Building an all-electric home

A few years ago, we decided to buy an 1870s-era Brooklyn brownstone and gut renovate it to “passive house” standards (more detailed info on “passive house” here). During the middle of our project, I wrote about why I was excited about the passive house approach. In short, a passive house leverages simple building techniques to build a highly-insulated air-tight home that reduces energy usage by up to 90% while providing clean, fresh, filtered air. Our basic goal with the project aside from having a nice living space was to build a home that would last another 150 years while taking into account its impact on climate change. (This is not a new interest for me — I had similar motivations when we built Etsy’s award-winning (1, 2, 3) headquarters in Brooklyn which participated in the Living Building Challenge (LBC) as one of the largest LBC buildings in NYC). To address climate change, our environments at work and at home have to be built with purpose with responsible energy usage baked in. Recycling and reusable tote bags aren’t going to cut it (see “The Great Recycling Con” and “The Cotton Tote Crisis“).

One of the choices we made was making the home all-electric. Now that we’re basically done, I’m writing this because we learned a lot from the process. I’m hoping others out there who read this may share their lessons (and I’m glad to update these posts to answer any questions anyone might have). My plan is to write in some detail later about each of the key areas (see “Key choices in building an all-electric home” below) and what we learned in the multi-year process.

All-electric: why?

According to the NYT, 67 percent of carbon emissions in NYC come from buildings. A gut renovation is a huge opportunity to do the deep work required to minimize the long-term footprint of a building. Part of that is designing the home to be all-electric. Union Square Ventures wrote about the importance of electrification in its series about areas they are exploring for their Climate Fund (proud to be an LP!) As they wrote: “Building electrification and grid decarbonization go hand-in-hand. While electrification does not instantly make the energy supply entirely clean, it gives it a chance to be.” The clean energy future isn’t fully here yet but aligning around electric means that when it is (and it will get here), we’ll be fully ready to plug in. For now, we have a small solar array on the roof that provides some of the energy and we signed up for CleanChoice Energy via ConEd (the local utility in NYC) for the rest of our power. Theoretically, the energy we consume in the house produces zero carbon emissions.

We’ve lived in the house for 10 months now and that’s given us the opportunity to experience weather extremes that are typical of NYC, from 16F / -9C in January to 97F / 36C in June. So far, the energy consumption numbers are what I was told they would be but I still find them stunning. My rough numbers comparing energy bills from my old conventional NYC apartment (a developer-renovated brownstone with an apartment on each floor) with the new house suggest about an ~85% reduction in energy usage versus my old apartment when adjusted for square footage. Yes, 85%.

While it wasn’t cheap for us to get to this point, this kind of project isn’t a way of building that demands a huge premium. There are a number of affordable housing projects being built to passive house standards around the country, with the largest right here in NYC: Bronx – Park Avenue Green. Habitat for Humanity has built passive houses, too. These projects recognize that high energy bills are a key contributor to poverty and the passive house approach mitigates the impact of energy costs by almost an order of magnitude. Affordable housing isn’t just about getting someone into a house they can afford to buy. It’s just as important — if not more — to get into a house you can afford to operate.

It’s a smart way to build for the long-term, plain and simple, and much less expensive to operate than a conventional building. There’s no fancy, untested technology and it all works right now. In fact, the core principles of passive house building were established in response to rising fuel prices during the 1973 oil embargo when I was a year old and started to take hold in the 1980s.

Key choices in building an all-electric home

There were a couple of key areas where we had to make quite a few choices. I don’t know if all of them were “right” but we’re happy with the results. In future posts, I plan to write about these issues from the perspective of someone who had to make all of these choices.

  1. Supply of electricity. In NYC, we have ConEd and the default electricity feed you get makes no provisions for renewable sources. In other words, it’s default “dirty.” Building and fire codes in NYC make it difficult in some environments (e.g. landmarked districts) to fully blanket a roof top with solar, which can limit one’s ability to offset electricity from the utility, or to use batteries to capture and use daytime energy. I learned a LOT about this and will definitely document what I learned in a future post.
  2. Appliances. Like many people in NYC, we were accustomed to using a gas range, a gas hot water heater, gas heating (via a boiler), and a gas dryer. The thought of using electric versions of each of those gave us some anxiety as the functioning of each of those systems affects one’s living experience significantly. We did it, though, and are super-happy with the results.

I’m not sure exactly when I’ll write the more detailed posts but if you’re interested in this topic, feel free to reach out and let me know what you’re interested in. I’ll try to write about it if my experience offers any insight! If you’ve been through the same process in NYC or anywhere else, I’d love to hear from you about your lessons learned.

My letter to the editor was published

Update 7/30/20: my offer to help fund the move of the Confederate monument was accepted and I sent a check for $15K (a little more than my initial offer) to the Town of Louisburg today.

I wrote a letter to the editor of The Franklin Times about the Confederate monument in Louisburg, NC, where both sides of my family go way back to the 1700s, including slave owners and Confederate soldiers, including one who gave his life for the Confederacy. It was published today (PDF of the paper – it’s on 5A). Last week, I wrote in detail about what led me to write the letter (“Moving my Confederate monument“) but I wasn’t sure it would be published. In the letter, I explain how the monument relates to my family, why I think it should be moved, and offered $10,000 towards moving it. The letter ran today in the print edition under the headline “Monument’s move ‘applauded,’ financial assistance pledged.” (image of paper and text of letter below)

Since I wrote the letter, the monument was moved into storage in a hurry over the weekend out of public safety concerns. The news report on the front page of the print paper today gives a sense of why:

In recent days, the protests have grown more confrontational, especially as those from outside Louisburg joined in, including at least two motorcycle clubs that showed up armed with guns and claw hammers to “defend” the monument.

This is yet another reason the monument has to be moved. It’s time to fight together for our collective future, not litigate the distant past.



