I acknowledge the absence of the sun

Ah, that beautiful morning light of January in Minneapolis.
Ah, that beautiful morning light of January in Minneapolis.

Just heard on the radio that it’s the cloudiest January on record here. I believe it.

It’s required attention, that’s for sure. I take my Vitamin D supplement (a gummy, of course — treat yourself). I have a clinical-looking daylight lamp that kicks on automatically when sunrise is supposed to be. I try to stick to a morning routine. It’s hard to know how much anything helps, or at least the mechanism by which it’s helping. Some mornings the ritual is the main comfort. A wordless mantra, if translated:

I acknowledge the absence of the sun, as I have acknowledged it the five days prior. Today, my life will continue without the sun. I look forward to the sun’s return.

It’s all you can do, really. If it gets real cold you find a fire or put on more layers. If you’re sliding on the snow and ice you get better boots. But if the sun’s gone? Man. Keep that coffee on, say a little prayer, and keep on trucking.

Tomato paste provenance

It’s disorienting, sometimes, the way objects slip in and out of our lives — what ever happened to that red shirt? Don’t I own more coffee mugs? Where on Earth did this book come from?

I used to be very focused on momentos — my teenage bedroom had a meticulously arranged display of every chotchke and knick-knack that felt like representation of Living a Life: concert tickets and boarding passes and street corner souvenirs1 and dried out boutonnieres and metro cards from “big cities” like Chicago! Then I moved, and moved, and moved, and moved again, and my parents moved and moved again, and I grew and changed, and the memories were lost or discarded, or the objects were, or both. A room became a Banker’s Box became a shoebox became an empty shelf.

I’m coming up on four years of living in Minneapolis. I missed Hy-Vee for a long while after moving here, the big friendly grocery chain found all over Iowa. Cub is … not for me. They have one up here, a Hy-Vee, somewhere or other, and have long talked of building another nearby. But it seems to be all talk.

Regardless, I eventually moved on in my heart. The grocer nearest me is over-priced, and the produce is poor, but it’s there, and I know it, and in my loneliest stretches I visited five times a week, just to have somewhere to go and people to chat with. I joined a co-op up the road a bit ago, now that I’ve got the truck. Better produce, good sandwiches, earnest people who think they’ll live forever by asking about the mercury content of their homeopathic tinctures.

I hadn’t thought about any of this, hadn’t thought of Iowa in forever, and then: this can of tomato paste.

Do you know how many recipes call for tomato paste? My girlfriend and I have been cooking a lot this winter and we’re really going through it. We needed some for sloppy joes and she pulled this can of Hy-Vee store brand tomato paste out of the back of my pantry. “Oh no! You’d better check the expiration date.”2

My mind reeled at the provenance of this can. Six ounces from another lifetime! I clearly moved here with it. This apartment may even be its third home, if I brought it from the house. I wonder: did I buy it with purpose, for a meal that never was? Or was it aspirational, a baby step toward the day I became the kind of person who needed to have tomato paste handy? (You don’t need it for frozen pizzas, that’s for sure.)

You expect to find ghosts from time to time in an attic or garage, or your childhood bedroom closet, but an apartment pantry?! I thought I knew this place! I wonder what other memories lurk in cupboard corners, fallen behind furniture, tucked in boxes I’ve gone blind to from familiarity. It seems the mementos accumulate whether you mean for them to or not.


  1. I do regret losing track of my Statue of Liberty lighter.
  2. It expired in 2017. We ate it anyway. Nobody died.

Long paragraphs

“So often the long paragraphs I write in life are responses to Facebook posts, or reply letters to someone, or … I can put together a three-paragraph letter that burns the hair off of your eyebrows about almost any topic.”

– John Roderick on the Road Work podcast

I like this thought technology: Where do the long paragraphs come from in your life?

A long paragraph isn’t a good or bad thing, but it is instructive. It points to a passion, a pain point. A bugaboo or a peeve. If one pops up while in a piece I’m writing, it’s often a sign I need to expand — more structure, maybe another section. If one pops up while I’m using social media, it’s often a sign I need to shut my computer and go take a walk.

Islands and icebergs

Spent all week working on something and I just trashed it. Wasn’t coming together. Hate to do it because you never know if you were almost there. Sometimes you’re hating it and hating it, and you keep sailing on, and then blam-oh! There she is! I see land, boys!

