Soon after graduating from college, I started keeping a modest, spiral-bound notebook entitled "Million Dollar Ideas and How-to Save the Planet." At some of the oddest moments-chopping ice dams on the roof, plummeting down a muddy dirt road on a mountain bike, sitting in church on Christmas Eve-something that promises certain and imminent wealth inexplicably enters my brain and eventually my notebook.
Flipping back through past ideas provides insight to the passage of time and the evolution of culture. The original book was started in 1972. Volume II, a handsome cloth-bound birthday present, served me from February 9, 1982 to the Millennium. Volume III is a "somewhat blank book" featuring the artwork of friend, neighbor, and famous artist, Edward Koren.
Some of the ideas are not money-making schemes so much as profound observations on the culture, such as #5 (4/14/72) when I noted "The most relevant question of these times is whether to gain or lose consciousness." Wow. That is followed with an idea to invent a tool handle with a snap-lock head that accepts a variety of heads. Next to it is a clipping from a Brookstone catalog, added some eighteen years hence, of just such a device.
#54 (2/3/73) is to create a Stone Age Village where the inhabitants have to literally live the period life. Here's an idea that preceded the television show Survivor by almost thirty years, and I didn't earn a nickel.
This is an Olympic year and so was 1976, when I had the thought to have an Industrial Olympics where normal working people could show off their skills such as driving a forklift or wielding a jackhammer. Surely this could be as interesting and competitive as Olympic horseback riding or sailing.
And speaking of sports, how about the idea of a professional basketball league where no one could be over six feet or a football league where no one could weigh more than two hundred pounds?
The ideas reflect the various passions of my life. For instance, I like beer, so there are ideas for clear beer twenty years before Zima and an all-grain, organic health beer twenty years before Wolavers. I like food, so there are ideas for herbed butters and chocolate whipped cream. I like books, so there are any number of book ideas, even some for food books and beer books.
I also use this book to record fractured cliches. When someone says he wouldn't do something for "all the money in China," it goes in the book. "She's the kind of person who'd give you the hair off her back" made it in as well.
Not all the ideas are brilliant. Some of them are quaintly dated or just plain bad. Did I really think I could make a million dollars by starting a business to convert Super 8mm movies to videotape? What was I thinking (or smoking) when I suggested opening a restaurant based on Eskimo cuisine? Please pass the blubber.
By contrast the idea recorded the day after Thanksgiving in 1987 still has potential-Gobbler Farms, a fast-food restaurant built around serving turkey in its many post-holiday manifestations. Think of it…turkey clubs, open-faced sandwiches with gravy, turkey soups. Why hasn't Burger King or Taco Bell thought of this? Do I have to come up with all the new ideas?
I am not afraid to take on the big issues. By the mid-1980s video cameras were becoming popular, so it was easy for me to foresee the decline and fall of all the great universities as all the best professors delivered their lectures in the comfort of your living room. The last time I went to Burlington, however, UVM was still there.
By the 1990s I had entered my forties. You'd think that I could be normal and just have a regular mid-life crisis, but I bypassed the sports car and continued to seek new paths to fame and fortune. There was my pet rental business for the person who wants only occasional companionship. How about pretzels in the form of peace symbols?
For a while I got on a Spam kick. What can I say? Spam is a very funny luncheon meat. I also keep a list of great names for bands, in case anyone is looking for a grey-haired rhythm guitarist with a one-octave range. What do you think of "Run For Your Coats?" Or "The Band With No Name?" "Don't Drop the Soap?"
Solar powered Christmas candles. Importing Norwegian kik-sleds? I spotted that trend so far before its time that it still hasn't happened.
Here are more book titles: The Last Hippie in Montpelier. Red Meat and Marlboros. I have no idea what this last book is about, but I'd buy it.
Interspersed amongst the great ideas are a few gratuitous top ten lists and painful observations on what the Red Sox must do to finally win the World Series. There are sketches of the perfect barbecue grill, an ongoing quest. Have you ever tried to empty the ashes from a Weber? I can do better.
At the Millennium I double checked my bank account and started Volume III, undeterred by consistent and repeated failure. What's money, anyway, aside from the provider of all happiness?
Of course, not a single one of the ideas has ever earned me a cent, and the planet, depending on your perspective, remains in peril. I persevere, Vermont's Don Quixote, addicted to my own delusions of grandeur.
These days the ideas come a little less frequently. Maybe I've thought of everything. The latest entry is my original recipe for Steamed Salad. It's a good recipe (no kidding), but not likely to earn much money or save the planet. I now spend more time revisiting old ideas and noting which have become realities. As I page through, I see jobs changing, society lurching forward, and my kids growing up. I see less youthful arrogance, less unfocused testosterone, and one lesson learned--that you don't have to be a rich man to have a rich life.
Stephen Morris is a writer, business consultant, and publisher of The Public Press. If you would like to buy his recipe for Steamed Salad for $1,000,000, please send him a check in care of this paper.
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