To the editor:

I am writing to applaud the decision of the Louisburg Town Council to move the Confederate statue to the Oakwood Cemetery, which I’ve been following from afar. While I don’t live in Franklin County, I’ve spent a lot of time in Franklin County. Both of my parents were born and raised in Franklin County and their lines go back to the 1700s, before Franklin County was even called Franklin County. As an adult, I’ve studied the history of my family, all of whom fought for the Confederacy, including multiple casualties: my great-great-grandfather James Martin Dickerson (wounded at Gettysburg), great-great-grandfather James Dallas Pearce (wounded at Cold Harbor, VA), and 4th-great uncle Solomon Pearce (killed at Sharpsburg/Antietam). Solomon’s father Nathan — my 4th-great-grandfather who shares my grandfather’s name — owned slaves. While they may have believed they were fighting for a just cause at the time, everything we know today shows that the cause was wrong. More importantly, the symbols that revere a time that is now in the distant past are making it harder than ever to move forward into the future.

As we grow up, our understanding changes as we spend more time in the world. Growing up in North Carolina, I loved the Confederate flag and kept a Confederate Army hat in my room. I never thought about what the Confederate cause and its symbols might mean to others. But I grew up and learned the hurt that those symbols represented to people I cared about, and I put them away for good. As the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” In a similar spirit, it is time for Louisburg and Franklin County to move forward by putting this monument in its rightful place. It is time to face the future together, not dwell on a divisive past.

It is notable to me that the plan to move the monument adopted by the town council closely mirrors the one proposed by Will Hinton just two years ago. We owe Will Hinton our gratitude for having the vision, integrity, and love for the community to raise difficult questions two years ago and for risking his reputation by taking an unpopular position and speaking out about it. History is filled with people who did the right thing at great cost to themselves while alive, only to be recognized only after death as right. I believe Will Hinton should be celebrated today. As a tribute to his vision, I would like to offer the Town of Louisburg $10,000 towards moving the monument to its rightful place.

I know many in my family there in Franklin County will not agree with me. Doing what is right doesn’t always create harmony. Ultimately, I believe we honor the memories of our ancestors by doing what is right today. It is time to replace the divisive symbols of yesterday with symbols of unity. Thank you, Will Hinton, for your courage and to the members of the Louisburg Town Council who cast the right vote.

Chad Dickerson
Brooklyn, NY

Moving my Confederate monument

I sent a letter today to the editor of The Franklin Times in Louisburg, NC with an offer of $10,000 to help fund the move of a Confederate monument there to a local cemetery (full text below this post). (Update: the letter was published and the monument was ultimately moved, funded in part by my donation, which I increased to $15,000.) I say “my” Confederate monument in the headline of this post because the monument is in memory of Franklin County’s soldiers, and they are my ancestors. While the monument is shared by many, the monument is just as much mine as anyone else’s.

Most of the people who read this blog probably have never heard of The Franklin Times or Louisburg. It’s the county seat of Franklin County, North Carolina which is where both of my parents grew up, where I visited my grandparents’ farm a lot as a child, and where my annual family reunion is louisburg_monumentheld. Both sides of my family go back to pre-Revolutionary War times there. In the Civil War, all of my relatives fought for the Confederacy, and with multiple casualties: my great-great-grandfather James Martin Dickerson (wounded at Gettysburg), great-great-grandfather James Dallas Pearce (wounded at Cold Harbor, VA), and 4th-great uncle Solomon Pearce (killed at Sharpsburg/Antietam). Solomon’s father Nathan — my 4th-great-grandfather who shares my grandfather’s name — and his son Acrel owned six slaves according to the 1850 slave census.

All of this is why I took a special interest two years ago when I read a story in the Raleigh, NC News & Observer (where I had my first job) about Will Hinton’s proposal to move the monument (“A Confederate statue. A mostly black college. And simmering small-town resentment.”)

Will Hinton had a simple proposal: move the divisive monument from its downtown location at the college to a local cemetery and replace it with a flagpole bearing an American flag that would represent everyone. Hinton was an unlikely agitator — a pickup-driving white man who had deep roots in the county. His grandmother and mother were born there and his great-great-grandfather had actually donated the land for the local cemetery (Oakwood) where many of the Confederate dead were buried. To make his case, he delivered a remarkable guest sermon at his church (“White Male Privilege“) and wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper (“Thoughts on Our Monument“). As the News & Observer story notes, some folks in town who had known Hinton for decades turned their backs on him for speaking out. I was really moved by his conviction, tracked him down, and sent him a message of support. We talked on the phone shortly after. Ultimately, nothing happened, though. The painful monument remained. Time passed.

While I was quarantined in North Carolina several weeks ago just after my father’s death, the passing of generations weighed on my mind. It was an unusually heavy time, with George Floyd’s murder coming just days after I had sat by my father’s bed as he passed. The Bible verses of my youth were suddenly present in my mind during those days and I thought of the beautiful writing of Ecclesiastes 3:

1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

While I was in North Carolina, I made a special trip to see the Confederate monument (the photo with this blog post is one I took that day). With the passing of a generation in my father’s death and all of the pain of George Floyd’s death, I felt the need to stand in front of that monument and say goodbye to that part of my family’s collective past. A time to lose. A time to cast away. 

I eventually made my way back to Brooklyn but I thought about that monument every day as monuments around the country have been coming down. This week, the Louisburg Town Council voted 4-3 to move the monument in an emergency Zoom meeting. When I visited the monument just weeks ago, I didn’t expect it to be gone so soon after over 100 years in its current place. The plan that was approved was more or less the plan that Will Hinton had proposed two years ago. In today’s News & Observer, Will was interviewed and said, “It’s not a time for a victory lap. It’s time to slowly, humbly, calmly walk hand in hand.” Will was right, but was taking the path of righteousness (in the most positive Biblical sense).

I sent the letter below to the editor of The Franklin Times applauding the vote and offered $10,000 towards moving the monument as a tribute to the conviction of Will Hinton (A time to speak). As I say in the letter, “I believe we honor the memories of our ancestors by doing what is right today” and after a lot of reflection on the present and deep study of my past, I want to do what I can to bring forth that change. It’s time for all of us to turn the page and face the future.

The letter was published on July 2, 2020 so I moved the text of the letter to a separate post.

