could be doing more for us. They reanimated our backyard hill as giant strawberry patch. Aided by water and sun, the property acquired an entirely new, earthy aroma (manure). To avoid the stench, Dad and I moved indoors to build a nixie tube clock (last seen on an Apollo mission), and modify a drone with a claw to pick up stuff. (Because why would you want to reach down, when a drone could do it for you?) Inspired by American Ninja Warrior, we also constructed a climbing pegboard. Not Mike Brady’s 1970’s garage pegboard. I’m talking a 4×6 foot upper-body workout device combining all the ease of one-armed pull-ups with all the frustration of furniture assembly. We drilled, beveled, leveled and bolted the lumber leviathan onto to the fence. The extreme height, weight and inadvisability of the operation hit its peak when Dad, both feet covering the ladder’s warning label saying: DANGER: DO NOT STEP HERE, YOU WILL FALL AND DIE put a tiny bit of weight on our not-yet-rock-solid pegboard. What followed was an iPhone 6-worthy slow-mo domino effect of pegboard detaching from fence, pegboard knocking dad off ladder, dad hitting ground upside down, followed by ladder and pegboard landing on Dad. I find a lesson, if not necessarily the moral to this story is this: When building a device to increase upper body strength and inspire your kids to exercise, wouldn’t it be ironic if through illiteracy/haste you damaged yourself enough to merit an x-ray and immobilize your arm for weeks?
  1. Mining TV for life lessons.

Shark Tank:  Never do a royalty deal. Don’t arrive broke. Don’t count on the ladies to save you. QVC requires killer gross margins. Clothes matter.

Modern Family: With a thick Colombian accent, you can get away with saying anything. Also hot blondes settle for geeks every time.

American Ninja Warrior: If you can make it up and around the pegboard without ending up in the water, endorsement money’s on the way, baby!

Family Updates: Téa “I Don’t Like Downtime” Sloane Smith has never seen a parade she not at the head of. Though currently phoneless, she’s is extremely chatty. Her AT&T bill will beat my mom’s. She likes everyone. She includes them in her prayers: “God bless everyone…except robbers.” On Post-Its, she writes “Téa is awesome” and inspirational notes like “Good job!” and “Have a fun day!” leaving them in unexpected places (inside the fridge, on your steering wheel).  She believes in what MC Hammer calls “momentum marketing.” When people meet her, they inevitably describe her as “awesome.” Cartwheeling across any level surface, she manages to works flips and back-bend demos into not-otherwise gymnastic conversation.  Coop, not one to be outdone by her, the cast of Cirque de Soleil or Stephen Curry, busts into side-by-side bridge and wheel sessions with Téa Sloane – showing off both his Plasticman flexibility and his general unwillingness to be bested in an attention-getting activity. Cooper has never seen a competition that he wasn’t winning. Together, they are fierce.  I sit back and watch it go down.

Cooper’s design efforts are diverse enough to require 4 Instagram accounts to distinctly position his 4 creative products. He is committed to making a positive impact, and has scheduled that to commence immediately after he becomes famous (better leverage). Luckily he has a good work ethic. Visiting Dad’s office at Founder’s Den, Cooper warmed up to “work” rapidly in the presence of the coffee/hot chocolate-robot and chairs that spin around. Declaring, “I want an office”, Coop sought useful things to start his own. Pens. He stole a lot of pens. Like Téa Sloane at 3, Cooper exudes a vibe when you are both near him and also near something he might want (cookies, pens): 1. If I want it, it’s mine; 2. If it’s near me, it’s mine; 3. If it looks like it’s yours, it’s definitely mine.

Mom equivalent is: 1. If I can see it, it’s messy; 2. If it’s messy, it must be put away; 3. If I put it away somewhere that makes more sense to me than you – isn’t it really your fault anyway?  Recently, when “cooking” (arranging candles on a table), mom set her hair on fire. After a while, she noticed and put herself out (it wasn’t her first time on fire). Cooper, troubled by the awkwardness of her newfound asymmetry, offered a trim. She accepted. This happened in the space of 3 minutes. My mom’s a lot of fun.

Dad continues his undeclared war against simplicity by embodying the bleeding edge techie (Siri has a few step-sisters at our house). The purchases are ostensibly necessary to inform investment decisions for the Internet of Things VC fund he and Jay (his venture partner / geek soulmate) launched this summer. Dad made a list of what 15 years of marriage taught him about my mom as a quick reference. For example, for Christmas gifts, give her things: 1. identical to something she already has; 2. unique and badass (badass makes up for a lot), and 3. of little material value because, whatever it is, she’s going to lose or destroy it immediately.

