aiming FOr bastard lovechild of Malcolm Gladwell and Hunter S. Thompson (Rest in The Most Power)
THIS IS SOME OF What's on my mind:
What's NEXT (4.1.20)
April 1, 2020
It turns out I’m not great with time. When left to my own devices I’m a chronic putterer and 8 hours into it I get bored and have 2.5 drinks and go to bed way too early, partly I think as a way of just checking that day off the to-do list. Come to think of it, I’m double killing time. Hmm. Which is extra ironic seeing that I do really believe it’s the only thing that I actually possess. And I’m mad reckless with it. “Hey there Existentialism, meet ADD...”
I navigate these energies in all kinds of different ways - putting myself in leadership positions in order to have enough eyes on me to create some accountability, putting myself at the bottom of various food chains so I can move freely and unobserved, drugs - and I lead a relatively productive life. (Uh huh. I just took a 9 minute break to sign up for a MasterClass with Malcolm Gladwell. On writing.) One of my mottos is “Just keep it movin.” I prefer errors of commission to errors of omission. I generally avoid making perfect an enemy of good, and I’m delighted by a good old-fashioned paradox. I believe that 99% of the time we use the word “but” we really mean “and.” I try to remember to Look Up every time I exit a building and enter the world. I try to make space to actively define and redefine productivity for my own damn self. When I finish a task I ask “What’s next?”
In this way I consider myself to be Progressive. In the literal sense of progressing to what’s next. For me it’s behavioral as well as ethical. And while it’s historically been a strategic or tactical consideration, In These Difficult Times it is purely a challenge of imagination. There’s just no data for a moment like this, and it’s almost a little sad to see so many smart and talented people scrambling to identify some historical precedent that can help them feel better about Not Knowing Shit At The Moment. Some people still have jobs and details seem to be comforting so I guess let’s not begrudge ourselves the small pleasures, but it seems to me that this is something better approached from the top-down. OK so the main question in the air is “When will things return to normal?” Joe Pinsker dropped a really thorough piece on The Atlantic about it (FWIW the timeline hinges on a concept called population-level immunity, which simultaneously sounds super cool and dystopian as hell) and at the same time my spidey sense suggests that returning to normal is still looking backwards. There are opportunities here. The Progressive version of the question is “When will things get to where they’re going next?” which then begs the most interesting question of all. Where do we want things to go?
I believe that things are broken in these United States. We call ourselves a democracy, we were designed as a representative republic, and we function as a capitalist oligarchy. Our biggest mistake was building a superpower economy on slavery. Our second biggest mistake was reneging on the 40 acres and a mule promise. It’s damn near irrecoverable. Wait, were they mistakes? Or is all of this As Designed? Has all of the lofty language in our founding documents - language that no one had ever before had the temerity to include in a nation’s charter - been full of shit from jump? I mean, why would you allow me to even pursue happiness if you’re oppressing me out of the chance to get some? Why are billionaires legal? Is capitalism inherently predatory? Why are we so afraid of the government? Oh sweet Jesus, look at us now...
All I know is that I am currently waiting on my first de facto Universal Basic Income check, and that was unthinkable 4 weeks ago. There are opportunities here. Hate The Quar. Love The Quar. Imagine life in 12 months. Be terrified. Be thrilled. It’s all correct.
BREAKDANCING FOR AMERICA (4.4.20)
April 4, 2020
I love a good battle. Not in the medieval kind of way, in the hip-hop kind of way. I’ve often joked that all conflicts should be resolved using dance-offs. Honestly, I think this started watching a Betamax videotape of West Side Story at my best friend’s house sometime around 1980. I remember thinking “That is a CRAZY way to fight!” and then me and Todd would jump all around the paneled basement of his parents co-op singing “From your first cigarette to your last dying day!” - but super macho style. Just a couple years later I also remember me and Todd kung-fu breakdancing across the Western Heights movie theatre parking lot after watching Barry Gordy’s The Last Dragon - his dad Herbert (who is an amazing and whip-smart and charming man who was generally Not Here For The Dumb Shit) was waiting for us in the old brown Ford Fairmont, and as we bopped into the back seat talking about Feeling The Rhythm of the Night I remember him glancing at us in the rear-view mirror... and cracking a grin. I think he felt it. The Rhythm of The Night, I mean.
I believe human beings require conflict. Not quite at the same level as air and water, but really not too too many steps removed. We thrive in it. We manufacture it all the time. It helps us test our thoughts and beliefs. And most of the time it gets away from us.
