Chemistry and I never got along: an inherent part of its theoretical basis is to limit variables to the greatest extent so that you may create controls. In its infantile years, it’s an exercise in a parallel universe where molecules exist equidistant from one another, neutrons collide perfectly, and where air is pure.
In later years of the hardest (not challenging, but rather not soft) science, I quickly learned that everything they teach you in Chemistry I is basically some sort of sick experiment. In this long-term study, they compare: college students’ reactions to finding out everything they learned in Chemistry I they would have to forget in order to succeed at Organic Chemistry to children’s reactions to finding out Santa Claus is actually dad (and Santa Clause‘s Tim Allen was incarcerated) and that the Tooth Fairy is probably mom (and you should probably stop thinking about what happened with those costumes after you grew up). It illustrates the horror of knowing your reality has been fabricated by someone who either didn’t believe in your intelligence or was too lazy to explain to you the nuance.
I quickly gave up on chemistry and got a grade my parents don’t know about. Part of me is always a bit frustrated by this fact. Had the circumstances been different, I might have found in chemistry the inspiration I find in language or in spatial math. I never got there, because I was flummoxed by its nonsensical oversimplification. It felt like we were collectively settling for an easy way to explain more complicated topics.
As with anything I find to be “too easy”, I quickly grew tired of examples professors would tell us “would never happen in nature. I understood the need to lessen variables, but found it defeatist to explain things to you in a way that never existed in nature just so it was easier. It’s equivalent to test driving a car around a perfect and even track. It’s equivalent to marrying someone who you’ve never gotten obscenely lost with or who you haven’t heard fart. It gives you the simplest problem to solve, not the hardest.
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On weeks like this where I swear I’m speaking Finnish to all my clients and I can’t seem to convince them to just trust me, it can be trying. By presenting our designs out there, we’re putting a lot of how we think and how we express those thoughts into a single screen. It’s easy to get discouraged sometimes that clients just don’t understand (best if sung to the Will Smith song, “Parents Just Don’t Understand”) and even to blame the client. We find ourselves flustered, ready to just be a “yes man” and do what the client asks.
But if there were a Hippocratic Oath for designers it would probably ask that we never solve the simplest problem. If we’re presented with too simple a problem then we’re not asking enough questions. No problem is that simple when you consider even one variable—audience—that every single person has a unique view and a directed agenda. Compound onto that aspects of business goals and areas of potential for content creation. No problem is inherently too simple, the questions asked are.
Not only is this feeling baited by presenting our work, it’s sometimes a byproduct of the work itself. Weeks where we fall into our old standbys (full bleed photos or vintage type pairings), we’re ready to just do what the world asks. Give them something beautiful to look at with light touches of animation through parallax.
But if there were a Hippocratic Oath for designers it would probably ask that we never solve the simplest problem. If we’re presented with too simple a problem then we’re not asking enough questions. No problem is that simple when you consider even one variable—audience—that every single person has a unique view and a directed agenda. Compound onto that aspects of business goals and areas of potential for content creation. No problem is inherently too simple, the questions asked are.
And so maybe with the lesson with chemistry was: Chemistry didn’t fail to challenge me because it wasn’t hard enough at first but because I didn’t find the seek the challenge within its simplified form.
Seeking this challenge within design will make the process harder, yes. First within ourselves as designers and being comfortable with the level of work we create, but second with our clients. Generating chaos will complicate the process which might disrupt timeline or decorum. Yet the moment we stop the search for challenge within design is when we find ourselves months (of even weeks) down the road looking at our past work and realizing it’s humdrum. It doesn’t withstand the test of time not because of the ever-evolving aesthetic, but because it wasn’t its best at the time it was made. Perhaps it illustrated molecules as static spheres connected at exact intervals, when it could have illustrated them as dancers in a ballet set against a cosmic stage.
The world never stops moving. The force that pulls it along is one that thousands of years of cumulative science can only sort of begin to explain (and I not at all). I’ve never attended a single physics class, but I can tell you that within the universal and spacial motion, there are trillions+ of movements much smaller. Energy continues to flow indiscriminately from the quotidien to the cataclysmic and back, never slowing.
As people in the 21st century of the developed world, we often resemble the very energy we seem to lack. Fretting from place to place on 15-minute intervals, pinging from thought to thought at nanosecond beats, never slowing.
We operate not along the rate at which we were intended, but at an artificial processing speed that we’re constantly working to shrink. We train our patience to become impatient with ourselves; we become frustrated at our evolutionarily (i.e., sluggish) inability to progress as rapidly as the machines we create. We obsessively add memory to our devices only to forget what it was that we had intended to do just a mere five seconds ago. We don’t have the mental strength to crack open a 300-page book we’ve been dying to read, but do have stores of midnight oil to burn reading insignificant quips by people who we loathe*. We won’t pick up the phone for a conclusive two-minute call, but will engage a multi-day text string that results in “we’ll figure it out later”. (*Hopefully that is not what you’re doing now).
Technology demands that we keep moving (or rather we demand of ourselves through our technological creations). Perpetual motion as an inherent concept is good, but not if it lacks direction. Carefully timed decision-making is also good, but not if it means stagnation. Sometimes we spin in circles so fast that we never jump forward; we are so rife with energy potential that we never fall off the ledge. We are told to dream big but rarely are we told to do small.
The big dreams and potential energy are necessary fodder for greatness. We want to be the superlatives in our fields but without first being entirely mediocre. Mediocracy usually comprises redundancy, mistakes, oversights, entirely unoriginal work; there are clichés, barely-enough efforts, and the likely-ignored. There’s nothing romantic or individualistic about that. Yet unless we overcome this need to be great every nanosecond of every day, we will stop and cease to progress toward something. Anything.
