42 posts categorized "Meditation"

Handmade Illusions

Todd McClellan - Old Wind Up Clock from 20x200

Consider this thought experiment: I give you two books. One of them looks like it was produced by selecting photographs on your hard drive and publishing a hardcover book through Apple. If you had created it, you would have spent about ten minutes putting it together in iPhoto. In the other book, it looks like the photographs have been hand-printed on archival paper via a giclee printer and mounted into a hand-stitched hardback book, with a few alignment errors and flaws. 

Which book would you rather have? Why?

Now, imagine that there are 5 copies of the Apple-produced book, and 200,000 copies of the one that appears to be hand-printed. Which one would you rather have? Why?

I wonder what new platforms will emerge to exploit perception of handicraft, and what new technologies will enable them.

One of my favorite pictures we own is from 20x200. (The above image by Todd McClellan.) Their platform does an excellent job of balancing limited editions with affordable access to art, though by “limited” we are talking about a few thousand prints. 

But if an artist wants to reach the largest possible audience with their work, they will pursue multiple routes with the same work. Hence, the photographer also sells a hardcover book with the same photographs for $20.23.

I like this print better on my wall than in a book on my coffee table. But I wonder what stories I would tell myself if the photographer had printed it for me by hand.

What Is Hard to Discover

When reading The Information by James Gleick, the following quote from Charles H. Bennett leapt out at me: “The more subtle something is, the harder it is to discover.”

So many ways to read that statement. 

I am bullish on the Internet, but one of my fears is that decades from now, art forms that trade in subtlety will become like the Cook Islands. Few people will have heard of the place. Very few people will live there. The tourist trade will not be brisk.

There have never been so many ways to take an idea and broadcast it to the universe writ large. And yet the more subtle your idea, the higher the risk that it will be disregarded until someone invests the attention to discern it—no matter how many eyeballs might consume that idea. 

I just re-read a novel whose ideas took me fifteen years to grok, in terms of the layering and subtlety. My mind was blown as a result. I had to give it my due attention for days. Again.

What algorithms will reward this type of re-reengagement? Will Amazon really tell me to go back and read again that book I bought in 2006, because it thinks I’ll find it more enriching today?

Bespoke Ubering and Old-School Blogging

We were having a snack with our friends Penny and Dan before they went to a show in downtown Oakland. Our car was around the corner, and we offered them a ride to the concert. “It’s okay,” Penny said. “We don’t want to be a bother. We’ll just take an Uber.” Mary insisted on giving them a ride, so we walked back to our apartment to get our car. When Penny got in, she said: “Thanks so much for the bespoke Ubering.”

I feel this way about the economizing of blogs. I said a while back on The Twitters that blogging had become like the community farmer’s market, while the Mediums and Pulses of the world were the supermarkets. Most people/authors gain huge benefits from their participation in platforms versus old school blogging or (god forbid) writing an article for a print publication. The tradeoff, however, is hidden in the fine print: The content can be leveraged in relationship to syndication, advertising, and other forms of monetization that are outside the author’s means of control. Few of those things matter until you want to do something with your content other than retweet it. Perhaps we will only have our organic free-range blogs distributed at Walmart.com.

That may not matter to you. The Internet exists to copy information, yours and mine included. But we are still limited to those shapes and forms by which our copies transition from physical to digital mediums. Some are classical in form, some are just down the street.

When I look at Tumblr, I see a new incarnation of the florilegium. When I look at Nextdoor, I see the coffee shop bulletin board with its passive-aggressive notes back and forth about who left the king-sized mattress on the street corner. When I look at old-school blogs, I see the brightly colored community newspapers you pick up at the grocery store when you’re heading for the exit. (Just without the eye-piercing ads for local plumbers and medical marijuana distributors.) They sit in the bright green rack next to those large candy machines that dispense gobstoppers for 25 cents. You leaf through them, and something catches your eye that you wouldn’t have learned any other way. If it’s relevant, you pass it along to someone else. If it’s not, there’s a convenient recycling bin in the corner, which you can hit up before you catch a Lyft to your next appointment.

I'll Be Brief

When I was a baby, I didn’t start speaking until I was over two years old. When I started talking, it was in complete sentences.

For me, writing has always been a way of feeling out what’s complex or hard to understand. When writing things down, I often feel like I need to get out a complete thought—even if that means going to a level of systematic depth that the communication may not require. 

While this habit may be rewarded for the creation of design documentation or books, it doesn’t always lend itself to open dialogue and public discourse. Blaise Pascal once said in one of his letters to a friend: “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” No mathematician worth their salt would circulate their ideas until they could express them in their most elegant, defensible form. 

Right now, I’m most interested in writing short forms, and how they add up to dialogues where ideas can riff and play off each other in rapid, improvisational fashion. I find myself admiring the required restraint in this call and response. While short forms of writing don’t always result in a concise QED, they do offer trailheads to other vistas you can explore on your own power.

This is the terrain we traverse today. Many of us spend our days conversing in Facebook posts and tweets and instant messages and texts and Slack and so forth—but how good are we really at that as writers? In our craft?

If you’re doing it right, you know based on how other people respond to the words. Not in a creepy, Lexicon sort of way, where poets can make you do whatever they want—in their tone and mood.

Nineteen years ago, I remember editing an interview by a famous writer, where he said that he wanted to be capable of shifting your emotional state while reading one his stories based on how you transitioned from one syllable to another in a single word. At the time, I thought he was crazy. A paragraph or a sentence, sure. But in the middle of a word?

Now, I’m not so sure. There are so many pieces of writing we encounter today where reading only a few words will start your blood boiling, and there’s a tiny input box beckoning to you for a response.

Removed from the Image

Rock Beach, Cadaques, Spain

Light knifed across the stark grey ceiling. Pain curled in my gut. Sweaty salty upper lip. Knees pulled to my chest. Slitted curtain. Slipping into and out of lucid dreams: Late summer bright suits and sundresses. Grass blades tickling my back. Fighting for a share of blanket on the hilltop. Birds formed a wheel overhead. When I shut my eyes, my body shook itself awake.