I’ve had my share of fights, of all sorts. I’m not proud of it, and I’m not not proud of it. I really don’t mind conflict; as a matter of fact many of my closest lifelong relationships started over a moment of static. For instance, with my boy Todd that I mentioned earlier, it all started with a neighborhood water balloon fight gone wrong. We were around 5, there were a dozen of us running around 1976-style, and I totally sandbagged Todd and immediately turned and ran back into my house where he threw a water balloon through our screen door. This necessitated a peace summit involving the parents, who promptly made us each a handful of more balloons, sent us back into the battle and then I’m pretty sure smoked a joint and became best friends. I have at least a half-dozen more stories like that. I’m not proud of it, and I’m not not proud of it.
Most people don’t seem to share my relationship with conflict, and I get it. It seems like pursuit of happiness really means pursuit of comfort, and I get it, I like to be comfortable. It’s that pesky human requirement for conflict that I’m simultaneously trying to accomodate. I think this is one of my big connections to hip-hop. Not only are the origins of the music inherently revolutionary, battles have been part of hip-hop culture since 70’s block parties in the Bronx. Show skills, how you flow skills, rock a party. Channeling aggression into braggadocio, channeling that braggadocio through craftsmanship and imagination, and boom someone is inventing the Moonwalk. How cool is that?!!?!?!
Anytime any group spontaneously breaks into dance it fills my heart with joy at our human potential. I think I’m just a sucker for choreography. To me the subtext is always some kind of ”me and my crew invented this and can do it better than you and your crew can do whatever wackness you put together.” It’s like, bear with me here, the 1998 Bulls on defense, “releasing the Dobermen” in every 3rd quarter; improvisation within structure, perfect synchronicity, one single tear falling down my cheek at the pure beauty of it all. Look what we can do when we channel our aggression and pull in the same direction.
I’ve been doing pretty well in The Quarantine, keeping pretty level. I put energy into being calm and pleasant, and it feels good. The stillness is really lovely in moments. And the anxiety is always there. Always. And as Open America is gaining traction, I’m losing patience with our collective loss of patience. I was FURIOUS last Friday, full on soapbox, shouting into the void (which actually meant virtually hollering at my friends) and evangelizing a thoughtful reconsideration of the Civil War. I’m still angry and disappointed. I’m still itching for a battle. And in the interest of a more constructive, more mature application of that anger, I will make this offer on behalf of America: I know for a fact I can out-Moonwalk anyone in this damn administration.
hooray F*CK IT! (4.6.20)
April 6 2020
This morning I listened to a remix of Hip Hop Hooray, the seminal 1993 single by Naughty By Nature. By itself this isn’t remarkable because as a man from a certain place (i.e., the south suburbs of Chicago) and of a certain age (i.e., washed) most of what I listen to is 90’s hip hop. Wu Tang radio is the default Pandora station in my car. That doesn’t really have anything to do with this train of thought, it’s mainly a flex to show just how fucking cool I am. Collar popped. Ahem.
What was remarkable about this remix is that it’s a collab between our old friends Treach, Vin Rock and DJ Kay Gee and... Rita Fucking Wilson. Yes that Rita Fucking Wilson. How’d we get here? Glad you asked. Sometime last week/year/yesterday/whoknowswhen/timeisaflatcircle she posted an IG story showing her recovering from COVID-19 and a capella spitting the familiar lyrics. Well. Really well. It turns out Rita Wilson is legit nice on the mic, and because Spring 2020 = Fuck It these two separate cultural icons ended up doing something fun together to benefit a music industry relief fund. There are funky opportunities here.
It seems pretty clear that this quarantine version of Fuck It comes from being given more time and headspace and losing freedom to physically move around in the world. The stakes are simultaneously so high (the US death toll just hit 10,000 as I’m writing this) and so vapid (see Hip Hop Hooray, above) that people are more readily coming to think “Why the hell not?” This can be such a good thing for silly feel-good moments (hearing a classy older white lady kick “You tried to act like something really big was missin’ even though my name’s graffiti written on your kitten” is a PRIVILEGE) as well as moments of more heft.