My new (old) coaching business: Strong Back Open Heart

After about 2.5 years as a Reboot coach, I’ve decided to focus on building my own private practice. The catalyst for the change was largely a technical one (more on that in a moment). I step away from my official relationship with Reboot with nothing but love and gratitude for the entire Reboot team, particularly my dear friend Jerry. I use the word “official” because I will always feel a deep connection to Reboot and my friends there. All the words I said about Reboot in my blog post when I joined forces with them remain true. (And I’ll certainly continue referring clients to them when I’m not a good fit.)

Now, the “technical” part: with the passing of AB5 in California (the so-called “Uber law,” which stipulates that most contractors must become employees), the folks at Reboot decided to shift their relationships with coaches like me who had worked as independent contractors and transition to a smaller roster of coaches as employees. I’m in a phase of my career where being an employee isn’t the right fit for me, so I made the decision to focus on building my own business. The name of my coaching business is Strong Back Open Heart LLC. (It’s not entirely new — I established it in November 2017 as the umbrella for my work as a contractor for Reboot and a few private engagements.)

The name of the company is derived from my approach to coaching and leadership as I articulate on my new web site:

I believe “strong back, open heart” leadership is the key to building great companies. The strong back is represented by fiscal discipline, strong process, and accountability. The soft, open-hearted front are values, purpose, connectedness, and compassion. Organizations and people are at their best when they manifest both in equal balance.

You can read more about me as a coach and my coaching approach, which includes a few brief anonymized case studies of actual coaching engagements. I also built a directory of leadership resources with books and articles that have helped me as a leader over the years and helped my coaching clients (consider this in beta — it’s a work-in-progress). If you’re interested in working together, all the ways to connect are on my contact page.

Aside from continuing the work, I’m excited about running my own business. A big part of my excitement is that I’m doing something completely solo for the first time in my life. I’ve always been a part of other companies throughout my career and I built and led teams at companies of all sizes for 25 years. I spent my time as an executive constantly scaling and delegating and I enjoyed it. Now it’s fun to do that in reverse and I’m enjoying being the CEO, CFO, CTO, CMO, and executive assistant.

If you’re interested in working together, please do reach out.

A huge thanks to Simon Collison who was a joy to work with as my design partner on the web site and to Chris Shiflett at Faculty for making the introduction to Simon.  

The Phillip G. Dickerson Sr. Memorial Scholarship

I wrote about my dad’s passing last week. While we’re missing him and adjusting to life without him, my brother and I have been spending time at my dad’s house getting his affairs in order and reminiscing about his life. One of the constants in all of our lives has been NC State. My dad really believed in the power of education and talked about it constantly when we were growing up. He graduated from NC State with a B.S. in civil engineering in 1968. He grew up with little money and kept having to quit school to work to make more money to go back to school again. It took him seven years to get that degree, so it meant a lot to him. He loved NC State and his house is covered in NC State paraphernalia.

My brother and I decided that the ultimate tribute to our dad would be to endow a memorial scholarship at NC State in his name to make it easier for others like him to build the kind of rich life that he did through education.

If you are interested in contributing to honor my dad’s legacy, gifts may be made to the Phillip G. Dickerson Sr. Memorial Scholarship Endowment. Checks should be written to the NC State Engineering Foundation and can be mailed to: NC State Engineering Foundation, Campus Box 7901, Raleigh, NC 27695. Or contribute online here. Go to “Search All Funds” type “Dickerson” and you should see Phillip G. Dickerson Sr. Memorial Scholarship Endowment. All gifts are considered tax-deductible.

I know my dad would be thrilled to have an Engineering scholarship at NC State named after him. The image below is of a letter I found just yesterday that my dad wrote to my mom in December 1961 when he was a first year student at NC State and they were still dating. He had gotten three test scores back, all miserable: 35, 33, and 31. He wrote to his girlfriend (my future mom), “I’m going to change to Agriculture Education next semester I think. This Engineering is just too much math and technical stuff for me.” But he didn’t quit and powered through with the sheer force of will we saw him apply over and over in his life when he had a goal in mind. And now one of his legacies will be to help other NC State engineering students do the same.


Phillip G. Dickerson: 1943-2020

My father Phillip G. Dickerson Sr. passed away at age 77 around 5am Thursday, May 21 in my hometown of Greenville, NC. The obituary is here. I was with him at his bedside in his final days and I know he knows how much I loved him. The family has established the Phillip G. Dickerson Sr. Memorial Scholarship in the School of Engineering at NC State to honor his memory (more on that and how to contribute here).

I don’t feel like I need to write a tribute to my dad today because I did it while he was dad_headshot_smalive. I wrote one for Father’s Day in 2012 and I shared it with him (and the world) then. If you want to know what a great man my dad was, I encourage you to read it. I only feel what I said about him then more deeply now that he is gone. I’ve been talking with friends and family non-stop since he passed away and the themes from that post are only magnified in this moment. He was a good man. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye on everything but we adored each other and there was never any question about that. I am grateful that I shared that tribute with him when he was alive. He lived very modestly and didn’t seek the limelight but I know he enjoyed the attention when we did special things for him.

Since I wrote that living tribute, I also had the opportunity to fund basketball and pickleball courts in a county park he helped bring into existence as the County Engineer of Pitt County, NC (a job he had for 30+ years). We named it the Phillip G. Dickerson Sr. Courts in his honor and had a ceremony for his family and friends. We gave speeches while he sat in the front row. You can hear my brother and me talk about my dad in this YouTube video (starting at 10:34), including some playful digs at the UNC Tarheels, a team my dad loved to hate as an NC State graduate. My dad and I bonded regularly over basketball so it was more special than you can imagine to name a basketball court after him. I’m glad we did that while he was still alive and every time a father and son shoot around there like we did when I was a kid, they will see my dad’s name on the sign.