Stepping off the bus after a bracing three hour ride from Barcelona to Cadaqués, I sit on a dirty bench waiting for a woman to meet me with the apartment keys. The afternoon sun hammered down. Behind me, tourists wandered up and down the narrow streets. The dark blue harbor was littered with white buoys and fishing boats. Children played on the rock beach with their families, splashing among the rocks in sandals and colorful swimsuits. I fished my camera out of my backpack, took a photograph.

What wasn't visible in the picture was a stiff, unceasing wind. Over that hour, it continually kicked dust up into our faces. My eyes itched and watered. I shut my eyes, replaying the winding path through the cliffs to this cove.

From the depths of memory, I was reminded of a passage in Gabriel García Márquez's story "Tramontana," where he and his family hide in their Cadaqués house from the tramontana, "a harsh, tenacious land wind that carries in it the seeds of madness, according to the natives and certain writers who have learned their lesson." At one point in the short story, the narrator decides to take his children out after many days of wind to see the harbor because "the weather still had an unrepeatable beauty, with its golden sun and undaunted sky… [until] at last, we were convinced that the only rational course of action was to remain in the house until God willed otherwise. And no one had the slightest idea when that would be."

The day after I arrived, there was a torrential rainstorm. I stood for hours beneath the eaves of a garage, listening to the thunder, stepping into and out of the deluge. Slate stairways became swollen tributaries feeding the Med. Having fled the never-ending California drought, I smiled and smiled.


The room tipped back and forth. Tired. Hungry. Groping for the bedside table. Water and sleep and water and candy. I am proof you can survive on a single package of gummy bears. I proved this by sucking on each bear individually until it collapsed into a puddle on my tongue.


This week, I planned to wander the Costa Brava. For a few days, I would wander downtown Cadaqués and spend my time on the rock beaches, working on my tan and finishing the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire sequence. Mid-week, I was going to hike the four miles up into Cap de Creus Park, packing in water, bread, and cheese. Hike my way up dry scrub-scarred cliffs. Trace the footsteps of Éluard and Hemingway and Márquez through olive groves. Meander slate-paved zigzag streets. Drink silty red wine tapped from a cask in the corner of a sleepy cafe. In the margins, I would meditate and write. I had a list of topics prepared months in advance, for this time away from work and everyday life. I had put off writing about these subjects. I thought they needed uninterrupted attention. Fear, addiction, failure, depression, loneliness, anxiety. The things people confront daily, yet rarely face head on.

The streets of the city were impossibly pictureseque. Even recently constructed apartment buildings had a precise geometry, no matter which way you looked at them. Green slice of lawn, punctuated by a football. Two scooters angled in by symmetric slate staircases. Rowboat resting under gnarled trees. Wet pastel shirts flapping on a clothesline strung outside the forest.


Book slap on the tile floor when it fell out of my hands, waking me. Fished the book off the floor. Thought I finished the second paragraph this night. Nine in the morning? Twenty-one in the evening?


On my second day, I hiked over to Port Lligat, north of the city center, where there is a clear view of Dalí's house. You could see how much work he had done over 40 years with the architecture, the interior design, and the overall decoration of the property, shaping it all to his artistic whims and routines.

Dalí set up a mirror in his bedroom in a particular location by the window, so when the sun came over the horizon at dawn, its first rays would shine in his face and wake him. He would go paint for hours while his wife slept in her own separate bed on the other side of the room.


I fingered the blister packs of medication, Braille lettering raised on a blue serifed box. Spent five minutes contemplating a miniature piece of toast. Didn’t know they sold these pre-made in plastic trays, forty for a euro. No idea how they stay fresh on the shelf.

Taking a bite. Willing the food to stay down. Washing it down with water from a 1.5 liter plastic water bottle. Half a dozen empty on the counter. Admiring the form of them for an hour. Each bottle fitting perfectly in my hand. When drained, almost no energy required to collapse them. Water we have little choice but to drink, bubbling through sand from an unknown source, immortalized on a colorful bottle sold for 79 centos.


Brief Skype conversations with my wife. The connection was just good enough for voice, sometimes a little video if we were lucky. We’ve been married for over fourteen years. We would be apart for two full weeks. She was a thousand miles away, in Lithuania, on a writing fellowship.

There was the echoing laughter of families during the siesta, heading off to nap away the heat of the afternoon. I ate ceviche and omelette and drank Amaro during late night dinners. Watched a man paint in his studio, the canvas looking like a video game celebrating what the Olympics might look like two hundred years in the future. Caught the scent of petrol from mopeds buzzing their way up slender alleys. Walked the streets at midnight, placing my hands on the rough white walls of buildings, feeling their stored heat.

Dusk cycled into darkness as I dragged a white lawn chair into the darkness of the back porch to read fantasy and eat dried apricots. Mosquitos fluttered around my ears. Turned up the volume on the crickets. The wind blew unceasingly against the apartment building, but in the courtyard, I was shielded from the chill.


The pharmacy was five blocks away. It took me half an hour yesterday to walk there. Wrote the symptoms out. I should start by listing the symptoms and I should go back. This blurry language bled out of my head when I was sixteen. Maybe they are still open. There are no words on the red paper I am writing with the ballpoint pen its cap still on. The medicine isn't working. Maybe I should take more. I couldn’t explain the symptoms. My Spanish was broken. I don't know Catalan. Google Translate you don't know what to say.


I was doing an excellent job of avoiding writing, so I decided to take another walk with my camera. Wandering through a church graveyard about ten minutes from the city center, I saw immensely detailed tile illustrations, celebrating activities that the person loved doing before they died. I study each one intently: boating, gardening, spending time with family.

I carry a small beat-up journal when I travel. I've had this one for over two years. I use it to record my attachments, things that I realize when I'm reflecting on everyday life. Only one statement can appear per page, written in big block letters. I can only read a few pages in the journal before I am overwhelmed.

Lying in bed that evening, after cooking myself a bachelor's pot of rice and vegetables, I read the entries from front to back. All I could hear was the echo of the words as I took them in, the feelings they stirred up.

"I am attached to being cared for as the best way to prove that I am loved. I don’t consider what I do for myself as being valuable and caring for myself."