For years my design studio lacked a web presence at all, which is embarrassing to admit, but the truth. The reason wasn’t because I was too busy or didn’t know how or that I didn’t think it was important; it was because I never felt like my work never reached a point where it was good enough to put my name on it. The site in its unpublished iterations never reached the unattainable standard I set for it. Rather than publishing something there and allowing it to be a progressive work, I opted to hoard the drafts in secrecy à la Salinger. (posthumously-published PHP perhaps—no that was not meant to be a self-referential acronym). It’s silly for a million and one reasons, but mostly because I’d rather suffer the consequences of having nothing rather than having something I deemed to be subpar. As a result, my name had no work attached to it. It’s bad to be thought a poor designer, but worst to not be thought one at all.
I want to change this bad habit.
That’s the truth.
Though I’ll unlikely give up the quest for perfection altogether, I vow that I will allow myself the steps in between, even if it means that for an indeterminable amount of time the project must live in a mediocre motel—where edges don’t meet, where subjects and verbs disagree, and where error is in surplus, so long as I carry on.
Sometimes—in weeks like this—all we can ask for of ourselves is to continue in any way, no matter how little we feel we’ve accomplished and how far away our desired ends may seem. We cannot stop our good actions because we find them too small, and most certainly not because we find the evil intent in the world too large. The second we forget the task unattempted is the hardest one of all, we lose the most important thing of all: momentum.
One of the first books I remember my dad reading (period) was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Though a typical late ’80s/early ’90s self-helper, the basic tenets of the book made sense: reorder and motivate yourself, create positive synergy for win-win results (by of course seeking understanding first, then being understood next by those around you), shift your attitude and then improve yourself. His copy was a hideously ugly tan book with maroon accenting—differentiated not in the least from neither Harlequins nor paperback political thrillers. It also had a half-moon spine that made it look like it spent its days, pages aspread, tanning in the Oregon sun (I could think of a thousand more romantic/likely adjectival locations than Oregon for this particular instance but please see my post about truth).
My dad, like any other person, myself included, had a lot of habits when he was reading the book. Some were bad (smoking) others were good (the unrelenting search for perfection, which really was only good until it came to the dissection of my academic life). I was about to write that habits typically connotes bad rather than good, but Google had to prove me wrong. The search of “bad habits” yields only 49M results, whereas “good habits” yields 84M.
GOOD VERSUS BAD
Good habits include: drinking your body weight minus 9 divided by 32 gallons of water a day, sleeping sufficiently, regular exercise, punctuality, eating whole, unprocessed foods, using only what you need, doing good onto others, and brushing your teeth for longer than two minutes. Bad habits include drinking into a stupor nightly (particularly if you’re following the above formula still), biting your nails, chewing with your mouth open, tardiness, sleeping for unregulated amounts of time, texting while you’re at dinner with somebody AND THEY’RE TALKING … DIRECTLY TO YOU AND YOU ALONE … ABOUT SOMETHING SUPER IMPORTANT!!!, watching television instead of/”while” working, kicking elderly people while you’re seated in priority seating areas, and leaving the refrigerator door open as you ponder whether you should cook or just go ahead and get fast food (double bad).
Even if we accept the above as moral truth (realising it’s not absolutely perfect, but close), a difficult thing to understand is how quickly habits are formed. Sixteen-year-old you picked up smoking to look cool or pass the time during breaks at your first job. Did you do it 20 times before the habit became addictive? Now if you replaced cigarettes with workout (can you imagine seeing restaurant loading zones with tons of chefs doing lunges?), would the habits form at the same rate? In my language studies, I vaguely recall a professor saying that if we repeated words 10 times, it would find its way into a deeper part of our brain (an interesting aside: so if we store something into this more archival, permanent place, are we releasing it from short-term memory? Is this what makes Memento such a confusing movie to watch the first 3 times? On viewing 4, is watching Memento yet my habit?). If we can extrapolate from this that forming habits happens in the same way, then every habit should have a Habit Number. You could go to the mall and have a Habit Forming Specialist identify how long it would take for you to form Habit A. But what if habit is simply a word that we’ve settled upon—a halfway point between tendency genetic idiosyncrasy? Though I usually seize any opportunity I get to make the nature v. nurture debate again and again (aside: when in pairs, I really like saying it uh-gay-n like I imagine Tim Curry or Ralph Fiennes says it), I think we could agree that most habits are likely a result of both.
More than anything, integrating a habit into our lives is a result of making it a part of an even scarier word: routine. Working out daily or near-daily works better than every odd-dated Monday because it is removed from our choice box and placed into our “quick, do it before you’re really awake”, or, “it’s not a real day if I don’t do this” routine. This routine usually encompasses showers, tooth-brushing and unloading the dishwasher. (N.B. I think this is the reason why some people form habits more easily than others. Those who never get past committing to those first X number never build the habit into their routine). We empower our muscle and their memories to do it before our brain can look up from its Friday crossword to say, “hey, what are you doing?” It makes sense for bad habits, too. Cigarettes to give yourself short breaks and “when you’re drunk” and checking your Facebook on your phone become how you automatically fill what seems like it’ll be a 2-minute interlude. Habitual actions have left your brain’s Congress (I wish I could watch a bird’s eye view of my brain’s Congress instead of the U.S. Congress…does that mean I’m a narcissistic suffering from cultural cringe/xenophilia? Nevermind, I don’t want to know.) and entered into the habit baggage claim. Why do you think there are so many people reading their phones on the bus and people smoking on their breaks? (Yes, I’m completely ignoring social reasons for “simplicity’s sake”.)
