Recap: Design & Content Conference

Recap: Design & Content Conference

I’m fresh off Design & Content Conference in Vancouver. As far as conferences go, it’s unparalleled—a wonderful, warm place, where I’m lucky enough to be welcomed as family. It’s a place where pronouns are prominent on name badges, and organizers take their Code of Conduct seriously. It’s a place where women outnumber men on stage, and heteronormativity is far from the default. It’s a place where whiteness is—at least—self-aware.

I’m sitting in the airport at an ungodly hour (or I was when I wrote the majority of this), unpacking lessons from several days of earnest talks about how we can be better professionals and humans. Here are some of my takeaways:

Everyone worth a damn is trying to do something or fix something. I saw so many people so deeply committed to making the world better. At the core, I think that’s all we all want. Maybe we’re all Ozymandias building our empires, or maybe we’re all waking up and seeing the same broken hellscape, each tackling the little problems we can, with the tools we have, in the ways we know. That’s not nothing.

We all fuck up. A lot. We hurt people. We let people down. We break things. We bumble around like confused little animals because we are. We bump into each other because we’re all going different directions and carrying different ideas and trying to accomplish different things. We’re bound to disappoint.

Fuckups aren’t nearly as important as what you do about them. Some people deny and blame and hide from the responsibility of their actions. Others own their mistakes, mend what they can, and commit to doing better. I really only bother with the latter.

Pasts are painful. Almost universally, it seems, trips into memory come with the knife’s edge of loss or regret. That which we loved cannot be retrieved. That which caused pain cannot be changed. Our memories, in that way, have the potential to slice us, yet they fascinate us. We’re compelled to hold and explore them, to show them to others, to seek something in them we can’t find in the world before us.

You can’t wish people into being who you want them to be. Whether they’re using our websites or turning their backs on our friendship, people are going to behave in exactly the ways that make sense to them. No amount of hoping they’ll see the world—or you—differently can change their minds.

Warmth is the most important thing we can give each other. I’m not sure it even mattered what people were saying on stage (it did) as much as it mattered how they approached their topics. The speakers who brought warmth to the stage brought the most to the room. And throughout the event, people approached me with an openness and acceptance unmatched in most professional spaces. Those moments were gifts.

People who love you find ways to show it. Not everyone has good intentions. Sometimes people claim to love you while treating you as a prop or a toy or a pest. Those people don’t love you. They love something they get from you. People who really love you find ways to show up. They’re kind and consistent and go out of their way to care for you. It’s like Capital Cities says: you know it when you see it, you know it when it’s there.

Music is magic. I didn’t need the conference to tell me this, but in the few short days I spend in Vancouver, I saw music uplift audiences, change the mood of rooms, and connect people on intimate emotional levels. I’ve spent years saying, “I can’t sing,” and, “I don’t dance.” But this week I sang. I danced. I was off key and off beat and didn’t care. I let go of ego, and I was rewarded with beautiful moments that will live in my memory for years to come.

I could go on, but I’ll leave it here. I’m floored and grateful to have a place in such a kind and lovely community, and I’m energized to tackle what’s next.

Thank you, DCC.

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War of the Selves

War of the Selves

I’m back in San Diego. For five weeks, the sun has been shining, the birds have been chirping, and the streets have been bustling with that calm, buzzing energy I love so well. I’ve been gorging myself on the joys of southern California, delighting in ocean views and desert hikes and incomparable—impossible—produce.

I’m applying for an apartment today. It’s a six-month lease, a mere block from where I lived one year ago, B.N. (before nomad). It has everything I could possibly want in an apartment, with the small exception of a gas stove. (Turns out you don’t need a stove for rice cakes and hummus anyway, so hey.) (Rice cakes are my latest crutch-cum-bad habit because apparently you really do turn into your mother.)

I feel simultaneously elated and concerned. It would be so luxurious to have my own place, surrounded by my own things, following my own rhythms. I could retrieve the boxes of books and mementos I left in a friend’s attic. I could hang art that represents my tastes. I could invite guests to stay—for a night, a weekend, a week! I could spend entire days observed by no one, watching Jane the Virgin with nasty, unshowered hair, covered in rice cake crumbs (seriously, it’s a problem), popping into the bathroom whenever I wanted without having to decide how much sheepish eye contact to make with the person sitting right outside who definitely knows why I’m turning on the fan and hopefully won’t listen to what’s about to happen in there.

