Tuesday, October 28, 2008

the things they carried

In the lobby of my building, across from the elevators in an alcove that could only exist because of an architectural mistake, is a zone unofficially recognized as the "free stuff area." Have something you don't want? Drop it in the free stuff area. See something you like on the mottled blue and maroon carpeting? Grab it - it's free.

Almost everyone in the building subscribes to this free exchange of goods. I once scored a pair of bright orange Volkl skis, sans bindings. They worked great as dust collectors for a year and then I put them back down in the free stuff area for the next person. Over the past couple years I have contributed various kitchen appliances, a rug, and a bunch of VHS movies. The VHS movies were snatched up real fast, but every other day or so the movie "Dazed and Confused" kept reappearing. This happened six or seven times and I never could muster the energy to bend down and check, but I fear that while the cover said "Dazed and Confused," the actual tape might have been an early-90's era home movie. It's a good thing I don't have my one side short one side long hair style anymore. I wouldn't want someone to have recognized my from my on-screen appearance.

Every once in a while someone doesn't realize that they shouldn't store things they actually want in the free stuff area. About six months ago Ty came bounding upstairs with a set of brand new golf clubs. Fantastic find! Good things go fast. Unfortunately, he noticed later in the day that there was a large number of nice items in the area again. He tracked down the owners to find out that they were not donating all of their favorite things, they were instead moving out. The golf clubs were returned and a big sign put up: "if you took something from here on Tuesday it wasn't free - we were just moving out!" Soon, it got exciting. Multiple different ink shades appeared under the original note yelling at the miscreants that they should know better than to put their personal items in the free stuff area. "This is the free stuff area, you should know that!" "You're supposed to only put FREE things here." "Idiot!"

Personally, the free stuff area is a dream come true for me. The items that someone chooses to leave for others are amazingly telling. Essentially, I get to imagine the lives of others entirely based on the items they leave behind.

Of course, I am endlessly entertained imagining the reasoning going on in someone's head as they decide to place a 1/4 full gallon vat of sweet relish on the floor in a warm hallway, but lately my interest has moved beyond simple fascination. I have become more and more aware of the trails we leave behind as we move through our day. When I'm present in a space, someone can see me. I take up a certain amount of area. When I leave, what do I leave behind? An artifact? A feeling? A whoosh of air? If you could connect the dots on a trail of what I've left behind, what would you make of me?

As a high school senior I took a class entitled, "Uncovering Lexington's History." Lexington, Massachusetts is a town brimming with history: Paul Revere's ride, "shot heard 'round the world," WWII watch towers, largest mass arrest in US history (Vietnam war), and the list goes on. The class was brand new and was essentially a single research project. We were allowed access to the Historical Society Archives. Complete with white gloves and climate controlled rooms I paged through documents, letters, mementos, eyeglasses, and trinkets left behind by people in the 1700s. This was a primary source lover's oasis, a more authentic version of the items left around in the free stuff area.

When I entered college I fully intended to be a historian. I loved putting together the puzzle pieces that unfolded stories based on limited pieces of information. I left college as a geologist, attempting to unlock the mystery behind the interaction of glacier and its bed by analyzing micro-scale deposits called siltskins that essentially look like cuordoroy pants-textured silt cemented to a bedrock surface.

Now that I'm a designer, what trails am I leaving?

Could you decipher the projects I built during my first year in the design program if you found this pile of my receipts? Yesterday, I accidentally flushed a thin red Sharpee down the toilet. Well, I admit that I accidentally dropped it in, but after an evaluation of the industrial plumbing I decided it would flush. In any event, if someone finds it fifty years from now wherever it gets deposited, what would they think about me? Would they know I feel bad about it?

If I could choose the artifacts I leave behind, what would they be? If I had to go to war tomorrow, what would I carry? How would Tim O'Brien tell my story?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I fletch therefore I vote!

I voted today, by mail. Even though I see the signs around on lawns, left and right, the bulk of the issues beyond the Presidential race completely escaped me. Doing the legwork to make an even marginally informed decision took better than two hours today. On this wondrous occasion I would like to thank all those people and resources that made my hopefully correctly completed ballot count: the googles, friends via email, the sample ballot sent to me weeks ago, and candidates with websites. Most of all, I offer thanks to the League of Women Voters. Damn! They really put together a tight package, linking to everything that counts and clarifies. There are still a couple of mysteries, that even with some serious thought, I could not fully decipher (e.g., Proposition 7). While I happily wear the sticker, I am still concerned that in this age, my ability to construct an arrow with a thin shaft of blue or black (not red!) will determine the impact of my voice. Actually, I am more concerned about those who are more inclined to launch, rather than draw, arrows.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Double Vision

I was sitting at LAX once, having just taken a shower; you can schedule showers in the Admiral’s Club there. This was quite a kick because the shower alone was bigger than my entire apartment at the time, I was actually covered in mud from working that day, and I was in fact not a member of the Admiral’s Club.

Once clean, I was sitting, trying to read 'The Dead' from Joyce’s The Dubliners while being continually distracted by this guy and his valet who were both sitting across from me. The pair were tended by “Special Personnel” who tend to such pairs in LA, only in LA. This guy was dressed in a white suit of another era and possibly another dimension. His valet was handling their drinks.