A friend of mine who is a theatre director and teacher was telling me about the first online acting class he taught last week, and it’s a super shiny story. After all of the initial tech bullshitting around and getting the dozen participants settled, it was time to start the acting. A pair started working through a simple little two-hander, and were clearly discouraged to be acting through screens. After the first performance everyone just sat in silence to digest the moment and my friend said “OK shit, so we just learned that that isn’t going to work” to a Zoom chorus of agreement. To his credit he stayed patient and in it and engaged the group on Why. If I understand correctly it came down to acting being about truth and that acting through the Internet felt dishonest. And then because Fuck It he changed the game. He gave himself permission to consider the features and history of the video delivery method from first principles, recalled the emotionally charged conversations we all used to hear one side of on trains, and challenged the group to accept and incorporate their quarantine truths into the scene. And then shit got real. In the middle of a line someone spontaneously had a fit and got up and walked their dog and came back a half hour later and resumed the scene right where they’d left off. Some people made drinks in their kitchens and smoked cigarettes on their porches. Someone climbed into her bed and hid under her covers. You know, SHIT PEOPLE CAN'T ACTUALLY DO IN AN ACTING CLASSROOM. Fuck It just evolved theatre.
To my mind the key behavior in that story is acceptance, and yes I absolutely mean that in the Kubler-Ross way. In a crisis, acceptance sets imagination free and it seems this is as good a time as ever to consider the value of creativity. It’s at the heart of both art and science. At this moment where would we be without music, movies, games, electricity, computers, astronomy? (The answer is lonely and hungry and cold.) It’s actually thrilling to contemplate all of the innovations that will be born from this moment in history; I really wouldn't mind a vaccine and I also have some ideas for a fire Sir Patrick Stewart collab with Run-DMC. I mean, fuck it, right?
HOW TABLES HAPPEN (4.12.20)
April 17, 2020
I’ve always been a hands on designer. A designer/maker if you will. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I’ve often created my own projects so my resources have generally been limited. This means that my design process is informed by resource limitations and to maximize the project’s potential it takes an iterative design approach.
What am I making?
What do I have?
How can I best use the biggest pieces to accomplish the goal?
Great, the big pieces are deployed now, what do I have left and how can those scraps contribute to the overall goal?
Do I need to reconsider how I’m using the big pieces to maximize the contribution of the small pieces?
It’s like the old-timey version of the portrait painter who is always stepping back and raising their thumb for perspective. Make a broad stroke. Step back and reconsider. Make another stroke. Step back. And so on until the resource pile is empty and we’re as close to our goal as we can get. (Please see my How Tables Happen entry for a delightful visual representation of this process.)
This is also how I approach web design projects. I understand that the software resource pile is different than a pile of scrap walnut lumber, but we can agree it’s the same principle.
What are our technical constraints?
Where are we hosting?
What architecture are we using?
Does the content have any specific technical demands?
What kind of technical expertise do we have access to?
An iterative approach has always seemed like the only pragmatic way to actually meet goals, and I think that works best when the imagination and the craftsmanship share the same values and come from the same place. In my mind an architect that isn’t comfortable with a circular saw will never be able to maximize their resource pile. Is that judgy? Sure. I can live with that.
There seems to currently be a debate in the design community about the way that people use the prefix UX/UI. Rubens Cantuni wrote a piece that I read on Medium titled Time to get rid of that “UX/UI” in design titles. The thesis of the piece is pretty clear, no? What seems funny to me is that my man is under the impression that this is going to be a Hot Take. He says “The UI is one of the components of the UX, so asking for someone who can do UX design, should imply that this person is also able to take care of the UI part.” Yup. That makes sense, and tracks with an important lesson I picked up as a youth; All spaghetti is pasta, and not all pasta is spaghetti.
I like words, and using language carefully is a priority for me so I’m fully prepared to embrace this fussy discussion. Rubens says:
"To sum it up (in an overly simplified way)
You need someone designing wireframes, flows: Interaction Designer
You need someone designing buttons, icons, menus: UI Designer
You need someone doing all of the above: UX Designer
You need someone doing qualitative and quantitative research, defining personas: UX Researcher
You need someone doing all of the above + strategy, production and more business-related tasks: Product Designer"
Again, yes. Plainly put these are the job roles and responsibility breakdowns. The only thing I can imagine being tricky is that it’s entirely possible, and even likely on a smaller team, for one person to simultaneously fill multiple job roles. I’ve done it multiple times. Early on it was disorienting and hard to know when to put on which hat, and as I moved through my career that kind of became my favorite part - figuring out when to switch. And I believe that the fact I was an expert-level Captivate developer informed the way I organized the content from first approach. It’s a virtuous cycle that’s enabled me to build some really simple, cool stuff.
When it comes to this debate, while it’s important to use language properly I believe it’s even more important to think about it properly. You know - the old “You can call me whatever you want, just don’t call me late for dinner.”