Now that we’ve established so clearly how habits are formed, let’s proceed with how habits are broken. The first step to anything is admitting that it exists. Let’s pretend like that’s easy so we can move onto the next step, which is deciding if we’re breaking a good or bad habit. Murphy would probably say that if you’re trying to break it then it’s bad (because if you’re TRYING to stop a good work out routine then there’s something wrong, OR you work out obsessively to the point where you’ve traversed into addictive bad habit land), so that’s easy. But think about it—is breaking this habit better than finding a good habit that cancels it out? So are you trying to stop spending less time texting I’m late/I can’t get together/general excuses when maybe the problem you actually need to address is being more punctual/committal? Maybe this example is not truly encompassing the extent of this juxtaposition, but what I mean to say is that breaking a small bad habit is good, but maybe forming a big good habit is better. The latter will be harder, take more time, probably have higher failure rate, but will as a result be longer lasting and likely naturally eliminate many other small bad habits.
Breaking habits also lends its way to free time, which could cause the very thing I suggest—building good habits in lieu. Free time could also mean spontaneous Existential crisis; or is that just me? In all seriousness, we have habits as security blankets, as identifiers of who we are or something to do so we look in place. (If this blog post could some how probably not likely be written into a screen play, I feel like at this build up is where the song ”Human” by The Killers would come on, which does anyone else think sounds a lot like Elton John or am I totally making that up because he says the word dancers which I can only associate with Tiny Dancer??? I do want to know the answer to this so please comment). When we pull those habits away from ourselves, we’re left with big questions, big holes—we’re exposed to a box within ourselves that we’ve created by filling ourselves with nothing. Path of least resistance is usually the one we take, so more often than not we just fill those voids back up with habits, refreshing old ones or discovering new.
The question remains—are habits killed with a bang or a whisper? Is it best to crowd out and fill our schedules to the point of no smoke-break return or dig deep into those Existential crevasses of our inner minds where we store those Spanish words we bothered to repeated 10 times? My inner logician cringes, but I only know how to answer this our of experience:
SOME BAD HABITS I BROKE/GOOD HABITS I FORMED SLASH AM TRYING TO BREAK/FORM BUT AM TRYING TO BE POSITIVE SO I’M AFFIRMING THAT I AM IN FACT BREAKING/FORMING THEM EVEN THOUGH I’M WELL AWARE THEY’RE POSSIBLY JUST IN PROGRESS
Drinking more water.
Easy! I bought myself a cute water bottle that I just want to put my mouf on all the time (thx Libbin LaBida Local!). Sound annoying like a teen bop mag? Say it with a Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde voice!!! Now say it as Morgan Freeman as Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde! NOT POSSIBLE. I also wanted to find a picture of a Reese Witherspoon with a water bottle to tie everything together but they only have Blake Lively and Natalie Portman and those honannies have them but NOT IN YELLOW and ew.
In seriousness, I knew that just a cute water bottle wouldn’t work (it had to be well-designed and relatively free of brand-branding). I thought about where my bad habit really stemmed from:
 I’m really lazy about refilling anything. I hate waiting for water to fill into anything. Dams. Water bottles. Water filter pitchers. If you were my Freud you’d know it’s my parents fault: we had waterbeds when I was growing up [weird how that phrase changes when you have siblings to "when we were growing up", but since I'm siblingless, (Sybil the siblingless) if I wrote that it would seem like I was passive aggressively implying that my parents were growing up too which really shouldn't be an insult, right? We're all growing up], which we had to refill every spring for cleaning time (Is it spring and fall’s homonymness that convince English majors to capitalise the seasons even though I think that’s ludicrous? Not rhetorical, so please again answer in comments, thanks). It always took ages and ages to first drain the damn beds, then we had to create the world’s longest hose using impossible connectors to run water from the kitchen to the bedrooms because the master bath was perpetually under construction (#suburbanworldproblems). So Freud would zay that I have parental issues with mass amounts of water flow. This water bottle is not cheap (though I used a coupon like the Extreme Cheapskate that I am, so it was to me), but it’s cheaper than years of therapy!
 I hate most water bottles in general because they taste like what they are—metal tastes like blood (or maybe it’s, you get it), plastic tastes like cancer. Glass luckily never tastes like anything! YAY!!!
 I hate cleaning bottles. I tell myself to buy a bottle brush, but then I forget and end up fisting my bottle with the sponge. That really doesn’t work. You can throw this one in the dishwasher WITH ITS SILICONE THING ON IT!!!
 I will probably break or somehow destroy the cap and or bottle. It came with a replacement cap! If I lose that, I can order a new cap! And if I break it, they’ll replace it!!! And it probably won’t break because it has a life jacket on!!!
 I don’t like having to physically carry a water bottle with my hands, which need to be free to snap photos of crazy street sign twirlers or my roommate’s cats. Sometimes they’re too big for cup holders (this one’s not!), other times they have to be carried in a big ol’ bag. The giant hook on top that’s RIGID (genius!) so I can wrap my scarf or bag or whatever through it so I don’t have to carry it and lose it.
More examples to come…This one deserves to be on its own, it’s so exciting!
I’ve never been sadder that I didn’t live in the middle of nowhere (double double negative since I just used double negatives and made a Hanson reference and realised it) than my recent visit to the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisc. (If you don’t know what the Hamilton Wood Type Museum is and why they need saving, then you should probably read my blog more.)