We are thankful for our loving extended family, our amazing au pair, Clara, who gives us gum and laughs with (at) us incessantly, and good friends, who although they wear shirts, they don’t mince words.  And I like that.

Bye, Devon.

P.S. I can’t believe I wrote this much.

[1] Consider how to apply my philosophy in your own life:

  1. Transitions = pointless. You said what you wanted to say. You’re done.  Next!
  2. Questions beget answers, and answers are supposed to be answers – not flowery, indulgent ramblings that invite yet more questions.
  3. Code words. When pilots communicate with the ground, a reply is frequently a single word: Roger (stands for message Received), Wilco stands for Will Comply. (Look at me ramble. Sorry.)
  4. The few things you do say: repeat them. Studies show that we need 3 repetitions to recall a message (shockingly inefficient, but factually true). This is why Téa needs me to tell her: “You’re tiny” several times daily.  It comforts her.
 

A Holiday Story

Cooper Cool Teen Headshot SquareHello from NYC!  This is Coop, writing this years’ recap. To drive readership, I’m investing in: 1) rapid letter deployment, 2) snappy phraseology and total hashtag fluency #ohyeahthatsright #whywritewhenyoucanhashtag, 3) a one-time sweet prize to the first verified reader #whatcoulditbe? #jakeschatzwillnotwin.

Believing that disasters make for strong memories, our parents moved us to NYC for four months with the idea that “Life is too good. We should do something to mess it up.” Their original plan was to shoe-horn all 6 of us into an 800 square foot 3-bedroom, 1-bath, 1-closet apartment downtown. We would begin to appreciate the challenges of urban living and, by implication, our sweet deal in California. (I think they imagined us saying thank you all the time on our return because we would no longer have to sleep head-to-toe or sign-up to take a shower). That place fell through though. So we landed instead in our friend’s spacious home where everyone gets comfy queen beds. Do we have new appreciation for our old life?  In a way.  We made a punch list of needed enhancements to our home in Lafayette. #ridiculousfail #betterlucknexttime

We live near Dylan’s Candy Bar, a sweet, sweet Mecca that we hit 2-3 times a week (more if guests visit).  On the walk to Dylan’s, you notice several things: (1) well-coiffed ladies holding tiny dogs, (2) people on the street smiling at you (just kidding; that never happens in NYC) and (3) the ‘80s are back!  Otherwise normal-looking people wear bell-bottoms, INXS is blasting in Soul Cycle, and new/old haircuts are walking the streets. Inspired by a Mr. T look-alike in Times Square, I got a faux-hawk which didn’t work out great  #nevercutyourhairwithdadsrazor.

Devon and I go to the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village while Téa Sloane is home-schooled.  Now, it doesn’t matter why, but Téa has foregone new friends in favor of creating innovative duck tape products in her free time. Her passion for adhesive handcrafts is now a cash-flowing business. She’s intent to prove that duck tape is the perfect material, as soy is the perfect food. With my design help and Devon’s web skills, we launched ducktapedesign.com (bitcoin accepted, BTW). TSloane and I decided Devon should get 17% of the business as we’re the ones cranking out wallets, and think we don’t need the website, nor an ecommerce channel. These things will sell themselves!  In a surprising move, Devon accepted our terms in exchange for 90% of the online net revenue, payable in convertible preferred stock (he urges you to shop online this holiday season).  In other big news, we hired an intern named AJ. He currently heads up a sales group at Facebook, but we lured him to interview with the promise of Dylan’s candy.  Before interviewing him, I took off my shirt which I believe is an effective power move. I seek to cultivate a reputation for authenticity and transparency.  There is really nothing that says ‘I am authentic’ like being mostly naked during an interview. If you’re intreigued, we’re still reviewing CV’s for unpaid internships certain to be rich in experience and further opportunities to see me bare-chested: ducktapedesign.com/howyoudoin’.

While in NY, Devon has taken raising one eyebrow a lot and doing impressions. He does a mean Andy Smith looking exasperated. Two trips stand out during Devon’s NYC stint. First, a trip to the MIT Media Lab. When our friend Sep invited Dev to visit, my dad’s ears perked up and he “offered” to “come along” because “Devon should have adult representation” on the trip.  As you know, my dad is kind and selfless, particularly given how much he hates both technology and 5 hour train rides where no one is going about “feelings.” The second was a school trip to the Catskills where Dev forged a coal-poker for the fireplace and I made heart for my mom to place hot dishes on.  (perfect because although she doesn’t cook she often burns flat surfaces, so now she can feel loved and the counter can be protected at the same time). However, during the night, a thunderstorm dumped on us (which reminds us all to NEVER GO CAMPING).  I didn’t notice, but Dev did and commented that we should NEVER GO CAMPING.   Because of memory decay, we don’t remember this experience perfectly, but think it is safe to say that camping has some downsides.

