Street Ritual

Current status: back in the office after a few days at HOW Interactive in Chicago. It was such a pleasure to listen and learn from the many incredibly talented designers I’d gathered to share at the event, as well as to reconnect with some old friends and go deeper with some new ones. Now I’m back in my familiar seat, typing this to you, and listening to the ambient sound of the Enterprise bridge that someone has piped through the office Sonos. Engage

CB, October 9, 2015


On the day of my first speaking engagement, I awoke a little before four o’clock in the morning and rehearsed my presentation twice in a row. I’d always been an early riser, but this time, I was an especially dense ember of nervous heat; it was as if I would have engulfed my bed in flames had I spent a moment more in it. So I sprang up and out, and stood over the pale glow of my laptop — staring at myself in the mirror on the wall — and talked for almost two hours. After the second run-through, I considered a third, but decided against it only after worrying that perhaps, in the chain of good-talk, not-so-good talk, good-talk, continuing to overwork this would have me squander a good performance on myself, there in the dark, and, subject to this pattern, stutter and stumble in front of the eight hundred judges awaiting me on the conference room floor. There is such a thing, after all, as too much preparation. And, as I would learn some years later — after much more experience with this sort of thing — a good talk is a natural one, and there is nothing more unnatural than rehearsing a talk some thirty or forty times, in front of mirrors, in the car, in the shower, in bed when you can’t sleep, and finally, in your underwear in the dark of your hotel room in San Francisco, just as I had done for weeks leading up to the conference. So, I shut my laptop, showered, dressed, and left the hotel.

I spent the next two hours walking around the city. At first, I was alone. I could hear my footsteps on the concrete and the wind sucking through the spaces between the tall buildings that lined the streets of Union Square. In my periphery, I’d catch my own reflection in the glass of storefronts and cars, thinking at first it was someone else. But as the sun rose, the streets began to fill. I passed shopkeepers opening their doors and turning their signs to Open. Delivery trucks pulled up alongside the sidewalk and their drivers hauled boxes of things out and on to dollies, whistling as they pulled them along. Trolleys passed, their bells ringing. Men in suits and sneakers weaved around each other and past me, racing to their offices. For once, I wasn’t the fastest walker around. I passed an older man sweeping the sidewalk. A group of people arguing over whose corner was whose. A woman walking with her child, speaking a language I couldn’t quite place. I passed alleys and corners and doorsteps where people slept, some as if they’d just nodded off unintentionally, others cocooned in sleeping bags zipped all the way to their crown. I turned a corner and nearly ran in to a man urinating against a wall, his pants completely down around his ankles and his arms up above his head, which rested forehead-down against the brick. I quickly bounced my gaze to grant him some privacy. He didn’t register any awareness of my presence; either he didn’t notice me or he didn’t care that I noticed him. I continued past. The city grew louder. Engines and music and whistling and the rhythm of hammers somewhere. I passed another man sitting on the sidewalk, perched on a seat of cardboard. He looked up at me and smiled as he slowly pulled on a pair of threadbare socks. A woman wearing three coats and a wool hat with a purple pom pom crossed the street and dropped a bundle of newspapers in front of a shop that hadn’t opened yet. I kept walking.

The thought of the stage I would occupy a few hours later had faded from my mind; I couldn’t have been farther from it. With every step, I considered all the things I could be doing out of necessity. Things that no one wants to do. Much harder things than what I would do that day. I imagined myself in the place of each person I’d passed so far. I tried to understand what it would be like to be out there scraping for survival, rather than simply getting some needed perspective as I was that morning. I cycled through feelings of awe and gratitude — Why is it that I have been given so much? I wondered — and feelings of shame and conviction. How is it that I felt such stress and burden over the privilege of being here today? Nearly everything I saw that morning was a reminder that I lived a life of abundance. My burden wasn’t the intimidation of talking about design for an hour to a bunch of people like me. Intimidating as that was and should have been, it suddenly felt easy; trivial, really. All my advantage and plenty — granted me by birth at the right time in the right place — felt heavy. How I wanted to give them away.

Since then, I’ve given many more talks. I’ve gotten a little better at the preparation part, but not much; I still tend to nervously over-prepare. But I have become able to be more at ease with the whole thing, and be present more as myself than I had before. Practice — and perspective — helps with that. And every time since that time in San Francisco, I’ve repeated the morning walk. I’ve walked New York, Providence, Chicago, D.C., Boston, even on streets I know well here in Raleigh and Durham. It’s an experience that replaces all my stress and anxiety with gratitude. And, of course, a sober reintroduction to the reality around me. I have been paid for nearly every talk I have given, not to mention had my travel and accommodations covered as well, and when so many can hardly afford a necessary meal, to feel any stress over that privilege is almost absurd. Almost. We’re operating within our own little worlds, and so our feelings and thoughts are all in relative measure. But when immersed in the worlds that surround us, some so alien and unrecognizable to our own, we gain a precious and profound perspective to which we must reacquaint ourselves at every opportunity. In our worlds, so many privileges too easily become routine, yet in the worlds orbiting ours, those routines — whether the generous honoraria we might receive for a speaking gig, or the carefree $4 we spend on coffee beforehand — could truly change lives. May we never take our privileges for granted.

Heavy Rotation: Last week I listened to an episode from the archive of All Songs Considered all about The Beatles’ White Album. Having never really been a fan of The Beatles, I feel like episodes like this are part of a long, gradual mea culpa for me. I’ve always been a fan of Revolver, but now I’ve had another one of their albums opened up for me and I’m gaining a new appreciation for them as musicians and songwriters and studio engineers.


Recent Tabs: Hyper-archival digital media. The Modern Design Organization. What it’s actually like to be a Black employee at a tech company. The iPad in the space age. Why have digital books stopped evolving? Exxon’s global warming projections were nearly spot-on in 1981. Meaning, they knew 34 years ago and didn’t give a shit. Also, nobody told this lady that bears don’t speak English. Or that they also don’t speak shrill-awful-person. “I was working with this other writer and he said that he thought episodes of Law & Order was like a well-made meatloaf, but I disagree. I think it’s like a well-made pizza, because you can have fancier meals, but are they really better than a well-made pizza? No they aren’t. Unlike a meatloaf, which I don’t find alluring under any circumstances.” Want to imagine you are in the magical halls of Hogwarts? There’s an ambient mixer for that. How you like me now?

Written by Christopher Butler on October 9, 2015,   In Essays

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