Even though I’m at peace with how I expressed love and appreciation to my dad, the finality of death is startling. In life, we often say “this isn’t life or death” about situations and being in a situation that is actually life or death is wrenching. In a series of excruciating decisions made even more excruciating from all of the considerations of the coronavirus epidemic, we decided to put my father in hospice care at home the prior weekend. After being safe and healthy with my family in Brooklyn, I made the decision to leave my two-month-long quarantine in Brooklyn Monday morning and was able to be with him starting Monday evening. A generous lifelong friend drove me all the way from Brooklyn to my dad’s doorstep in Greenville, NC and I’m not sure I will ever be more grateful for any gesture in my life.

(Warning: if discussions of death and dying are difficult for you, I encourage you not to read further.) 

I really hesitated to put in words what I’m about to write about the most difficult parts of the experience but after speaking with friends and family, I found that my experience is common and there is even a term for some of what I experienced: “terminal restlessness.” No one seems to talk about it, though, until after you’ve been through it. I wish I had known what I was about to deal with when I came down on Monday, so I’m writing about this in the hopes that someone going through a similarly grueling experience will find this post and feel comforted that they are not alone. Writing this also helps me process my own experience.

If you’ve never been through having a loved one in hospice, it’s difficult to describe the experience. On the most basic level, being in hospice means that the family cares for the loved one at home making sure the person is as comfortable as possible in the final days of life, with the generous support of a team of nurses, social workers, and clergy (and they are incredibly generous). They visit, advise, support, and train but the care is nearly completely administered by the family. One of my main jobs was giving my dad the medicine he needed to have a peaceful transition. I’ve had what some would consider “important” jobs in my life but none was as important as my job as nurse for my dad in his final days (along with my dear brother). Nothing comes close.

On his second to last night with us, my father talked all night. He was normally a quiet man who spoke in simple language. That night he was having visions, mentioning names of his brothers who had passed before him, talking about going places. I sat by the bed with one of the caregivers we had brought on to help, trying to make sense of what my father was saying. Everything was in the present tense as if it was happening right then, not 2:30am in the morning. He talked about shingles and roofs and nails. He told me to go get the nails from the truck. I said, “Daddy, are you talking about the summer when we put shingles on the roof?” He said, “Yes” and seemed to calm a bit. He started talking about pigs and goats and the barn and I said, “Daddy, are you talking about when you were a boy growing up on the farm?” and again he calmed a bit and nodded weakly. I felt like portals were opening and closing, then opening again and closing again. I couldn’t see what he was seeing myself but I was sure he was seeing these things.

The most persistent image was a train. “Get on the train!” he said emphatically, raising his voice as much as his weak body would allow. “The train is leaving! Hurry, hurry, hurry!” He said he was on the train with his brother Fred, who had passed away in 2009. He said, “You can lay me down by the tracks on the ground if you have to, I have to go!” I struggled to make sense of what he was saying. I will never know for sure what he was seeing in those moments but after a few minutes of puzzling over his vision, I felt a force channel a song through my body. I began singing quietly to myself through tears:

This train is bound for glory, this train,

This train is bound for glory, this train,

This train is bound for glory,

Don’t ride nothin’ but the righteous and holy

This train is bound for glory, this train.

I will never hear that song the same way again.** It has been on a continuous loop in my head ever since as I have been trying to process the essentially unknowable that he was expressing in simple words, thinking about how insufficient our earthly language is to express such a profound transition. Looking back, I think he was starting his final journey in those moments.

(** there are many versions of this song with varying lyrics but this version by Sister Rosetta Tharpe is probably my favorite)

The rest of the night and next morning into the afternoon, it felt like we were wrestling with Death. No one tells you how physical this experience is. Much of it I would rather keep private but the reality of “terminal restlessness” is more intense than any experience I’ve had in my life, by orders of magnitude. I thought my Apple Watch was broken. I had only been the few dozen feet between the kitchen, the couch in the living room, and my father’s bedroom but it said I had walked 2.5 miles.

The talk of trains stopped and he became less coherent and stopped talking altogether by afternoon the next day. His breathing became increasingly labored. In his final 36 hours, working under guidance of the hospice nurses (who we called at all hours), we switched to a new course of medications to maximize his comfort and minimize his suffering. Every two hours I would go to the kitchen to mix morphine and Ativan in a measuring spoon from his cupboard. Once the Ativan pill fully dissolved into the morphine, I drew the mixture into a syringe and went into my dad’s bedroom.

At his bedside, I would hold his hand and gently kiss his forehead as I gently dripped the mixture of medicines into his mouth. I would say, “It’s me, Daddy. It’s Chad. I’m here to give you some medicine to make you feel better.” Sometimes he would squeeze my hand in recognition and other times I could feel him relax a little when he knew I was there. I rubbed his back, hugged him, and stroked his hair. I wondered aloud after he passed if he actually knew it was me there but then learned that hearing is likely the last sense to go when someone is dying, so I’m more certain he knew I was there. I felt calm in those moments of helping him but wept every time when I left the room.

My brother and I had been setting our alarms to alternately check on him every two hours and administer his medicine throughout the night and when my turn to check on him came that morning, he was no longer breathing. I was alone with him in that moment. I felt a strange sense of calm as I embraced his now-lifeless body, kissed him on the forehead once more, stroked his hair, and stepped out of the room to wake my brother and let him know. My father’s suffering was over. Losing a father is difficult under any circumstances and this was also my first close encounter with death. I am still processing it, and will be for some time. I know I will never be the same.

I had set a daily alarm for 6:58pm in the early days of my quarantine in New York City so that we would be ready to open our windows at 7pm to cheer for the health care workers every night with the rest of the city until the coronavirus crisis was over. On Thursday night — the first night after my father left us — I was on the phone with my family back in Brooklyn when the alarm went off. I missed New York but was where I needed to be. I asked them to cheer this time for the people who took care of my dad. I can’t express my gratitude enough to them but I like to think that on that one night, the greatest city in the world was cheering for them, too.

Making the perfect Southern biscuits

I grew up in the South and although I haven’t lived there in 22 years now, it remains a core part of my identity. My grandparents were farmers and my grandmother made biscuits every day for breakfast using lard from the hogs they raised, often with sausage that also came from the farm. There was no Martha Stewart / Food Network / “foodie” fuss or oohing and aahing about the process. Biscuits were just part of the landscape, as normal as toast. (My grandparents would have had a good laugh about concepts like “farm to table” — how else was it supposed to work?**) When I visit the South, high on my list is finding a good biscuit.

