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.

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.

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.