"I am attached to worrying. :)"

"I measure my self worth based on newly considered things, rather than living with any one thing until I discover I will never fully know it."

You can't live in a feeling forever, inhabit it like a home that you left long ago or hope to reconstruct it from sticks and glue when you see it falling into disrepair. When two sound waves are in a particular phase with each other, they cancel each other out. Both of them had to come from somewhere.


I think I'm getting better. I remember eating. On Skype with Mary. Debating whether or not she should fly here to help me if I can't travel back.

I've had it worse. In my early thirties I lost ten pounds off an already thin frame due to an infection. In this case, I was bedridden, smelly, not caring about my personhood, not caring about the plan or the quick epiphany or the last dog days of vacation where the sun glimmered above the patio while people ate tapas and bread dredged in salt and olive oil, pacing rooftop decks before returning to their lives that were always there in front of them, every detail not tentative. What would happen in two hours, let alone two days. I can't imagine moving five feet let alone the thousands of miles.


Late afternoon siesta, but I can't sleep. Staring at the blank page of the ceiling, I will myself into a swimsuit and walk to the closest beach. Shucking off my sandals, I slosh my way into the water, rainbow-slicked with oil and seaweed. Taking a deep breath, I plunge under the chilly water. Push my way out past the barrier. When I come up for air, the wind tousles my hair. It isn't until a few hours later, after eating a plate of pasta and sauce, that I begin to feel weak, curl up under a blanket under my couch, and vanish.


On a red park bench outside the church halfway to Port Lligat. Can't stand yet. Morning heat already rising. Clutching a water bottle in one hand and my stomach with the other. Another half mile to reach Dalí's house. Still not well, but feeling the edge of better. Breathless. Maybe I'd get there today. Maybe not.

Scrolling through photos on my camera. Almost all taken before I was ill. Sculpture. Painter. Courtyard. Sea. Tomb.

I stare up into the tree above me as it shifted in the wind. Clouds: patterns forming and reforming themselves. This world I had no control over.

Márquez: "At the end of two days we had the impresssion that the fearful wind was not a natural phenomenon but a personal affront aimed by someone at us, and us alone… But it must have been something like the dark before the dawn, because after midnight we all awoke at the same time, overwhelmed by an absolute stillness that could only be the silence of death. Not a leaf moved on the trees that faced the mountain. And so we went out to the street… and relished the predawn sky with all its stars shining, and the phosphorescent sea."

I put the camera aside. Shutting my eyes. Why isn't this enough.


Stones on Wood

Riverbed by Olafur Eliasson at the Louisiana

The toddler in the snowsuit slipped on a rock and slid into the burbling stream. His mother pointed at him, laughing to her two friends standing beside her. I thought: I’ve never seen that happen in an art museum.

We were inside the first room of Olafur Eliasson’s Riverbed, which was on display at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen. It was part of a series of situational artworks where natural landscapes were partially recreated within the environment of a gallery space. The year before, Mary and I had seen Lava Rocks at a museum in Aalborg, where we had to don a pair of museum-provided Crocs and gingerly step our way through a giant white room full of sharp red lava rocks. The combination of the crunch-crunch-crunch sound and light streaming in from the windows above made for a static non-terrestrial landscape, as if it were Mars from the legs down, while from the waist up we were within the environs of a hospital.

Riverbed by olafur eliasson at the Louisiana

But while Lava Rocks’s primary modes of engagement required us to stay focused on keeping upright as we explored the various terrain in the room—lest we injure ourselves—Riverbed was set up in a slightly different way. First, the artwork moved through a series of rooms, and the floor was graded as if you were hiking your way up a hill bank to find the source of water. You could duck through short doorways to move in and out of the rooms, as if the gallery environment itself had been reshaped by the natural material. You climb a staircase that has been overtaken partially by a trickling waterfall. In most rooms, the only sound you could hear was the rushing of the water downhill, which was so pristine I found myself searching the walls and ceiling to see if there were speakers piping it inside. The only thing the exhibit required of us, other than the ability to walk, was to cross the stream in order to view every room.

Riverbed by olafur eliasson at the Louisiana

What struck me most about this work was what it lacked. In Lava Rocks, I found myself considering how the rocks were birthed from fire and cooled into these shapes, and imagining myself in those environments. In a similar fashion, when experiencing Riverbed I found myself considering what you might find exploring a local stream: wind, sunlight, dirt, animals, insects, birds, plants, trees, lichens, fungus, worms, and all else that animates our natural world. All that was left here were the water and the rocks, and the sense impressions that they would leave us as we ground our way up the sloping room, with an inkling of what we would find at the start of the stream: the end of the work, and the beginning of your recollection of the experience. 

I found this re-creation of nature both constrained and expansive. I call the work constrained because the interplay between the gallery space and the raw materials (rocks, water) was intelligently assembled to evoke a few physical and sensory interactions—Eliasson meant for the destabilizing nature of the rocks against shoes, for example. But I call the work expansive to speak to the almost unlimited vocabulary of things people can and will do, based on how the environment was constructed. I couldn’t help but wonder how much thought had been put into the arrangement of natural materials as to how it could inspire these interactions, which rarely happen in an art exhibit. In just a few minutes observing those at the exhibit, I saw:

  • One man determinedly walking to the source of the water, as if truly hiking
  • A group of children running from room to room, being pursued by a parent
  • A young man filming the flowing water with his smartphone
  • Three men standing around having a conversation in a lower room, as if out for a smoke break
  • An elderly woman sitting down on a big rock to have her picture taken, like on a mountaintop
  • A girl filming her friend crawling through one of the low doorways, then leaping into the air to celebrate

Riverbed by olafur eliasson at the Louisiana

In an interview, Eliasson talked about how he would watch these people, and then try to literally recreate their movements, “so I can see what I have lost.” His perspective is that he can only control so much of someone else’s experience—and that the whole notion of him dictating an artistic experience is flawed:

“The interaction we have with our surroundings is actually a cultural construct. The way we engage with the world is based on our model, not on truth… What I also present you with is not real. It’s stones on wood. So I’m not trying to say I’m trying to show you the real thing. We are living in models and that it is always how it is and how it has always been… What is real is the way that you choose to handle your own model…

We don’t take in the exhibition, we produce it by walking through it. That is to suggest that the authorship of reality lays within the beholder, the user, the museum visitor. The museum is constituted by the visitors… [That’s why] we should trust the visitor to take the authorship, to become creators.” (transcribed from a video interview associated with the exhibition)

In this case, the child who was producing the exhibit alongside me was starting to cry, as he had gotten wet and the water was chillier than anticipated. His mother swooped him up off his feet, as six more children in a school group bounded past, giggling with excitement. In a world where so much contemporary art places demands on you to sense something quite particular or precious, it’s refreshing to spend so much time in an artistic experience where you are able to shape your journey so explicitly.