In the early days of quarantine, I found out that Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen in Chapel Hill delivers via Goldbelly, so I ordered 10 chicken biscuits. For three Saturdays in a row, each person in my three-person family had one of the biscuits for breakfast (they were amazing — highly recommended). After we ran out, my mind shifted into DIY mode. While everyone else seemed to be chasing their sourdough dreams, I had visions of making biscuits. I’ve tried to make biscuits for many years of my post-Southern life and was never satisfied with the results.

To cut to the chase, I found a simple recipe that really works from Alton Brown. There are some important notes and modifications, though, and here they are:

  • Make double the recipe. These biscuits go fast. They also store well so you can have them for days afterwards.
  • Cut up the butter and shortening the night before and freeze the bits. Why? You’ll notice this in the recipe: “Using your fingertips, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until mixture looks like crumbs. (The faster the better, you don’t want the fats to melt.)” This is very important. If the chunks of fat in the dough melt in the oven, they will sizzle and pop in the dough, creating the fluffy air pockets that make the biscuits good. If the fats melt while you’re working them into the dough, they get blended in and you don’t get that fluffy pop in the dough. Freezing the night before helps prevent premature melting.
  • The instructions tell you to fold the dough a number of times. You should do that but consider trading one or two of the folds for rolling the dough with a rolling pin into a relatively uniform slab of dough with consistent thickness. Using a rolling pin in this way creates a nice flat-top biscuit with more consistent browning.
  • The recipe says to cut the biscuits using a 2-inch cutter. Use a 4-inch cutter instead. The 2-inch cutter produces dainty little biscuits. The 4-inch cutter creates the size biscuits my grandma used to make and a biscuit that can hold any toppings you want to add (bacon, sausage, egg, cheese, etc) — though these are perfectly fine standalone.

I’m looking forward to the post-quarantine world so I can invite friends over for these biscuits. Until then, if you’re into biscuits, I encourage you to give these a try.

** Funny side story: I bought a vegetarian friend to my grandparent’s house once in the early 90s. My friend said to my grandmother, “I’m vegetarian.” My grandmother looked quizzically at her so she elaborated: “I only eat vegetables.” My grandmother smiled and said, “don’t worry, honey, we got vegetables!” and pushed a dish of green beans towards her, with the green beans sitting on a steaming slab of fatback. In my grandma’s mind, a vegetable just wasn’t a vegetable without pork.


One year of piano lessons: what I’ve learned

Six months ago, I wrote a long post about my first six months of piano lessons (“What I’ve learned about life from six months learning piano.”) It was a bit on the philosophical side and focused on embracing vulnerability, the importance of practice, learning as hard work, focusing on fundamentals, and why intrinsic motivation has been necessary to make progress. I’ve run into people who read the post and we’ve had some fun discussions. I’ve continued to take lessons and practice and it has become without a doubt one of the most fulfilling projects of my life.

This post is an update to that post but more focused on what I’ve been learning and how the process has unfolded over the next six months leading into my one-year anniversary of starting lessons, which I hit just last week. My main goal in writing this is to encourage people who might think they are too old to start lessons (I’m 47 now) to cast aside that thinking and give it a shot.

The one year mark was a key milestone for me from the beginning. As I wrote six months ago:

I made a deal with myself when I started lessons that I was going to do the lessons for a year and practice diligently regardless of how I thought I was doing. I told myself that learning piano was a lifelong process and I hoped to stick with it and slowly improve for the rest of my life. I didn’t set any artificial goals for myself other than sticking with it for a year and practicing consistently. I did better some weeks than others but I kept to my commitment to just keep doing it. I don’t know how quickly I’ll get better and I don’t pay attention to it on a week-to-week basis. I just keep going, knowing that doing the work will make me better.

That said, when I started last year I still wondered where I would be performance-wise after a year. I recorded what I was playing at six months and posted my best playing at the time to Soundcloud (see “500 Year Old Melody“) as a marker for where I was then (last October) and I just posted a playlist of three selections that I recorded this week (April 2020): “Aria (Figaro),” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and “Sleeping Beauty Waltz.” (Note that I’ve been using the Adult Piano Adventures series and am reaching the end of book #1 right now. I’m supplementing it with this book on scales, chords, arpeggios, and cadences).

What you hear in the recordings is what I’ve been able to learn in a year taking one 45 minute lesson as week and practicing maybe 3-4 hours a week. I’ve definitely gotten better. I’m not sure if it’s “good” or if it’s where I “should” be, but it’s where I am and I’m really happy with the progress. Most importantly, I feel like I’ve gained the momentum to stick with it and look forward to many more years of learning.

I mentioned in the prior post that I had been a hacky guitar player for many years and contemplated how my piano playing might compare to my guitar playing after a year:

By the end of my first year really focusing on piano, I’m pretty sure I will be objectively better on piano than I ever was at guitar (and when I go back to guitar, I already feel like I’m better from the work with piano).

An unexpected thing happened relative to guitar since my last post: my 8-year-old son (who has continued to learn piano and has been progressing at lightning speed) has been learning some jazz and blues and has started to give me “lead sheets” so I can jam along with him on guitar while he plays piano. The focus on fundamentals in my piano lessons that I mentioned in my last post means that I have learned how to read music. Since my last post, I’ve learned how to read key signatures and know many more scales (I only knew C major before). In simple terms, this means that if my son says, “I’m going to play a blues progression in C,” I know what chords work and what notes make sense so I can play along without thinking too hard.

I had mostly ignored music theory when I learned the limited guitar I knew. I memorized chord shapes and chord progressions, but I didn’t think of them within the larger underlying framework of music theory. I’m still not spending too much time on guitar but when I pick it up now, the instrument has come alive in an entirely new way from the music theory studies that come for “free” when you’re taking piano lessons. I now know music as a language and vocabulary unto itself and it’s made it possible to use that common vocabulary to collaborate with my son. It’s making guitar a lot more fun, too.

