November 12th, 2014

“Eleven plus 24 is what?”

The conversation skirted around the question, no answer forthcoming. A mother spells out each equation, her son blurting out answers, hoping for approval, excited at the process but ready to be finished.

“Eight plus eight times four is what?“

Another one blurted out, frustration rising in both. Eight plus eight is sixteen she says, forcing the answer, despite its accuracy. Multiplication comes first, after all. She’s leading the witness, your honor, and all of that. Insecure comments about a hundred other things while this math problem floated in air. Will I need to take a shower tonight. I found a quarter earlier today.

You won’t tell anybody about earlier, right.

“Seven times nine is what?“

The right answer comes, but the mom questions it. He answered too fast. He answered without thinking. She says no, but stops. Oh you’re right. Can you make the numbers look nice. Could you sit still. I will quiz you on these harder ones.

There is a patience and love between the two of them that I don’t yet see in myself. It is clear that neither enjoys fighting through these math problems, but both are dedicated to doing their best – in spite of the fight, away from the distractions. Through the white noise between them, one constant signal gets through. Different frequencies with one constant code. dot dash dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot dash, hold on stop please look at me.

“Who created … who created the periodic table of elements.”

Dmetri Mandolin. Close enough to count. He’s only eight, maybe nine, and Mendeleev is an unfair name. Every science question is answered in split seconds as he wanders around the room, unable to sit still, unable to settle. This isn’t math. He knows this stuff, and that’s how life is. You know things or you don’t. You are good at this and you are bad at that. Only the smartest understand their limits – the rest of us keep trying to fill in the gaps as though perfection is possible.

“Thank you. When you get home, we have to finish this homework.”

He’s out the door before she can finish. She sighs. They have conquered another day.

Category: Education, Overheard

October 21st, 2014

The first time I spoke in front of a crowd was on what was then the largest stage in the content strategy industry: Confab, in Minneapolis.

It was 2012. I was about to drop Fugazi references and pictures of my great grandmother’s cookbook and surprisingly no fart jokes. I was hoping not to shit myself, to be honest. I had somehow attracted a standing-room only crowd, despite no one knowing who the hell I actually was.

I swallowed. And the first thing I said was a complaint.

“I just realized I missed cupcakes.”

Snack time had just occurred. There were cupcakes. Fun fact: I don’t really care about cupcakes. I think they’re fine, and I will eat them when I am offered, but there’s no way I cared more about cupcakes at that moment than, say, the integrity of Keynote or the status of my zipper or whether or not I might actually throw up right there in the middle of that conference room carpet.

But I talked about cupcakes. That’s what I did.

I started my talk. I nailed a few jokes. I started capturing the audience. I thought, “this is going well.”

And then, Jared Spool brought me a cupcake.

And I thought, “Well.”

“I guess this talk is going to go okay.”

And it did. I killed. I may have peaked early in life, presenting my best right from the get go. I may have notched a little mark in Confab history by being the annual “Where Did That Speaker Come From?” of the 2012 conference. I may have realized I did okay once I had stopped shivering in my hotel room from the “speaking shakes.”

I don’t remember any of that. I remember, instead, two things.

1. Dan Eizans audibly laughing as the only person who got the Fugazi joke.

2. Jared Spool bringing me a cupcake.

To risk sounding macabre, it’s all been downhill from there, folks.

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October 6th, 2014

I start from one side of the house and move toward the kitchen.

I make our bed. I put away our clothes. I open our shades. I help the kids with their rooms. (No, let’s be honest. I should help the kids with their rooms, but instead I lack patience – instead, I just do the rooms myself.)

I pick up the living room. I pick up the kitchen counters, one at a time. I pick up the dining room so I can pick up the far counter so I can pick up the near counter so I can finally have space to place the dishes as I wash them. Right to center to left to away, dishtowel over my shoulder, a single to-do pile growing in the corner, a stack of items ready for a commute to the basement where I will finally run out of energy and give up. Tomorrow, I will tackle that stuff. Tomorrow, I will head downstairs.

And then, with a few hours before bedtime, I relax in a house that has not been cleaned as much as it has been returned to its inactive state.

Forgive me for this horrible metaphor, but every person is kind of like a box of spaghetti noodles: a spindly mess of emotions and issues tied together by the flimsy paper box of life. They’re only unbroken when we handle them with care. Beat that life around a bit and everything’s a mess inside. And you can tell everything’s a mess because there’s that little plastic window. Open up the box and everything goes everywhere, crisscrossing and broken, never to close in the same way again.