With nothing better to do, I eavesdropped to decode who was this man—deciphering celebrity identities has only recently been overtaken in popularity by Sudoku. I wrote down all sorts of notes in the margins of 'The Dead', ultimately abandoning the story all together. I heard, “Sony,” “Arista,” and “Aerosmith.” Once home, I hit HotBot and uncovered the identity: John Kalodner:John Kalodner. That bit of punctuation is no mistake: he ran with it after Foreigner credited him as such on the seminal album, Double Vision. Kalodner is (was—retired) an A&R guy and huge career builder for many bands, mostly including those that are hard on my point-of-view. His vibe was intriguing as was his embrace of punctuation: an active move toward calling out your own doppelganger.

Friends have told me many times that I have stunt doubles. I have been thrown out of a Wal-Mart in Flagstaff for looking like a guy who apparently had a history of nail theft at that location. Once, only once, I saw a guy who I thought looked like me. It was a weird deal… kind of like seeing a picture of yourself asleep: who took that picture? Odd.

The poet, Rives, spoke today at the Liu Lecture Series at Stanford: it was an experience as close to meeting my own doppelganger as I have ever encountered. We do not really look alike, and professionally, we slightly are misaligned. Yet, the works that I saw were spot on with justifications, motivations, explanations, and fascinations as those I have. It was a very strange experience in getting to know myself as friends turned to me with eyes asking if I was seeing this. Possibly they were checking to see if I was in fact sitting in the audience while presenting to… myself. I have to admit: I frequently feel that way. When you become interested in the obliterations of Japanese postal workers stationed in Manchuria, China in the late 1800s, this is the sort of thing you have to expect. Ditto with braille text messages in bottles. But, no longer! Rives dropped a bomb at the dead center of the paradigm shift from Design to design. His associative exposition and experience of craft, crafted an experience exposing associations inseparable between art and design. Sing it Leonard, sing it Jeff: Hallelujah! Today I awoke to find myself and to see myself validated, pared with a lovely burrito at lunch, too.

Kalodner’s website discusses his suits at length and in color: white. It is even noted what his undergarments are on any given day of the week. As an observationalist, a brilliant word I have stolen from Rives, I noted that on the day in question in the lounge at LAX, John appeared to be wearing boxer shorts, though his website dossier would purport otherwise. I alerted the webmistress of the disparity. She later replied that she got that comment with some regularity though in fact the confusion was due to the trouser lining showing through white suit cloth. Ha! At the time I felt odd to be among those who noticed. Today it feels brilliant.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

10,000 flushes

Often times, I'll be walking around somewhere, and I'll see someone and think, "if I were (somewhere else) that would be (person I know)."

The association is often triggered by a gesture, gait, posture, or hairstyle. Sometimes, I even sit down in a public area and decide to 'assign' someone I know to everyone I can see. I create a world around me filled with people I know (but don't really know). It's great! I get to see them interact with each other in strange ways and ignore people they should acknowledge. I watch them make uncharacteristic purchases and laugh nervously. Sooner or later, my fantasy world dissolves into reality and I emerge invigorated on the other side.

This evening, I experienced a version of this fantasy with a whole new twist. I sat in the front row of the first David H. Liu Memorial Lecture in Design of the quarter and experienced Rives for the first time, and for the millionth time. As it turns out, Rives is my friend Scott (aka :srw: - you know him) exactly. Rives gave a design talk loaded with a free association of his path from paper engineer to multimedia artist, to spoken word poet, to observer of everything, to TV host living out the same free association fantasy that started the whole thing. Scott,
if you don't
know him, writes
emails like this. With
lines that allude
to a poem enough
so that you wonder
if they are meant
to be a poem and
then eventually you decide that
they must be so
you spend longer than
you should
composing your response.

The arc of connections between Rives and Scott is strong enough that multiple people noticed and pointed it out, including Scott, who happened to be sitting in the second row behind me and two seats to the left. I sat through the talk wondering if some sort of neat vortex would envelop the room as two soul mates oscillated on the same wavelength in such close proximity.

The whole experience made me wonder who my personality match would be. Who do people think of when they think of me? Do people ever get reminded of me when I'm not around?

The magical evening had more in store. Post-lecture, I stood with Scott and two other great friends, Jean and Capra, and we did a quick debrief about the latest in our lives. Capra told some stories of her recent trip to Amsterdam and highlighted, for me, two separate hotel bathroom experiences she'd had. One hotel bathroom had strange tubes that smelled of pee, and the other involved a stay on a houseboat that left something to be desired. Then Jean, one of the best if not the best synthesizer I know, said, "I think of you every time I'm in a public bathroom." Amazing! People associate me with public bathrooms. It all started when I put this

up in the women's bathroom last year. People that don't wash their hands after visiting the bathroom gross me out, and I wanted to call them out on it. Excitingly, the installation and meaning behind it have followed me since. I'll take it where I can get it. I might not ever experience the Scott-Rives vortex, but there's a chance that every day someone somewhere makes their own little vortex, washes their hands, and thinks of me. I love you all.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reflection, Day 9

This is the second to last day in the time of Reflection. For that opportunity, I thank my great, great grandmother Rosenthal. Being part of such a club often affords an opportunity for reminiscing, maybe among old friends or simply peers. At a wedding in my hometown this past weekend, I had suspected an opportunity for just that, but collective nostalgia was not particularly viable given that most of the people I know from the era appropriate for the draw of guests were not in fact invited, or at least did not attend. It occurred to me then, that as an activity, reflecting seems to be a sort of edgy version of reminiscing, where the past is placed somewhere forward—launched—with a trajectory: an unexpected bounce.

