Second Chances

Five stories of unexpected recovery

I am settling into a rhythm for Be Like Animal, Be Like Plant. I have had a bunch of good conversations around Small Farms Everywhere and Creativity topics with folks who have reached out over the past few weeks. Thank you!

It’s fun. I’m so thankful to the people who support it with a paid subscription.

I’m going to mix in some of my theoretical commentary and weird future hallucinations with a little more personal connection and background.

This week I want to talk about second chances.

Farm.One had an incredible second chance, and we were lucky enough to reopen. The indoor agriculture industry now has a second chance to start again with a tighter focus and avoiding the mistakes of the past.

These second chances are important. I am lucky enough to have had a few opportunities to start again. Moving around a fair bit will do that. For me, these second chances are some of life’s most memorable and meaningful moments. Chances to reset, to learn from everything that has happened before but with a blank slate. Perhaps most importantly, I think that experiencing second chances makes you believe in second chances happening in the future. This helps you persist longer. It encourages you to give people second chances whenever you can. And it makes you better prepared for when second chances happen.

The first ‘second chance’ I remember was when I was lucky enough to depart my despised UK school at the age of 15 because of our family uprooting unexpectedly to Belgium. I was able to leave the drama of my bad GCSE grades, hate of rugby and cricket, countless detentions, and general distrust of the school in my rearview, and start in a new school I loved with the revitalization of new energy and hope. And basketball!

A few years later I had the next.

Brussels, 1997

I am admitted to hospital one evening after staying home from school sick. We are there because I can’t breathe. On arrival the staff lay me on a stainless steel table to wait for the doctor to see me, which doesn’t make it any easier to breathe. Still, they figure out what’s wrong: my glands have swollen so much my airway has restricted, due to a surprisingly-virulent mononucleosis. I still can’t eat and can’t walk, and I am put on an IV drip, with strong painkillers, and told I must stay in hospital until my liver function returns to normal. Great.

They move me to a two-person room, with a genial Belgian man in his 60s who has something seriously wrong with his kidneys or his liver, or both. While I am semi-awake one evening, a friend of the man sneaks him a bottle of beer, which they pop open with a wink, on the window-ledge. On a ceiling-mount, a boxy white 14” TV plays a sexually-explicit French-language farce from the late 70s, of which my compatriot and his friend are loud connoisseurs. I wonder where I am in the painkiller cycle and how to request a knockout dose.

In a lucid daytime episode, a senior physician enters with a squad of medical students. They must note the unusual size of my inflamed liver, which the doctor describes with grudging respect, like a prize tuna. They are told to pay attention, as they may never encounter such an inflammation again.

My girlfriend comes in with a large card signed by my social circle at school. She is surprised how sick I look. A few days later my friend Lawrence tells me in gushing excitement that during my hospital stay, this girlfriend has been riding to school in the chauffeured car of another pupil, the son of a famous Belgian-Italian romantic ballad singer. The betrayal is intoxicatingly dramatic.

I arrive home after two weeks, 20lbs and a relationship lighter and almost failing to climb up the stairs at home. My sickness settles down into a lethargy that leaves me unable to do pretty much anything significant, exciting or difficult for months. I build extravagant Sim City constructions and spend a lot of time on CompuServe chat forums while worrying constantly about grades.

This long sick time forces me into taking an extra year at school — a prospect which at the time seems disastrous and shameful.

But quickly this ‘extra year’ turns into a thrilling and memorable time with new friends, the autonomy of driving my own car, and discovering a whole new side to Brussels in its music scene and clubs. It resulted in me ditching my business and economics focus and pivoting to an unexpected and welcome diversion into the art and design world, which led to startups, which led to Farm.One.

A complete reset. May you have second chances.

Las Vegas, March 2022

I’m in Vegas. I am hunting for money. Everything is too late now. I have no tailwind of media, no environment of hype for fundraising to work well. We had to lay off the Farm.One team the week before, and I have flown here with scarce remaining frequent flyer miles to be at the Indoor Ag-Con conference and chase down a last-minute deal for us to re-open.

I haven’t been to Vegas for several years. I haven’t even been to a conference since pre-pandemic. The town is lumbering back to life post-COVID and the first returning tourists are on the strip. I walk past the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant. Gordon Ramsay had been due to visit our farm a couple of years back for a filming, our team ready with custom-embroidered jackets supplied by his National Geographic TV staff. At the last minute he canceled. No big deal, the team was lovely.