In terms of updates for parents, my dad (who grew up in NJ so was existentially appalled that we are so 100% Californian as to be unfamiliar with the concept of seasons, and that Its Not Always Shorts Weather) has taken home automation to a whole new level. He continues (a) his love for homes that operate without anyone touching anything; and (b) avoiding all conversations that involve feelings. He has a working hypothesis that by sharing online articles about feelings that other people have, he can dramatically compress the time otherwise consumed inefficiently by discussing them. This philosophy is best illustrated in bar chart form (see Appendix. For more, visit grinks.com.)

My mom’s hosted a few dinners here in NY. She defines cooking as “eating food off of plates we own ourselves,” so we’re not all on the same page as to what these “dinners” actually consist of. #atleastshehasasweethotdishholder #snackdinners. Another highlight was my mom donning a gold sequined dress on her way to a ‘gala’ held in honor of a friend. At the gala, she learned two things. First, when women accustomed to formal events pose for the camera, they do so with their fingers hooked on their hip bone because they are so skinny they have nowhere else to put their finger. For those who can’t locate their hip bone (#notsayin’thisismymom), it also works to  just aim your finger in the general hip area (#againthisisintheory).  Second, you learn that being in an entourage is great; the paparazzi frantically snap pictures of you as you walk/float down the red carpet where the chances that you will trip are remote (#exceptformymom). You also learn to smile and wave like the queen. But the paparazzi aren’t dumb and the second they find out that you’re a nobody, they bee-line to someone who is someone. This makes you a tiny bit sad, but you are also proud you naturally took to the whole finger-on-hip-bone habit (#okthisismymom).

Wishing you spacious beds, Dylan’s candy, and ducktape forever.

Love – Cooper the NYC Hoopster

 

Growing Together (2012)

Happy Holidays!

Hello! It’s Téa Sloane, penning (actually typing) for the three kids. And Devon’s here rocking the flow chart.

Mailing a Letter, Startup Style

Little girl with her office in her mom's office's closet.

To start, you deserve to know how I sent all these holiday cards: by myself.  I began by efficiently stamping the envelopes, only to later learn that the

USPS demands right-sided placement. That’s cool.  Because it gave us an opportunity to bond over a ‘family project’ – tearing off the stamps from innovative parts of the envelope and re-affixing them with tape on a single unimaginative right hand corner. Fueled with confidence, ambition and what felt like little fireballs of energy, I proceeded to seal all the envelopes, a move that proved to be premature because the letter wasn’t in them. That’s cool. Because then we, as a family, could unseal every single envelope with patience and delicacy. Cooper tried to speed up the application of return address labels with a mass-production approach that ultimately proved to be an unfortunate decision. On average, each envelope has 2.5 rips, and as a batch, required 6 rolls of tape.

NBA Nuance

A recap on the family. First, let’s start with LeBron James, I mean Cooper.  Cooper and LeBron James are soul mates.  LeBron doesn’t know this, but Cooper does and that understanding infiltrates day-to-day life. A top priority is to defend LeBron, which undoubtedly contributes to LeBron’s strong game. To illustrate: no one within earshot can say a positive thing about LeBron’s nemesis, Kobe Bryant, without unleashing a torrent of vitriolic disbelief and outrage sufficient to bring self-doubt to Kobe himself. When not thinking about what LeBron would do or think (e.g., ”Would LeBron go to bed this early, or for that matter, ever?” “When do you think LeBron got an iPhone®), Cooper practices dance moves which range from Gangnam Style (강남스타일), a whole-body performance, to the “Dougie” which includes such signature confidence-exuding moves as wiping his hand through imagined stylish hair. Cooper just returned from New York where he and Mom ran ‘meetings’ which involved consuming chocolate truffles and receiving free NBA jerseys.

The Future Will Be Invented

Devon, wise beyond his years, remains transfixed by machines, computers, apps, and heroic geeks like Mark Zuckerberg. Eskimos have their multitude of words for snow; Devon has hoodies that he believes are appropriate for multitudes of occasions including formal events. When tired, he reports that his brain is ‘on sleep’ (ready to rejuvenate, when people actually need him, but conserving power in the meantime). When his brain ‘wakes up’, it does not think linearly but in branching decision trees (flip page for an example). Devon begins most conversations with: “For some reason….” — as it captures surprise, disavowal of responsibility and a genuine expression of curiosity.   An example: “For some reason, the toilet is overflowing!” or “For some reason, my shirt‘s dirty!” This summer, he enjoyed creating a presentation on the things in life that are ‘sucky’ (friends at IDEO say that’s a word), and has plans to patent a t-shirt that repels liquids and mosquitos. At the same time.