In true procrastinator fashion, I visited the museum just days before their big gala, which marked the closing of its original doors to the public. All their minions are now going to carefully wrap up these beautiful type specimens and move them to a secret location (still in Two Rivers) to be reopened in summer 2013. The visit was everything I had hoped: It was below freezing outside, we had a tour of fewer than 10, I got to learn about the museum’s rich narrative, and spend the day among hundreds of thousands of pieces of wood and metal type. There is a sense of bittersweetness: I am happy that enough people care about type that a museum can still exist, but sad that this limited-practice art form has to overcome yet another hurdle (as though being an obscure art form is not hard enough).
I honestly do not know how these peeps are going to pull this off… without you donating some money. If I were rich and famous (single double negative since I made a Good Charlotte reference and knew it), I would just Tweet my fans and tell them to all donate $10, but since I’m not, friends, please consider a donation to help them with this daunting task. If you need further convincing (beyond my blog post that I’m sure you read), just watch Typeface. If that doesn’t convince you, look at the photos below. If this still doesn’t convince you, then you are a mean person and hate design and art and you should donate that money to Fox News or to global warming.
A hiatus from the Hamilton story
Journalism was a huge part of my high school and college lives. I spent countless hours designing, photographing, calling, fabricating content out of thin air, organizing, work planning, production managing—and most favourably, writing. Though I served for my college paper most notably as its production manager, I felt most natural as a writer.
Writing in journalism takes on an entire world beyond just storytelling. A good journalist is a essentially a documentary detective: you gather evidence, you evaluate your findings, and then report. My natural curiosity [as an aside, my middle school had life traits that it honoured: curiosity, initiative, honesty, etc; our very caring teachers, though we didn't know it at the time, painted us all rocks with the trait that the felt each of us embodied most with our names on it. All the teachers held a joint ceremony where they explained to us why they felt we deserved the word we received. The gesture was lost upon self-centered and confused middle schoolers (my former self most guilty), but it's a gesture I still frequently think about. It was one of the only times in what was a relatively awful middle school experience that I felt understood, as I was gifted with 'curiosity.'] was allowed to not only set itself free, but to sing in a Narnian world. Every single story became an exploratory exposition and the ability to put myself in little corners of the world—corners that excited me, enlightened me, and ultimately made me understand a tiny fraction of the world’s curiosities.
But not all stories were so uplifting. One of the last stories I wrote dealt with Salem’s polarity. Willamette, the university I attended, was an upper-middle class private liberal arts Methodist higher education center in the middle of an already-polarised city. Salem is filled with politicians and their cohorts as well as some of the most poverty-stricken meth addicts in the state. Talking to ‘townies’ revealed what I already knew about the university’s bubble and minimal interaction with its own home. Stories like that were hard to interview for; stories where you hold a stake. I wasn’t living in another’s shoes for a day, but instead forced to live in my own and listen as a writer first, and as a temporary resident second.
A story dear to my heart in high school was on a younger student with ADHD. At the time, even less was known about the disorder. Though the student worked through his challenges with great success, there was a certain sadness that permeated through the tone. Classically trained to not allow my own biases to taint the piece, I would not want to admit that the sadness was remnant of my own empathy for the boy, but instead that it was just merely the tone of truth. A perk to journalism was the ability to try my hand(s) at a $5,000 set of drums, spending the entire sunny day at the skate park, or listening to a cello that brought me to tears. But journalists can quickly tire of playing band member, trick skater, and classical enthusiast. What brings a journalist back day after day, call after call, edit after edit, is truth.
After many years of truth-seeking (through journalism and other avenues, particularly design), I’m not sure that truthful journalism (or storytelling) exists. If anything that short-lived Tim Roth television show, Lie to Me, said is true, it is that humans are compulsive liars. Most are neither malicious nor psychopathic, but all are guilty of it likely more than once a day. I catch myself inflating numbers or colouring words all the time. I try to be altruistic and correct myself, but my inner comedienne wants to entertain; entertainment is rarely truth in its entirety. Given that, humans are the one telling these stories.
Try our damndest, even, but to think that telling a story could be truthful is a bit silly. It would be to assume that all potential observers saw the same thing. Coral to one could be red to another. The evil eye could have been a tired gaze. To strip our pieces of these details, we would be merely sharing countable facts. The number of people or the temperature (which, I might add, could in complicated situations even cause debate). In short, truth is an ideal but not something we humans may attain. Not in the written word. Especially not when on the internet.
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I was told a story once about this man who tried online dating. He would talk to them, find them interesting, and finally meet face to face. He noted that so very often, women misrepresented themselves. It was not to say they always looked better, but that their photographs, profiles, electronic beings did not even closely align with who their physical beings were. Now I understand that it’s not possible to recreate yourself in electronic form (though I’m sure it’s in the tracks). It’s only possible to curate façades of our real selves. We begin with truth in mind, but we worry what we put out will be misconstrued, so we edit and refine ourselves like advertisements. Leaving out the blemishes and emphasising the assets. It’s natural, but sad.
There are many reasons to skirt truth or a close version of it. Who we put out of ourselves on the internet will become searchable by all future employers. We are creating something more permanent than ourselves. We are committing to this version of ourselves—even if for a second—but the commitment can be anxiety-causing. We want to eternalise our best selves.
It’s fine if it’s just an extra inch in height, or omitting truth by clever cropping, or emphasising your role in a project, but when you add up all of the minor (and not to mention major) lies, we end up with a world of completely inaccurate statistics (I could go on forever about this but this is a separate topic), a world full of people striving for these averages and standards that are based on complete lies and in a world that is essentially an inflated version of itself.