Distraction. The huge halls are full of vendors selling hydroponic equipment and lights and hype. At the conference, I play the game where I obscure my name badge from everyone who looks like they want me to spend money, and I show it to people who look like they want to give us money. There are many of the former and not many of the latter.

I talk to someone who wants to start a farm just like Farm.One. He excitedly shows me photos of his space. I say something encouraging and cautionary.

I’m invited to an industry dinner with a dozen Dutch men all in blue checkered shirts, who sell equipment or build farms or design air conditioning systems or offer expertise. I introduce myself and tell them about Farm.One without telling them we are dead. Whatever happens to vertical farming, the Dutch will be OK. They tuck into large steaks. The vegan option is hummus, and fries.

Jen is there. Jen is a voice of sanity and continual optimism. She suggests we turn Farm.One into a cannabis farm. Both our farm landlords say no.

I go to the keynote presentation where the CEO of AppHarvest shows us a promotional video about AppHarvest and then talks about the things that are in the promotional video. I leave after 45 minutes, knowing nothing about AppHarvest. I look around the audience. 

I attend a panel where there are four vertical farming companies on stage telling a room of a hundred people how unique their offerings are. A man in the audience stands up and calls bullshit. I go to talk to him afterwards, looking for a voice of sanity. It turns out he is trying to grow bananas in a backyard in Seattle. A year later, three out of the four companies at the panel are in various forms of bankruptcy, plus AppHarvest, who files for Chapter 11. There are no public announcements on how the bananas are doing.

I see Blake Lange, who was the first person to sell us our LED lights at our farm at ICE and at Tribeca. Blake is a voice of sanity, and a good guy to know if you want help finding used equipment from a failed vertical farm. We talk about cannabis. Perhaps cannabis is the new hope, and leafy greens are screwed. Perhaps cannabis is screwed, and leafy greens are triumphant.

I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables.
I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.

I chat with Ricky Stephens amidst the salespeople dismantling the multiple varieties of industry-leading hydroponics equipment displays. Ricky is a voice of sanity. We commiserate about all the usual things we always commiserate about to do with the vertical farming industry. There is laughter.

I walk back to my hotel via Vegas’s off-piste pedestrian routes, under casino megastructures, across patches of dark shade and bright heat, next to HVAC, diagonally via non-walkable access roads. I reach the hotel pool and try to order a beer. The pool is about to close, sir, and so there will be no beer. 

I go for drinks with Andrew from Smallhold in a secret speakeasy bar that is heavily advertised as such. Andrew is a voice of sanity. We laugh about their current crisis and our current crisis.

I land back in New York, depleted of frequent flyer miles, hope, and liver function. The trip did not work. We are screwed.

New York, March 2022: The AirPod

I go straight off the plane to the farm in Brooklyn. Jess, Justin, Kate and Dan have emptied and sprayed clean the entire facility with a high pressure hose. Justin, the keen fisherman, is wearing his waders.

They are proud, which is right. We will not let this thing defeat us, and we will not leave a building to be someone else’s mess. You may not choose the hour of your death, but you may choose how you navigate it. I send the last rented trailer-bike out the door with its owner.

Weeks later, it is clear that Tribeca must be closed too. The task is to extract the valuable lights and then dispose of the rest. I decide I must do this myself, and I figure it might be done over a 3-day period.

I queue up three days’ worth of podcasts and audiobooks, put in my AirPods and walk to the farm. It is hot out, but as I descend via elevator and down the subway-tiled hallway the farm is cool. This is thanks to upgrades in the HVAC system that were finally implemented a few weeks before we closed, ending the days we would hit 100°F in air temperature down there. The plants were, surprisingly, fine, their root zones bathed in chilled water. It was the people who suffered. Kate and Dan have turned off the irrigation, so that the trays dry out as much as possible. May they be forever blessed for this kindness.

A Shop-Vac is a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner that can handle dry or wet materials, with a capacity of around ten gallons. We use it sometimes as an impromptu pump to empty out trays or large spillages.

I go to lift the Shop-Vac. It is heavy. This means it is still full. I open the lid. I am immediately confronted by a smell of death. Somebody has left the machine full of dirty nutrient water and plant matter, probably since the farm was last in production, perhaps 3 months, and this has fermented like black garlic. I do not blame the culprit, this is easy to do. I think of the Bog of Eternal Stench from the movie Labyrinth. 