So we struggle to keep things together. We try to make sure everything is in place. We long for organization like you see in those interior design magazines, and we envy those who can make messes look rustic and honorable. If I was stronger, I could let things spill all over. I’m not. Instead, I tuck things in corners and stack them in piles and assume that, yes, I’m really fooling everyone. That no one sees the dust in the corner. That no one realizes they just stepped on old Play-doh.

And then, at the end of the day, I cannot clean anymore. I have to keep living. We all wake up and take everything out again, ready for the day. We leave and take our lives away from all of that stuff I had put away the day before. All of the stuff we hide until we’re ready to use it.

Kerrie always wonders why I’m so obsessed with making the bed, even if it’s just a few hours before bedtime. I just do it. Because I have a weird need to reset before things get messed up again.

This is not an essay on cleaning. This is an essay on our constant need to be put together. The cleaning stuff is my life as much as it’s a metaphor for our lives.

We don’t clean and organize so we can be perfect. We clean and organize so the messes are more defined. More contained. We keep the right things in and we let the right things out and we attempt to shape the way we’re perceived by fooling people into believing we’re all put together.

Put together, right? Like anyone really is. Like anyone’s ever gotten their shit in order like those design magazines. And, to be honest, I’m not sure I’d like anyone who has.

Come on over sometime. I promise I’ll make an attempt to put away the laundry, but I can’t promise I’ll have vacuumed. I’ll notice, but chances are you won’t.

And so life goes on, normal as always.

Category: Random

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July 7th, 2014

I joined Facebook on October 24, 2006, on my 28th birthday. Why I joined is pretty boring: I joined because it was the thing you did. I joined because I wanted to be part of a larger society, and it was this network that allowed me to reach out to all of those people I had long forgotten or missed since graduating from high school.

In the seven-plus years that followed, I saw Facebook go from what felt like the newest version of MySpace to a multi-billion-dollar company that relied on my data and the data of those around me to sell ads, curate content, and promote events and causes from those who are marginally close to me. My friend number went up and down and up and down. I struggled to maintain relevance, gave up trying to be heard, pared back my social circle, and fought with what had become a more and more irrelevant feed.

I got tired of Facebook – of the site’s weird algorithm and of my network’s passive aggressive messages, but I couldn’t let it go.

My relationship status with Facebook? It’s Complicated.

News Feed: Most Recent (A History)

I was like everyone else when Facebook launched: thrilled with the ability to connect with people around me, to share my thoughts and likes, to get closer to people I had only met a few times, or strengthen the bonds between old friends and far-away family members. Facebook was a way for me to live globally, to move beyond Sioux Falls without losing my community.

But, each year, that freedom shifted. Pages were downplayed. My feed was shifted out of order. The idea of a “News Feed” shifted from a river of current content to a curated web of what an algorithm though I wanted to see. And while I love how algorithms have created better search results and more relevant sidebars and a feeling that I can make quick scans of content without subjecting myself to everything, I still have fundamental issues with someone doing that to my friends and family.

When “News Feed” became a euphemism for robot-curated content, I felt betrayed. “Most Recent” became the only way to see a real-time feed of news from your friends. When “Most Recent” was further buried – a seemingly defensive mechanism to force users lock step into algorithm – I felt angry. And when news of emotion experiments surfaced last week, I felt exhausted.

Listen, I get it. I’m getting dramatic and railing against a corporation that is responsible for thousands of jobs and has business goals and all of that. I’m raging against a machine and not offering any answers.

But the content presented by Facebook isn’t just a series of stories written by authors I don’t know, or videos pitched based on what I most recently read. It’s the life and thoughts of the people I know. For some people, it’s the equivalent of a conversation at the bar, or a look into a diary. It’s personal. It’s not anonymous; it’s deeply connected in a way that no other network can claim.

If Facebook actively wandered into a face-to-face conversation and assumed the best lines, rearranging them for maximum impact, what would we think? If they took our stack of Christmas cards and determined who would be the best recipients, what would we think?

The Public Dislikes Facebook’s Link

So then this whole Facebook social experimentation thing happened. To very grossly summarize, Facebook’s research department was using the feeds of 700,000 Facebook members to perform experiments on the effects of positive or negative comments. (“Emotional contagion through social networks,” it was called.) What do we do when things are going great – or horribly? Were we more likely to post if we saw positive things in our feed? Were we less likely to share if we saw too many negative posts?