On the dark side of the moon, we have truth-seekers looking even worse. People who fight to portray the closest variant of storytelling to truth they possible can are left to look unimpressive, bland, and underwhelming. To share a detail perhaps too intimate with a work colleague or to reveal unthievable identity secrets to any stranger who can search, or to simply post an accurate photo of yourself, snapped spontaneously, would be considered an egregious error. A sabotage of your electronic reputation.
So the brave either go boldly forward with their closest-to-truth selves and are ridiculed (dramatic word, yes) or they hide like the rest. We hide under our covers and read each other’s stories, in feed form, in tweet form, in captions to photos, and perhaps feel a little bit sad. Maybe we’re bad journalists and are allowing the sadness of our own lives to permeate into these little snippets of others’ lives. We connect all of our various connections, friends, links, follows, likes with encrypted passwords, only to feel most disconnected from ourselves. Our personal truths become amalgamations of 15 second decisions of distant relations.
We all know—particularly those of us who design in this medium—how very flawed it is, yet we still take these artefacts as gospel. We understand a photograph with the clear directive of portraying success as being success. [If I had all my faculties (and a certain philosophy buff friend) I could cite the appropriate philosopher, roll my eyes, and go back to playing chess at a café with a stranger.] We fall for our own advertisements, our own subliminal messaging; we accept our lies as truth in this vicious and unstoppable cycle.
When I look at social media—even with the intent for work and such—it brings me an unbearable sadness; a heaviness of being. I see numbers to tell me how many theoretical friends I have, but then wonder why I’ve spent so many days where my own thoughts flooded my head, wishing I had someone to listen. To really listen. To listen without having to check their phones to see what the valuable news their pushes and pulls. I ridiculously quantify my self worth through numbers that are arbitrarily determined by instantaneous decisions from people at lunches with friends who needed an ear, but instead got an Apple. I sometimes wonder if I’d even have friends if I didn’t have a phone or the internet. Deep down inside, away from these quantifiers I know I do, few yet good, but these profiles meant to elicit confidence and affirmations do the very antithesis of what they seek to do (or at least market themselves to do). I know that these visualisations of happiness could be silent cries of sadness.
At an entrepreneurial event today, a speaker commented how the world still doesn’t understand social media. I could not agree more. Our genius has created these tools, but we have no idea their power, their breadth, their countable benefits and their uncountable losses—yet we use them constantly and irreverently. We are basically children armed with M16s that shoot words rather than bullets, doing as much damage as its physical counterpart.
There’s not a lot we can do about it except to continue to reach for the proverbial sun. We can continue to depict these isolated facets of ourselves, even if limited, with the most honest story we possibly can. Truthful stories will leave us vulnerable much of the time. But vulnerability, as I learned in journalism (in the form of silence there), can force people to talk—perhaps in the most honest way they possibly can. We are vulnerable in our honesty, but collectively we can find strength in the surprising and real connections beneath the multi-million dollar interfaces. Truth may continue to drift just out of our reach, but I will continue to grasp at its golden straws if I must—and to believe it is out there.
Do you remember the last time you watched a documentary and bawled your eyes out? I do. In fact, I can name over a dozen times that I’ve shed tears over the typical (humanised animal family dramas), the high-brow (moving art collections, unstylish style editors), and the odd (crossword puzzle championships) and most importantly—design documentaries. I’m not talking about Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica—which I’m sure you’ve heard of, you hipsters—a montagariffic retrospective of the Humanist typeface synonymous with minimalism.
Though I enjoyed Helvetica, the type movie that really made me snot up is Kartemquin’s Typeface (if you were alive in the 90s, remember Hoop Dreams? Kartemquin produced that as well). Typeface tells the story of the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum located in the tiny town of Two Rivers, Wisc. The Hamilton Type & Printing Museum was founded in 2000 with the mission to preserve the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type. As far as I can tell, it is the only museum of its kind in the whole world. Though the actual museum was not founded until then, the history of their home is much older and richer.
J.E. Hamilton Holly Wood Type Company was founded in 1880 by J. Edward Hamilton, a Two Rivers native. After a brief move to New York, he returned to his hometown and worked odd factory jobs. His curiosity led him to explore steam rooms and engineering components of each of his jobs. He receieved his big break from the editor of the Two Rivers Chronicle. Lyman Nash, the editor in chief, needed posters for a ball on the fly, and knew he didn’t have time to order them from Chicago. Hamilton was known for his handiness with a lathe and wood artistry in general; Nash called upon him to reproduce his sketch. The product, made in his mother’s backyard to great success, marked the beginning of the J. E. Hamilton Holly Wood Type Company.
With the printing boom of the late 1800s and early 1990s, the company flourished—it eventually expanded to make metal type, then furniture, and now to laboratory tech equipment. Invention is as much of a thief as it is a gifter: Computers made woodtype nearly obsolete. Why store cases and cases of flammable letters and spaces when you can have it in the palm of your hand?
Luckily those with an affinity for the antiquated have kept this dream of the (18)90s alive with the Hamilton museum. Numerous volunteer hours and woodtype donations have created a beautiful sanctuary for woodtype. The hard work has preserved not only an underappreciated and dying art form, but also has given voice to many important stories of American history. To me, they have saved millions of unique, handcut type (literally: they boast over 1.5 million pieces of woodtype) from dying a sad death mounted in a well-to-do person’s $900.00 coffee table.
Imagine if all of this hard work and dedication was for naught.