Glorious.

But.

Am I giving up a dream? I was supposed to be traveling indefinitely, gradually acquiring fewer and fewer belongings, not settling back down within a year, throwing in the proverbial towel on this identity I hardly had a chance to try on.

I toured another possible living arrangement: three roommates seeking a fourth for their big, beautiful house with large, exuberant dogs and lemon, orange, and avocado trees on a hill overlooking the ocean. I saw the place as the sun set last night, and it was a kind of paradise. Still, as soon I as I stepped into the house with its stained carpet, stray tufts of fur, and disheveled sofa cushions—as I too-firmly shook hands with the young beach people who smelled of marijuana (not a judgment) and work in surf shops—I knew I didn’t belong. My gut told me, “You can’t live here.”

I drove away, fantasizing about the kind of couch I’d buy for my new apartment above the sandwich shop, and realized a dream version of me had already died.

If I were truly the nomad, the detached wanderer stopping in for a medical reprieve, this house would be perfect. Its eclectic inhabitants, warm, welcoming vibe, and social atmosphere would fit beautifully on the person I was trying to be in Maine, the person I thought I could become long-term.

Here is where I feel a deep conflict because I want to dismiss my time in Maine with, “I wasn’t happy there,” but that doesn’t capture the whole story. I was happy when I embraced the beauty of the setting, when I relaxed into the mess and allowed myself to be witnessed, when I took time to get to know and understand my housemates (except for that 70 year-old Pizzagate mansplainer, but he doesn’t count). I had wonderful experiences in that house, even when it was filled with the stench of rotting rats. I loved that I could text a friend about an eerie light in my room, and three minutes later, he was there scoping it out with me. That kind of casual intimacy can fill up spaces in your life you didn’t know were empty.

Now I’m sitting here thinking about not just where I want to live but who I want to be. I feel like I’m on the precipice of casting a significant vote about my character, and I’m not sure I like the direction I’m headed—a magnetic pull toward the bougie comforts I scorn and crave in equal measure, joining the flow of those around me, allowing the current to take me where it may.

Back in B.N. times, when I worked in a cubicle, I would console myself that the energy I saved with structure and predictability would be spent on doing good in the world. Is that something I can make true now, or am I retreating into the familiar, hiding from the painful effort of letting go, needing less, growing smaller?

I’m not sure.

But it’s only a six-month lease. Right?

Worlds We Traipse Through

Worlds We Traipse Through
Every once in a while, a phrase sticks in my mind, and I often think about the time a friend and I were dining at the top of a tower in Durban, South Africa, in one of the world’s 27 revolving restaurants (fun fact!), where the walls were decorated with disconcerting cherub paintings (how did they get bodybuilder muscles? is there an LA Fitness in the heavens?). My friend said, “There’s something ever so ‘nearly but not quite’ about them, isn’t there?”
 
Nearly but not quite. So far, that describes everything I’ve encountered in Savannah. It’s a strange place that seems to be reaching for something it can’t quite grasp. (I’ve been here a whole 19 hours, so you can take my word as gospel truth.)
 
Also, I can’t believe it took me this long, but I’m finally realizing how much of our country resembles (has it always, or is it starting to?) countries like South Africa or Costa Rica or Colombia with bustling tourist centers surrounded by poverty.
 
I noticed it first in the west, especially in Yellowstone and in areas like the Black Hills, where I mostly stuck my nose in the air about the families rolling through faux Main Streets, spending money on glittering trinkets when there was so much real grit to experience just outside this grinning facade if only they’d pull their heads out of their butts long enough to see it. I’m not proud of the way I was romanticizing poverty by viewing it as something pure and interesting to “experience.” (I’m also not proud of my judgment of middle-class tourists, especially since I am one in my own right, but it’s the contempt of a present self looking upon a past self, which makes it feel earned somehow? Anyway, I think they can survive it.)
In Maine, I began to understand the desperation of impoverished communities begging for tourists’ money. I think living there opened me to the realities of cash flows, and as I drove by so many rainbow “Open” banners waving along the roadside, it began to feel like, “Please, come in. Please, spend your money. Please.”
 