Rightfully so, Facebook opponents rose up in arms. This was thought experimentation without consent, the flimsy (and vague) terms of Facebook’s terms of service used as some kind of crutch. Who was Facebook to control the output of my friends and family, of my feed, of the organizations I chose to follow? Who was Facebook to use my data in a way that was less than ethical?

In the midst of the discussion, we talked about the morality of A/B testing, the separation between social networking and marketing, and the possibility of opting in to data mining and experimentation. We talked about best practices in research. We talked about “business as usual.” We talked about how maybe we were just blowing this out of proportion.

That last point stuck with me – in the grand scheme of things, is this really something I wanted to raise my ire about? In the grand scheme of things, does this really matter?

Do I care?

Disinterest Has Sent You a Friend Request

I’ll be honest: I don’t. I don’t care about the experiments. I don’t care about the data they’ve used, because I assumed they already used it. I’ve threatened to quit over it before, but I haven’t. Which shows I probably don’t care. Not really.

I do care, however, about Facebook’s assumption that they know better than I do what I want to look at.

As danah boyd writes in her wonderful article about the growing anxiety around data manipulation, “What does the Facebook experiment teach us?”:

I get the anger. I personally loathe Facebook and I have for a long time, even as I appreciate and study its importance in people’s lives. But on a personal level, I hate the fact that Facebook thinks it’s better than me at deciding which of my friends’ posts I should see.

This was never an issue of experimentation and consent – this was a clear reminder of what I don’t like about Facebook. This was not the straw that broke the camel’s back, but a catalyst for my justification. This was what would send me, finally, after years of threats, away from Facebook.

Facebook’s algorithmic adaptation of my friends’ lives is a model unlike any other used on the web. News sites and blogs use algorithms to force certain stories to the top, but that is the type of editorial curation we expect from a journalism source. Search uses algorithms to assume solutions, but in those case we’re typically not sure of the solution we’re looking for in the first place.

But this? This is full-scale reinterpretation of actual lives: a kind of dramatized version of my social circle, like a classic book being remade into a film with a happier ending and a few extra sex scenes. This is not what I signed up for; I signed up for the full feed – the flaws, the bumps, the happy and the sad. Internet, you can go ahead and curate and editorialize the things that are not directly connected to me: the world of search, the editorials on TechCrunch, the assumptions of movies I might want to see.

Just don’t fuck with my friends.

Corey Vilhauer Has Updated His Relationship!

The reason I still cling so closely to Twitter is that they do not depend on Facebook’s algorithms of assumed value – that I need someone else to filter through my friends’ thoughts, like a warden pre-screening an inmate’s mail. Twitter gives me a running feed of everything my friends say. It is up to me to negotiate that feed – to pare it down and curate in order to retain some value. Instagram does this too – it’s just every picture from every friend – and despite the hypocrisy of fighting Facebook and keeping Instagram, I’m still okay with Instagram.

Facebook is where the worst opinions are surfaced. It’s where platitudes go to die, where everyone has an opinion, where long rambling diatribes are all the rage, where companies compete to pay their way to my heart and friends compete to gather sympathy. This is not the fault of Facebook. This is not the fault of my friends. This is simply what the ecosystem has become, and it is an ecosystem that I no longer feel the drive to be a part of.

Yeah. The experiments matter. They are news that we need to focus on. They are a betrayal of trust, and while most people don’t care (and only a very small portion of people awere actually affected) they still represent the first step toward wanton abuse of personal data.

But the experiments are not why I’m quitting Facebook. They are just the reason I remembered to do it in the first place.

Category: Technology

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July 5th, 2014

“This must be what the Londoners felt like during World War II,” I said to a friend last night.

She corrected me and said, no, actually, they were probably scared shitless, and we’re just sitting in the backyard. We fully understand that they these are just fireworks. They will not harm us. They will not take our home or family or country.

Yet, as the third straight night of slow rumbles lull me to sleep – booms and crashes off in the distance, seconds apart, like we’re living in the suburb of a warzone, with lights flashing and the occasional close rock of noise, our dog ruffing and huffing as if he too thinks it’s a warzone – I still find it unsettling.

It’s a miracle that our children have already fallen asleep, but they haven’t watched the war movies I have. It’s a weird way to celebrate our nation’s birthday – by recreating the hell that our country went through to get to this point.

Then again, I don’t care about motorcycles or power tools or heavy machinery. Neither does our dog. We’re just built to lie in the dark and remember that this is all part of being free. Free to blow things up. Free to enjoy a little release. Free to feel anxious, forever, for always.

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January 14th, 2014

Up until last April, I had never touched the ocean.