This nightmare might become a reality: Hamilton are being forced to move out of their beautiful home in early 2013. If you’ve ever moved, you know that it’s costly. Now add the variable of moving an irreplaceable collection of typography. If you love typography even half as much as I do, please consider donating what you can to this important cause. Even $5 or $10 could save an ê or an !—giving French accuracy to a music poster or excitement to a celebratory invitation.
Stay tuned: I’ll be visiting the Hamilton Wood Type Museum next week (eeek!) and will post photos!
When I was six years old, I would tell everyone that I was going to grow up to attend Stanford University and become a lawyer. I continued this ordeal along until I job shadowed a lawyer and realized that most of her day was spent reading stacks upon stacks of papers. She spent no time: in a courtroom interrogating Marisa Tomei, passing security to talk to her inmate clients, or composing closing arguments that made juries cry. My parents dug the idea of me living out this aunt-and-uncle approved dream, but I realised pretty early on how miserable I would be even pastier than I already am, fighting paper cuts for a living. Sure the pay is good, but after taxes and law school debt and therapy it looks less good (lawyer friends, I love you all and you are amazing for doing what you do. I am not amazing like you).
Every time I go to revise my résumé, I get this intense feeling of self-doubt. I’m not doing enough. My job titles are lame. I still have things I did from cawledge. No animals were harmed in the writing of my résumé, but no humans were saved and no small countries were pulled out of debt either. Sure I have a business, but having a small business in Portland is synonymous with “oh, you freelance?” If my résumé were a vector or trajectory, it would NOT be parabolic, or even in the Cartesian plane. It’s easy to let this piece of paper get you down. It very rarely quantifies your value—you’re boiled down to your job titles, the hard facts of your tenure, and tangible accolades. No one cares you’ved hiked in the Andes or that you’re really good at Apples to Apples (okay so this might come up if Bravo ever approves my reality TV show of Tatiana’s New Best Friend). Opening your résumé can also open a lot of feelings around how many years of your life you might have spent unhappy, or stagnant, or doing absolutely nothing.
I frequently spiral down this dark path and wonder if I should only seek out jobs with prestiguous titles at known institutions. When I have these thoughts, I can’t help but think I’m regressing to the Stanford-bound six year old. Instead, I’ve opted to valuate my life differently. If you were to be worthy of a retrospective, would people pay to look at it? Would Barbara Walters want to interview you, or would Rush Limbaugh? Did you produce something that you want to live beyond your years? Are you proud of the person you are?
I turn to the travesty of art—so many talented artists that we revere in the anthology of art history were depressed because their résumés sucked. Others who gained royal attention and painted thousands and thousands of ugly royals are unknowns—their work adorns Barnes & Noble Classics if they’re lucky. My altruistic self likes to believe that those artists who stood by their work—those who were more concerned with having a beautiful studio—regardless of who noticed are the ones that matter. In my own life, I want to make sure that I’m always thinking about my own L’Atelier Rouge in suburban Paris (or the Maldives or Turkey or anywhere, really). The pieces should reflect not one life, but a spectrum of lives. My time as a writer, a designer, an assistant, or a sales person. Graphs and pie charts will be held in equal reverence to award-winning designs.
It’s important to remember that the time you spent at careers you didn’t pursue wasn’t wasted. You weren’t lost. You were compounding skills and experience and awards that may or may not be useful for your life, which is why it’s defeatist to measure your self-worth that way. Besides, searching for what you want to do is almost easier sought by first attempting things you know you don’t want to do.
I’m okay with the fact that I’m more lost now than I was then, 20 years later. I hope I start a lot of different careers—I’ll finish and “peak” in some of them, but others will be complete failures. I hope I meet more wonderful people who remember your workiversary, and more awful people who are passive aggressive or don’t say please and thank you to remind me to appreciate the wonderful ones. I hope that in this short lifetime, I can do more than have an impressive résumé; I hope I can curate a beautiful life.
I took a lot of math in college. There are generally two types of math classes: theory-based and applications-based. Though enjoy my partial differential equations professor I did, I found (and still find) math with a ‘use’ to be the most challenging. I get bored with the calculations, frustrated with the lack of emphasis on deriving the equations on which you so heavily rely and I inevitably will royally butcher any arithmetic you through my way. I favoured theory-based classes, where concepts were the emphasis. Bizarre as it was to add cloud to purple, I felt like I just ‘got’ this part of math—the side where there’s no silly songs to embed arbitrary equations into your mind; the side that teaches you all variables are just that; so why not just call it hat when x means just as little or just as much; and the side that forces you to draw the umbilical cord between math and philosophy and ethics (A:B:C).
The biggest lesson I learned in math was the one it taught me on beauty. Math can yes literally quantify beauty (so says Da Vinci), but for me it exemplifies beauty in its perpetual search for simplicity. Whether dealings in algebra or complex variables, the steps you take are always guided by the cardinal direction of simplification. You cancel numbers, group like terms, rationalize, irrationalize, use distribution laws—all to turn independent ingredients into one coherent dish. Sometimes the journey requires you to backtrack; take north by northwest before you head towards simple south, but if done correctly, you’ll always find your way back.
It always amazed me how the search could sometimes be straightforward and other times grueling. Pages and pages of paper-thin paper, leathery and fragile by aggravated erasing. It was more often than not just a test of patience, but the prize was always worth it: 1 > 0 or x =x or 5 =5. A cheeky nod that all those sweat and tears (math draws blood on rare, Count Dracula-worthy occasions) only really tells you something that you already know. Hell, people who don’t even like math or are particularly good at math know those conclusions.
