on the shore of the ultimate sea

Walk On Air Against Your Better Judgement: Some Epitaph.

heaney_headstone

That’s what the epitaph on legendary Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s headstone, erected recently in his home village in County Derry, advises.

The lines come from his Nobel Prize speech, delivered in 1995. He explained more:

That line is from a poem called “The Gravel Walks,” which is about heavy work—wheeling barrows of gravel—but also the paradoxical sense of lightness when you’re lifting heavy things. I like the in-betweenness of up and down, of being on the earth and of the heavens. I think that’s where poetry should dwell, between the dream world and the given world, because you don’t just want photography, and you don’t want fantasy either.

There’s more at Irish Central.

Written by Nick

August 16th, 2015 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Art

In Person: Story Hour

notes

A few weeks ago I was able to make good on a promise and participate in the second installment of the Design Museum of Portland’s Story Hour series. The premise is quite simple: a group of storytellers have a short period of time to tell a story around a specific prompt. There are a few constraints, though: the time period is very short, either four or eight minutes, and you get a single image as your background, no slides or other a/v trickery.

The theme was ‘invisible design’ and while a bunch of kind of pop-design podcast fodder (Can you see the arrow in the FedEx logo?) came to mind I felt the constraints and format leant themselves to a little bit of meta tomfoolery.

So the whole thing was series of stories inside a talk inside an elaborate setup.

The effect was better experienced in person, but I’ll try to set it up here for you before sharing the substance of the speech.

The entire story was delivered as if I were reading notes off a sheaf of papers, and there were several references at the onset to visual aids helping me work in this unusual style. As the series of stories around the theme build, I begin to spread outward to talk about how this elaborate level of conscientiousness around how things are set up can ultimately deliver experiences that leave a real impression on people.

The big reveal was at the very end, when I turn my “notes” around and show they’re actually blank. The effect I was hoping to impart on the audience was one of “oh, he wasn’t reading from notes, he must have memorized it, that’s another level of invisible design that he’s incorporated.” I think there were a few clucks of understanding; to be honest, my heart was racing so much at flubbing a few final lines that I wasn’t paying total attention to the audience. But the overall effect was not, as was my fear, totally lost.

Despite the thematic around magic and creativity, there was no magic involved (unless maybe someone thought I erased the notes on the paper or wrote them in invisible ink). It was sheer, brute memorization. The short format (four minutes) and my tendency to want to pack these sorts of talks with information made it crucial that I get everything down to the second, timing-wise.

Suffice to say I rehearsed the shit out of this, in a bunch of different ways. I have talked in public in front of audiences probably 40-50 times a year for the last four or five years and to have a totally scripted thing that has to be super tight on time is one of the more challenging things tasks I’ve set myself.1

recordings

First, I wrote the draft. That took about a week of side-time. Then I went through proofs and made 3-5 paper edits to make the master. Then, I recorded myself speaking a version to time (four minutes on the dot) based on the final refinements. Then, I would alternate between a few elements: table reads, out loud, from the script; sessions where I’d listen to the recording continuously (riding my bike to work, or waiting for lunch at a restaurant); sessions where I’d listen and simultaneously copy the material in longhand. And lastly were sessions where I’d recite the speech cold, with no prompts, then listen and compare with the original printed draft. I have at least 15 of those saved on my phone.

I’ve never been good at memorizing, and respect that skill a lot in friends who can. (I am forever envious of one friend, trained in the classics, who has an enormous mental library of poems and toasts and whatnot.) I need musical accompaniment to make anything stick. And about 98% of my cultural HD is full of jingles and nonsense anyway. But somehow I managed to get through this with only a few flubs.

Anyway, here it is. Not sure if I want to do something like this again anytime soon but I done did it. And it managed (I think?) to be entertaining to the audience, and not just esoteric wank.

Here’s the background image I used:

parish_storyhour.001 (1)

 

I

I opted for the four minutes partly as a disaster mitigating strategy.

I’m here to talk about creativity but it could all go terribly wrong

Because normally my presenting style is clicking through slides, rapidly.

I would stalk around the stage and gesticulate and use clever Keynote builds and other slideware to keep your attention.

So I decided, with all these constraints, to be sure of my words, to write it down. <emphasize paper>

Because I just have this one slide. And it’s barely legible.