Life at the Right Resolution

Goggi, Popplagið

"In the span of one lifetime it is, of course, possible for every human being to improve himself—within limits set by energy, time, temperament, and the level from which he begins…. But the limits within which such improvements may be made are small in comparison with the vast aspects of our nature and our circumstances which remain the same, and which will be very difficult to improve even were it desirable to do so. I am saying, therefore, that while there is a place for bettering oneself and others, solving problems and coping with situations is by no means the only or even the chief business of life….
No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve in quality as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing it is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them. The musician whose chief concern is to make every performance better than the last may so fail to participate and delight in his own music that he will impress his audience only with the anxious rigor of his technique."
Alan Watts, from "This Is IT" in the essay collection This Is IT and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience

The above quote struck me on so many levels when I read it today: as a human being, a husband, an artist, a musician, a designer, an [insert label] of who I may be in 2013.


The above image #3062391516 by Insousiance is shared via an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License via < href="http://www.flickr.com/">Flickr.com. It's also of one of my favorite bands, Sigur Ros.

Thinking Ahead of Yourself

Amber Wave exhibit by at osecology at The Feast Conference Pavilion 2012

Another sunny Saturday morning in early fall 2001. The starlings in the nest outside our window wake us with their cassette-tape song on rewind. Stirring from sleep, my wife and I settle into one of our rituals—acquiring lattes from one of our favorite coffee roasters before the morning escapes us. Pulling on our clothes and shoes, still a bit groggy, we make our way out of our third-floor Seattle apartment. The door clicked behind us, and as we headed down the stairs and out of the building, I realized the keys were sitting on the counter inside.

My adrenaline spiked. I thought to myself, Don't panic. But I couldn't help myself. At our previous apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, we would just walk down to the management office and ask them to unlock the door with their master key. But our landlady here lives on an island, many hours away. There was no way she could help us get back in.

Mary and I debated our options. It seemed like all we could do was bring in a locksmith. But I was loathe to make the call. We had just taken a full month off for an amazing cross-country jaunt as part of our move to Seattle. Due to the impact of 9/11 on the marketing and design industries, it had been hard for me to find work since our move. Going for coffee was a splurge, and if I had to call a locksmith to open up the door, there wouldn't be any more coffee dates for a good while. There had to be a way to open this door without a key.

The solution came to me in a flash: My next-door neighbor was a mountaineer. And the door from our balcony into our apartment's living room was unlocked. We knocked on his door, explained the situation, and I asked if I could borrow one of his climbing harnesses, a rope, a belay device, and a chair.

Standing on the chair, I popped the door to the roof open. My wife and neighbor clambered up after me. We tied off the rope and tugged on it with two people's full strength to make sure the chimney could bear my weight. I strapped on my harness and threaded the belay device. With my brake hand firmly on the rope, I winded two curls of the free rope around my right leg, peered over the edge, and took a deep breath. Without giving it too much thought, I turned around backwards and backed myself out until I was parallel to the roof's edge, slowly providing slack to the belay device until I went from parallel to dropping over the edge.

With a jerk, I came to dangle five feet away from our balcony. To my right, the Olympic mountains were rimmed with liquid yellow fire, late afternoon sun painting the houses below me with golden light. I lowered myself down and untied my harness, then walked through our apartment to pop open the lock on the front door.

Problem solved… until three weeks later, I was hanging upside down from a rope tied to the chimney of my apartment building, many stories above the asphalt pavement of our parking lot, thinking to myself: How did this happen again?

Instead of the keys sitting on the counter, they were in my jacket pocket in the hall closet.


We can be creative about dealing with what we've forgotten. It is much harder to prepare for what we never want to forget. We are swimming through possible consequences, rather than acknowledging what’s in front of us.

Routines and systems only go so far. You can’t fully run a life on punch cards and coffee makers with timers.

My wife and I started leaving our keys in the same place—our overflowing change tray—every time we walked in the door. We made a spare copy of our house key for our next door neighbor. I kept my bag I take to work in the same place, the larder stocked with cereals and soups in the same locations. Our bookshelves, while not alphabetized, became organized by genre and when they will be read or revisited. But there isn’t a place for every item, every detail, with absolute certainty. I somehow forget the grocery list, which causes me to have to take another trip for critical staples. Or the transit checks to load onto my Clipper card. Or my phone. Or my laptop. Just this past week, I forgot my keycard for work. Twice.

I had to turn this over this habit in my mind for a long time to realize: in every one of these situations, I was one step ahead of what I needed to do, right then and in the moments before that I couldn’t recall.

What are you thinking about before you start checking your pockets, trying to find your car key so you can get to work on time? When you left the car keys on the counter yesterday? When you were driving home? We spend our time rewinding the clock, while also addicted to the adrenaline spike in the present moment. We’re addicted to crisis. The tickets to the rock concert. The passport for the international trip. Paying the monthly rent on time.

By this point, it’s too late to unfurl memories about places you don’t even remember. We think we’re taking a well-worn shortcut, only to discover it’s an even further path to the actual destination we had in mind. With the sticky note reminder on the door, we walk right past what connects our livelihood to our well being, implicitly accepting the behavior.

The hard work is not in the future. It is confronting our decisions in the here and now.

Rowing on Command

"Powerzaal" bij Club Gent

Four years ago, I was having a conversation with the head of client services at a large marketing studio, and somehow we ambled onto the topic of Buddhism. I mentioned that I'd been thinking about the similarities between Buddhism and design, and he said: "Well, then clients definitely make us suffer too."