Yesterday I strolled through the riverfront and main tourist area in Savannah, and I felt that familiar disdain for lumbering middle class sidewalk hogs and their entitled tween children, the too-loud conversations of drunk 20-somethings outside some microbrewery, and the predictable stream of candy, T-shirt, and tchotchke shops. When I returned to my AirBNB and tried to buy a healthy meal at the nearby supermarket, I found a tiny selection of withering produce and aisles of canned goods. That’s when it hit. I’m in a classic tourism economy.
 
I don’t know if it’s always been like this and I’m just now noticing, or if things are getting worse, but there is a distinct flavor to these places that’s making me uncomfortable. It’s Haves invading the territory of Have-Nots and everyone just kind of pretending to be okay with it. But it’s in our own country.
You’re not strolling through the streets of a foreign place, where the politics are outside your sphere of influence or awareness. You’re visiting people affected by policies you vote for, from the comfort of your plush suburban home, and you might not even notice you’ve dropped into a fake world created to make you feel at ease, to tease a piece of the pie from your pocket. In a few days, you’ll leave this place and return to your corporate world, where you’ll work to make richer people than you even richer, continue voting to keep more for yourself, and maybe plan your next vacation to a fantasy world tailored to your tastes. Later, you’ll remember this place as a nice town where you once had some great saltwater taffy.

On veganism, the dog, and abundance

On veganism, the dog, and abundance

I pass a McDonald’s on the way home from the gym every day. Its golden arches glow like a beacon, promising the comforting familiarity of a greasy, salty quarter pounder with cheese. That damned little disc of a pickle. Those french fries. And oh my god, the dollar sundaes.

I don’t remember the last time I ate McDonald’s, but it was certainly longer than two years ago, when I first went vegan. It was likely many months, maybe even years, before that. It’s not something I even want, really, unless I start thinking about how I can’t have it.

“Can’t.” Probably the least useful word I use far too often.

Like so many things, veganism is completely arbitrary. The boundaries I set for myself exist nowhere but my own mind, and I could absolutely go order a Big Mac or decimate a Chinese buffet if I wanted. Still, I sometimes find my mind wandering to the constraints, obsessing on all the things I “can’t” have, as if they’re kept behind some magic forcefield, rather than readily available items I simply choose not to consume.

At those times, veganism feels like a cage, and it’s when I’m most likely to indulge in some other deeply unhealthy snack as a way of comforting myself for my loss or limitations. (If you think vegan foods are all healthy, allow me to introduce you to my friends Oreos Dunked in Peanut Butter, Entire Bag of Mixed Nuts in One Sitting, and Doritos in the Purple Bag.)

By focusing on constraints—on “can’t”—I put myself in a scarcity mindset. My brain, an evolutionarily perfect survival machine, gets into Gorge Mode, and I act out with desperate behaviors.

It’s not just with food, either. I see this in virtually every area of life. Recently, it’s with my new dog, whose presence has imposed wildly inconvenient limitations on me, and I sit around thinking about all I’ve given up, all the solo camping and long-distance driving and easy traveling I can no longer do because I’m anchored to this anxious little mutt. I work myself into a frenzy of resentment and self-pity, as if this dog just materialized in my life and was not a choice I made gradually, over many months of consideration and research.

Even for circumstances I haven’t chosen, like when people broke into my car and stole my jewelry, obsessing over the loss, the negative, is a great way to foster even more negativity. If I think about that white gold necklace my godfather gave me and how I’ll never again see its delicate strand sparkling against my skin, I become angry. It’s a useless anger that has nowhere to go, so it radiates from me toward everything in my path. I’m angry at the coffee machine, my clothing, the work I have to do that day. This anger over something I can’t control, long in my past, is tainting every interaction with my present. It’s making me a worse person.

Conversely, when I focus on the positive, when I force myself to switch attention from that which I lack to that which I possess, I’m able to arrest that scarcity mindset and reframe to an attitude of abundance.

In most cases, the shift is from feeling powerless and constrained to reminding myself I’m in control of my choices. For veganism and the dog, it’s about remembering why I do what I do. I want to feel healthy and like I’m acting in accordance with my values (or as close as I can get given our current food system), or I want a healthy outlet for my caretaking impulse (as it turns out, romantic relationships are not the ideal place to parent [I have discovered after a decade of therapy]).

