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.

Greetings from Minneapolis

I can see this postcard-style mural from my office window. When the weather is nice, it makes for good people-watching: groups of friends trying to time a jump with the countdown timer on their camera phone propped up against a soda bottle; traveling teen athletes posing with a trophy they just won.

Some days, like today, it seems downright sarcastic. Which, to be honest, kinda matches my mood. So, hey, hi, hello. Greetings from Minneapolis. It’s lovely here.

A good little start

Gratitude journals seem to work wonders for folks. It’s not quite my bag but I am always trying to notice, to at least tell myself in the moment: this is good. Today? Now? My day is off to a good little start, and I am grateful.

It’s above zero and the sun is shining, which feels downright tropical compared to the past week. I checked Twitter when I woke up, in bed, on my phone … not the first thing I checked, but one of the first. That’s a dumb thing that I should not do, but I got lucky: someone had said something nice about my book. So that put a little spring in my step, along with the weather. Then, walking to the coffeeshop, the neighborhood vintage shop guy recognized me and said hello. He was at a stoplight, piloting the big maroon moving truck they use to haul furniture. I quite like that kind of thing, clerks and bartenders and barbers that remember my face, sometimes even my name, that say hello, how’s it been. Helps a guy feel like he’s supposed to be where he is and is where he’s supposed to be. Grateful.

Saw a pug being walked. All black. Too far away to say hello, but grateful, nonetheless.

It’s 90s alternative on the coffee shop Pandora. The Cure. Smashing Pumpkins. Radiohead. Pixies, now, as I’m writing this. Coulda been butt rock. Coulda been Mumford. Grateful.

THEN I got an email with a Lyft ride credit for rides to First Avenue, which is timely as I caught a ticket to the Never Better 10th Anniversary show. It’s warming up but it’s not warm enough to take the bus to a show without a coat. I’ve got some dancing energy I gotta get out tonight, so Lyft it is. Grateful.

The coffee’s good. The half and half is fresh. I’m having a good hair day. Grateful, grateful, grateful.

Things that aren’t money anymore

I’ve had a truck for a couple weeks now. (Long story.) So I’ve been taking care of niggling errands around town, and visiting places I haven’t been to since I was dating someone with a car who took me to them.

Today’s errand was cashing in my change at a Coinstar machine. The places that have them around me are all bike-hostile; mega shopping centers and the like. So my coins have been piling up for years now.

These things, it seems, are not money, or are money no longer:

A hand holding two chewed up pennies, a CR2032 battery, an arcade token, and a mysterious coin.

I should get a bank account here, in Minneapolis. I know. But aside from needing my coins counted it hasn’t mattered.

While feeding my coins through, no fewer than three people asked me “Do they charge a fee?” Yes, they do. It’s exorbitant. But now it’s done and I don’t care. You can pick a gift certificate with no fees, but I couldn’t see myself spending $130 at Applebee’s. The last time I was at an Applebee’s my traveling companion had gone to bed at 9pm so I walked across the hotel parking lot to an Applebee’s and got drunk on $2.50 Long Island Iced Teas (meaning I was tanked $7 later). $130 worth of late night happy hour Long Island Iced Teas at Applebee’s could kill a bridal party.

The money’s already spent, in my head, anyway. I bought a camera I don’t need this morning from a Craiglist ad. I’m on a film photography kick now. So if anybody wants to buy this camera in, say…April? May?…let a guy know.

A Nikon FE2 camera on a table with 8 rolls of film behind it.

Links of late | 2018-06-01

  • New version of Ulysses is out. Lucky 13. Nothing I’ll make immediate use of but I see the appeal of the colored keywords, especially for a larger project like a book.
  • A recent episode of 99% Invisible about Curb Cuts jumped right into their top ten for me. Design, usability, political activism, shitting on Jerry Lewis. All the good stuff. (Excellent article at that link, too, if you’re not much of a podcast listener.)
  • NE Minneapolis flags for sale. I didn’t buy one because I don’t know where I’d display it, but I did buy something related. More later.
  • I’ve been admiring Apple’s approach to editorial curation in the App Store for a while now, but I hadn’t fully noticed how much custom illustration work they’re using until I came across this article.
  • Walking or biking to wherever probably takes less time than you think. “About 90 percent of their estimates were too long by at least 10 minutes.”
  • Put some more diverse faces into your next set of wireframes or design personas.

Conference diary: Confab 2018

That’s a wrap on Confab 2018! Photo by Sean Tubridy.
That’s a wrap on Confab 2018! Photo by Sean Tubridy.

Holy shit. So was that a conference or was that a conference?

I’m still reeling from the end of Confab 2018, a (the) content strategy conference held annually here in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My employer, Brain Traffic, produces the event. My primary contribution leading up to Confab is to interject unasked-for advice into conversations I overhear the actual Confab team having. My two best interjections this year were suggesting those little instant cameras as speaker gifts (which was a trick, because I wanted one), and the idea for making an activity book for the attendee swag. I also came up with at least one content strategy related owl pun for the cakes that nobody ever sees because they get cut up before the cake break.

(Note that this is just me as a dude reflecting on his own Confab experience, not any official statement from Brain Traffic or Confab. I feel dumb saying that because no one cares but I’m saying it anyway because PROFESSIONALISM!)

The warm-up

Beautiful people in front of beautiful skateboards.
Beautiful people in front of beautiful skateboards.