But maybe you stopped just before the iceberg. This one felt like an iceberg. The idea seemed reasonable enough, a good thing to write, that would get some shares, generate engagement. I’m not above writing for engagement, but I don’t want to hate myself while I’m doing it. This one just wasn’t feeling like me. I think. Unless I should have kept sailing.

Good news is I’ve still got the boat, and a little more practice sailing than I had before.

Weaponized

A bit jarring to see one of the tools of my trade — customer journey maps — pop up in this article about the 737 Max and Boeing’s efforts to manage customer “anxiety” about their totally safe airplane that’s killed 346 men, women, and children. (So far.)

Screenshot of Boeing presentation including a (bad) customer journey map, via the New York times article.
Screenshot of Boeing presentation including a (bad) customer journey map, via the New York times article.

I’ve been trying to imagine how it will feel to have worked on this when the next one crashes, to have employed “human-centered” design techniques to gaslight people about the safety of an airplane that you, the UX designer, have fuck-all first-hand knowledge of. It seems not great! I’ve created my share of design tools and frameworks and it would make me just sick to my stomach to see something I’ve made weaponized like this against users.

Meanwhile, this nonsense:

[A] company website dedicated to updates on the Max was being designed with “improved usability” and “stickiness” to “encourage more time on site and repeat visits,” phrases commonly used in the communications business.

Repeat visits! LOL. Love to bookmark my favorite websites about airline safety and check back often for updates.

Painting a very long hallway

I’ve been asked a few times what writing a book was like. Sometimes people mean: “What’s it like to be someone who wrote a book?” It’s nice! Glad to have done it, glad to know I can do it, lots of new opportunities, nice to have something unambiguously mine, and so on.

It’s interesting to ponder the question as asked, though. What was it like to write a book? Act of, not fact of.

Practically speaking, writing a book was a lot of sitting in a room alone and typing. (And not responding to emails.) Boring! A simile, then: Writing a book is like painting a very long hallway.

It’s like a very long hallway – and not, say, a bedroom, or even a Bob Ross landscape – because you can’t see the scope of the effort all at once. My paint roller only reaches so far, but I’m trying to get a good even coat from beginning to end, across many weeks of effort. This was the most different aspect of the work compared to, say, an essay or newsletter.

There was a lot more prep work than I’d imagined, even after I thought I was totally prepared to start. Picking out paint colors was so fun, but now, oh God, is that more wallpaper under the wallpaper?

Once you’re actually finally ready to start, later than you’d have liked, the hours tick by. Mostly, you’re painting. When you’re not painting, you’re thinking to yourself, “That hallway isn’t going to paint itself!” And it doesn’t.

Some days you hit a rhythm and there’s a beautiful shluck, shluck, schluck sound as paint rolls on in big even swaths. Or perhaps, after a week of not painting, you spend all day trying to get the dried out lid of the goddamn paint can off. Some days you paint for hours only to realize that can was off-white, not eggshell, and, well, guess I’m doing that part over.

Sometimes you paint in the middle of the night, because painting the hallway isn’t your day job — and it’s not your social life or self-care — it’s just this other thing that you do.

Sometimes you spend all weekend painting the hallway, because you never got around to painting during the week and you promised you’d be done with the first coat by Monday, Tuesday morning at the latest.

By the end — the paint dries so slow — by the end, you’re loopy on fumes. Everything you own is covered in paint. But it’s done, damn it! Ahahahaha, the fucker is done.

Except, wait, that was just the first coat. Oh no. You missed some spots! Let’s do it again! And again! Prep, sand, paint, tidy, prep, sand, paint, tidy. Eventually, you just have to decide that it’s done, that the crimes are well enough hidden, and that it’s time to peel the tape, put the furniture back, and re-hang the family portraits.

This isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable. Painting is laborious, yes, but it can be rewarding, even hypnotic. But however pleasant the hours, the best feeling is still being done with it.

I don’t want your business card

Two men who assuredly do not have business cards chatting at the Tohono O’odham Swapmeet in Tucson, AZ.
Two men who assuredly do not have business cards chatting at the Tohono O’odham Swapmeet in Tucson, AZ.

I feel like network should be more noun than verb. I get on better with people at professional events who are just being people (not collecting them).

Do I want to grow my network? Yes yes, of course. I want an upward career trajectory, and to grow the audience for the things I make. I want to meet interesting people and learn from them. But I’ve always tried to build my network without inflicting networking on other people.

I tune out as soon as the pitch starts. You can hear it coming. Who wants that? I don’t want that. I don’t want your business card. I don’t want to hear the pitch. I probably don’t even want you to have my business card.

Let’s just be people.