Whoops.

First rule of presenting, make the font big.

Fail part one.

That’s not my only problem.

I’m a poseur.

I’m not a designer.

I’m a writer.

I only discovered what a drop shadow was a few years ago when I wondered why my printed-out screenshots were black on the bottom.

And maybe my own design, of this talk, is no longer invisible.

‘Oh, ‘ you’re thinking, ‘he’s going to talk about how editing is invisible design’.

Fail part three.

Fuck.

 

II

Well, writing _is_ invisible design, that’s true.

Writers and designers, we’re cousins.

We both use craft to build worlds.

Some of you who appreciate vintage advertising will remember the Think Small-era Volkswagen advertising.

The layout was classic, a photo, a headline, copy.

But the art director saw the copy, and it was just a huge mass at the bottom of the page. So he used his X-acto to thin it out.

When his partner came in, he asked him to re-write it into the windows he had cut, and the ad finally worked, and is now famous.

Jason Fried, from 37signals, once said, ‘before you redesign, rewrite.’

This is fundamentally the same idea.

But there’s one step beyond this invisibility, beyond the craft of writing and editing: making it magic.

 

III

For my money Emily Dickinson is the greatest American poet.

<What was that? Some Emerson partisan there in the back?>

Almost all Dickinson’s 1,800 poems were published after she died, and they’re all clean copies.

We don’t know anything about her process; her craft was fully invisible.

And so scholars, trying to understand her work, are puzzled by things like this. <point to screen>

This is one of Dickinson’s Master letters, surreal drafts written sometime between when she was 28 and 32.

They’re otherworldly, almost an alternate universe to her poems, written to a figure only known as Master.

We don’t know the identity of ‘Master’.

It is a mystery.

Is it a lover?

God?

The Devil? Was Emily Dickinson involved in some kinda bluesman-at-Crossroads-type deal?

True Detective stuff.

Because we all want to know what kind of shadowy power lurks at the heart of Dickinson’s art—worldly or otherworldly.

 

IV

To create something truly sublime, you have to include elements of magic, and conceal, and keep secrets—and reveal them, maybe—in addition to all the craft.

You’ve got to have some of that ol’ Razzle Dazzle—at least a little bit.

Joseph Conrad wrote something to this effect in an essay called “Fiction Is Human History”.

“All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms persuasive, enlightening, familiar and surprising.”

In creating amazing work, you take the invisible and choose if, and how, it reappears.

And that’s the magic…

<reveal papers>

…that craft can make design invisible…

<reveal papers>

…but only creativity can choose how to reveal it…

<reveal papers>

…to set an audience on a course to their own creative truths.

<reveal papers>

 

  1. Yes, the famous “short speech” quote (“If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”) whoever said it, was running through my head pretty regularly. []

Written by Nick

August 12th, 2015 at 7:01 pm

Catch up on the Cannestagious Podcast

We podcasted at Cannes for the second year running, all part of our #cannestagious push1, and Dan Southern and I had a lot of fun hosting. We typically would have a few Contagious folk and a few external folk join for each one, and discuss what went on that day at the festival.

The timing was a bit screwy—last year it was a ‘morning after’ timing, so we’d record the intro and outtro and get some juicy gossip in there, then play the segments recorded the preceding day.2 For those who might be interested in gear: we use a Blue Yeti mic attached to an iPad running Bossjock software to do all the cues, ducks, fades, etc. Typically afterward I’d clean everything up in Audacity and send it over to Soundcloud. The one and only DJ Tedward did some dynamite bumps and idents for us. Our audio booth? The world’s largest walk-in closet, in our villa, with duvets draped through the shelving to muffle echo.

I think we’re going to look into doing more with the podcast; key will be finding out how me in Portland and Dan in London can connect in a way that’s got some measure of audio fidelity. (The last phone-in interview, recorded off a conference call line, is crapola.) If you’ve got any idea, let me know.

Anyway, we had some fun interviews: Scott Galloway, Joanna MonteiroIain Tait, Nick Childs and Sir Martin Sorrell, and we had one kinda live-y podcast segment where we went cold calling with The Barbarian Group and Rood Studios.

Here’s the mighty podcast playlist in all its glory too.