SLEDGEHAMMERS ARE OVERRATED (4.21.20)
April 21, 2020
Over the last couple of days of June 2019 I came to a decision. I was going to vote for Elizabeth Warren. I agreed with her vision and I’d been impressed by her clarity. The absolute shit-ton of policy papers she’d dropped over the previous 6 months suggested that she already had an actual plan to use her economic and public policy expertise to start thoughtfully dismantling some of the most oppressive aspects of Predatory Capitalism. I liked that. Though truth be told my gut approach is closer to how I perceive my man Bernie’s “Aw Shit Let’s Just Take A Flamethrower To The Whole Goddamn Thing” vibe because one of my many facets/personalities is a 14 year-old boy who loves fire. And at the same time my life experience suggests that if you want to be able to re-use any of the pieces you’re dismantling there are more reasonable (if way less fun) tools to use than a flamethrower.
(Side note, this is always something that drives me fucking bonkers about HGTV shows, that at the start of Act II after we’ve either selected the property or learned about its family history and how that-one-uncle-just-kind-of-let-it-go-after-his-surgery and it’s time to start demo there’s always a shot of some fresh-faced and enthusiastic amateur grabbing a sledgehammer and yelling “Cowabunga!” and just starting to whale away at some wall. I cringe every time. I know about TV magic and I also know that first you’ve got to surgically disconnect any mechanicals in that wall and then use a utility knife to score a seam so you don’t pull off any more material than you want to and then use a prybar to get any trim removed and and and... before you ever get to the sledgehammer part. Oh, also the sledgehammer part only lasts 3 minutes before you just have to start hauling trash out to a dumpster. Why do people love sledgehammers?!!?!?)
So back in 2019 I liked Senator Warren’s plan and her demeanor. I’ve recently heard Democratic strategists suggest an effective campaign angle for the general election might be to frame it like sports: “Hey America, we already have a great team, right? What we need is The Right Coach.” I have no idea how effective such a message would be, but I do know that it made me think of Senator Warren and it made me realize that she didn’t remind me of a coach at all. She reminded me of a referee.
Here’s where things might get sticky but I’m going to say it with my chest and speak in some broad generalities. I was raised as an only child by a single mother in Area B of the Co-Ops in Park Forest, Illinois in the 70s and 80s. I grew up in a Jewish family, and my best friend’s family where I spent approximately ½ of my time from 1976-1987 is black. All of the families I grew up near seemed really matriarchal to my young eyes, and I was entirely comfortable in that reality. After high school when I moved out of PF and was starting to function as an adult in the world and I realized that women didn’t run everything, I kind of freaked out. There’s a kind of matriarchal authority that I’ll always respond to. This is one of the reasons that whenever anyone calls me by my full first name I kind of stand a little straighter and feel a quick flash of nervousness, because my moms and grandmother both used “Nicolas” to let me know when my judgement was straying too far. I’m not smart enough to know how healthy this is but I am smart enough to know that I’ve made intellectual space for FAR unhealthier impulses, and I’ve never considered fighting it. So there it is. I feel safe when smart, kind people are in charge and I feel more comfortable when that person is a woman.
So in June 2019 instead of whining about the DNC and bemoaning the eleventy-hundred-some-odd candidates that were in that first 2 night debate, I opted for a positive choice and quickly joined Team Warren. I now look upon the ensuing 8 months as my personal Salad Days of the 2020 Presidential Election. In early March 2020 she suspended her campaign and my last pre-Quar act out in the world was to cast a vote for Bernie Sanders. And now we’ve got Joe Biden. I’m not thrilled and I also recognize that if elected he will be carrying The Most Progressive Agenda Ever BY FAR into the White House. In order to get there, Coach Joe has a big decision on his hands; and if his answer doesn’t rhyme with “Blacey Blabrams” or “Blalexandria Blocasio-Blortez” I will be very discouraged and will certainly want to have a word with the damn ref.
A LETTER I WILL NEVER SEND (5.21.20)
May 21, 2020
It’s been a tough week, but hey you know they say - the 10th week is always the hardest.
The tension is getting to me. At the start of this I made the decision to only track the behaviors of my immediate family unit, and I’ve been pretty much ignoring what everyone else has been doing. It’s a kind of Quaran-Libertarianism. When housemates return from a trip into the world they come back wide-eyed at how cavalier the world seems to be taking it, expressing dismay at the conduct at the Jewel and alarm at the number of people walking their dogs. I’m not that guy, I really try to let it go. And the tension is absolutely getting to me.
This whole shit has been trending political for several weeks now, and the messaging coming from the conservative voice of the country has been steadily challenging the value of expert opinions and diminishing the importance of the government’s leadership role. But everyone is getting tired and last week I started anticipating the upcoming progressive think pieces about the value of a life not fully lived, and the world did not disappoint.