I had been close to the ocean. I had travelled under the ocean. But I had never actually ventured out to it – never tried to take in its size, or let the salty remnants of millions of years of biological change wash over my feet. The ocean was a thing outside my realm. The ocean was as foreign as India or Japan.

Last April, I finally did it. I touched the ocean. The Pacific Ocean, scene of a million surf wipeouts and Instagrammed sunsets.

And now, here I was. Ready to do the same on the opposite coast. I got out of my car and walked toward the water.


I used to dream of airports. Each was something new – a way to experience the thrills I had only encountered in a Choose Your Own Adventure. There was freedom in knowing that, given the right situation and the right funds, I could go anywhere. ANYWHERE. Any damned where I pleased, with just a few hundred dollars and the proper identification.

I still do dream of airports, but in a different way. Now, they’re weird nightmares, where I miss my flight or I show up too late to conduct a meeting.

At some point last year, travel became an occupational hazard; each ticket was a debt to my life, and though I enjoyed myself when I was supposed to enjoy myself, I had unwillingly traded my dreams for anxieties. I measured each new city by the number of days I had remaining – the number of days until I could return home. And I began to fear the consequences of enjoying travel too much, of getting too comfortable being on the road.

There’s no way to be peaceful with a new city if you’re rushing to do business and counting the days. There’s no more discovery: there’s only debt.


When I was in grade school, I almost drowned at Wall Lake. I was floating on a neighbor’s inflatable pool lounger when, as I reached for a toy in the water, I fell off. The water was shallow enough to stand in, but the wake and action of thirty other swimmers forced the inflatable pool lounger away from shore.

As I chased it, the water became deeper. Each grasp pushed the lounger further away. Each step I took increased the panic, until, flailing around, my host for the day – our neighbor, who moonlighted as a lifeguard – saw me struggling. She dove in and saved me.

I had graduated from swimming lessons a few years before. I knew how to swim. I knew that I was in danger. But I still kept trying to make things right, to prevent loss, to be safe instead of smart, pushing myself just a little further into the water. In doing so I nearly lost everything.

I was still a kid. I never knew how much this would haunt me.


I neglect to tell Sierra and Isaac about my work travel until the last possible moment. Sierra is riddled with the same anxieties I am: an irrational fear of natural disasters, a belief that when her loved ones leave they may never come back, a super-sensitivity to being embarrassed. Isaac carries those same concerns out of love for his sister; he’s concerned when she is, over-exaggerating each issue in the way a four-year-old does.

My kids become irrational when I’m ready to leave – clinging to me as if I was joining the foreign legion – and they become pills when I’m gone, pushing buttons on every issue. Each trip is a change to routine. Each trip is an added level of stress for Kerrie. Each trip forces the questions I never thought I’d ask.

Do I want to do this?

Do I want to travel?

Am I doing all I can to be a good father?

Of course I am. I never doubt my efforts for long. But that doesn’t mean the same thoughts don’t creep in every time I stand in a security line, one hand throwing my belt and shoes into a bucket, the other chancing upon a bracelet Sierra made, or a few coins I found hidden under Isaac’s rug. I collect these things as I toddle around the house, picking up after myself, but I always assume there’s a bigger reason they end up in that security bowl.

Then I shake it off and shove them back in my pocket as I walk to my gate.


I parked a block away from the Atlantic Ocean, near a beach that shared my name. I stumbled through the sand, wondering how I would remember this moment. I felt proud. I was charged. I was going to surprise my kids by saying LOOK AT WHERE DAD ENDED UP! because I had already decided that the ocean was too much for this bummer of a weekend. I felt empowered by my sudden change of heart. I felt like the lead role in a Springsteen song.

Until I instinctively checked Foursquare.

If I hadn’t tried to check in, I’d have never known that I wasn’t at the ocean. I’d still think that Corey Beach is on the Atlantic and that I’d scored a completed pair. I’d never know that, despite that sudden change of heart, this wasn’t one of the fun Springsteen songs.

I did check. And the ocean was over there, in the distance, on the other side of the outer barrier across Patchouge Bay.

I got back in my car and stared at the beach.


I was afraid of water until, one day, Kerrie forced me to buck up and jump in.

I was afraid to travel to a conference and speak until, one day, my boss told me to just go do it already.

I was afraid to leave home until, one day, I came home and my kids were cool with it all and excited to get presents.

But I still remember the time I pushed it too far. I’m still afraid of going too far past the buoy. I still stay up at night wondering when one step will be one too far, when my charge has slipped past my reach, when my energy has run out and all I can muster is a hand raised in the air as I slowly sink.