  1. dig that amazing papercraft Cannes Lion! []
  2. The awards results are under embargo until like 9pm every night, so we can’t publish when we learn the results at the press conference in the morning. []

Written by Nick

July 2nd, 2015 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Advertising,Clips

Are you familiar with sharing?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about customer experiences.

We’re kicking off our U.S. Now / Next / Why swing on Wednesday in NYC (followed by May 16 in Chicago and June 11 in San Francisco) and the event is all around the idea of “obsessing experience.” And there’s a ton of stuff to talk about around your typical Brand Experiences, but I wanted to isolate one specific instance that might not feel immediately relevant but is.

My wife, Juno, is passionate about food. You could say she obsesses the experience. Whether it’s going out to try new restaurants, reading about chefs and cooking, organizing an intricate weekly meal plan and now writing about food and nutrition full time, Juno’s got it covered.

One of our running chuckles is around an entirely condescending phrase we’re becoming accustomed to hearing in variation, when we eat out:

“Are you familiar with the concept of sharing?”

Forget about the fact that we all learned to share at age four. When a server asks this, it’s a snapping flag to me that we’re in for a less-than-perfect experience. Because it validates something very important in the restaurant power dynamic: that the kitchen rules.

It doesn’t matter if we’re eating together, and each of us order one thing that we want to eat exclusively: the food comes when it’s ready. And Juno’s even experienced instances where her dining companion has finished her meal before Juno’s even arrives. It’s becoming commonplace to put the food before the people.

To me, this is emblematic of the celebrity-chef-obsessed, ego-driven foodie culture that’s bred a new generation of restauranteurs. Many careers have been launched and pockets have been lined by the idea of the kitchen as altar.

But it annoys me, needless to say, and I wanted to pass along an attitude that’s the antidote, one I hope more restaurants will adopt, and one that might be relevant to how you view edge cases, or needy customers, in your work, whomever your literal or metaphorical customer might be.

Brooks Headley is the executive pastry chef at Del Posto, a fine dining restaurant in New York.

He’s a fun writer, too—loose and confident. And in February Bon Appetit ran a column by Headley in which he wrote about accommodating people with allergies.

Our mission is to make people happy—think of us as your surrogate grandmas for the next few hours. I want you to come in to Del Posto and have the grandest, amazing-est time of your life, shooting the breeze with your date, the mom, that boss you’re trying to impress, swirling the wine in your oversize goblet, utilizing your purse stool. And if you’ve got some dietary issues you wanna toss my way? Bring ’em on!

 

It’s a great little essay, and an even better attitude. You can say what you want about the identity politics of food, which tires me to no end. But this isn’t about identity—it’s about humility and service.

And the reader responses agree:

It is a sigh of relief to read of a mindful, creative, and enthusiastic approach to what can be a stress laden experience for the food allergic diner.

What a treasure the patrons of Del Posto must experience, knowing that they are safe and also no burden at all.

I’ve been following Brooks’ career for a while. He was the drummer of two of the best American hardcore bands ever, Universal Order of Armageddon and Born Against. And it’s no surprise that he’s got the sort of level head around making diners feel cared for and safe—that’s not far cry from the life of an independent underground musician. Community. Hospitality. Giving all your energy away to those your performing for.

I know this small strike against the haute pretension of the chef-as-universe’s-epicenter won’t change any “concept of sharing” irritation.

But it will help me line up my values with those of the restaurants that do–and don’t—behave like Brooks.

 

Written by Nick

May 1st, 2015 at 3:21 pm

Posted in Events,Food,Music

Agency: Rick Webb’s Manual

IMG_1927

When I had to report on every little coming and going in the agency world I learned real fast that Rick Webb was a great quote. He’s got a lucid brain that can make the complex pretty clear and cut through most any flavor of bullshit. Rick’s compiled the breadth of his experience at The Barbarian Group into Agency: Starting a Creative Firm in the Age of Digital Marketing, essentially Rick Explains It All.

It’s a must-read if you’re thinking of starting an ad agency, and it’s great information that might corroborate other prejudices or processes you’ve developed if you work with them already, either as a supplier or a freelancer. Give it to your colleagues—I know I’ve got a few destined for mine. And keep a highlighter handy.

The book is essentially a more buttoned-down version of the KLF’s “The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way)” and if you followed all the instructions inside and were halfway decent at making ads you could probably succeed. The only thing missing, and maybe this is because Rick is savvy enough to leave room for a follow-up, is answering the question Why.