I had a full calendar for this Confab and I was glad for it. My friend Ida was in town early, and we spent Saturday as tourists all over downtown Minneapolis and eventually at Art-A-Whirl. We were lucky enough to see Sean make his first in-person sale for Modern Skateboards, his ridiculously beautiful line of custom, hand-painted complete skateboards. I got in some more Art-A-Whirl with my friend Michael the next day, and found myself daydreaming about renting a studio space somewhere in Northeast just for kicks.

A crowd gathered at Industrious in downtown Minneapolis for the local content strategy meetup featuring Confab speakers.
A crowd gathered at Industrious in downtown Minneapolis for the local content strategy meetup featuring Confab speakers.

Sunday evening was watching Ida, Andy, Tracy, and the boss lady at the local content strategy meetup.

Workshop day

View from the stage during one of my workshop activities. Big room for a workshop but the A/V setup was great and I never felt like I had to yell.
View from the stage during one of my workshop activities. Big room for a workshop but the A/V setup was great and I never felt like I had to yell.

Confab is three days long, with workshops on the first day. So I was up early Monday for breakfast before facilitating a brand-new workshop about being more user-centered as a content strategist. It went fine I think?? We’ll see how the evaluations turn out. Workshops are tricky because they depend heavily on the experiences of the people in the room, and because it’s difficult to rehearse them solo. Still! Confab crowds are attentive and inquisitive, and their good questions and contributions always help fill in some of the rough spots. My goal for a half-day workshop is for 80% of the participants to mostly enjoy themselves and leave with at least one good idea. For a full-day workshop it’s two good ideas.

I decompressed in my hotel room in the afternoon and did a bit of work. Later, there was a speaker reception at 4 Bells, which is completely gorgeous and has great service. Made a few new friends and caught up with some old ones. We met the new Facebook Fellows and I scored an excellent Baggu tote bag with a subtle Facebook Content Strategy logo they brought for the occasion. Got groceries with it last night and the clerk said, “This is such a nice bag I almost feel bad putting groceries in it!” Now that’s some classy swag.

Confab Run

I gave the crew the option of taking the group photo before or after the run and they loudly opted for before. Bike people tend to go for after, in my experience. Learn something new every day!
I gave the crew the option of taking the group photo before or after the run and they loudly opted for before. Bike people tend to go for after, in my experience. Learn something new every day!

Tuesday morning was a new experience for me: not being even a little hungover the morning after the speaker reception. Oh, and also: leading the official Confab run! I was downstairs at 6:30 in the goddamn morning to lead eleven lovely Confabbers on a 2.36 mile run through the Loring Greenway and park, around the sculpture garden at the Walker, up and around the Walker itself, and back. And we didn’t lose anyone! I don’t think.

I’ve never been on a group social run, let alone led one, but I was able to borrow experience from going on community bike rides here in Minneapolis, and from leading campus tours at Drake way back in the day. Which, now that I think about it, a running campus tour would be kind of cool.

The conference part of the conference

I tend not to take a lot of notes but then sometimes I do! It’s a mystery. Some rough sketchnotes from Dayana’s talk and Biz’s talk (both excellent).
I tend not to take a lot of notes but then sometimes I do! It’s a mystery. Some rough sketchnotes from Dayana’s talk and Biz’s talk (both excellent).

Tuesday and Wednesday were the session days, and therewereSOMANY good sessions. The schedule was a little different with many more mainstage talks this year, meaning everyone at the conference watches them together, and there was also a Slack team just for attendees. So although it was a much bigger crowd than I’m used to at this kind of event, in some ways it also felt like a closer, more communal experience.

I never know what my practical takeaways are at a conference until I find myself needing them in my work a week or month or two years later. If I had to pick some personal themes, I found myself noticing points about:

  • The work being more important than the disciplines and tools (Gerry made this point rather explicitly in the first mainstage talk, and it echoed throughout many others)
  • The value and power of not just writing, but of designing with words
  • The importance of having a shared understanding of your content and business reality with the people you’re working with
  • The idea that inclusivity in content and design should be table stakes for any team, and that many teams don’t yet have the right people at that table

Trying to get that Everlane sponsorship money. (Photo by Sean Tubridy for Confab Events.)
Trying to get that Everlane sponsorship money. (Photo by Sean Tubridy for Confab Events.)

Wednesday morning I delivered a talk version of my workshop, focused a bit more on the types of situations each tool was best-suited for. I stole a technique I learned from Ahava at a previous Confab and stood at the entrance to greet attendees as they came in the room. This helped me feel more at ease, and also to redirect a few of Monday’s workshop participants to another session, since the material was going to be so similar. Thanks to Zach (Zack?) on the A/V crew, Jatin, Lynne, Quentin, Tenessa, Lauren, and everyone else I’m forgetting that helped things run smoothly.

Final thoughts

This discipline of content strategy is evolving fast. Confab is always a smart crowd but this year it felt like there were more seasoned experts in every room (not just on stage), more people asking more advanced questions, and more casual conversations about content strategy victories, not just challenges. It was a little intimidating, to be honest, but also very encouraging. All that, plus the sheer number of attendees, speaks to a very healthy and growing industry. Can’t wait to see what’s next. (I have a sneaking suspicion something exciting might be coming this fall…)

Addendum: a few things I bookmarked during #Confab2018