Several years ago, I saw a baseball game played at Disch-Falk Field in Austin. There is something unexpected and shocking about that field: it is covered with Astroturf. Possibly that does not seem shocking (and it is pretty cool to actually use “Astroturf” given the close proximity to Houston), but the fact is that the field is outdoors and there is no shortage of full-time grass staff at UT; in contrast, the field at Texas Memorial Stadium is better tended than most any thing, anywhere, and it is most certainly real grass. Further, the shade of green is the sort that raises questions.

I had questions that day, after the game, and for the first time in probably a couple of years, I reached out to a friend of mine from high school—from the same era as the bride in said wedding—to investigate the field and get a player’s perspective. This guy was scouted by several pro teams, played serious college baseball, and ultimately chose instead to play for Harvard. The correspondence was via email. What I received read in the unique voice of my friend—someone I admired for countless reasons—and matter-of-factly addressed the baseball issues, followed up with anticipatory discussion of plans for a return visit home. I learned that two days after that email was sent, Josh died in an automobile collision while working, as he had been, in Eritrea on projects of aquaculture research.

One of the benefits of artificial turf is the consistency of ball bounces—truer hops. I played lacrosse in high school and consistently marveled at the physically impossible trajectories a white Brine ball could follow. I played on grass and never really made the connection with turf surface until learning of the baseball analog. Upon reflection, I am a bit surprised and somewhat disappointed at my ignorance.

I remember driving to north Austin to buy cigarettes the night I heard Josh had died. I remember seeing, as I had thousands of times before, a fairly provincial church on the way. The great part of that church was the tiny yellow neon cross on the roof-ridge: at night the juxtapositions of scale and seriousness spinout what might seem a fairly decent place to the ironic. I remember thinking that telephone poles really had amazing power, with an unearthly sort of animation, unexpected even of living trees.

I have enjoyed an aphorism despite outwardly disapproving of aphorisms: predictability is the enemy. Only recently has it occurred to me that remembering, reminiscing, and reflecting are all different. I had expectations of this wedding trip: decadent times slathered with nostalgia, but have been unexpectedly shocked by the lively trajectory of reflection, divergent from the slow orbit of reminiscence. As a result, I find I am without prediction: unprepared, but willing.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

exposing expertise

"Hi, how's it going?"
"Not bad, thanks. So, what type of work do you do?"
"I'm an expert welder."
"Wow, great. I will come to you with all of my metallurgical needs."

insert fine line here

"Hi, how's it going?"
"Not bad, thanks. So what type of work do you do?"
"I'm an expert maverick."
"Whatever, chump."

The fine line raises two different issues.
1. Hard skills vs. soft skills
2. Reaching and claiming expert status

Welding is a hard skill. If a welder claims to me that she is an expert, I assume that she has reached a certain level of measurable achievement in her craft.

Mavericism - is it even a skill? Note: It's not even a word. When Sarah Palin tells me that her team is the maverick team (and a team of mavericks, and has been a maverick, and that senate maverick, and maverick is us) does she think that saying it aloud makes it true? I am much more critical on claims of expertise in soft skills than hard skills. They're harder to measure and evaluate, and even tougher to demonstrate.

With both hard and soft skills, how do you ever know that you've reached expert status? With hard skills you might take an exam or fulfill a certain number of hours as a practitioner of your art and then be granted a piece of paper with artfully arranged ink that qualifies you as an expert. But, more often than not, whether through practice, talent, or experience, you are an expert whether or not the national governing body deems it so. Sure, someone out there in the world is better than you, but sometimes it's nice to let the humility fly away.

A few days ago the opportunity arose for me to test out claims of expertise. A colleague was walking around our work area looking for a squash partner. He moved around the room asking a bunch of different people, many of whom are frequent squash players. I have never played squash with any of these people but know that some are pretty solid players and others are newer to the sport. I know that the colleague that was looking for a partner was advanced beginner level, maybe intermediate. When he got to me and asked if I wanted to play, I responded with, "You don't want to play with me because I'm quite excellent at squash."

This caught him and the others off guard. They all thought I was joking and tried to get me to admit to a ruse. In fact, I am quite good at squash, but I'm not sure that anyone believed me.

Revealing skills to others is strangely exposing. The line between bragging and truth is weak without an additional party to substantiate. In the spirit of exposure, I offer you this:
I am an expert at spitting small objects. Give me a watermelon seed and I will spit it farther than you. Ask me to hit a target with a cherry pit and I will land it closer than you.
Doggonit, Joe, now that there is straight talk.