We both chuckled at the joke, but there was a hint of wisdom lurking in the laughter.

We don't need clients to cause us to suffer. We do a fine job of causing suffering in our work without them.


To suffer is to endure, to carry forth in work and in life.

There is a constant tension between the constraints that bind us. Some are human needs: a roof over our head for sleep, food to keep us from starving. Some are more experiential, responsibilities we choose to acquire by studying trusted experts, emulating admired role models, or slogging through dogged failure. And in the domain of work we find daily tasks we hope to eventually align with our personal passions.

Sometimes we own the business, sometimes the business owns us. Or so we believe. All of our needs, responsibilities, and tasks become tangled up with the requirements and demands of business.


In late 2000, I landed a freelance gig at one of the top advertising agencies in America. I was thrilled I would be there for a month; I wanted to gain experience in creating high-end advertising. And though I was spending most of my time creating layouts for dog food ads, I was gleaning insight into how a large agency operated, as I had spent the previous four years working within small nonprofit organizations and design studios.

It was late Friday afternoon, and I was packing up my bag to leave. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw other designers from the production studio lined up outside the office of the creative director.

"What are they doing?" I asked the designer sitting next to me. On his screen were mechanicals for a newspaper ad that was going to run as part of a client's next campaign.

"Oh, they're getting feedback on their ads, to see if they need to come in over the weekend and work on them before they're sent out for publication next week."

Without even thinking, I blurted out, "Why?"

He paused to think, then leaned over and said to me quietly, "If they offer you a job here—and they will, because they like you a lot—decline it. You don't want to work at a place like this."


Earlier this week, after seeing some Olympic rowers on the TV, I ended up in a conversation about what it was like to row in an eight-person crew. First, the painful memories came flooding back. The training was intense and grueling: running 3 to 6 miles, doing weight training, doing sprints on the rowing ergometer, stretching, plyometrics, constant racing on the reservoir where we trained. It was the most extreme cross-training I've ever experienced. I once had to run backwards up a hill carrying my friend Brian on my back. All of this work, in the service of shaving a few seconds off the speed of a boat carrying eight sweaty men floating on the top of a river from Point A to Point B. I recall races where several of my teammates would end up puking into the water, because they had simply pushed their bodies too far. Seeing people doing crossfit, even after all of these years, makes me shiver.

But those memories were counterbalanced by the thrill of rowing itself. What you may not know is that those rowers are flying.

Once you've been rowing with a crew for a month or two and you've achieved a certain level of synchronicity, each time the oars dig into the water, the boat rises slightly above the river's surface. Months of hard work are made manifest: the boat flies through the air, if only for a few microseconds.

I think I only know this now that I’ve stopped rowing, but the saddest part about the whole thing is not about how much you’ll punish your body for those brief moments of freedom. It’s knowing that once your oar leaves the water, the boat will cease its flight. And though there may be another stroke which allows you to fly, eventually, the race comes to an end. Project complete.

I can't say that everything in life functions like this. People go a long way, sometime without even realizing they’ve passed their limits, to reach that moment of effortlessness in the midst of intense work. Outside of the oars and the boat, nothing else matters. Not eating, not sleeping, not friends or family.

But a life solely composed of work is like a house without flooring to stand upon. For too many years, I applied the same sporting logic to my design work. I believed that the intense suffering—the physical and mental sacrifices—was the necessary and expected effort I made in order to fly.

This was reinforced through word and deed by designers I greatly respected, some of whom I considered mentors. They said the key to success was a single-minded focus on creating excellent work. So I tried to do that, for a really long time.

After all, rowers don’t need to see where they’re going. They always have someone else looking forward for them.

The upshot was that I grew as a designer. I’m grateful for the knowledge that I gained during that time in my life.

The downside of this focus was what I'd excluded. I found myself spending more and more time with designers, talking about doing design work—often while avoiding a pile of life problems that couldn't be solved by writing a better proposal or having a killer prototype to solve a client need. I avoided those problems by digging into my team’s design work, helping others with their problems.

My fellow designers and I were all in the same boat, pulling and puking together, and we couldn’t afford to be concerned about what lay ahead. We could fly consistently together, maybe a little longer each time. When one race was over, we just went to another.

We might have caught a glimpse of something important on the shore, but only after it was passing us by. We were working.

We were working hard.


The above photo "'Powerzaal' bij Club Gent"/7158757302 is by E. Dronkert from Flickr.com, included via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

A Hummingbird's Perspective

A Hummingbirds Perspective

Sitting on the cabin's deck was like having a front-row seat at a dragstrip. The birds would park themselves on the perches of a bird feeder, seesawing back and forth to take little sips of sugar water. Then, with a snap, their bodies would shift from sitting to hovering and zip into the treeline.

The lavender in the garden sparkled in the afternoon sun. A light wind played over Westcott Bay, rippling tiny flags on sailboats berthed far from shore. Mary and I had planned this week-long summer getaway so I could finish the manuscript for my second book. After lazy mornings tucked under electric blankets in the cabin, we would spend a few hours walking or drive to Friday Harbor, take in brunch, and then I'd settle down to write for the balance of the afternoon and evening.

This continuous display of nature made the writing hard. We had seen the red bird feeder outside the cabin on previous trips, but those had been in late fall or winter. We'd never had a chance to see the hummingbirds during their migration. I don't think I have ever seen so many hummingbirds in one place. For every sentence typed into the computer, it seemed like there was at least one hummingbird finding its way to the feeder or coursing its way around the yard.

We weren't only dazzled by the hummingbirds. We saw large woodpeckers digging into a rotted log, island cats stalking across the asphalt road looped behind a string of summer homes, a herd of deer pacing through the backyard at dusk. Ants thronged around the herb garden. At one point, two deer were fighting about twenty feet away over who would have first dibs on eating from a tasty bush. In another situation, a baby doe fed on grass up to her shoulder, causing me to arrest the clickety-clack of the computer keys to more clearly hear her chew. In all of these cases, our presence was noted with mild disinterest.

None of this would have been visible to me if I hadn't been sitting on a wooden chair in the backyard, every afternoon.