Whenever I find myself fixating on a limitation, I conjure up that Grand Why, think about all that I’ve gained from this choice, and cycle through options I still do have. Usually it looks something like:

  • Step 1—Admit I can have a Big Mac if I want one.
  • Step 2Do I really want a Big Mac? How will it make me feel? How do I want to feel? What could I eat instead? Do I really want a whole bag of chips and guacamole? How will that make me feel? What would make me feel best?
  • Step 3I’m excited to eat a nice, healthy salad, full of foods I love, because it aligns with my values and goal of nourishing my body to feel its best.

I understand how cheesy that sounds. It’s genuine, though. I really do think absurd, dorky thoughts like that about health food. Sometimes I even go through that process multiple times a day, and more often than I wish, I fail somewhere in the middle of Step 2. That’s when I end up in a binge.

Similarly, in cases where I have less choice or control, in which I’m dealing with involuntary loss, I run a list of all that’s still available (I have my favorite octopus ring and bullet necklace!), celebrate the strength that comes from doing without (in cases more serious than missing jewelry), and look forward to the new fillers of that now-blank space. As much as possible, I try to see opportunity rather than loss.

More popular parlance would probably call this gratitude. I prefer thinking of it as abundance because it specifically combats scarcity mentality, which is the mother of so many evils. While a part of the process is appreciation, the bigger focus is on shifting attention away from loss and toward gains.

I’m by no means perfect—or even proficient—at this. I still get caught in cycles of anger or resentment or self-pity because I have far more training in those lines of thinking than I do in the alternatives. Negativity is a stronger reflex. Reframing requires a ton of mental bandwidth, and I have to keep constant check on my own thoughts and physiological states to do it well. Sometimes I have no idea I’m in a spiral until I realize I’ve been brow-furrowing and tab-switching for hours, or the dog barks and I yell just a little too loud. (Or I find myself elbows-deep in a bag of popcorn.)

That said, when I do catch myself and reframe, it’s like unzipping a heavy, matted monster suit and letting it fall to the floor. I feel light and fresh. I see the dog not as a burden but as a source of joy, adding enormous value to my life. I see the constraints in which I operate as welcome guardrails that help me feel the way I want to feel. I see blank spaces as opportunities to find something new. I’m able to act with intentionality instead of desperation.

My goal is to keep applying this to more and more areas of my life until it becomes second-nature. I’d love to approach the world with an abundance mindframe in every possible circumstance, keeping useless feelings of anger or competition or self-pity at bay. I don’t see any value in such thoughts or any reason to allow them to fester. They’re borne of a false sense of scarcity, of feeling limited, when there’s always something available.*

As always, I just have to keep working.

*Note: I understand some scarcity is extremely real, and the flip side of acknowledging my own false sense of lacking is compassion for desperate behaviors borne of genuine scarcity. For example, stealing to feed a family. Abundance reframing can certainly help one cope with real adversity, but it should not be an expectation of people dealing with serious issues. This post and advice, if it can be called that, is intended for minor strife and the daily limitations we perceive for ourselves. Its scope is limited.

Quality Over Quantity

Quality Over Quantity

My life has grown smaller in almost every way. Fewer belongings, fewer activities, fewer friends. In most arenas, I’ve combed for necessities and discarded bloat, ever reducing as I make pass after pass.

A slow, tectonic shift is occurring in my values, favoring not options but certainties that feel solid and strong and good. I’m more willing to work on relationships that add value and reject those that drain because I don’t need quite as many tendrils reaching quite as many places as a young me once did. Maybe it’s age. Maybe I’m simply learning what nourishes and which wells run dry.

Still, I reach sometimes, deep into vast emptiness, plunging after something I know must be there, if I just stretch a little harder, extend a litter farther.

My whole life, I’ve plunged. I’ve sought and yearned and chased impossible things—the understanding of my father, affection from people without resources to give it, validation from those who’ve thought little of me. I’ve hit sandy bottoms and withered there, unable to accept the reality of this dearth. This death. Nothing here will give me life, and I cannot leave.