GTD

Me? I work in my office (pictured), and get stuff done. A typical morning begins at 6:15AM when I leap out of bed to get cracking organizing things around the house into one of three categories: (a) things that clearly belong to me (e.g., flowers, objects that are shiny, sparkly or both) (b) things that should belong to me (e.g., candy, cozy-looking things) and (c) things that belong to other people (rocks with no character, garbage, anything pink). Next, I plan things.  I find planning to be appealing because when you plan, you can enjoy things before they happen. You don’t have to wait for everyone else who isn’t moving as fast. And you can know how things are going to turn out.  Which is awesome.  Also, planning lets you fit more things into the day. For example, you can vacuum before playdates.  And after.  Both times.  Sweet. Once I finish planning and organizing, I write it all down. I create lists. That is what I do.  I am a list-creator. Many wonder where I got my energy. Some believe it was from my mom who listened to a great deal of Beastie Boys while I was in the womb.  Alternative hypotheses: Driving NASCAR in a prior life or I secretly consume or naturally synthesize caffeine. Doesn’t matter; let’s move on.

Dad

Among other work endeavors (vonavona.com, pointoption.com, dragonflyeffect.com), he has begun spending time at San Quentin (just visiting) where he advises prisoners on how to become entrepreneurs. He is very popular there. Which is great for him because at home his polls are declining. Voters find him overly stringent around ‘balanced meals.’ He recently made Coop try one of his Shakeology drinks during what Coop recalls as ‘a break in my sanity.’ His relentless focus on hard labor (e.g., teeth brushed, dishes in dishwasher, lights off) makes home seem like Stalag 13 without the laugh track. To boost his standing, we’ve urged him to consider new key planks: (1) ease up on chores, as he and Mom can do that stuff, (2) drop the irrational need to force vegetables into dinner; (3) iPhones®.  iPhones for everyone. For God’s sake why don’t I have an iPhone?  Some people in this house are 10!

Mom

She still cooks poorly (she recently attempted popcorn, which lead to the microwave blowing up), and that still doesn’t seem to phase her.  She has taken to keeping a list of ‘important’ conversations to have, with her at all times, possibly written on the inside of her eyelids. Her favorites: (1) “How are you feeling, really? I mean really, really feeling?” (2) “What makes you happy? I mean really happy?” and (3) “What stories do you envision living in your future? Yes, I know that you are unable to see the future.” Conversations that we would like to have include (1) “Let me explain how the TV works” (Devon), (2) “Here’s what are we going to do today.” (Téa Sloane), and (3) “The Knicks have the oldest person in the NBA: Kurt Thomas. He is 40.  Man.” (Cooper).

Cultural Tourism

She and my Dad took us traveling this year to “conferences” and “meetings.” We have found that, to really know a culture, you need to know their candy[1]. When in Mexico, consider tasting some of the hot and spicy candy.  Illuminating and delicious.  When in Italy, try gelato, which like OJ, is not just for breakfast anymore.  When in NY, first stop off at Dillon’s Candy Bar, a nuanced and wonderful destination, revealing more about the history and richness of Manhattan than the Statue of Liberty ever could.

From the very bottom of our hearts, we are thankful for the health we enjoy, the candy we eat, our loving au pair, Johanna, and you. Yes, you. We hope that your holidays are filled with great stories and lots of love!

Our son, Devon documents with a colorful flow chart how you can stop being a sucker and get what you want as a kid through story telling.

Devon shows how to stop being a sucker and get what you want through storytelling. (double-click to zoom)


[1] We often try to consume candy at our home but it’s all too frequently confiscated. Here’s what I recommend if you ever find yourself unlawfully deprived of candy:  First, retreat into your room and close the door. This is a private time. Second, think angrily: How dare they take away your candy?! It is not for them. It is for you. Everyone knows that. Third, leave your room stealthily and just grab what you want and run.  Life is too short.  When you’re caught, return to your room and make a list of people who are unreasonable.

 

 

Rules For Living (2011)

I, (TeaSloaneJustTea[1]) have been tasked with Christmas letter writing. Let’s begin with an update on my brothers.

Tea Sloane Smith

TéaSloaneJustTéa

Devon’s deep. He favors arrowhead and crystal pendant necklaces.  Somewhat paradoxically, he’s also a committed technologist, frequently applying tech terms to the analog world. I’ve heard him say things like: “I’m upgrading my upper arm strength” while working out, and mumble “Undo, UNDO!” emphatically when he misspells.