Within two days of our stay, the bird feeder was nearly depleted. Over dinner that night, Mary and I pondered: Do we refill it?

The cabin we were staying at had no Internet. This was intentional, so we could get away from Seattle and find some focus. So Mary had to use her iPhone for some Internet sleuthing, and figure out how to feed the hummingbirds. With additional information, things only became more confusing.

In sifting through the pantry, we found only raw sugar and powdered sugar. Powdered sugar may be the most crack-like delivery mechanism for sucrose imagined by man—just say the words "funnel cake" and you start salivating. But it isn't pure sugar. It has additional corn starch added to reduce caking. Same goes for raw sugar, which has extra iron in it. Hummingbirds can't process these additives. They prefer pure sucrose. Which made us wonder: What had the hummingbirds been eating up to that point? Who was refilling the feeder? Were they slowly killing the birds?

To be safe, we decided to drive to the grocery store before it closed to purchase white sugar. We also cleaned the feeder before refilling it, as anywhere sugar touches can mildew.


These birds didn't need our help. During this time of year, the high temperatures, light breeze, and blooming flowers and trees everywhere must make for an ideal stopover during their commute up the Pacific coast.

I couldn't help but catch the subtle irony of the situation. Here I was, a user experience designer that didn't let the feeder run out and see if the birds would return to the garden without any additional incentive beyond a flower garden. Instead, I didn't want to risk their absence during our final days of the trip. Or, to put it another way: For the first time in my life, I could see this beautiful bird when he was at rest, all day long. Even if his movements distracted me from what I was trying to do.

The substance of our world can be like sugar water in a sealed tube. Our thoughts and emotions circle, dart around it. We stop, reflect, sip through the provided straw. If we stay too long in one place, we often get stuck in thinking it's the only place to find sustenance.

From a hummingbird's perspective, this really isn't a problem. There's no clear reason why I would be there, watching him eat a fraction of the sugar he'll need for a day's flying… other than it's a lovely place to burn your knees on an overheated MacBook Pro.

I'm the one that isn't moving.

The Gift of Attention

Glass 1


The water glass tumbled to the floor and shattered. Glittering fragments, both small and large, covered almost every inch of the bathroom floor.

A minute passed. Still in shock, I surveyed the tiled landscape from my maroon bathmat island.

My wife called out from the bedroom: "Are you okay?"

"Yes," I said. "It's no big deal." I had been holding a water glass in my right hand, which was also opening the door. In my left hand I was shutting off the alarm on my phone, which I'd accidentally set to snooze. I hadn't wanted to wake my wife up, but it was too late for that.

As my breathing returned to normal, I felt a throbbing pain in my right foot: two splinters of glass poking straight out from the skin, like mile markers on a jogging trail. Kneeling down, I plucked them out. Blood oozed from the wound.

"Wet a pile of paper towels and use it to pick up the fragments," she said.

I put my left palm on the counter and stretched out to pop the bathroom door open. Then I jumped through the door from the bathmat, so I wouldn't risk piercing the soles of my feet.

Outside, a garbage truck honked over and over again, so loud that it set off a car alarm.


I returned with the towels and thick-soled shoes. Leaning over from my waist, I did my best to pick up what pieces of glass I could see, piling them in a paper bag we'd saved from our last trip to the grocery. One of the larger fragments displayed a smiling cow, with a single word below it in handwritten script: "Moo."

Now, the work would begin. Since the glass was cheap, thousands of dust-sized glass pieces glinted from the tile. I wet the towels in the sink, squatted, and began to pat at the floor.

I knew that I had to reach every square inch, to make sure all of the fragments were gone. So I got on my hands and knees to finish the job.

It was only that moment that I realized the floor was filthy—even after having been professionally cleaned before we moved in. This went beyond the usual hair and dirt you might sweep up on a weekly basis.

With the 30 minutes I had before I needed to commute for work, I couldn't clean it to my satisfaction. It would take two hours. At the same time, I didn't know how I'd missed how dirty the floor was when we'd moved in.


Having lived with people who sleepwalk, I sometimes imagine what it would be like if I sleepwalked too: Staring into the mirror in the bathroom, brushing your teeth with shaving cream. Standing in the kitchen after having cooked and eaten half a stack of buttermilk pancakes. Gardening in the moonlight, watering a patch of blooming spaghetti squash. Walking down the center of a city street wearing only flannel pajama bottoms, plush squirrel slippers, and a coffee mug that reads "My Pomeranian Is Smarter then Your Honor Student"—then being woken with bewilderment by a honking Cutlass Supreme.

These moments, whether deliberate or unplanned, break our patterns of attention, much in the same way a Zen master may strike a disciple that has fallen asleep while in seated meditation. The master takes no joy in the act. It is not punishment. He bows to the sleeping discipline in apology for what he is about to do, to make sure the student can return to being present.

Such are these moments, where your actions provide you with such a gift. Did you already receive it?


After I cleaned up the glass and inhaled breakfast, I was standing at the corner of Grand and Lenox Avenue, waiting for the light to change. The clarity of the morning had dissolved into a swarm of thoughts. I was thinking about what I needed to do that day at work. About meeting my wife in Sausalito for a reading by writers that we admired. Dozens of thoughts, in the time it takes for a light at the intersection of Grand and Lenox to change.

A bicyclist shouted as he passed by me and another woman, "Wake up, you're beautiful!" He then whooped with joy and shot both of his fists in the air, balancing his bike between two fast-pumping legs.

The woman and I exchanged glances as if he was crazy.

But he was right. I wasn't there.


Above photo by Andrew Magill, reprinted via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license via Flickr.

Overcoming the Complexity of World Problems

Everything Else

Late at night, the supermarket has an otherworldly glow. The food sits silent, expectant. Absent of people, large pyramids of gala apples shine under fluorescent lighting, while a pimply 18-year-old sweeps the floor with a giant push broom. It could be an Edward Hopper painting, except for how the push broom creates fat lines of dirt that the employee coaxes into a dustpan and dumps into a trash can. At this hour there is no one except me, holding a half-pound of bulk organic granola (pumpkin flax) and a container of plain yogurt, trying to imagine exactly how much food rests within these four walls. Twenty thousand items? Forty thousand? Perhaps enough to feed a neighborhood of Seattle for a month, if parsed out piece by piece.