I hoist the Shop-Vac and pour its contents into the utility sink. The liquid is dark, like coffee grounds. The scent blooms into my nostrils. The sink immediately clogs. I bend and reach over to unclog it, and one of my AirPods falls out into the gloop. 

I grope for, and extract the tragic, infected AirPod. I find and dilute a little hydrogen peroxide into an improvised electronics sanitizer, for my sanity. A second chance for this little guy.

I fall into a circuit training exercise of pumping out one tray while I de-clog the sink and try to prepare the next tray, and de-clog the pump, and then de-clog the sink. And I fill bag after bag with compost. There is a spinning-plates quality to this exercise.

As I fill more and more of the heavy, sodden bags, they take up more and more space and leave less and less room for me and the stinky Shop Vac and the clogged pump.

I pause to order a book on how to prevent and recover from back injuries. The room looks and smells like a hoarder’s lair, and the puzzle of how to move the racks and work around the mountain of compost bags becomes a perplexing lifesize Rubik’s cube. 

To empty the compost from our basement farm at Tribeca, you take a left away from Atera’s kitchen, another left down a narrow hallway full of carts and furniture and other restaurant hardware, then a right by the ice machine, down the little ramp, then a left, and a right.

You wheel 50ft along a basement corridor, then take a right by the electrical room where Ronny has installed Roman rings and Nic learned how to do a Muscle Up, and go another 50ft. Then you get to two flights of stairs, and the double doors to Church Street. I carry and cart and lay out a total of 26 large trash bags full of compost out to the street, and I stick the required pink compost sticker on each one. Will these really go to compost? May they have a second chance.

Summer, 2022: The Car

Back at Bergen Street. I come in at 8am, because I know it will be a long day.

I rearrange things that might be sold. Two printers. Two MacBook Airs. A Mac Mini. Two fridges. I move them into a neat configuration. Perhaps this will make them more salable. Perhaps we will have a yard sale where people can come in off the street and buy them. The painted walls saying Kae and Amere and Taylor and Lily sit there. I take an inventory again. Two printers. Two Macbook Airs. A Mac Mini. Two large stainless steel fridges. A lot of lights.

But first I have to get rid of the car. The Farm.One Kia EV, emblazoned with herbs and edible flowers and a big green wave mustard leaf on the hood, is leased, and I am still paying for it. It is not needed for the deal — the deal I will find out later is not on anyway. I talk to the Kia person on the phone about returning it, and she tells me there will be an early return penalty of $400 and I should take it to the dealer. OK. Alright. We can handle that. She may say something else too, but I focus on the pain of the $400.

I go to check the car. I hunt for the key. I eventually find it balancing delicately on a power outlet, stranded far into the middle of the warehouse. A safe place. The car is not insured. I am not even sure how to insure it for the day. I look into insurance for a single day. I go on Reddit. I easily spend an hour figuring out whether my credit card has magic powers around car insurance unrelated to rental cars. I can’t make any sense of it. Now we are here. Thankfully the car is fully charged.

I open the twelve-foot bay doors to get the car out. Oh no. There is a car blocking our curb cut. But thankfully there is a man inside. Relief.

I knock on his window and start to say “Hey! Can you let me out—” and realize it is our landlord’s broker. He is confused to see me. I am confused to see him.

I say hi. I turn around. A marshal is standing right there at our entrance smoking a cigarette military style, pinched between thumb and forefinger. He is here to inventory the warehouse for the eviction process. We are all confused. None of us wants me to be there, especially the marshal. His shirt is untucked and he carries the stale air of recent late-night entertainment. 

What happens now? I ask. Nothing much. The broker mentions an incredibly large sum of money for which they are about to sue our principal investor, for payment of back rent. The marshal asks me to sign a document which says that he couldn’t be bothered to do a detailed audit of the warehouse. They let me drive the car out. I wave goodbye. It is very cordial.

I find a man with a garage in Red Hook who will remove the decal wrap for $500. OK. After waiting for two hours, it is done. I drive an hour cautiously across Brooklyn through Queens in traffic to the Kia dealership, confident. I triumphantly park the car at the dealers and tell the receptionist I am returning a leased vehicle. I buy a pack of Oreo’s from the vending machine while I wait for the salesperson. This should be quick.