Devon enjoys TV ads. He thinks they’re well presented, unbiased product information and they empower him with knowledge that allows him to be a tech resource for the rest of us. His appetite for marketing messages may have caused Devon to develop a (completely manageable) iPhone app obsession. Quality matters, but quantity matters more (like Mom with the candles, Cooper with cookies, and Dad with streaming media players). Many apps are free but Devon finds the good ones can cost as much as $5.  So it is frustrating that our dad not only gate-keeps the iTunes Store but also regularly changes the password.  Devon cracked the code once, but this was rendered useless when Cooper decided to brag about Devon’s (and, by transitivity, his) prowess. [If you haven’t witnessed it, Cooper’s bragging is a whole-body performance, up there with Cirque du Soleil. It includes such signature confidence-exuding moves as: British / Australian / Cowboy accent, pimp-walking, and Jay-Z name-dropping. (Coop will ask a new acquaintance: “hey, do you know Jay-Z?” then, while they’re off-balance searching for an answer, he’ll move onto the next conversation, leaving the listener to infer that Cooper and Jay-Z are tight).  He’s also perfected the insouciant Justin Bieber hair flip, disconcerting for too many reasons to mention.  As you might infer, he doesn’t do subtle.  To the right, you will find his to-do list.]

A post-it with the items Draw, Sneak Something, Grapes, TV, Computer, Haircut, TV and Bed

Full days require to-do lists

Like Warren Buffet, my brothers are generally optimistic. Committed to social entrepreneurship, they see their firm Spherical Ventures as the engine of world economic recovery.  SV is a business built on ball reclamation and enhancement, founded after my Dad realized that scores of balls find their way into the remote corners of our yard and nearby properties. For just $.25 per ball, their firm recovers wayward balls. For an additional $.25, their firm re-inflates any balls judged inadequately bouncy, though the client requires an itemized invoice. The brothers pride themselves on thoroughness, partly because their client instituted a penalty for unrecovered balls: $1 deducted for every ball Dad finds after they have declared mission accomplished. Between Groupon and my Dad, my brothers could easily work themselves into bankruptcy.

As for me, I remain focused on my core competences: breakfast production, original singing/dancing numbers, navigating Target, and birthday event planning.[2] New skills still in beta: color coordination, hailing NY taxicabs, and hair-arrangement. One newfound skill; dominating at the card game, Skip-Bo.  Some argue that a key reason for my success is strategic dealing, where all of the “good” cards land in my pile.  The chance of me winning is approximately 95%.  People call me talented — a SkipBo savant.  To them I respond – it’s about the journey people.  Don’t over-think it. It’s just fun.

My Mom’s big goal this year: to become easygoing; she began by listing, prioritizing and assigning due dates to the prerequisites. The first: take an improv class. Like Fight Club, improv has rules. The first: there are no mistakes, only opportunities. As a family, we face a cornucopia of opportunities, particularly at mealtime.  The second rule of improv is to make statements. I live this rule. My favorite statements: “No pictures!” (accompanied with hand completely blocking face from paparazzi), and “No underwear today!”  Third rule: there is no failure, a rule that makes my mom act on her oft-felt feeling that: “I’m pretty sure this next step is wrong; gonna do it anyway.” This new mantra has rekindled her dormant interest in cooking.  Firemen know our address, and it’s not because of stray balls.  The fourth rule of improv is always agree, you are required to agree with whatever your partner just proposed (“yes and..”); it’s an outstanding rule.  After learning this rule my mother’s stint with improv came to an end in favor of ‘active parenting.’

My Dad continues to defy singular definition. Entrepreneur/author/geek, he also seems to be on a mission to infuse technology into every room of our home, possibly as R&D for a brewing home automation venture, pointoption.com.  His goal: try to make our home self-aware, like a friendly version of Skynet from The Terminator. The lights go on when I enter a dark room, the voice of a British lady tells me when someone is at the door, Morticia Adams announces the mail and my best pal/AuPair, Elin, says she’s seen her lights go on and heard an Indian woman yelling at her to wake up from time to time.  It’s super fun to live with us.  Even the firemen look forward to their visits.

From the very bottom of our hearts and during the greatest time of our lives, all of us wish you nothing but happiness, meaning, joy and SkipBo for the holidays and the New Year!


Do you like to get actual paper cards? Make sure we have your address!


[1] Many call me Téa Sloane, and I vehemently and consistently correct them: “Just Téa”, so my name has become TéaSloaneJustTéa, or TSJT to friends.

[2] Key ingredients to successful parties: Tinkerbell, eating-donuts-on-a-string station, tattoos, fashion show, hula-hoops, movie, bowling, a dance party, and whipped cream stations (shots of whipped cream served before cake).

