I have many blueprints for tattoos: “festina lente” in a small roman italic on my right wrist, two crossed rings around the circumference of my left forearm for my passed mother and father, an anchor on my right ankle (that ship has sailed), a small mockingbird on my right tricep, crossed arrows through the calf. Others, too, which I have forgotten. Planning tattoos was a way to be embodied while lost in thought and, if I am honest with myself, my mind’s way to flirt with a mundane, safe danger. This is not a good reason to do anything.
Most of my friends have tattoos. Thoughtful and thoughtless (usually both kinds on the same body) in suggestive and mundane placements that announce themselves as statements and conceal themselves with symbolism. Every tattoo, in some way, is a secret to tell. The question always comes: What does it mean? “When the secret is exposed, we look away. When the secret is hidden we try to see it.” So says Mary Ruefle, who does not have any tattoos, but cloaks herself in symbols by writing poems. In some way, we all dress in symbols, and bask in the glow of knowing what they mean. We are in on the secret, because we invented the secret.
But it is too late for a tattoo, because I have fallen in love with the wrong thing. I would rather wonder about having a tattoo than have a tattoo. I do not want the permanence or the mark—I want to be committed to a secret.
What does it mean?
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.