Why would anyone want to start an agency in 2015, when it’s easier than ever to build a brand from scratch, or take a novel technology to the stratosphere with free money from VCs? Maybe I’ll ask him and let you know.

Written by Nick

February 1st, 2015 at 11:56 am

Something to Play

You should really press play on the ‘A Conversation between Two Totally Metal Dudes: The “Tight Bros from Way Back When” Tape’ (Yeah, there’s strong language.)

This found its way to me via my friend Jimmy, who’s someone I’d imagine to be part of this type of conversation at some point. (And that’s a compliment.)

It’s a taped phone call that happened sometime pre-millennium between Derek, whom you might nicely term an acid casualty, and one of his acquaintances, Kurt, a record store employee. Jimmy of course would be Kurt, not the acid casualty.

The whole thing gave me the youthful mirth of a good natured prank phone call, where both sides are in on the joke and just batting silliness back and forth. You might think ‘Silliness? This guy’s crazy and violent!’ And you would have a point. But I also get the sense it’s just a funny game. Proof the Grateful Dead are Satanists, epic Roger Waters guitar licks, Terry the heroin user and the $20 over the bolt cutters. Man, what a world.

Written by Nick

January 30th, 2015 at 2:54 pm

Posted in Music

Poem: Dinosaurs in the Hood

Dinosaurs in the Hood
BY DANEZ SMITH

Let’s make a movie called Dinosaurs in the Hood.
Jurassic Park meets Friday meets The Pursuit of Happyness.
There should be a scene where a little black boy is playing
with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the window
& sees the T. Rex, because there has to be a T. Rex.

Don’t let Tarantino direct this. In his version, the boy plays
with a gun, the metaphor: black boys toy with their own lives,
the foreshadow to his end, the spitting image of his father.
Fuck that, the kid has a plastic Brontosaurus or Triceratops
& this is his proof of magic or God or Santa. I want a scene

where a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl, a scene
where the corner store turns into a battle ground. Don’t let
the Wayans brothers in this movie. I don’t want any racist shit
about Asian people or overused Latino stereotypes.
This movie is about a neighborhood of royal folks —

children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exiles — saving their town
from real-ass dinosaurs. I don’t want some cheesy yet progressive
Hmong sexy hot dude hero with a funny yet strong commanding
black girl buddy-cop film. This is not a vehicle for Will Smith
& Sofia Vergara. I want grandmas on the front porch taking out raptors

with guns they hid in walls & under mattresses. I want those little spitty,
screamy dinosaurs. I want Cicely Tyson to make a speech, maybe two.
I want Viola Davis to save the city in the last scene with a black fist afro pick
through the last dinosaur’s long, cold-blood neck. But this can’t be
a black movie. This can’t be a black movie. This movie can’t be dismissed

because of its cast or its audience. This movie can’t be a metaphor
for black people & extinction. This movie can’t be about race.
This movie can’t be about black pain or cause black people pain.
This movie can’t be about a long history of having a long history with hurt.
This movie can’t be about race. Nobody can say nigga in this movie

who can’t say it to my face in public. No chicken jokes in this movie.
No bullets in the heroes. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills
the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. Besides, the only reason
I want to make this is for that first scene anyway: the little black boy
on the bus with a toy dinosaur, his eyes wide & endless

his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.

 

 
Source: Poetry (December 2014).

Written by Nick

January 30th, 2015 at 10:59 am

Posted in Art

The Soderbergh List: 2014

Around 2011, inspired by Steven Soderbergh, I started keeping track of notable works I read or watched. Here’s my list from 2014. I left a lot off, because a lot wasn’t notable. I didn’t include magazines or longer web reads Suffice to say I enjoyed all the stuff on this list because I don’t finish things I don’t enjoy, unless I’m forced to give criticism of them (which I did rarely last year).

Can you tell I wrote a book from January to July, and moved across the country in September? (Hint: I had a lot of movies to catch up on to relax.)