 

Team Aaker/Smith V-Day Movement (2010-ish edition)

Devon is on it!

Happy Valentine’s Day!  It’s Devon.

It’s an understatement to say we didn’t have our act together during the holidays.  So: Happy Valentines Day letter! By sending it when you least expect it and then branding it Team Aaker/Smith V-Day Movement, we’re creating a differentiated offering. A quick review of market research reveals that despite minimal personalization, the open rate for Valentines is off the charts, bumping up with “Someone tagged a photo of you on Facebook” emails. Another insight: very few Valentines Day cards are sent, yet people still report significant expectation and interest in receiving them. This is called an “expectation-reality gap.” Gaps like this lead to depression & overeating.  My goal: close gap, prevent depression, spread love. I’m what they call a “gap-filler.”  Also in the positive column: I’m writing this in WordPress and I’m ready for the inevitable picketing by the no longer necessary Microsoft (Word), Georgia-Pacific (paper), HP (toner) and the USPS.  Open-source technology marches on (FTW)!

My secondary goal: maximum reader reach.  My success metrics 1) become trending topic on Twitter 2) Achieve click-through > 2% then 3) go viral. Confident, I ordered a Gulfstream G650 today to ensure getting it on my 10th birthday in 2012 when the letter has billions of viewers that I monetize through my patented Social Sharing Norm Conversions® Product Integration and Upward Revenue Stream Dynamics.® That’s right: you’re monetized. I’ve already said too much. If you even think about beating me to my goal, I will use the persistent cached cookies embedded in this page to find you.  (Just make sure to turn off all your pop-up blockers and privacy controls before you click on each and every link in this letter. It’s your duty).

Lets start with a recap of the highlight of last year: Disneyland!  A brief reminder of what happened:  We prepared for the trip for weeks, filling our jean pockets with cookies for sustenance, and brushing up on our Disneyland history. On arrival though, we found the parking: painful, tickets: expensive, lines: long.  On the upside, my dad found an iPhone app with GPS-driven map, ranked attraction checklist and crowdsourced wait-time guide to get us around the park strategically, guaranteed to optimize our fun while minimizing time spent in lines. Unfortunately, between the display, the 3G radio and the GPS, the iPhone punched out in under 30 min. Necessity forced us to try something arguably better – a cleverly color-coded, conveniently foldable, pocket-sized tool. It’s called a map. It’s provided by Disneyland. Amazingly it’s free (the only free thing at Disneyland).  So that was fortuitous.  But then Téa Sloane got hungry (“I HUNGRY!”), saw an apple and stole it. Lost teaching moment.  Regaining our momentum, we then decided to check out the Haunted House.  About 45 minutes later (Disneyland excels at line-length deception), we step inside and I, instead of embracing the hauntedness, analyzed the technology that creates the ghosts (“holograms!”). That put a damper on the mystique for some. On the way out, we found our au pair who was shaking from dehydration and heatstroke. Being a “doctor,” mom recommended she eat some grapes. Seconds later, her body decided to put the grapes in reverse. We left seeking a place with less bad advice and fewer bystanders, she slept the entire drive home. We were required to be silent the whole time. So it ended on an upnote.

Despite this successful trip, we did not go to Disneyland again this year.  My parents said that we should “protect those memories” and not taint them with “new Disneyland memories.” They called it this “Strategic Memory Protection” and cite this paper as backup.

So we spent last summer in more pastoral ways – chasing lizards, digging holes, and “appreciating the moment.” It drove me crazy; the days could not have been longer.  I treated it like I was doing hard time. First, there were the prison push-ups, (great for the guns and chest). Second, breaking down electronic things I wanted to understand (challenging, screwdriver required), then trying to put them back together (near impossible, time machine required). Third, coming up with viral campaigns to promote my products.  The first product was a lemonade stand, where we missed an opportunity to leverage social sharing, but I won’t repeat that mistake with Téa Sloane’s upcoming birthday party where social sharing will take center stage, culminating in a birthday movement.

Téa Sloane is doing great.  She’s a Tasmanian Devil version of my mom. She finds instant messaging frustratingly slow. Appropriately, Téa will sign her name “ETA” or “EAT.” Both work for her; she is very time driven and enjoys a wide variety of food.

Téa Sloane firmly believes a thing’s sparkliness signals its quality. July 4th is a high quality holiday; Cinderella wears high quality clothes; mom’s clothes from the ‘80s are outstanding.  She’s is also an “out of the box” thinker, viewing either/or options as an invitation to brainstorm a third option. Samples:

  • You can have carrots or broccoli. “Neither!”
  • You can have a cookie or ice-cream. “Both!”
  • You can come with me or dad. “Stay home alone!”