The me from four years ago would kill me for saying this, but this lesson has carried beyond the world of symbols and numbers (and household objects that are topologically similar) to nearly everything else in my life. Almost everything I love is simple. Damn Martha, but she’s right. Know it or not, most humans crave simplicity. It’s the path of least resistance, usually (I’ll give you a couple mathematical counter examples where that’s not the case).
In art, I am attracted to pieces with little ornamentation. It’s harder for the masses to appreciate them, because of the my sadly and widely believed “[insert anyone believed to not be able to create art] could do that” principle. The intrigue isn’t in the technical and academic skills (which, might I point out, many of the artists who choose to paint ‘simply’ do in fact have in spades) but rather in how little we need to recognise something. Any two similar dots and a third line/fragment/blob, and I guarantee you you’ll spot the face. We all know that when a kid draws a asterisk, it’s snow (yet when the late Kurt Vonnegut did it, it meant something else).
Hard to select just a few favourite pieces, but the movements to which I was initially drawn—and still am most drawn—were indisputably (who is actually disputing?) Russian constructivism and (its foster child of sorts) German Bauhaus. What I appreciate about both movements likely stems from my graphic design perspective: they group like pigments and pixels to create bold and provocative images. No tenebristic tendencies, nothing fading in or out, but a ballsy assertion that everything can be reduced to shapes and colours (or Kadinsky’s even more reduced point, line and plane) or the absence of shapes and colours.
Once I took more classes, I was able to appreciate every movement that came before that ultimately allowed those two movements to evolve, particularly the Dutch Golden Age. The shapes had not yet been reduced (mixed fractions and whatnot), but you can begin to see what was there before Mondrian strip(p)ed it down to its primary parts (and colours)—you can glimpse the skeleton of simplicity, just maybe masked by some stocky Dutch farm babes and their milk jugs. (Even further, you can see the essence of form at the root of my favourite painting, Oath of the Horatii, it’s merely a series of thirds represented by different shapes, and light and absence of light, which arguably could be a binary form in itself).
In literature, I appreciate the thousands of layers that David Foster Wallace can pile on. I like creating constellations when connecting his thoughts. I also appreciate Henry James’ sometimes very subtle sexual undertones beneath his overt sexual overtones. And Tolstoy and the Bröntes and Eliot and Proust and Faulkner—where to begin. Rich millers of words, all these gentlemen. But what I love is familiar textile of Mr John Steinbeck. A muslin or cotton at best, his novels and novellas tend follow that old tenet of writing about what he knows. He knows Salinas Valley: its characters, its landscape, its weather, its colours and its secrets. Even his themes tend to favour the open-ended and eternal—love, hate, friendship, wealth—unlike the previously named whose concepts were more apt to the time or place or both. East of Eden, the greatest book I’ll ever read, is simply about unconditional love. Though a wider woven author, he daftly creates rich characters that you can’t let go of because you’re never 100 percent sure that you like or dislike him or her. (Even complex characters are usually easy to polarise for me). I found myself hating Catherine James only to discover something about her that made me feel awful for ever having a negative thought. He accomplishes this not by colourful or detailed imagery, but by carefully chosen descriptions. He simplifies what could be thousands of pages (if he were Ayn Rand, in particular) into a simple simple sentence (both inferences of the word).
In music, I listen to music that resolves. I have trouble with off downbeats and a lot of syncopation and 2/3 / 2 time and diminished seventh minor chords. To borrow a line, I want every minor fall to have a major lift. I enjoy repetitive rhythms and rhymes; electronica and pop are comforting in their respective predictability. I don’t mind that Pachelbel’s Canon in D is the premise for most karaoke songs I like. From the day I learned of sonatas in piano, I never wanted to stop learning them: I loved the exposition, development and recapitulation that I could predict in every piece.
In food, I don’t tend to like the complex (Thai food is a notable exception, though I’d argue that like any good power ballad, it resolves, even if the synths get out of hand): try to invite me to Indian food. I have a love affair with eggs and tomatoes because of the way they’ll both play with anyone (and probably make that person a better person). I would happily take a canonical carbonara over a complex cassoulet. I could drink Old Fashioneds (I’d say it’s a pretty Bauhaus beverage in theory) until I pass out at 22:00 (of course theoretically speaking).
Simplicity is often seen as the antithesis of sophistication. So long as there are parties with chocolate fountains and ice sculptures, and women dressed in yards of taffeta, my love for the minimal—the simple—will be sometimes viewed as frugal or lacking imagination or, worst of all, plain. (Everything I design tends to have little adornment. I strive to make every element count. I want everything to feel like it’s paying its rent on the page.) I humbly contend that simplicity is anything but plain. It is sometimes serendipitous and easy. Other times, it is challenge. Finding it can take nearly a lifetime of mucking through complexity. Once you stumble upon it though, everything else seems to be the worst kind of challenge; a journey towards the wrong way.
Everything—everything—can be made better by simplification. For non-living things, well, they too are best appreciated when allowed to flourish in their unadulterated and purest forms; as a balanced equation, a lone line, a perfectly-arched phrase, a three-ingredient salad. For us living beings you can still argue we’re here to procreate in order to perfect our species in a Darwinian sense as an ends, but our means is to create a semblance of order out of the chaos of the universe, and egocentrically, to create a person free of complexity. This is a search I believe we all have within us; to shed ourselves of the extra variables, rid of our irrationals, distribute, cancel, and group like terms. To live in the most richly simple way we possibly can.