This is one of those moments that makes you feel both fortunate to live in a place where such resources are so plentiful, and also humble in the face of what is an incredible problem for most others in this world. We find it so hard to expend energy influencing world problems like hunger, poverty, and infectious diseases such as HIV. We can't easily visualize, in our minds or through a double-spread infographic, how much nutritive food is required for the billions of people in this world. Where would a designer first focus to increase its availability? In the abstract, it can feel absurd to try to quantify the impact of our individual actions in a hyper-connected world. We provide rice to the starving child thousands of miles away, unaware of how the rice is grown, where it is grown, the details of its distribution, and the extended industries that have sprung up to facilitate (or obstruct) its influence on the overall problem at hand.

I think that backing away from taking any sort of action against a world problem is a peculiar kind of intellectual fallacy—both as people donating our time towards important causes and as designers attempting to influence a world problem for the better. To make my case, I'm going to play with some mathematical concepts, but I warn you that I am no scientist in the traditional sense and merely a dilettante when it comes to numbers. I don't think I'm treading any new ground here, but at least the path around the lake has a little less overbrush.

Continue reading "Overcoming the Complexity of World Problems" »

On Letting Go


A thousand books scattered about the apartment, stacked in knee-high piles. All of the bookshelves bare. This housecleaning project was unplanned, but had been on our mind for months—reviewing every single book we'd accumulated over the past 10 years, and deciding which ones we could live without. Deadline: we had to wrap it up before the end of the long weekend. Otherwise, my wife and I couldn't make it out the front door.

Books have always been my worst vice. A lifelong addiction, scented with ink and glue. Being inside a bookstore requires great restraint, as I'd like nothing more than to run off with an endcap of science books, and perhaps swipe a popular novel or two on the way out the door while laughing maniacally.

It wasn't always this way. Through most of high school and college, I was able to get by just with the library. When I was in graduate school, however, I would acquire and read 3 to 4 books a week—for work, for pleasure, for class, for my full-time job as an editor. In the mail, I would receive dozens of review copies a month. The bookshelves grew fuller and fuller, and since many books were referred to in class, I had no excuse to get rid of them. It wasn't until a hurricane blew through town and flooded our townhouse's basement—destroying about a hundred of my books—that I felt heartbroken at having to recycle all those books. Giving away or selling books, even since then, has always been a struggle.

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A Random Walk

A random walk

"Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought." —Albert Einstein

An eternity of row houses: crumbling brick facades shadowed by rusted metal awnings painted over in a crackle of white, like giant bookshelves. A soccer ball rests in the yard, black dyed fabric panels scuffed away by Converse-clad feet scuffling across evenly measured concrete paths. Dull grey sky, lazy rain. I watch individual raindrops appearing on the windowsill, one by one, merging into larger and larger droplets.

In the back alley between homes, I can hear the chuckling of a car starter for at least fifteen minutes, over and over again—it woke me from a deep sleep. From bed, I strain my neck to look through the blinds, spying a fire-engine red Camaro, a man in a white wife-beater behind the wheel. Finally, the engine turns over, settling into a deep, saturnine roar above the constant pitter-patter of a cleansing rain. Engine purring like an overweight cat, the man eases his 20-year-old dream into reverse, slowly backs it up ten feet to block in his garage, which is overflowing with spare parts and packing boxes ever-flowing with everything from old blenders to scrap wood pieces. The engine dies.

I sit at the window, watching him stare off into space.

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Thinking About Problems as Spaces

Stars as Post Its

When I first started working at frog, the people around me kept referring to the problems we were tackling as "problem spaces." When pressed, no one could give me an answer as to why, so I went out and tried to find one for myself. And I think the beginnings of an answer just might be—at least metaphorically—in the splendor of the night sky, full of glistening stars.

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Designing What Remains

Image number 346724187 from Flickr.com | York Lethbridge - KISS project - all rights reserved

The streets blurred gray in the early morning rain. My cab driver, unusually chatty for five in the morning, tells me that he works four days a week at his dispatch in SODO, tending the lost and found. He rattles off what bounty you might find in their basement office: mobile phones, articles of clothing, wallets, keys, umbrellas. If items linger too long on the shelves, they're donated to charity. The mobile phones, after waiting for a few months, are shipped overseas for use by U.S. soldiers.

Recently, a new type of item was left on his desk by a spooked driver: a box of ashes.

"It was hard to believe that someone would just get out of a cab and forget their grandmother," he said. There weren't any identifying marks on the box, so they couldn't chase down whom was responsible for the cremains. "I put the ashes on the shelf and hoped that the family would come and pick them up."

Later that week, another surprise was waiting for him when he arrived at work: another box of ashes.

"Another driver found it in the back seat and knew which fare had left it," he said, accelerating into the HOV lane. "He tried to get back in touch with her, but she wouldn't answer her phone. So we just put the new box up on the shelf by the other one."

I was aghast at the notion of two people abandoning the remains of loved (or not so loved) ones—but that feeling was also tinged with shame.

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"Design Zen" on Design Mind on Air


Last November, after I'd written "Zen and the Art of Design" for the current "Work-Life" issue of Design Mind magazine, I sat down with Chris Sallquist to talk about some of my experiences traveling through Japan.

Our discussion became this fun podcast on Design Mind on Air, "Zen Design", which is accompanied by 14 photos I took while traveling through Japan. I hope you enjoy it.

"Zen and the Art of Design" in Design Mind Magazine

Illustration from Zen and the Art of Design

A carpet of clouds flows over the mountains, sending sheets of rain into the valley. I am staring at a painting that’s come to life, like a Sumi-e masterpiece. In this rendition, however, power lines extend across a far-off peak, and an unused baseball diamond is exposed through a break in the evergreens. Half-visible through the branches is the top edge of the Daimon, an ornate red gate built and then rebuilt on the spot where Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, was said to have first entered the community of Koyasan, led by a black dog and a white dog that were lent to him by a manifestation of the hunter-god Kariba-myojin.