Cooper has an uncanny sense for what others should be doing. He’s a shoo-in for becoming Dr. Phil’s retirement replacement or a Partner at McKinsey. He has a portfolio of 17 distinct sketch characters and 20 accurate verbal impressions. He has a solid New York accent, a Crocodile Dundee-Australian sure to offend anyone from OZ and leveraging pre-adolescence he can respectably belt out a pregnant Alicia Keys and a Jay-Z impression within the same song. He’s working on a remixed demo of an original piece so JayZ can sing it. If you tell him you’re going to New York, he’ll likely ask you to drop it on JayZ when you’re there.

My parents are doing great. Dad’s on a media blitz with The Dragonfly Effect; he’s commenting on things that he’s is an expert on as well as other things that to me sound better left to the State Department. He speaks on both with confidence; clearly no one notices the difference.  He retains his weakness for palm trees and tiki-themed knickknacks as well as his strength in the form of his “no-cookie diet” (25 months and counting).  Mom continues to focus on work, cuddling with us and avoiding cooking (for everyone’s sake). Her difficulties have progressed from meal production malfunctions to problems with food consumption as well. Here’s a recent picture from a party where she tried to cook and also eat.

Jennifer Aaker with a hole burned in her sleeve

No one recently on fire looks so happy.

No one looks as good (or happy) as she does immediately after burning a hole clear through her shirt-over an open flame-while wearing it. This was a new high for her.

We hope that your Valentines Day is filled with strategically protected memories, sparkly things and movements of all kinds.  Happy V-Day, and good in closing your own expectation-reality gaps!

 

It’s a Hard Knock Life (2009)

Cooper SoCals it up in Santa Monica

In our home, Thanksgiving is the first day of Christmas. And I, Cooper David Aaker Smith, have been enlisted to write the letter.  Here’s the sum-up:

  • Last Christmas, Téa Sloane broke her leg sledding. This fall, she broke her leg again (same leg) at home just being her. That was fun.Repeated fractures haven’t slowed her down though. During retail therapy, for instance, Téa Sloane has been known to look in the mirror, put her hands on her hips and say, “You look great, baby!”
  • We’ve replaced “I don’t like” with “I presently struggle with.” Like “I presently struggle with broccoli.” I find vegetables generally struggly.
  • We started working out in the garage with mom and dad (P90X). We do yoga tree poses and lift weights. At least one girl is attracted to me for my “big daddy-guns.”  So I’ve got that going for me.
  • We’re into educational TV, Dragnet, for example.  Here’s how it’s educational: 1) The show always starts with Sergeant Friday introducing his partner, then his boss, then himself. That’s just polite.  2) They wear pressed suits and tight neckties all the time. That’s church clothes 24-7.  3) If you need backup to make a bust at a flophouse, you either have to find a pay phone or ask the perp if you could use his phone and he always acquiesces.  Sharing!

     My parents are doing great. We are actively helping them write a book (you’re welcome, mom and dad).  They also spend much of their time in search for what they like to call ‘teaching moments’ for us. Here is a sample “teaching moment” involving the role of money in life.

Mom: “Do you think that money brings you happiness?”

Devon: (happy to know the answer to this one), “Yes!  Yes!  It does!”

Mom: “No, in fact it doesn’t. Money shouldn’t be your goal. And we don’t talk about money with others.  Now what does makes you happy?”

Devon (starting to question himself): “Trophies?”

Mom: “Nooooo.  Actually trophies don’t make you happy.  Family and friends make you happy.  Helping others make you happy.  And if you have money you have a responsibility to help others who have less. So let’s review, do we ever talk about money or trophies or our home or things?”

Me: (I’m happy to know the answer): “Yes! I really like our home!”

Mom: Nooooooo….

[Here Sandra (our aupair) interjects, taking a second pass at a different angle.]

Sandra: “Ok, If I had a lot of money to buy ice cream. How would you feel?”

Devon: “Happy for you! You got ice cream! That is great!”

Me: [silence]

Sandra: [trying again]: “Ok, if I had lots of money for ice cream and you didn’t have any money so you couldn’t get any ice cream, how would you feel?”

Devon: “I am really happy for you!  You got ice cream!”

Me: “Now I am sad.”

Devon: “I am happy for you!”

Me: “I am VERY sad.”

So that is how things work out here.  I don’t recommend “teaching moments.”  They are rather like “family meetings” – good only in theory.