I’m an inherently authority questioning motherfucker, I really am, and I’m also squirrely and anxious to get back to work and the world. I agree with the idea that not all places in this great land of ours should be on the same timeline, but I do think we should all be using the same standards. And I don’t think we’re quite there yet. Because while we still have no real idea how many people are infected, we’re still not seeing declines in even reported cases. At least this is what those damn pesky expert scientists and doctors are saying.
This morning a dear friend sent a note that said amongst other things “I really wish they, in this case the [local state] gov, would have let the young people continue to work.” And it broke my heart a little. This is an older friend who trained as an actor and quickly married an amazing partner who just happened to be a Captain of Industry, and subsequently became a genuine philanthropic lion. This person has maintained a crew of young and shiny friends so their opinions have stayed fresh. They grew up in the South Suburbs (represent!) and they are Thoughtful and Kind. And they’ve been living a life that most people only dream of. They can’t wrap their head around the idea that most people don’t get their sense of identity from work, they mainly get a paycheck and those paychecks are tiny percentages of all of the capital that is roiling everywhere around them. They don’t understand how hard it is to not resent that. They can’t perceive the system as inherently predatory. They don’t understand that the American Mythology of Industrious Bootstrapness is and always has been a tool for the oligarchs to keep the rest of us striving and aspirational, while maintaining their control of most of the wealth. I’ve been on unemployment for the first time in my life and honestly it feels kind of great because fuck this system that values the motion of currency over all else. I won’t let the oligarchs make me feel bad that their house of cards failed. Though it does suck that even thoughtful and generous and progressive people are thinking about it this way.
A government is simply “the system or group of people governing an organized community.” That’s it. It helps us function together and pool resources for the common good and societal advancement. I don’t know why this is an inherently suspicious activity. I mean, I know, humans flawed, yadda yadda, but in lieu of anything else I think that governments are generally a good idea. There’s irony in the fact that the current administration - of the government - does not like or trust, that's right - the government. I mean if you’re already skeptical about it, once you get in there it really doesn't take much other than benign neglect for it to stop functioning well thusly fulfilling your prophecy - and this administration is certainly not satisfied with simple benign neglect. There’s a part of me that can’t help but think Wisconsin opened up early just to present workers with the decision to risk their lives for their livelihoods: “What, you don’t want this potentially unsafe $18/hour job? No? OK, that's cool. We do need to point out the fact that now you’re deciding to not work, and so no more benefits for you.” Jesus Christ, talk about tension.
As part of the “Let’s Open This Bad Boy Up” theme of the note this friend also mentioned “I don’t think a lot of thought was given to the mental well-being of people.” Do we think anyone had enough temerity to bring up the British government’s lack of mental health guidance during the Blitzkreig? (Actually, we’re talking about the English and they invented temerity, so probably.) A less snarky version of the question might be; has anyone given thought to the mental well-being of hourly earners caught in what shall heretofore be known as the Wisconsin Dilemma? And for the past hundreds of years, has anyone given thought to the mental health issues that result from systemic financial and social oppression? Why are we concentrating on these things only now, and only as they pertain to personal mobility and haircuts?
I’m discouraged and disappointed. And I just got a call about some potential work for next week. And I have no idea what to do.
June 16, 2020
Black lives matter.
It seems crazy to have to say it, and I understand at this moment it’s particularly important to announce your side with your chest. I’m eager to live in a world where police are obsolete and at the same moment I don’t believe that All Cops Are Bastards because I was raised to believe that Not All Anything Is Anything. That’s too reductive, too convenient. Wait, shit, we’ll get to some of the problems with how I was raised in just a sec, I totally jumped the gun...
I honor the fact that Black Americans have been and are Directly In The Shit and thus I say this with self awareness; this moment is heartbreaking for me because I allowed myself to be mistaught. I knew better and I didn’t do better. I could see that the pieces didn’t fit from jump, and I didn’t chase down those leads. There’s real shame in that. I wanted to believe all that flowery language, I wanted to be living in a merit-based society, I earnestly grew up wanting that to be true. Shit, I keep jumping that “how I grew up” gun...
Being a white man is only one of my millionish privileges. This is me sharing my perhaps more significant, more insidious one.