Even with improvement, I occasionally find myself in a wither. I recently chased the receding waters of a once-fruitful friendship, and today I struck bottom, forced to face a drought I should have seen coming. I should have heeded the signs and surrendered long ago, but parts of me resist wisdom, resist the knowledge of better ways to be. They lean heavily into old habits, chasing, striving, wasting energy in dark depths when I could be basking in sun.

Progress isn’t perfect.

Today is a difficult day as I retract another tendril, retreat from yet another well that once seemed bright and alive and promising. Quantity diminishes once more. I am smaller, even than yesterday, and it doesn’t feel like a victory yet.

Over time, that conserved energy will feed me. I’ll learn to heed signs earlier and avoid withers before they begin. My smallness will become hardiness. I tell myself this as I observe all that I lack, the blank spaces around me where others expand. Do they find nourishment in more places than I could, or do they, like a younger me, spread themselves to weakness, looking everywhere for something found only in a few select places? Are they seeking and plunging, too?

Comparison does disservice to growth, I know. It’s another dry well from which I must retreat, more emotional bloat to abandon, wisdom that must be heeded despite every impulse to ignore, resist, press on.

I am smaller, yes, and stronger and surer, too—maybe not than they were, but certainly than I was—and that’s progress.

Peaking and Seeking

Peaking and Seeking

I often wonder if I’ll never be happy. Am I fundamentally miserable, I ask myself in the shower, on the elliptical, in the woods, behind the wheel—a single, simple question cutting through a thunderstorm of anxieties clanging in my mind.

Where others find contentment and peace, I find dissatisfaction, an itch to move, upend, disrupt. I packed a sunshiney life into a car and drove from comfort to uncertainty. At each crest, each summit, each opportunity to pause and bask in what I’ve done, I see a new peak. That’s the view I need.

Contentment feels always just out of reach.

But maybe that’s not the goal for me. Maybe summits aren’t as thrilling as the journey up, the mud on my boots and the rush of passing each obstacle, each scramble, each terrifying cliff. I prefer the labored breathing, strained muscles, and aching joints of a climb to the easy lolling of a peak. Both have their place, and the best photos are of views and elevation signs, of accomplishments, not of sweat. One might think this is my why, these moments of pause, but I climb because I like—I really truly enjoy—the discomfort of burning lungs. I move faster not to get there sooner but to take myself to the edge of pain, where I feel a delirium that’s as close as anything to happiness.

Someone recently described me as “a miserable person who will never be happy.” He was a man I hated—a 70-year-old who spewed racist and misogynistic comments and delighted in tyrannical control. His presence was a cloud under which I darkened.

I shouldn’t value his opinion of me any more than his opinion of, say, Black Lives Matter (which is that they’re “evil,” for the record), but the barb stuck anyway. In those eight words, he articulated my greatest fear, the melancholic strain that hums under every thought and blares in quiet moments. Am I fundamentally miserable.

Dissatisfaction rules me, and I choose pain, over and over and over.

“You choose growth,” a friend said, and I appreciated her generosity. She believes I’m chasing a higher ideal, and she could be right, I suppose. She could see something beyond my ken—the perspective of an outsider often tells more than our little eyes, our little selves locked inside our worn neural pathways, can ever discern. I want to believe her.

Still, it feels as if growth is a byproduct of my preference for ache. I strive not to achieve but because I feel safest pressing against limits, huffing, straining, shedding tears of distress.

Siddhartha eventually settled by the river, taking people to and fro, and glowed in the simplicity of such a small, repetitive life. I’ve met people like that, who shine their peace through wide smiles and warm eyes. They envelop you in their contentment and seem to offer a promise that you could find your own, if you would only allow yourself to rest.

I want what they have. I want my presence to become an embrace, a bosom into which you can sink and feel safe. I want to effervesce.

Funny that the peak I actually yearn for, the only end-game in mind, is not a summit but a valley. It’s the decision to stop scrambling, to ease into comfort, to revel in the simplicity of an un-striving life, and I’m not yet capable of such profound peace. Even at rest, I’m poised on ready haunches, taut, tense, prepared to spring after some next challenge or thrill. My presence agitates.

Yet—yet—we need agitators to fight. If Siddhartha lazed while his countrymen died, what was his enlightenment worth? At what cost did he shine?