I yearned to capture the scene in a photograph or a rough pencil sketch, but I had hiked up the muddy path with only my passport and an umbrella. My wife had sent me out into the rain while she napped in our room at Hoon-in, one of the many monasteries that allow travelers to rent lodging and to observe their daily practice. During our first week here, she had watched me take almost a thousand photographs and journal obsessively while we wandered through many of the places I’d idealized after taking an abiding interest in Buddhism, from the popular Shingon sect rooted in Koyasan to the more direct practices of Zen Buddhism that I have been studying over the past few years. But that afternoon, weary of seeing a camera glued to my eye socket, she noted that I seemed to be more focused on shooting photos than experiencing each place and taking pictures when so moved.

She was right. I had been a glutton for images during our first days on Mt. Koya, as I took in the staggering beauty of it all: the ringing of prayer bells from more than 70 temples at dawn, noon, and dusk; the feel of centuries-old wood continually tested by brutal winter months when the mountain roads become impassable; the morning meditation with syllabic chanting of the Diamond Sutra leavened by the pungent waft of incense; and the small shops selling pink and blue tea cakes or mochi expelled from large machines designed to pound rice flour into hand-wrapped treats. This place could not be captured in my sketches and raw files — and yet there I was, blindly recording what I had not even taken the time to sit with, to observe and understand in mind and body.

This was an ongoing problem in my life, one I had hoped the trip would help me resolve...

Read the full essay online in the new "Work-Life" issue of frog's Design Mind magazine, or buy your own print copy here.

Dropping the Anchors

First Impression

The first time I flew on an airplane was the first time I realized that people die.

We were a third of the way towards a fuzzy destination—it might have been Denver, or Atlanta, or one of those hub cities that you travel through in order to actually reach your final destination. As I sat and ate my apple sauce from the airplane-provided kid's meal, I asked myself with my three-year-old brain, "What would happen if the plane crashed?" Wailing and gnashed teeth ensued from that moment onwards.

Like most formative experiences, this decisive moment led me to hate flying on any sort of airplane, although statistics would bear out that driving my car down the street to pick up some organic gelato in Wallingford would lead to a much higher risk of being in an accident.

It's taken a good bit of active reframing to shake off the fear, kick back, and read a good book or two instead of freaking out. Last year, the fear came back unabated when flying back from Japan, due to freakish turbulence that seemed to defy the laws of physics and felt like it would snap the plane in two, Lost-style. But considering that half the plane was full of adults crying out in fear and openly weeping, I don't feel like quite the child that I was thirty-odd years ago. And since then, cross-country flights have been aces.

Flying is not the only item on my short list of major dislikes. I've been working hard to overcome my distaste towards condiments. (So far, I've relented on ketchup, barbecue sauce, and balsamic vinaigrette.) For most of my youth, I was afraid of heights. (Learning to rock climb scratched that one off the list.) Soft cheeses no longer scare me as well, though blue cheese is still gross.

As I've reflected on these dislikes, I've become more aware of how my emotions are related to anchors from my past.

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The Blind Man and the Cheeseburger: Form and Interconnection in User Experience Design

Cheeseburger Cupcakes by KateDW on Flickr

Have you ever watched a blind man eat a cheeseburger?

Before I skipped town for the holidays, my wife and I tried out a new sandwich shop down in the Ballard Blocks. After ordering and sipping at our iced teas, I noticed that the man next to me, distractedly chatting away with his family, had a folded white cane by his side. The waitress set down his gourmet burger, including sweet potato fries with aioli on the side. Out of the corner of my eye, I couldn't help but watch as he ate.

First, he patted with his left hand to find the top of the burger. He used his right hand to enclose the bun and patty. Slowly, he brought it to his mouth for a bite. Freeing up his right hand, he patted the plate for fries and ate three. Resting the sandwich, he then fumbled a bit before acquiring his beer and taking a healthy sip. The worried expression that had consumed most of his face during those first moments of eating had turned into a smile of deep satisfaction.

Between the beer, the burger, and the fries, he was continually reacquiring the position of each object in relation to his hands and his mouth. As he grew comfortable with the position and taste of each thing, he started to become more adventurous. Those first savored bites turned into a messy ballet. He began dipping the burger into the aioli for the fries, which required holding the stainless-steel ramekin. He also couldn't control how much of the sauce ended up on the burger (which ended up daubing his chin). As he finished the fries, he moved his hand around the plate in a clockwise motion to locate those last stray, delicious tubers. And he carefully managed how much was left in his pint of beer, so he could chase the last bite of the burger with a healthy swig.

As our waitress left our burgers in front of us, I couldn't help but reflect on how I would eat my impending meal, and what elements truly composed it.

We could talk here about the latent usability of the cheeseburger, but that's an easy argument to wager. If you suffer from a visual disability, of course it will cost you more time to fulfill the same interactions over the course of a meal. We've felt the very same feeling in using a poorly architected website, where we fumble about for minutes for what seems, in our minds, to be a very simple goal: match the idea in your head to what's on the screen. You need the food in your hand before you can put it in your mouth.

Since I could see all of the ingredients on the plate before me—and understood how they all fit together into a set of graspable objects—I could plan out at some level of detail how I would eat them, from first to last bite. It took about twelve minutes for the blind man to eat his burger, while I could make mine vanish more quickly.

Those are nice things, if I care about being more efficient, not getting ketchup on my sleeve, or admiring how the dark diagonal burn marks demonstrating how our veggie-burgers had been char-grilled.

Since I can see the cheeseburger, there must be some added meaning to the food that changes my perception of how it tastes. There's also the notion that slowing down the eating process, whether through self-will or eating in pitch darkness a la Dans le Noir, causes us to appreciate the nuances of what we taste. That environment may force you to acknowledge taste without the influence of sight, but how I understand the notion of "cheeseburger" or "fries" in that environment, as I consume them, is no better or worse than the blind man as he reaches for what comprises his lunchtime meal. Even if he and I are splitting the same cheeseburger, it will never be the same cheeseburger.

Continue reading "The Blind Man and the Cheeseburger: Form and Interconnection in User Experience Design" »