All caps, bold: MOVIE
All caps: TV SERIES
Italics: Book
Quotation marks: “Play”
Italics, bold: Comic
*: Re-read

 

1/1, FARGO

1/4, BREAKING BAD (S1-6)

1/5, SAY ANYTHING, HANNA

1/8, BOYS FROM BRAZIL

1/9, The John McPhee Reader, John McPhee

1/11, ARCHER (S1, E1-3); PORTLANDIA (S2, E3-6)

1/17, SALINGER

1/30, Dreaming in Code, Scott Rosenberg

2/4, 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know, Kevlin Henney

2/15, The Boy Kings, Katherine Losse

2/17, GAME OF THRONES (S1)

3/24, “Ice,” Thomas McGuane

3/24, “The School,” Donald Barthelme

3/24, “Game,” Donald Barthelme

3/26, WORLD WAR Z

3/28, THE COUNSELOR

3/28, THE END OF THE WORLD

 3/29, GAME OF THRONES (S2)

4/4, “Shakespeare’s Memory,” Jorge Luis Borges

4/20, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF*

4/22, The Tyranny of Numbers: Why Counting Can’t Make Us Happy, David Boyle

5/1, LONE SURVIVOR

5/22, The Ballad of Dingus Magee, David Markson

5/26, GAME OF THRONES (S3)

5/27, Rude Kids: The Inside Story of Viz, Chris Donald

6/11, Sex Criminals, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

6/13, Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco

7/25, JODOROWSKY’S DUNE

7/29, TINY: A STORY ABOUT LIVING SMALL

7/31, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

8/5, The Wicked + The Divine

8/16, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

8/23, CHARIOTS OF THE GODS

8/23, SONATINE

8/23, MY LEFT FOOT

8/24, THE GODFATHER

10/04, HER

10/04, JFK

10/10, SNOWPIERCER

10/10, THE LEGO MOVIE

10/10, BROKEN FLOWERS

10/26, EDGE OF TOMORROW

10/26, MONUMENTS MEN

10/26, LA GRANDE BELLEZZA

10/31, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

10/31, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

10/31, VEEP S3

10/31, DON JON

11/1, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR

11/2, Trout Bum, John Gierach

11/5, Vanishing Point, David Markson

11/9, AKIRA*

11/18, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

11/18, Lee Kuan Yew: The Gran Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World, Allison and Blackwill

11/19, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

 11/24, Wool Omnibus, Hugh Howey

 11/25, The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien

 11/28, HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

 12/6 DIE HARD*

 12/12 LOST IN TRANSLATION*

12/12 ELF*

12/12 ANCHORMAN 2

12/26 IN A WORLD

 

Written by Nick

January 30th, 2015 at 10:47 am

Something to Play: Papers Please

gaming-papers-please-3

The purpose of Something to Play is typically to suggest, well, you get the drift. And I went into Papers, Please with high hopes. Who doesn’t approach a “dystopian document thriller” with anticipation?

But it’s utter drudgery. It’s the most amazing example of mentally-taxing-work-as-a-game (not just sorting, like Candy Crush) and a real grind.

You play a border security guard in a quasi-Soviet republic who’s got to administer dozens of arcane rules about entry to the republic while admitting or turning away would-be entrants. Every day, your hits and misses are tallied up, your pay is docked accordingly, you decide how much to spend on heat or medicine for your sick kid and the criteria that you have to check against gets harder.

Behind all this are various sub-plots involving corruption, human trafficking, joining a rebel group, getting laid, etc., meant to mimic the character of this sort of system (i.e. the only way to win is to cheat, play both sides or become corrupt) but you’ve got to process an entire day’s worth of people, scrutinizing every tiny detail, to get to the narrative.

It’s out for iPad, if this particular brand of masochism sounds up your alley. I hated myself for getting hooked on it and following it into a dark simulacrum every evening.

Written by Nick

January 27th, 2015 at 3:27 pm

Posted in Gaming

Appearing in La Petit Mort: River Talk

rivertalk_petitmort

A few months ago my buddy Michael Ventura asked me to write an essay for his new publication, La Petit Mort. Just last week I got the glorious, big-ass newsprint edition and found my piece, “River Talk,” reproduced faithfully. The design looks great, the illustration I cooked up wound up translating well visually, and I’m really grateful to have been involved and appearing alongside articles ranging from an ethical look at slum tourism to a primer on how to eat clean while traveling. The essay’s mostly about fishing, so head over to Current Flow State to read the whole thing.

Written by Nick

January 20th, 2014 at 7:16 pm