The last couple weeks I’ve been building a deck for some childhood friends down in the South Suburbs (hell yes that shit gets Initial Capped) and as I cruise around down there I’m reminded that we grew up in Park Forest at a magic moment. (PF is a genuine post-WW2 social experiment that’s had an exhibition at The Smithsonian. Look it up.) And as it happened we grew up in the Co-Ops during a moment when the experiment was “succeeding.” At the time it felt like we weren’t focusing on the things that were different about us because we were all the same kind of aspirationally broke. This is the insidious privilege. I didn’t understand it at the time but the Co-Ops were kindof a hippie projects in that they were designed to be affordable housing that required a relatively small up-front $ investment, and then a reasonable monthly assessment. These parameters created a whole series of working class neighborhoods centered around “courts” where a couple dozen townhouses surrounded... parking lots, what else? The up-front $ requirement successfully created a sense of community investment and I can tell you most of those neighborhoods were really lovely and well cared for. Did I mention the ultra-convenient Metra (it certainly wasn’t called that back in the day) Station? Downtown in 47 minutes! Surprisingly good public schools! Whoo hoo! It was almost idyllic. Well, as idyllic as you can get at 226th Street. Ah right. 226th Street. 226th Street is where things get interesting. And by interesting I mean a particularly kind of openeyed shame.
From fourth through sixth grades I went to Algonquin School which was right across 226th, and it was perhaps the worst time of my life. (OK, junior high at Forest Trail was also a super drag and it seems right to mainly attribute that to puberty and angst and horny boy-related-stupidity, oh shit that’s all super redundant.) Ahem, Algonquin School. When I look at it in satellite view on GMaps, I’m struck by two things: one, the train tracks just north of the school’s playground. And the name of the first street just north of the tracks; Beacon Blvd. Those train tracks that every student looked across from the swingsets were the proverbial set of tracks that there was a Wrong Side of. We were swinging just on the other side of the tracks from Beacon Hill, a very much failed public-and-affordable-housing community, and of course Algonquin School included students from both sides. This playground, this swingset is where I first met real anger.
I’m Jewish. I know, it’s pretty cool, being one of The Chosen People and all. Pret-ty cool. We have some cool symbols, the menorah is nice, and the Star of David also represents visually pleasing design. It also happens to be a big symbol of a powerful American street gang, and this is where things got sketchy at Algonquin. Early on my super fresh gold chain resplendent with a dope Star o’ David caught some unwanted attention from some fellow students who were being raised in a different culture than I was enjoying in Area B, Court B-5. The Beacon Hill culture was steeped in systemic economic and police oppression. A culture that created resentment and anger. Real resentment and anger.
Scene: End of 1st Week of 4th Grade
Mark Price: “Ayo, what’s that shit on your neck?”
Nic Dimond: [Looks at Mark and his couple/three pals, sees his desperation for a fight he can win, and quickly turns and sprints all the way home.]
Repeat Scene Virtually Every School Day For Three Years
Mark was my classmate. And he was mad. And while I didn’t all-the-way understand why, I could feel that there were clues. Mark was a decent, sharp kid. And I didn’t know why he was picking on me, but it felt like my Star was only an excuse. There were clues. The other scruffy kids. The Other Kids who were clearly in hand-me-downs. The Other Kids that received and used those shameful free-lunch tokens. The Other Kids that came from single parent homes.
We’re talking about The
Other Black Kids.
The Black Kids that lived on the Wrong Side of The Tracks.
The Black Kids that never had visibility to the benefits of citizenship.
The Black Kids that were righteously angry, even if they didn’t know why.
As broke as me and Moms were, I wasn’t one of The Black Kids. I knew them. And I sensed that what they were fighting against made sense. I knew it wasn’t me directly and I knew it was me directly and I defended myself as best I knew how at the time. I stopped wearing the Star of David. I ran. Shame.
They caught me a couple times and those were some righteous 10-year-old ass-whuppins and I’m absolutely certain that I’m on the “winning” end of this equation. And that is genuinely heartbreaking. And I understand that the only bit of any of this current conversation that has anything to do with me centers around what am I willing to do, what I’m willing to sacrifice, to try to better balance that equation.
No more running. Listening. Learning. Working. I will do better.
CIVICs WAR (9.22.20)
September 22, 2020
Sometime in the 90’s I heard someone - either a stand up comedian or an NPR host - posit “The question of the 21st century will be how tolerant are we meant to be of lack of tolerance?” I thought it was kind of genius. At the time I was thinking about it in terms of radical, fundamentalist approaches to religion across the globe. Remember that type of thinking? Quaint times...
We have arrived at a place where I'm no longer interested in hearing from ~40% of citizens in these United States of America. I don’t want to make space for meaningful dialogue. I don’t want to pretend that I’m OK with craven, narrow-minded definitions of being An American. The value sets are too far apart, and trying to collaborate seems disingenuous at best. No more tolerance of lack of tolerance. I’m done putting real energy into it. I want to put my energy somewhere else. I want to put my energy into getting back to 1864. Yes, that is what I’m saying.