A highlight of the year: Disneyland!  Two thumbs up.  Really.  It’s up there with Cinnamon Toast Crunch® cereal.  We prepared for the trip for weeks, filling our jean pockets with cookies for sustenance, and brushing up on our Disneyland history. On arrival though, we found parking to be painful, the tickets expensive (enough to feed a small village or buy an IKEA bedroom set) and the lines long.  On the upside, my dad found an iPhone app with GPS-driven map, ranked attraction checklist and crowdsourced wait-time guide to get us around the park strategically, optimizing our fun while minimizing lines. Unfortunately, between the display, the 3G radio and the GPS, the iPhone died in under 30 minutes. Necessity forced us to try something arguably better – a cleverly color-coded, conveniently foldable, pocket-sized tool. It’s called a map. It’s provided by Disneyland. Amazingly it’s free (the only free thing at Disneyland).  So that was fortuitous.  But then Téa Sloane got hungry (“I HUNGRY!”), saw an apple and stole it.  By the time we discovered her theft (because she handed the core back to us for disposal), we were too far away from the victimized fruit stand.  Lost “teaching moment.”  Regaining our momentum, we then decided to check out the Haunted House. 

About 45 minutes later (Disneyland excels at line-length deception), we step inside and Devon, instead of embracing the hauntedness, analyzes the technology that creates the ghosts (“holograms!”). That put a damper on the mystique. On the way out, we met Sandra and Téa Sloane outside, where Sandra was shaking from heatstroke (warmer than Sweden, Anaheim is).  Being a “doctor,” my mom recommended she eat some grapes. Seconds later, Sandra’s body decided to put the grapes in reverse. We left with Sandra to find a place with less bad advice and fewer spectators. She slept the entire car ride home, and we were required to be silent for the whole time. So it ended up on an upnote.  We can’t wait to go back. 

     This fall, we turned our attention to career development – mapping our interests, skills and areas requiring improvement against our goals. I see myself becoming doctor-turned-cartoonist-turned-piano-player. Or a money-makin’ businessman focused on selling dessert. (I believe business is about selling and selling requires authentic passion. And I’m authentically passionate about dessert). I’m also a big believer in TV.  I can smell it when there’s a TV on. My nose twitches. Perhaps I’ll do a mashup of all of these together to develop the business that addresses the demise of today’s broadcast media.

     Devon wants to create homes for homeless people (he figures at least 10 can fit in his room), become an alien, or a scientist because he enjoys generating flowcharts (scroll to the end for a taste), hypotheses and Laws. For example, I’m sure you’re familiar with Metcalfe’s Law – basically any set of connections becomes more valuable in proportion to the square of the number of its nodes. Lesser-known, Devon’s Law applies to our family doing anything.  A sort of inverse network effect – difficulty (as measured by number of attempts, raised voices and total time consumed) is proportional to the square of the number family members involved. In this year’s Christmas photo for instance, the stats: 7 sittings, 4 locations, 3 photographers, 248 exposures, 23 tears, 17 stern voices, 201 pictures of Devon making a silly face, 147 pictures of me with (what was judged to be) an insincere smile, 94 pictures of Dad looking uncomfortable or ticked-off, 79 of Téa Sloane covering her face with her hands for fun, 248 pictures of Mommy looking beautiful and 1 hour of my Dad Photoshopping together a passable Frankenphoto.

     When she grows up, Téa Sloane wants to be a princess mommy who wears a crown all the time, even while sleeping (potential husbands and crown-makers, consider yourself on notice: this is non-negotiable).  Though now she is 100% certain this is what she will become, she was previously 100% certain she would be:

  1. A professional pink cast fashion designer
  2. President of the United States (who successfully passes laws mandating fashionable pink casts)
  3. An operations manager because of her highly developed sense of urgency.

Things should be done yesterday. YESTERDAY. But certainty doesn’t obviate a backup plan — which is to become a singer/songwriter who shuns planned performances, spontaneously breaking out in song wherever, whenever. Like Twitter, however, monetization could prove difficult.  Her stage name would be EAT (an alternative but, to her, equally preferred spelling of Téa).  Her original song lyrics are sung confidently, off-key and loud: “My momMAA!  Her name is Jennifer!  Aaker!  Her is my best girl!  And I like her!  My momMAA!”  Téa Sloane also enjoys singing Happy Birthday in lieu of complementing someone.  For example, if Devon tells her that her hair looks nice, she will respond with: “Happy Birthday to Devon, Happy Birthday to YOU!”Here’s to princesses, aliens, money-makin’ businessmen, a reduction in teaching moments and many happy birthdays to YOU in the New Year!

———

Bonus infographic: Devon’s Quick Reference for Sticky Situations [double-click to zoom]