Understanding music more generally delivers other unexpected collaborative dividends, too. I’ve recently been trading tracks with friends using Logic X on the Mac. One of us will lay down a guitar or piano track and the other will add something and send it back. My friend Tarikh recently sent me some really nice finger-picking tracks he recorded of the song “Sea of Love” (listen to the raw track here). He told me the chords he was playing and that told me what key he was playing in. I’ve got my digital piano hooked into an audio interface with MIDI so I decided to try to record some supporting piano tracks. Note that I have jammed (often sloppily) with friends but had never attempted to collaborate in this way. I had recorded some simple one-take in-your-bedroom guitar-and-vocals stuff (like this cover of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” that I did long ago) but I had never tried to really record stuff. I was going into this new collaboration thinking it would be a good way to test some of what I had been learning.

I started by accenting Tarikh’s beautiful guitar-playing by putting down some piano chords to add some depth. Nice. After I got that down, I recorded an additional piano track with more melodic improvisation (again, using the music theory I had learned). I tried a few different things and played it back but didn’t quite like it. The melody was fine but a piano melody with piano accents in the background was just too much piano. But I liked the overall feel of what I had played. I started thinking that a horn might sound nice and after some experimenting in Logic and leveraging the magic of MIDI, I settled on a trombone line using the melody I composed on piano.

You can hear the result with the added piano and trombone here (again, this is the original track that I added to). I really like how it sounds and couldn’t be happier that my exploration of piano over the last year led me to coming up with a trombone piece that seems to actually work. This simple collaboration with a friend has given me a lot of motivation to do (and learn) more. It’s simple stuff, but I wouldn’t have even been able to collaborate in this way six months ago.

If I could describe the difference between where I was six months ago and now it would be this: I’m starting to move from thinking simply about the mechanics of piano to thinking more about music itself, and that’s pretty thrilling. I’m excited to see what I’ll learn over the next year now that I’m fully hooked.

(And I hope anyone out there who thinks they’re too old to learn to play reads this and is inspired to learn, too.)

Note: I didn’t want to make this post too focused on COVID-19 or being in quarantine, but two quick notes that are relevant:

  • being able to focus attention on music-making has been an extraordinary source of comfort and a nice break from spending evenings watching TV
  • I recently started taking my lessons via FaceTime after having in-person lessons for 11 months. I was initially very skeptical but it really works! I feel like my playing is actually progressing more quickly due to more practice time.









Why I built a radio station I expect almost no one to listen to

During this strange time for all of us, I’ve noticed that many people I know are rediscovering old hobbies and rekindling interests from the past. For me, so many of my interests revolve around music. One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is the shared experience that live radio provides. Artists have been filling the live show gap with some amazing livestreams (cataloged dutifully each day by Brooklyn Vegan) and Questlove and DJ D-Nice have been doing quarantine DJ sets. While I’m hoping the situation we’re all in clears up soon, I’m inspired by the outpouring of creativity and connection we’re all experiencing in this new way.

We’ve experienced an explosion of audio content with the incredible diversity of podcasts, but a key ingredient is missing in the “what you want when you want it” culture we’ve built: shared real-time experience. I think we’ve almost imperceptibly lost something in a world where we can all be individually and separately listening to an inexhaustible menu of audio content in our headphones. I’ve found that in the current situation, I miss the serendipity and diversity of live “freeform” radio. When I was a kid, there were dozens of small stations where I lived in eastern NC, with music done by a real DJ, call-in shows, live reporting, farm reports, and general community banter. There are still community stalwarts like the amazing WFMU but they are becoming more and more rare by the day.

Obscure radio stations of all kinds used to be an important part of our culture. In David Byrne’s excellent book How Music Works, he writes about how he came up with the lyrics for “Once in a Lifetime” (“you may ask yourself. . .same as it ever was. . . .”):

I was. . .drawing lyrical inspiration from the radio preachers I’d been listening to and that we’d used on the Bush of Ghosts record. At that time, American radio was a cauldron of impassioned voices—live preachers, talk-show hosts, and salesmen. The radio was shouting at you, pleading with you, and seducing you. You could also hear great salsa singers, as well as gospel being broadcast straight from the churches.

David Byrne goes on: “I don’t listen to the radio much anymore, though. There is still variety on some stations, but it’s mostly been homogenized, like so many other parts of our culture.”

This is the kind of radio I miss. So I decided to launch an Internet radio station that I’m calling Lockdown Radio. It’s a sporadic live-only “station” you can only listen to via the web at supported by a Twitter account (@lockdownradioBK) and a Google doc that I update with live show notes:

I did radio for a short period in my life and it was one of my all-time favorite experiences. Way back in ~1994, I had a Monday morning 2-5am radio show on WXDU, the Duke radio station in Durham, NC. I got my slot immediately *after* I graduated so I already had a “real job” in Raleigh. My shift was just after the hip-hop show (yes, there was a single show that focused on the genre) and when I arrived at the studio at 1:45am, I always felt like I was breaking up a fun party (which I kind of was). I would settle into my chair, open the windows to clear the smoke from the party, and put on some 90s indie rock. “Hello, this is Chad and I’m here from 2 to 5am. Here’s “Big Day Coming” off of Yo La Tengo’s latest album Painful” . . . said in the hushed tone one uses on Monday at 2am.)

The signal was so weak and the equipment so dated that I wasn’t completely sure when I was on the air (I certainly didn’t have enough listeners to validate) so sometimes I would put on a long song and go out to my decrepit 1976 Buick Regal to put the key in the ignition and find 88.7 on the dial. If I heard the music, we were good and I would go back up to finish my show. I would occasionally get a call in the station and, while they were extremely rare, every one of them was extremely weird.