When I was a kid, I took one trip a year. My family would pack up the car and we would head to Jackson. It would be stomach-turningly early when the lights came on to leave – a feeling I still encounter on the eve of a trip, where the excitement of discovery is mixed with the fear of the unknown, a queasy churning that’s only solved through a few cups of coffee and an hour of driving into the sunrise.

I knew what travel was, but my scope was limited. It included a car. It included going west. My destination was filled with loving family. It was safe, and it was comforting, and it was always beautiful.

My destination moved wherever my grandparents did, whether it was Wyoming or Kentucky or Minnesota. It was college before I knew what real travel was. I found myself in Paris, struggling with a new language. I found myself in London, seeing things I’d only seen in movies. I was in Seattle, taking mini-pilgrimages to the sites of my favorite bands. I was in Washington DC. I was in New Orleans. I was everywhere.

I wasn’t comfortable, but I was willing to learn. I was an anomaly, I think: my desire to keep moving overcame my fear of the unknown, so I just jumped on a plane and did it.

I want my kids to have a enjoy that kind of movement. I don’t want them to fear the unknown.

I want them to fall in love with countries I’ve never visited. I want them to go on trips that expose them to great friendships. I want them to wonder. I want them to understand that the Midwest is beautiful and perfect in nearly every way, but that they’ll never understand just how perfect it is until they’ve stepped outside its border.

I don’t want travel to be a fearful thing, despite the fact that I now dread traveling without them.

Because instead of enjoying the time I spend in a new city, I now fear the nights they crawl into bed and I’m not there. I fear the dinners when they ask when we’ll be a real family again. And I fear the point when I hate traveling by myself and, as an extension, hate what leads me to travel in the first place.

More than that, I fear that they will see that fear, and they will understand it as a part of traveling. I fear that I will affect their sense of adventure. I fear I will kill discovery before it starts.


My heart sank.

This wasn’t the ocean. I drove here for nothing.

I saw that my short car ride had been for naught, that I had fooled myself in thinking that I was close, and I saw that my only real recourse was to head back to the hotel and watch Netflix and drink a beer and feel shitty and disappointed. It was Labor Day weekend, and I was working, and I thought I didn’t really care but suddenly I did.

But everywhere I looked I saw small people spending the holiday on the beach, making castles and diving into the waves and doing other cliche small people things as their parents looked on, exhausted from the wind but happy that they could sit back and look on. Those small people on the beach reminded me of my small people back home, which reminded me of everything back home, which reminded me that I would be doing my entire family a disservice to ditch this mission – to shake my head and give up, to admit failure. To let the pool lounger go.

So, for once, I refused to give up.

“Fuck it.”

“I’m going to the ocean.”

And I got in my car and drove south.

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January 10th, 2014

Sometimes I make lists of lists. I did one in 2011. I did one in 2012. So, hey. “Tradition.”

As always, these lists are not in order.

The Unofficial Album of the Year

  • Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Favorite Albums From 2013

  • Soulcrate Music – “Welcome Back From Wherever You’ve Been
  • Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
  • Russian Circles – Memorial
  • Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork
  • Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
  • XXX – XXX

Favorite Albums From Before 2013 That I Didn’t Pay Attention To Until 2013

  • Morphine – Cure For Pain
  • Uncle Tupelo – No Depression
  • Mogwai – Young Team
  • Big Star – #1 Record
  • Daft Punk – Alive 2007

Albums From My “Favorite Albums From 2012″ List That I Haven’t Listened To Since 2012

  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist
  • Heartless Bastards – Arrow

Albums From My “Favorite Albums From 2011″ List That I STILL Haven’t Listened To Since 2011

  • tUnE-YarDs – whokill
  • Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Genres I Didn’t Fully Understand Because I Didn’t Pay Attention To Genres, Apparently (In Order of How Much I’ve Listened To Them)

  • Post-Metal
  • Post-Rock
  • Alt-Country
  • Shoegaze

Bruce Springsteen Records I Ended Up With This Year

  • The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle
  • Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.
  • Nebraska
  • Live / 1975-85

Best Vinyl Acquisitions (Non-Springsteen Edition)

  • Threadbare – Feeling Older Faster
  • Whirlpool – Liquid Glass
  • Hot Water Music – Live in Chicago
  • Built to Spill – Live
  • They Might Be Giants – Apollo 18

Album I’m Embarrassed I Purchased But Haven’t Yet Listened To

  • Kanye West – Yeezus

Category: Music, The Top...

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