Three Things to Say

Communication in the city is so frought with bruskness, and words at work can be so soulless, so I’ve been searching for ways to eliminate pretense and increase warmth, all while ensuring good outcomes. Here are three I keep in my pocket. I hope they’re handy for you.

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This One’s for Me

If you’re only interested in Frank the Designer, and not Frank the Person, you probably don’t need to read this. This link is your escape hatch. Go look at cool dogs.

Thirty isn’t that old, but I feel like I’ve aged two lifetimes in the past three years. Maybe aging like that makes you look back a bit more. You realize you’re stuck with yourself, so you had better learn to live with you. At this age, the core bits of your personality are solidified: you know which aspects can adapt and which will not. Focus has shifted; you’re not just looking for self-improvement in what you can change, but also grace in the parts that won’t budge. And, I’d say, the ability to let yourself off the hook becomes increasingly important as we live more of our lives in public, networked, and together, because small mistakes can quickly escalate. Like it or not, you are performing an uncanny valley version of yourself, because you’re being observed. Acting unnatural is only natural when you’ve got eyes on you.

Your performance—even if you crave the attention—opens up two damaging mindsets. One mental trap is feeling like you need to be on top of your shit twenty-four hours a day, and you must live up to the persona you’ve assigned to yourself. The talented designer. The masterful programmer. The informed individual. The perfect mom. The dutiful son. The second trap is living a guarded life to avoid the criticism created by visibility. The mental gymnastics are especially tricky if you’ve built a career from people seeing your work, reading your words, and following along on your adventures. I have many friends that are awkwardly uncomfortable with their audiences. I am, too.

Each mental trap escalates itself: the more ground you’ve covered, the greater your understanding of how much more there is left to go; the more visible you are, the greater your desire to guard yourself. It is crazy-making. These mental traps lock together into a perfect, self-contained, and self-perpetuating machine of misery. Your brain has created an ouroboros that eats its own emotional waste: it runs on fear and creates it, so it can spiral forever.

I am over fear. Not beyond it, but over it—as in I now understand what’s worth anxiety, stress, and dread after going through a few years spent sleeping in hospital rooms far away from home, meeting with doctors and more doctors, then losing both of my parents to cancer months apart from one another. I’m doing just fine now, or as fine as one could hope to do. I’ve realized I will never get back my parents, but I can try to learn from the experience, see things at their true size, and choose to unplug the misery machine. After a couple solid years of suffering, my scale of measurement grew, so my troubles shrunk. Unfortunately, my patience diminished as well.

After returning from that ordeal to resume work and rejoin the internet, everything seemed like trivial bullshit—because it was. Disingenious money grabs highlighted themselves. Haters’ words lost their put-on quaintness and looked like hatespeak. Bad content looked like noise, loud promotion looked like desperation, and all speed was stupid. And it was startling how often loud, stupid, and desperate all came together, as if they were a bundled package given to anyone without confidence in the value of what they were saying. Or, even worse: as if they believed the people they were talking to were imbeciles and had to have the world cored out and chewed up for them to be able to digest it. Everything was despicable, because it stole the dignity of everyone involved. We deserved better, and somehow, rather than making life big, getting together into a loud mess made everyone smaller.

This is harsh criticism, and way too cynical, but it is how I felt at the time. These feelings have eased a bit, but traces of it come back to nip me on the heels now and then. I beat it back down, but I have to acknowledge that at least an aspect of the criticism is true, otherwise it wouldn’t bubble up with such regularity.

Thankfully, noticing the bad also lets you identify the good. And many of the good things I loved about the internet were still there, only tucked away in the old places that never changed. They only needed to be dusted off. In light of all our focus on “progress,” it’s easy to forget that you can turn around from traveling in a wrong direction, and return to the place where things last felt right—whether that’s for something as trivial as what I’m trying to do with my goofy website, or as monumental as restructuring your identity, ambition, and emotional furnishings to match the last time you felt like yourself. You can go back. Sometimes that’s progress.

Two terrible years taught me the most important lesson about life I’ve ever learned on my own: you only become bulletproof when you refuse to disguise your injuries. This ends the show and deflates any notion that you have your shit together all the time. The wounds are a gift: with the mask gone, you get to be a person again. You learn how to accept help, and better yet, how to better give it.