This is the spirit behind Lockdown Radio. It will be:

  • kind of a hassle to listen to, like a small local AM station in the mountains (seriously lacking in sleek integrations with modern apps)
  • sporadic (maybe you’ll get the “signal,” maybe you won’t)
  • unpredictable (no algorithms, no defined schedule)
  • listened to by very few and at times no one (a difficult concept to grasp in the current attention economy)
  • eclectic. See the show notes for what I’ve done so far. I’m trying to do either original content or pull interesting material from the Internet Archive’s audio collection (which has some SERIOUS gems, like a bootleg of the Sex Pistols’ first US show, which I featured in my first broadcast)

I hope all three of you who listen to it enjoy it. In a world obsessed with likes, hearts, and scale, it’s freeing to ignore all of that and just see what happens. I’ve only been fooling around with it for a few days and it’s a lot of fun. Apologies in advance for any difficulties.

What I’ve learned about life from six months learning piano

playingpianoSix months ago at age 46, I started piano lessons. My son had started lessons about a year ago at six years old and I was inspired by watching him learn. Since then, I have stuck with it through 22 one-hour in-person lessons on Saturday afternoons (skipping just a few when out of town). I’ve been doing this consistently amidst a full life otherwise: trying to be a good husband/father, coaching a full roster of CEOs and CTOs, taking a 12-week Korean class this fall (안녕하세요!), active service on three non-profit boards, and preparing for the next iteration of the class I’m teaching at Cornell Tech this spring.

So I don’t really “have time” for piano, but I’m glad I’m making the time and I’m excited about the progress I’ve been making. Six months in, I’m comfortable at the piano and what was a mysterious object with random black and white keys in the beginning is now very familiar. I can read basic music intuitively, keep rhythm most of the time (and when not, I know how to use a metronome to get me on track), and I play harmony and melody using both hands. I’m still by no means a great piano player. I’m very much just getting started. (In fact, here’s some audio of me playing this week where I deliberately did one take with no editing so you could hear what someone who has only had six months of lessons sounds like.)

But I am better than I was six months ago when I couldn’t play at all and I feel confident that I’ll keep improving. I’ve learned some good life lessons in the process. Here they are:

Lesson #1: You have to be very vulnerable to learn when you are a true beginner at something.

In business contexts, when a person has experience, they tend to spend a lot of time saying things like, “yes, I get what you’re saying, but let’s get to the point.” An experienced person can certainly be an accelerator in many situations: been there, done that, don’t waste your time on that, here’s how it works. As much as the word “vulnerability” gets thrown around in business circles these days, though, experienced people are generally expected to be decisive and focused. “I don’t know” is frowned-upon.

Knowing is simply not possible when you are a true beginner as I am with piano. I actually don’t know. I take piano lessons on Saturdays in a shop in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I get there a few minutes early and wait outside the small studio for the prior lesson to end. The student before me is about seven years old and I can faintly hear her playing as I wait. She is better than me and progressing faster than me. My teacher is considerably younger than me. In my work, I’ve been so accustomed to being the one with experience. In that piano studio, I am the equivalent of a toddler. Things that seem simple when I see others do them can be excruciating for me. I stumble. I get frustrated. I didn’t really look forward to the early lessons that much. A lot of the instruction was “try that again. <pause while I play> Try that again. <pause while I play> Do that again.” And that’s what I did (and what I needed). I had to embrace the not-knowing in order to begin to know.

Lesson #2: Progress is all about sustained effort over long periods supported by consistent practice.

There was some divine intervention involved in the form of a book that helped me get my mental game right to take piano lessons. My son’s progress in his own lessons had inspired me and one day I decided to take him to the Juilliard Store on W 66th Street to look for new sheet music (one of those amazing “I ❤️ NYC” experiences all by itself – what a store!) While he looked around, I happened upon a slim book called The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life (here’s a summary). It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Learning piano is really just a framing device used by the author to lay out bigger life lessons. Here’s the basic summary using three sentences from the book (all emphasis is mine):

  • “Real peace and contentment in our lives come from realizing that life is a process to engage in, a journey down a path that we can choose to experience as magical.”
  • “When we subtly shift toward both focusing on and finding joy in the process of achieving instead of having the goal, we have gained a new skill. And once mastered, it is magical and incredibly empowering.”
  • “With deliberate and repeated effort, progress is inevitable.”

In this spirit, I made a deal with myself when I started lessons that I was going to do the lessons for a year and practice diligently regardless of how I thought I was doing. I told myself that learning piano was a lifelong process and I hoped to stick with it and slowly improve for the rest of my life. I didn’t set any artificial goals for myself other than sticking with it for a year and practicing consistently. I did better some weeks than others but I kept to my commitment to just keep doing it. I don’t know how quickly I’ll get better and I don’t pay attention to it on a week-to-week basis. I just keep going, knowing that doing the work will make me better (“With deliberate and repeated effort, progress is inevitable.”)

The sometimes repetitive work of learning also has a meditative aspect to it. I’ve probably played a C Major scale a couple thousand times by now. Sitting down, gathering myself, and warming up by playing that simple scale a few times has the same effect on me that taking deep breaths does. When my teacher tells me to “try it again” in our lessons, I do just that without self-judgment. I just do it again and again until I get it right. When I remove the self-judgment, these repetitions become almost soothing and relaxing.

(Note: Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within by Kenny Werner is very much in the same spirit as The Practicing Mind and is also supported by the Effortless Mastery Institute. Definitely check it out.)

Lesson #3: Learning something difficult feels like (and is) real work.

The default response from adults I tell about this is, “Oh, that sounds fun!” Ahem. I would say it’s rewarding but I wouldn’t always call it “fun” at this stage. I’ve observed that learning an instrument can be a fantasy for many people, in the same vein as “one day I’ll write a book.” It certainly was for me. When you hear “piano lessons,” it is tempting to fast-forward to some glamorous point in your future where you’re at a holiday party and people gather around to sing songs at the piano as you take requests, all of which you know how to play, of course. The problem with this fantasy is that getting to such a point takes years and hundreds of hours of practice (if not thousands). The only thing that will get you there is doing the real work day after day.

Lesson #4: Focus on fundamentals and really learn them.