I don’t yet have answers or know my role in this life. I don’t know what I’m headed toward. I know only that for the time being, I need to squeeze between boulders and leap over streams; to press forward, press harder, press limits, suppress needs; to pant and sweat and ache and bleed; to strain and never reach the realization of dreams.

Comfort in discomfort is as content as I can be.

New Year

New Year

As we set up my New Year’s party last year—a most beloved holiday tradition—my then-girlfriend and I discussed resolutions. I’ve never made one I haven’t kept. For 2000, it was to read the Bible. 2010: Catch an in-play kickball. 2011: Quit my job. 2014: Leave Minnesota. 2015: Make enough friends in San Diego to throw a New Year’s party. 2016: Date women. I deal in specifics, and I never make a resolution I don’t intend to keep.

But 2017 looked hazy. After the wreckage of the election, I felt unable to see the road ahead. A deep current of change ran through my veins, and I could sense the need for something big, something I couldn’t even imagine in that moment. For the first time in years, I couldn’t articulate what I needed or formulate a plan.

When asked, all I could say was, “Figure out the thing,” which didn’t feel like enough. “And do the thing.” That was as close as I could come.

One year later, my life is more dramatically different than that smiley, glittery-shirt-wearing, undercut-sporting version of me could have foreseen. I lived then in predictable rhythms. Weekdays in the cubicle. Weeknights at open mics. Weekends on hikes, at the farmer’s market, recording the podcast, thrifting, and going on dates. A charmed life full of sunshine and kale. I wanted for nothing.

Now, I’m 23 states (plus D.C.), two foreign countries, five national parks, 6,855 miles (since San Diego), seven roommates, two car break-ins, one nudist colony (I didn’t even tell you about that), 125 days without a period (and counting), four blood tests, one MRI, one or two meniscus tear(s), two conferences, one heartbreak I shouldn’t have felt, two minor breakups I should have felt more, one punch in the face, “millions” of rodent droppings (exterminator’s words), and one dog (future TBD) worse for the wear.

I’ve reduced my life to a few belongings that fit in an astonishingly reliable Ford Escape. It’s still more than many have, and more than I need, but a reduction that felt impossible to a year-ago me. My closet then was bursting, and I loved to adorn myself in bright colors and playful styles—costume jewelry from antique shops, worn or collected by old ladies with unknown histories. Now, I wear the same four or five simple outfits, the same understated jewelry, every day. It’s all I have left, all I need.

I’ve spent time in parts of the country I never understood. I experienced rural life and witnessed poverty that had only existed on paper in my mind. I was invited inside.

I’ve been asked for explanations and accepted as I am. I’ve been a passing stranger and a regular rhythm in others’ lives. I’ve learned more about caring for people—and being cared for—in a single year of motion than in three decades of standing still. I’ve learned who stays and how important they are, the ones who give you strength, who let you travel into darkness and hold the line, ready to pull you back.

I smile less and entertain fewer fantasies. Something flighty in me grew heavy this year, weighted by dustings of disappointment, layered thick on papery wings, which beat now with a dull thud when once they swirled and swooped. I feel solid with this heft, more bound to the earth, less likely to float away. (Others feel sadder about this than I do. They miss a person who made them feel alive, like they might grab my tail and fly with me, like children clapping for a kite, and I don’t miss pumping those people—those men—with hope. I do miss a world that made flight feel possible, one that didn’t trample vulnerable people at every turn, but it existed only in my mind.)

I appear more chaotic, maybe, and hover closer to frightening depths than I did in California. I dip more frequently, thanks, in part, to an underactive thyroid, but I recover more swiftly as well. What once took days now takes hours. I’ve learned to let myself be soothed.

I’ve also learned people want happiness for me, and I want purpose for myself.

Purpose will drive 2018. I feel clarity and certainty when looking to the year ahead, and it’s almost foreign, this sturdiness, these sure feet. After toppling towers in 2017, I’ve cleared ground for something magnificent and powerful, and I’m vibrating with drive to build, create, regenerate. I know what I want from this year, and I see the path forward in vivid detail. I feel ready, almost giddy, to take on 2018.

I can’t say I loved this year or hated it, but I lived it, to borrow a friend’s phrase, really fucking hard. Despite every setback, every tear, every hour spent questioning why, when all is said and done, I don’t regret a thing.