The Excitable Optimism of Sekhnet

From time to time Sekhnet, who meets countless people during the course of her work gathering news for a national network, reports a fascinating conversation she had that relates to my life and plans.  She brings me a business card, or contact info written on a scrap of paper and urges me to call them.   Often things come to grief, since I am not always quick to make these potential contacts.   That most have so far been in vain is no excuse for my glass-half-empty pessimism.    

She heard a bright and funny man give a fantastic talk on becoming pitch perfect at sales meetings, during interviews of any and all kinds.  He pointed out that people have one chance to make a good first impression and clinch the deal, and that there are a hundred ways to blow it.  Read his book, aptly titled “Pitch Perfect” and you can weed out many of these ways, have a crisp phrase ready, delivered in the same winning style you see before you today, saying exactly enough to make your point crisply, and not one phrase more.  

Being pitch perfect is the difference between getting a major donation, or any kind of big yes, and getting that gassy baby smile and limp handshake at the end of a meeting too long by crucial moments.  The man’s talk and style were both excellent, she enjoyed it and found it valuable.  She bought his book, which I read cover to cover.  It was excellent.  

I took the next step and contacted his office to make an appointment for the four hour personalized master class.   It was, not surprisingly, $4,000.  I explained that I represented a small, money-strapped non-profit and was cheerfully told the tiny non-profit rate was $3,600.   My silence was met by an offer to do the half course, more than 60% as good as the full one, for only $2,000, certainly our budget could manage that.  

Well, I thought, the $2,00o, a quarter of our operating fund, could go for that or for two new animation set-ups.  I thanked her, even as a bit of bile was coming up in the back of my throat.

Sometimes helpful people, hearing my idea for the child-run interactive animation workshop, have suggested I pitch the idea on Shark Tank to get funding.   Shark Tank is a show where business owners try to strike deals to get funding from a group of wealthy sharks who evaluate the ideas looking for monster profits.

Experience has taught me the difference between what I was trying to sell and something an angel investor in the Shark Tank would salivate over. In Shark Tank the family that invented the fantastically lucrative Squatty Potty was looking for millions to take their product, a short plastic foot stool that made passing stools as easy and pleasant as operating a soft serve machine, to the next level, international super sales.   The investors were looking for a credible sign that every million they put in would have a good chance of turning into ten million for them.  It is straightforward.    

If the idea is to transform a boring public school classroom into a fun ninety minute imagination-fueled, problem-solving, peer-teaching playground where kids have the final say on every aspect of the product they are producing, a short bit of stop-motion animation, a process that leaves them collaborative, energized and engaged in learning and teaching, no angel investor worth his dorsal fin will so much as stop circling to sniff that particular patch of water for blood.  

“Sounds like a great idea, you got funding?  What’s your marketing budget?”   These are the first two questions anyone bright and practical asks when I finish my brief answer to “so, what have you been up to since last year?”  

“You have to find fellow idealists,” Sekhnet has always told me.  

I was referred to a non-profit called idealist.org, signed up.  Was invited to a mixer at a bar.   Went and met the people who worked for idealist.org.  They explained all the benefits of being a member.  I joined.  I haven’t had an email from them, or anyone else on the site, in years.  

I had an email from two guys who founded a nice outfit to introduce non-conformists with big society-improving ideas, a mutual help organization for idealistic types.  They would match people up according to their skills, interests and needs.  The first rule, when you met, was to listen to the other person’s idea and needs first and think about how you could help.  In the end, their emails stopped coming too.  It was a great idea, but I guess they didn’t have funding or an adequate marketing budget or business plan.

Having lunch with the sister of an old friend the subject of the nonprofit came up.  She thought it was a great project and then told me about a woman she’d recently met, a dynamic older woman, who was on the inside of Mayor Di Blasio’s Department of Education.  She was a great lady, and good friends with this woman’s good friend.  She shepherded many great new programs through the Education Department’s doors, knew how to get them funded and contracted as pilot programs, that was her speciality.  She was, literally the perfect person for me to meet.  In fact, we’d meet for Dim Sum, with the mutual friend, and I could run the idea by her at an informal meeting, that would be best.  

That offer turned into the old can-do idealist’s phone number being texted to me, followed by a series of supportive follow-up texts asking if I’d contacted her yet.  Presumably I was supposed to set up the informal Dim Sum meeting where the no pressure chat could unfold.  I called her a couple of times, introduced myself in short, hopefully well-pitched voice mails, I texted her this and then  this.   We never met for Dim Sum, nor did I ever hear back from her.  

It reminded me of the introduction I’d had a year earlier to the director of a large arts non-profit, with a twenty million dollar annual budget.  I was told this woman, a good friend of a close friend of mine, would love my idea and her well-funded organization could definitely help.  If our mutual friend had been present at the meeting, things might have gone better, the well-funded nonprofit could definitely have helped.  As it turned out, I was chided for my defeatist attitude before the meeting, felt dread on the way to the meeting, and the results afterwards were the opposite of helpful.    

Sekhnet remains undaunted.  Her mechanic’s daughter, it turns out, by pure whimsical chance, works at a nonprofit that features creative programs for public school children in Queens.  This friendly young woman was very excited about the student-run animation workshop, gave Sekhnet her card.  Sekhnet has learned about such things, knows that I’m currently concentrating on a book about the life and times of a man nobody’s ever heard of, and told the young idealist that it might be a while, but that I would get in touch with her.  

The same goes for the twenty-one year old idealist she spoke to in the computer department at Costco the other day.   He works at Costco and is completing a business degree at Baruch.  He and his brother love stop-motion, are idealists, think a student-run animation workshop for young kids sounds amazing and want to help.  Plus, he’s getting the business education to help with funding and marketing.  Win-win-win.  He was cautioned that it may take a while to hear from me.  

Thanksgiving I hear Sekhnet piping at me from across the room, calling me by my Christian name, if I was a Christian.  I never know what the deal is when I hear her urgently piping “Eliot!”   She’s talking with a smiling, friendly woman who it turns out works for Simon and Schuster.   She works in HR, hiring and firing like a demon, but she has found her home in publishing, after years in electronic media, and loves being around book people. She reads like a fiend since she’s been working there.  Sekhnet informs her I’ve written a book, I get a big smile.  

“It’s a manuscript, a first draft, around 700 pages.  It’s like wrestling with an anaconda at the moment, but I’m really enjoying it,” I say to the big smile.  

“I love book people,” she tells me, with that beautiful smile.  

I describe the idea that gets me out of bed every day, excited to write: a three-dimensional portrait of a great idealist who was also a monster, and how he rose from dire poverty to live the American Dream, a historian passionately involved in the historical events of his lifetime.  A dreamer and a destroyer of dreams.

I tell her that one day, as I was writing about his painful childhood, the skeleton of my father sat up in his grave to bitterly dispute something I’d just written.  I’d dismissed it at the time, went with it, had the chat, figured I could cut it later.  Then found him popping up again and again and now much of the ms. is an ongoing dialogue with the opinionated skeleton, a talk I look forward to every day.  

The smile continued as she told me it sounded cool, and that this kind of soul-searching memoir is currently a very hot genre and that if I find the right agent things could go well with this idea.  She then told us of a website where you can do a detailed search, by genre , of agents, and that no publisher will accept anything unless submitted by an agent.  Sekhnet jotted down the name of the website where I could find the highly specialized agent I will need to find.

I then told her everything I knew and felt about Jim Dale’s deightful audiobook performance of the marvelous Harry Potter books.  I promised her that she would love it, based on everything she’d told us about the books she liked best, then smiled, curtsied to Sekhnet, and went to have another muffin.  

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