The car is a peach. It is spotless. It only has 789 miles on it, having never been beyond our little delivery routes. And COVID has ruined the normal supply chains. Car prices are through the roof. There is no inventory. They are blessed to receive such a gift. I expect the salespeople to come out with some kind of celebratory gesture of team gratitude, maybe a bunch of dealership balloons. I might be lifted aloft on their shoulders, perhaps. I eat Oreos.

The salesperson comes over and tells me that they do not want the car.

Because they do not want the car, sir, I will have to pay $8,000 to buy out the remainder of the lease if I return the vehicle today. I eat an Oreo. At this point the chance of balloons seems low.

I am told, like a single phone call from prison, I am permitted to use their computer to hunt for other dealerships, who may actually want the car, which would wipe the fee. I call around. I have detailed phone conversations with car dealers around the Tri-State area to verify that they are looking for a car like this and yes, I can come in today, and are they really sure, because it is an hour drive away, and yes. They will say no more without seeing the car in person.

I drive an hour to a vast combination-brand dealership in Rockaway and am ushered across an immense tiled sales floor by the receptionist to a man with the exact physical appearance of Uncle Phil from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, sitting on a bar-height stool in a suit.

Phil is staring into the distance. He is bored. He is not interested in me. In his right hand, he is holding an 18-inch long orange flag on a stick. He does not acknowledge my presence beyond making it clear I must speak into his ear and tell him my wishes. I tell him I have an early lease return, the jargon for which I have learned earlier in my travels. He does not look at me.

Halfway through my spiel, his hand jerks up his flag. I realize the flag is the sign for one of his minions from the sales floor to scuttle over. The first to see the flag, the first to the deal. This is what they must learn on their first day, I am sure. Miss the flag, miss the deal, son. His minion listens to my story. He tells me that only Tony handles lease returns, and Tony does not work on Tuesdays. 

This is not ideal. The day is ending soon. I have nowhere to store the car. I make a 30-minute detour to find a USB cable to charge my now-depleted iPhone, without which I am useless. I re-open my Google Map. At the edge of the map, where our flat world ends, near JFK, an hour and a half drive away, I see another dealership.

Ridiculously, it’s John Starks Kia.

Rewind to early 2019, where I enter Farm.One into a startup award competition run by a website builder that sponsors the New York Knicks. We are one of the winners. I am presented with an extra-large ceremonial check for $30,000 on the court at Madison Square Garden, by John Starks, of The Dunk fame.

John is friendly and professional in person. We really need that check.

The next day I walk with John through the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to ring the opening bell, a corporate favor for the website building company as a teaser for their future IPO.

Traders call out to John, asking him to come back to the team and save them. John is a local hero, and accustomed to all of the permutations of banter he experiences in the role. I shake his hand and say goodbye. I get home and I see the award check leaning up against my closet door. Reassuringly, the real check arrives shortly after.

I call John Starks Kia. Can they reassure me that it’s worth the drive? They do, somewhat. I go. I drive on through weekday sunset rush-hour traffic, protective of my vulnerable, uninsured peach.

I get to the dealership unscathed, and drive up into the lot. A man greets me, friendly, curious. What are you looking for? A lease return, I say. Look at the car.

He examines it. Can you turn it on? he asks. Low mileage. Good condition. He pops inside. He comes out. “We’ll take it” he says happily.

In this situation you are definitely not supposed to say that you’ve been driving around all day desperate to get a deal. I tell him I’ve been driving around all day and… I’m incredibly thankful we have a deal. He laughs and we do paperwork.

I share the picture of me and John Starks ringing the bell at the stock exchange. He sends it to John. We are both over the moon. I wave goodbye to the car. The sun goes down and I go home, taking a short video of the drive back to the city. May you have second chances.

Winter, 2022: The Keys

Gabby and I are at the airport in Palm Springs, picking up my parents. We are staying an hour away in Joshua Tree for a month, displaced because Farm.One is closing and then all of a sudden, it isn’t — a second chance all of its own.

My father and I are chatting at the rental counter, getting a car. It’s a black Hyundai Elantra. The attendant gives us a wire loop with two identical electronic key fobs on it.

My dad and I laugh, ha ha ha, about how if you were to lose one key, you lose them both! How crazy. Ha ha ha.