Quiches are a self-contained food. A good and healthy quiche can dance circles around the antiquated food pyramid, providing you the daily dose dairy, wheat, meat and vegetables (though a traditional good quiche can easily provide a year’s worth of dairy—oh-so-good-but-bad-for-you dairy—like half and half, butter and two types of cheeses). The self-contained nature can make them a hard pairing. They beg their diner to answer the question, what more could you possibly want? A quiche can fill you in a wholly gluttonous way, yes. The answer, though, is something to tame the drama—an acid, less rich, possibly even something bitter. ( For every girl who cuddles, there’s a girl who leaves in the middle of the night.) Because they’re so fiercely independent, it’s hard to find it an accompaniment, a messmate. Someone, a partner, who lets her steal the dining show, while he quietly raises curtains, rearranges furniture and sets in the dark and ensures the lights all work, but who can hold his own at the afterparty.
My own relationship with this veritable prima donna has been rocky. For many years I perceived quiches as a deli case resident, made days, possibly weeks ago, left to stew with the likes of egg sandwiches and iceberg lettuce and carrot salads. Most of the quiches I tried were deli case lifers—with their milk and cheese beyond expiry. It wasn’t until I took a chance at a real bistro in Paris that I fell in love with her like her millions of adoring fans. Quiche, when made beautifully, is a delightful stomachache. Airy, rich addictive, it’s inhal(e)able/inhalible. As it is rarely ever done well in your coffee shop deli case, where it is most commonly seen, I now will occasionally order it from a trustworthy French café. Portland is purportedly not France (though it my try), but its affinity for all things French, or francophilia, runs rampant.
Incidentally, quiches, though made popular by the French, are actually believed to originate from English savoury custards. If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense that the quiche is cousin to a shepard’s pie, or any other old meat pie. (N.B., quiche is not nearly as good as sopping up those English IPAs as meat pie. If anything they’d have you at the side of the road). (N.B.2, etymology nerds, quiche actually derived from German Kuchen, which was bastar—I mean, francophised—from the hard ‘k’ sound to the softer ‘sch’ sound to kiche, or quiche. Funny how something understood so clearly as French didn’t use their more likely term of pâte).
Origin aside, it wasn’t until even many years later that I tried to make my own. To that point it always seemed too hard; too close to baking; a science I revered and feared for its necessary measuring. The first of my attempts was sloppy. I didn’t strain my greens, which caused my janky handrolled crust to be soggy at the bottom. The egg tasted poached (in a bad way). The second of attempts I learned to strain my ingredients, but I still baked it in glass (giving too much of a pumpkin pie crust). Quickly I learned that baking savoury foods is more of a compromise of cooking and baking. Usually when ovens are involved, there’s a scientific reason that you add what you do at the intervals you do.
Today (figuratively) quiche feels somewhat of a comforting old friend. Still beautiful if I stare hard enough at her, but too familiar to cause me any sort of anxiety. Today (literally) my quiche provided me with a Tuesday task. I hadn’t baked one in awhile, and was reminded of how quiche isn’t something you just make and eat in entirety (you can but I whole-heartedly pass judgment as that’s disgusting). It is instead this really incompatible friend you have to match with something that will accomodate its high maintenance self. Because quiche is heavy (the culinary equivalent of a base), I thought a citrus-based dish would contrast it nicely (the c.e. of an acid). From there, I crafted a salad around a lemon (similar to how one selects an outfit based on the shoes). I’ve always liked the consistent and hearty texture of zucchinis, but I thought a plain zucchini carpaccio wasn’t enough. It still needed the bitter for bite— radishes seemed a solid contender (which should add a peppery component, too). And like any good contrasting companion, the carpaccio came together effortlessly. Today I was up to the challenge, so I present to you my findings:
Quiche aux épinards & carpaccio di zucchine e ravanelli*
spinach quiche with zucchini and radish carpaccio
adapted from Bon Appetit, makes one 9″ pie
1 pie crust (par bake if recipe calls for it)
3 oz cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup half & half
10 oz frozen spinach (if you want to use fresh, I might suggest throwing it into a sauté pan and then cooling it), strained really aggressively because any moisture makes your quiche moist in a bad way
1/2 c cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 parmesan, grated
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat to 475F. Beat cream cheese, half and half and eggs (in that order) into a mixing bowl. Once mixture is smooth, add all other ingredients. Mix well (but don’t agitate the eggs too much—this removes some of the quiches characteristic density, making the egg too custardy). Pour mixture into your favourite savoury crust. Bake until golden brown (should take around 30 minutes, no more). Cool before serving. (Arguably quiche is better served cold, but it can certainly be reheated for those colder months).
1 bunch of radishes, sliced very thinly
2 small zucchinis, sliced very thinly
1 lemon, juiced
1-2 T olive oil
parmesan to garnish
salt and pepper to taste
Salt out the zucchinis to get rid of the excess water, then rinse off the salt and dry it. Toss the zucchinis and radishes in a serving bowl. Cover with lemon juice and olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Grate parmesan over. Serve cold.
Editor’s Note: I do not claim to be a food writer by any means, and in fact, I’m sure I left out some critical step (it wasn’t preheating the oven, which I did omit in the first draft). I also don’t claim to be a good cook. I just have to eat, and I go out to eat a lot, but currently am really broke, so I figure if I try to recreate the good aspects of what I get when I go out to eat (the good food) without the bad aspects (bad service and having to tip on top of paying a mark up because someone made my food for me, even if it was better), I might convince myself of cooking more in order to limit future debt. It’s purely economic. Oh, and food photographs are the prettiest.
* Because things always sound more impressive not in English.