(See Figure 1 below.)
I realize there are some logistics challenges here, and I’m willing to spend energy building an exchange where people from the United States of America and people from the Confederate States of America can execute a simple swap of North/South real-estate holdings - I mean, we don’t want total chaos. I understand there are other practical questions as well, and I’d be happy to help establish friendly trade and travel policies. There are other issues, I know. The pre-existing Mason-Dixon line is a good start, but it’s pretty obvious we’re going to have to give up New Mexico and Arizona, and probably even Colorado and Utah. I can live with all of that. I know there are conversations to be had about Nevada, and maybe even Wyoming, BUT THEY CAN’T HAVE OREGON AND WASHINGTON STATE BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE I DRAW THE LINE. LIterally, I just drew the line:
(See Figure 2 below.)
Are you seriously talking to me about California right now? Seriously? You can’t be serious. Wait, you’re serious? See, this is why I can’t take you seriously right now...
I know I sound cavalier (humor is my survival tactic) and I want you to know that I am serious as a heart attack. In my opinion we’ve gone beyond the pale, and violence is inevitable. This is simply a proposal to skip the middle acts and maybe reduce the bodycount.
Ultimately, I blame Thomas Jefferson:
The United States president Thomas Jefferson was an agrarian who based his ideas about the budding American democracy around the notion that farmers are “the most valuable citizens” and the truest republicans… ...While praising the rural farmfolk, the Jeffersonians felt that financiers, bankers and industrialists created "cesspools of corruption" in the cities and should thus be avoided.
Most valuable citizens, eh? Corrupt urban bankers, eh? I honor that he believed “the will of the people, expressed through elections, provided the most appropriate guidance for directing the republic's course.” That's really dope and legit progressive. I simultaneously resent the fact that such an elegant thinker reduced such-an-important-for-the-viability-of-our-country balancing act to this bullshit binary of White Country Farmers versus Not-As-White City Not-Farmers. It’s the echoes of this weak-minded virtue signaling and dog whistling that are violently manifesting themselves today, right now, all over the country. We are literally killing each other. In mobs. At least let’s get a little fucking organized, can we?
This morning I found myself playing around with the difference between the words Civil and Civic. Seems like they come from the same root, right? What made that conflict in 1860 so civil? Does anyone remember taking Civics in high school? What do these words actually signify? So after 2.5 seconds of searching, I found:
Civil: Relating to ordinary citizens and their concerns, as distinct from military or ecclesiastical matters. Courteous and polite.
Civic: Relating to a city or town, especially its administration; municipal.
I was struck by 2 things. That the definition for Civil places the term “ordinary citizens” in direct opposition with military or religious leadership. Hmm. But even more surprising to me was the fact that Civic seems to be specifically referring to Urban living. I don’t know why I find that so odd, but I do. Is it that whole Civics Class thing? That the courseware we used to teach our citizenry about being citizens is named after the approach we use when we gather together and live in large groups? What did they call those classes in those virtuous, white picket fence-ass farm communities?
Civics War it is. Don’t blame me. Blame Jefferson.
DESIGNING A BETTER NORMAL (11.15.20)
November 15, 2020
I derive my identity from my whole life, not where I earn money. Over the years I’ve cashed checks from grocery stores and youth service agencies and bookstores and synagogues and gas stations and not-for-profit arts orgs and world-class exhibit builders and Big 5 Consulting companies and I can easily say that all that money spends the same. And when people ask me what I do, I generally start by describing the most interesting recent thing I’ve got going on whether it's a classic car rally, a personal fabrication project or a cool design initiative.
When I was just starting out in my theatre career in the storefront scene in Chicago, I knew that I wanted to direct. I figured the best path to those opportunities was to find a small company that needed something I had and giving it to them. By that point I had a good 5 years of building experience including a year doing props at a regional theatre in New Jersey, and my day job was at Steppenwolf Theatre, which has a nice reputation. So, laden with hubris, I cold-called the Artistic Director of a cool little company with a funky 2nd-floor space with 10’ ceilings and I breathlessly said that I’d never designed anything before and suggested that in these intimate spaces that construction quality mattered even more than it did in the big spots because in the storefronts the farthest person was generally 20’ from the actors and on the spot I offered to design and build a set for them. The offer was accepted, and all of a sudden I was a Set Designer. No training, mind you, but over the next couple years I actually earned a small reputation (and even smaller money) designing sets in some amazing and some awful, awful spaces.