Suddenly, all the stakes become much lower. Life is somehow more precious and less. You are a monkey in pants, after all. So what? There’s no need to be loud and stupid and desperate, because the desire that made you behave that way was so convoluted to start. What could those desires be for, and what would you ever do if they were fulfilled? You don’t know. But you shouldn’t feel bad for not knowing or for thinking such silly things. You’re just a monkey, kid, so cut yourself some slack.

So what should you expect from yourself? Not much and everything, I guess. But what do I know? I haven’t solved any of life’s deep mysteries; I’m just a dumb 30-year-old monkey in pants, so I only know how to help myself feel good about my day to day. Most of the time when I give advice, I’m unconsciously doing a poor imitation of my mom, which is fitting, because she was probably the wisest person I’ve ever met. She’d say: be kind to yourself and others, and smile if you’re able. Take care of the people you love, and try to make yourself known and understood. Dial it down, work with your hands, keep it quiet, and share what you know.

Did you know that was the original slogan for the World Wide Web? Before we had disruption, innovation, changing the world, and giant piles of money, we had “share what you know.” Isn’t that nice? What a humble and auspicious beginning. All we have now is built upon that spirit, and I myself would like to get back to it.

I’ll wrap it up by sharing. My favorite Jimmy Stewart movie is Harvey. He plays Elwood P. Dowd, a man whose best friend is an imaginary six-foot tall rabbit. Yeah…

The movie has all sorts of quotable lines, but my favorite comes about halfway through, when Stewart does an imitation of his mother, and gives his philosophy on life to a man in the back alley of a bar. He says:

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.

Here’s to thirty years of pleasantness.

Make it Homely

OK, so this is it. I am telling you now: you’re looking at a new website. I’m quite pleased with it, which is good, because I made this thing for me and not for you. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to say things like that when you launch something, but c’mon. You know when you’re getting ganked around. And let’s face it: I’m glad to have that burden off my chest. If this site is for me, I might as well start the introduction blog post with a little bit of self-indulgence, right?

Into the Navel Gazey Rabbit Hole!

Making things for other people is tough. Anyone who’s done a client job knows that. Making things for yourself is also rough, but in a different way. Now you’re the client and saddled with the same conundrum as everyone you’ve ever worked for: you have to know what you want, which is a motherfucker of a request. (Pity applause for your clients, right here, please.)

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Concerning the Sandpit Outside My Studio Window

In June of last year, the empty lot in front of 10 Jay Street, Brooklyn, was deemed an eye sore to the community. Something had to be done. The DUMBO Neighborhood Improvement District met, and drafted a proposal to install wooden benches and umbrellas. Planters would flank the benches for added greenery, and the unused space that butts up against the East River would be transformed into a shared common area for recreation. The proposal passed, and two weeks later, the benches and umbrellas arrived along with an odd retaining structure about three inches tall, that was formed, roughly, into the shape of a diseased kidney. Speculation said the embankment would be top-soiled and filled with flowers, bushes, and hearty grasses. Speculation was wrong. A few days later, a truck bed filled with sand dumped its contents into the embankment. The next day, the sand had a few tall, sparse blades of pitiful grass poking up, more than likely intended to mimic the dunes and grasses of Jones Beach on the south shore of Long Island. By August, DUMBO had been graced with its first artificial beach.

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Some Lessons I Learned in 2013

  1. Life isn’t a story.
  2. A lot of things don’t need to be intellectualized: “because I want to” is often a good enough reason.
  3. Empathy is first an act of imagination.
  4. Don’t take business advice from people with bad personal lives.
  5. There are two ways to look at your life: what happened to you or what you did.
  6. Resources don’t replace will.
  7. Lazy trumps smart.
  8. Everybody wants to give advice and no one wants to take it.
  9. We only deserve what we can take care of.
  10. Clearly labeling other people’s petty grievances as bullshit is a fast track to well-being and fewer complaints of your own.
  11. Money is circulated. Time is spent.
  12. You can punch back.
  13. Social media gets less annoying if you’re willing to say to people, “Who the hell do you think you are?”
  14. Pain is unavoidable. Suffering is optional.
  15. Who you are has more to do with how you act and what you love than what you have or say.
  16. It’s more complicated than that.
  17. Everything good I have came from honesty, good intentions, and low expectations.
  18. Stick with the attentive ones.
  19. Find a way to forgive your mistakes.
  20. You’ll never know enough. Oh well.
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