A week later at 7am. We are at the house in Joshua Tree. My parents need the car this morning to drive to San Diego to pick up a banjo. Of course. This is normal and routine. Banjo. San Diego. Car. Dog needs walk. Trails.

So I am up early with Tyler to take him to the trail before they need the car. It is freezing. I grab his jacket, the leash, a water bottle, my phone, the USB cable, my car keys, my jacket, my hat. I place these precious objects in different resting spots while I juggle Tyler into the car, a high-contact sport. At which I am a rookie and Tyler performs at a world-class athletic level.

I push the keyless ignition button to turn on the car and heat it up. It turns on and heats up. I wrangle Tyler into the car. I get in and drive to the trail. The trail is about 15 minutes drive away, via all kinds of windy streets and straights and low-speed and high-speed roads and stop signs and inclines. We drive.

At the trail in question

I reach the trailhead, slow down and park. There is no one around and it is silent and cold. I turn off the car, reach for Tyler, and go to grab my keys.

There are no keys.

There are no keys.

This is because.

This is because why.

Because I have left the keys somewhere?

Ah. On the roof of the car.


If the keys are still on the car, the ignition will start. Proximity.

The ignition doesn’t start. The keys are not on or in the car.

The keyless ignition worked before because the keys were on the roof, and then … they weren’t. The car keeps driving even when the keys are nowhere near. But now it won’t start unless the keys are near. I have lost the keys, and I am at a trailhead kind of in the middle of nowhere. And the car won’t start.

I have signal! I call my parents back at the house, still waking up. They traipse the driveway and street in their dressing gowns. No keys. I scrabble around near where I parked, hopeful for a last-minute key tumble. No keys.

The keys must have fallen off somewhere along the twisty high-speed route. 10 miles of road. This is hopeless.

I call the rental car company. They must send a truck from Palm Springs an hour away, and we must Uber there, and get a new car. It is a day lost. No banjo. There are fees. And there is no Uber here.

I call a local cab company, and after much explaining of my location, and much waiting, a guy arrives in a cherry red Crown Victoria. He is relaxed, stubborn in holdout against the Apps. I feel blessed by his presence. I get in and say hi, still on the phone with the rental people.

We are ten minutes into the drive back, coasting on a flat and empty 55mph stretch of road. I hang up the phone with the rental car company. The road is straight, with no bumps, turns, stoplights or other deviations. It is empty.

I start to tell the driver what I think has happened. I must have left my keys on the roof, ha ha. That was so dumb, ha ha. Yeah keyless. Yeah. And they must have fallen off at some point during my 15-minute drive over. Yeah I know right, two keys on the same loop. Yeah. They are gone.

The driver is looking straight ahead.

I start saying “so I guess I’ll never see them—”
staring straight ahead
“I see your keys”
as I see a tiny glint,
in the distance,
in the middle of the road.

He slows the car down to a complete halt in the middle of the empty stretch of highway. He opens his door, and without even getting out, reaches down onto the road surface with his left hand. I hear him pick up something.

He passes the object to his right hand and turns around to me. “I have your keys” he says. I am shaking my head.

He hands me my key loop, with its two fobs hanging off it. One of the fobs has been completely destroyed, just the inner nub remaining, where someone has run over them at high speed. The other fob is perfectly intact.

We drive back to my Hyundai Elantra, mostly in shocked silence. I try locking and unlocking the car with the good fob. It works. I get in. I push the button and the car comes to life. I never carry cash, and for some reason that day I have cash, and so I give the guy a $100 tip. I drive away.

Nine months later, I go to get a tattoo of the keys, and on the wall next to the chair is an artwork called “I Found the Keys Keys”. May you have second chances.


I want to examine work culture, deep work, collaborative work, and try to look at the problems I find everywhere around me, to do with our workplaces.
Stay tuned!

If you want to keep reading about small farms, but are also OK with forays into subjects like creativity, worldview, psychedelics, startups + reality, then I recommend you subscribe.


If you would like to support this newsletter and its focus on worldview, including examining the role of insight practices like psychedelics and meditation at work: connectedness-focus, decision-making, performance, teamwork, flow, creativity and other interactions, this is the place to do it.

Become a paid subscriber to support what I am doing (and you get to post comments!). I hope you do this — it helps me devote more time and energy to creating cool things. Soon, I will create additional content for paid members.

Join the conversation

or to participate.