After starting my career in theatres and scene shops in the late 90’s I was randomly offered a chance to join a startup (post acquisition, dammit) that built web-based simulations for corporate training. I was effectively pulled out of shop life and pushed into the World of American Business which was… new. I’d been focused on Pinter and Shakespeare not stocks or industry verticals. This new world and it’s accompanying vocabulary seemed at best vaguely fraudulent and at worst designed to actively exclude lots of people and create an impression of intelligence by way of flexing education. Whenever people used the word “utilize” my judgy eyebrow went up a little. I grew up thinking that if you were actually smart it would come out in the quality of your ideas and how simply and directly you were able to communicate them. But of course eventually I learned to relax into the jargon, and soon I could talk that shit with the best of ‘em.
It helped that Learning Design genuinely piqued my curiosity. In several ways it seemed to mimic some of the structures that I’d used when directing and producing plays: start with sharing relevant foundational knowledge, then create a safe playground for people to practice applying that knowledge, and finally present an end product that allows everyone to collectively show their stuff while still moving forward in their own personal trajectories. It was also pretty natural for me to imagine stories that could link the knowledge to the playground to the product, and I really enjoyed building simulations. I remember that there were different kinds of modules that we could include in our Learning Paths; Conversation, Analyze and Manage, I think. (Any old Learning Productions people who happen to read this please feel free to chime in.) Essentially these things were Corporate Training Choose Your Own Adventure Books, and it was fun putting myself in other people’s shoes and getting an understanding of the things that stressed them out at work and imagining ways to reduce those stresses. I evolved into enjoying different kinds of Performance Support, imagining and building simple little tools to help people do their jobs better and faster.
At some point in time I realized that I was designing and building custom software. Again, zero formal design training, and over the next couple years I actually earned a small reputation (and some good money) designing random eLearning and websites and applications for some amazing and some boring, boring companies.
I recently came across the term Accidental Designer and for reasons detailed in the previous 700 words, I quite like it. I’ve also recently come across the term Relationship Design, and I like that a lot too. When I immediately like something like that, I get suspicious of my motivations and I try to figure out where the attraction comes from and what it means. And this reflection forced me to come face-to-face with The Big Question about Design as a simultaneous philosophy and practice: So what?
Given the scale of the problems facing the world, so what? Predatory capitalism is gunning for all of us, how does fancy thinking help regular people in their everyday lives.
One of my great friends has been poking me to study up on Data Visualization for awhile, and he recently started mentioning Foresight as a practice. When I pressed him “Why, what are the benefits? Where are the righteous frontiers?” he replied:
Data visualization, like foresight (and science fiction and some art), is ‘just’ another tool to give us perspective… often from an altitude we’re not accustomed to, and it helps us get a different sense of scale and impact.
Two examples (sometimes I think links/examples in your writing would be helpful, and over time, links to others’ work) would be:
The one I sent you about Bezos wealth I think it was that just had one scrolling to the left (or down, I forget) almost endlessly while occasionally passing some other measure - various countries GDP or companies market caps, etc.
I just searched for 20 min and came up short... an artist who had stacked orange jumpsuits, one for every 1000 people in jail, across some large warehouse…
Data viz primarily uses our eyes. Foresight is a way to expand the zone of potential narratives, to open the aperture into ‘larger’/different acts of imagination… it uses words and experiences to affect our minds and hearts. These two, used together at the intersections of design and equality/sustainability/ethics are where the interesting ‘frontiers’ lie, I think. This can move us towards liberation/decolonization? I really don’t have words…
(First off, did you catch my man slip in the footnote suggestion? And then not be able to locate his second reference?!? That’s what friends are for. In the interests of full transparency last week I did say to him with a 100% straight face “I think you read too much” so I guess that’s where all of that shit’s at.)
The word that caught my eye was imagination. For a hot minute now I’ve been convinced that if there is indeed a way out of #ThisMessWeAreIn it will come not from simple hard, grinding work, but from imagination. Designing a better normal starts with giving ourselves permission to imagine that better normal first, right? More tools for larger and different imaginings = more swings at the pinata. Ok. Ok.
This past week I edited a piece of text that will be posted on the Official Learning Platform of a megamultinational technology company that advanced a serious-minded discussion of the pros and cons of stakeholder capitalism vs shareholder capitalism. It is entirely a conversation about imagination, and if that’s one of the benefits of all this fancy thinking I believe this is time and energy spent righteously.
And that’s a part of my identity I can be pleased with.
T’s Suggested Bibliography
Oh, one more… Design to Divest
be easy (5.8.21)
May 8, 2021