I’ve been hacking around on guitar for almost thirty years and I have never progressed beyond playing chords. I would describe my skill level as “campfire guitarist” —  there have been times where people were drunk around a campfire and I could play a song just well enough to be recognizable and the chorus of voices was just loud enough to cover my mistakes. But I’ve never been a good guitarist.

Looking back, I have been stuck at this level because I never really focused on playing guitar as a practice. You know, I just wanted to rock. I was impatient, unfocused, and undisciplined. I would listen to a Led Zeppelin song, download the tablature from the Internet, then try to contort my fingers into holding the right notes. I always failed and put the guitar away for a while after that. (Aside: part of the magic of Led Zeppelin is the crazy rhythms they used — check out “What Makes John Bonham Such a Good Drummer.” No wonder I struggled!)

What I didn’t understand when I was downloading Led Zeppelin tabs and failing to play them is that music isn’t just a paint-by-number put-your-fingers-on-the-right-strings exercise. You have to understand core concepts like rhythm, harmony, and melody. Putting all of those things together at the same time makes great music, not just hitting the right notes in order. Some people pick these concepts up more easily than others or through trial and error. I accidentally learned some of this along the way with guitar but it wasn’t purposeful. But whether or not you play “by ear” or you know how to read music, you have to learn all of this somehow, and that requires discipline and lots of hours. There is no shortcut.

With piano, this means getting your basic fingering right and that means doing “boring” things like practicing scales. It’s not just hitting the right notes, it’s about hitting the right notes with the right fingers. It’s about how your hand moves up and down the keyboard so you can hit the next right note as the scale progresses. It’s about doing rhythm drills to make sure you can play at accelerating tempos and keep consistent rhythm. In the past six months, I’ve spent 20x the time on this type of work on piano that I spent on guitar in the past 30 years. By the end of my first year really focusing on piano, I’m pretty sure I will be objectively better on piano than I ever was at guitar (and when I go back to guitar, I already feel like I’m better from the work with piano).

All systems revolve around interrelated concepts and the more you study and integrate all of those concepts into your practice, the higher quality the output will be. In my time as an operating executive, I often heard people starting their careers tell me they wanted to go straight to doing “strategic” work with the implication that they wanted to skip over the boring “tactical” stuff. In music as in business (and life), knowing how the tactical stuff works (rhythm, harmony, melody) is the base that gets you to strategic work (playing great songs). Otherwise, you’re just me skipping straight to trying (and failing) to play “Kashmir” without knowing that the drums are in 4/4 time and the guitar is 3/4 and they only meet up every 12th beat (see this video explanation). Take the time to learn the fundamentals. Skipping ahead leads to falling behind.

Lesson #5: Pure intrinsic motivation and the absence of external validation are liberating.

To keep going you need a ton of intrinsic motivation to make it through learning the very basics in the beginning. When you’ve done a few lessons and all you can do is tap out a simple version of “Yankee Doodle,” you’re nowhere close to wowing the mythical people gathered around the piano at the mythical holiday party you were dreaming of when you started. No one really cares that you’re learning piano as an adult. Kids learning piano are cute but an adult man just isn’t. In fact, a 47-year-old man asking you to listen to him play a rough version of “Yankee Doodle” can only be described in one word: annoying. You are going to suck for a while and the songs you learn to play will be so simple that they may seem boring.

Just keep going. When I made that commitment to try lessons for a year, it took me about three months of learning basic stuff to come anywhere close to what I would call “fun.” I have no idea how long it will take for other people to actually want to hear me play, if ever, and that’s ok because I enjoy it in the absence of that. In life, seeking external validation leads to all kinds of inner and outer dysfunction. Learning piano at my age has gotten me to focus on something in a pure way that is independent of external affirmation.

Lesson #6: You have time.

I’ve heard many people say: “I want to learn piano but I don’t have time!” If your experience is anything like mine, you could make consistent progress with piano by taking a one-hour lesson each week and practicing 30 minutes 5x/week**. This probably sounds like a major commitment but take a look at how much time you spend on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Think about all the time you spend watching TV shows. I’ve noticed that I spend significantly less time on social media and watching TV since I started learning piano. There’s something about practicing that gives me a sense of focus that makes those activities less appealing. Social media platforms thrive on conflict, envy, making you want things you don’t need, and constant “breaking news” that is often a re-hash of what you heard an hour ago. Focusing on piano is about focusing on the mastery of an exercise or a piece of music. It feels liberating to focus intently on one thing you’ve chosen (like a piece of music) instead of a barrage of algorithmic garbage intended to manipulate you in some way. I know this not because I’m too pure to participate in social media — I certainly do — but I’ve become increasingly mindful of how cluttered my mind feels when I’m reading Twitter versus practicing piano. The more I shift my attention from the addled social media mind to the practicing mind, the happier I am.

(**Of course, if you practice more you’ll move faster. Practice less than that and you’ll probably stay in place. You can skip a lesson now and then and be fine. Just keep going, don’t quit, and you’ll make progress.)

Lesson #7: Learning something with someone creates the ultimate sense of presence.  

I mentioned that my son has been learning, too. He has been playing for a year and I have been playing for six months. He is at least 10x better than me, and I’m not exaggerating at all. I had already embraced the vulnerability of learning so instead of feeling inferior, I ask him if he’ll help me practice by playing the accompanying teacher parts in my book while I play the student parts. On any given night, I’ll say, “hey, want to play some duets?” and a few minutes later we’re both on the piano bench — he on the bass end of the keyboard and me on the higher end.

This first happened in my early weeks of lessons way back in April when I was trying to play “Yankee Doodle” and asked him to accompany me. I recorded us that night. You can hear him count me in (“1-2-3-4”) and hear me mess up repeatedly while he gives me encouragement. It takes a few tries but eventually I get it right.

In that moment, there’s the joy of personal accomplishment but there’s the sense that we are fusing our individual practices together, that the sense of focus we have both been developing as we’ve learned music at our vastly different paces has given us a powerful new way to focus our attention intently on each other. It’s a joyous and magical thing. I’m not practicing so that I can play for the mythical people at the mythical holiday party in the uncertain future. I’m practicing to enjoy the right now with my son — and that’s the most important lesson of all.