Category: Vilhauer

July 30th, 2015

The folks over at OTA interviewed me for their OTA Spotlight column, so if you want to learn more about my kids and read answers that include the words “pretty great” and “pretty smart,” this is required reading.

Who is the most community-focused person in your life, and how do they impact their communities?

It’s not a person, but an organization: we take for granted what a wonderful resource the public library system is, and we don’t use it to the extent that we could. Siouxland Libraries provide: information, inspiration, imagination, technical resources, space, research assistants, distractions — all for free. To many, they are a wildly important resource for making positive change happen. To my kids, it is like magic.

What’s the best way to put inspiration into action?

I’m too realistic to think that inspiration always needs to be put into action, so my first suggestion would be to determine whether that inspiration has legs. We tend to chase after every fleeting bit of inspiration, but the real challenge is knowing when to act and when to let go.

Hell, if I pushed after every wild idea that came to mind, I wouldn’t have time for the things that actually inspire me.

Thanks to Angela and Abby at OTA for making me look better than I probably deserve to look.

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February 21st, 2015

When it comes to web origin stories, I usually tune out. They’re often studies in longevity, attempting to give credence to the idea of experience over expertise, written to prove Original Gangsta status.

This is not that kind of origin story. This is not about experience. This is not about proving myself.

This is just a story about a blog.


To be clear, my actual web origin story begins in 1997, when I got to college and had access to a neighbor’s laptop, but for purposes of this post let’s assume it started exactly ten years ago. Well, ten years and one day, to be totally exact.

I had failed at being a teacher; after four years of college and two years of on-and-off substitute teaching, I gave up. I floated into call center management, and while I was making more than I would have otherwise made as a new teacher, it wasn’t by much. I had no direction. What I had wanted to be when I grew up wasn’t actually what I wanted to do anymore. Where do you go from there?

But I liked writing. I discovered that, at least, thanks to hours of downtime during late-night shifts at the call center. And I liked the internet. We all did.

So one evening I asked my co-worker – the one who made websites on the side – if he could help me set up a blog.

And on February 20, 2005, I launched


I stole a quote from an author I’ve still never read. “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

I was going to be a writer. An author. I was going to use this to hone my craft and publish things, to place my words into the domain of public criticism and learn from my bruises. I wrote about books and I wrote about music and I wrote about sports. I wrote for my friends, because that’s all who knew about it, and then I wrote for my state because the South Dakota Blogosphere was a small place and it was easy to be noticed.

We were a small club. We drew lines and started specializing. Politics over there. Sports over here. I was the one who wrote about whatever was on my mind – ramblings from a late-20s ex-punker.

I became an advertising copywriter, and I shifted direction. I started being more selective and deliberate. I gave myself challenges – writing about every Sioux Falls Skyforce home game we attended, or writing each month about the books I was reading – and I started looking inside.

I was prolific, then I wasn’t. I wrote about kids. I wrote about death. I wrote about careers. And then I wrote about myself. About adjustment, learning, being a better person.

I wasn’t a blogger. It was never my main focus. It was just a thing I did when I needed an outlet, and it helped me work through things before I dove in too deep. I don’t write to communicate – I write to discover, the process itself helping me figure out just what the hell I’m trying to say.

If I’d have had a blog when I was learning to be a teacher, I might not have wasted those years wandering down the wrong path. I might have found my passion a little earlier in life. But that’s the past.


We take it for granted now, this ability to set up your own piece of real estate on the internet, especially with how easy it’s become. You may not fully own it – you may just rent it from Facebook or Medium or Twitter – but it is your sandbox. It’s whatever you want it to be. That still amazes me.

What amazes me even more is when someone takes that sandbox and builds it into something more. I was never going to be that someone. I was always going to be someone who used and ignored.

It’s still amazing to me that I was ever able to get my shit together enough to do it. That I was ever able to actually create something that I could get use out of. That’s not me. Or, at least, it wasn’t.


Somehow, it worked. Every small advancement in my career is due in some small part because I started a blog.

I used my blog to get a gig as a book columnist.

I used my blog to get my first paid assignments at the local paper.

I used my blog to show I could succeed as an unproven copywriter.

I used my blog to gain a larger audience through 9rules.

I used my blog to reach out to those in the local web community.

I used my blog to meet the person who would give me a chance as a web person.

I used my blog to write a love letter to content strategy.

I used my blog to prove myself, to gush endlessly about my future, to be embarrassing naive and learn from my mistakes, to gain the confidence to speak out, to take every single step from being a failed teacher to a happy and content web strategist.

I used my blog to find my voice, and in doing so I found my calling.


I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. And most of them can be found somewhere on this blog. Every misstep, each overeager blurt, every weird phase I’ve passed through on the way to something more stable and useful.

And, yet, I’ve done a lot of good. That’s all in here, too. I’ve written things that helped people – helped myself, to be honest. It’s weird to me, still. But it happened.

I don’t write here as much anymore, but when I do I hope to make it count. I hope that you’ve found something worthwhile in it – somewhere in this weird collection of 1,473 posts. And even if you haven’t, there’s always the future.

Happy 10th birthday, Black Marks on Wood Pulp. Thanks for all you’ve done.

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April 25th, 2012

There was a time when, if I was up at 3:30 AM, I was among friends. I was at a sleepover, high on Mountain Dew. I was at my senior party. I was heading home after a night at the Red Carpet to grab a slice of leftover pizza from the fridge. I was standing outside a sub shop after working late, finally finished with bar rush, discussing the rest of the night with my fellow sandwich makers.

At these times, 3:30 AM was merely a suggestion.

When I moved back to Sioux Falls, 3:30 AM became a time of peace. I worked late every night at a call center, and would spend an hour each night reading. It was wind-down time.

A few years later, when I had moved into a normal nine-to-five job, 3:30 AM shifted into a time of amazement. Those were the times I was awake in Sierra’s room – and later, in Isaac’s room – rocking them back to sleep, struck by the weight of their bodies, fighting not to nod off myself.

And then, 3:30 AM went away.

Until recently. Now, 3:30 AM is just the time I wake up with this asshole dog and take him outside.


I miss the old 3:30 AM.

Category: Vilhauer

April 10th, 2012

I popped up from the ground and ran. I was bleeding. A lot. My face was a mess, mashed into god knows what. But I couldn’t think about that. I was only half a block from my house, so I ran. I just ran.

Behind me lay my bike, left behind in an awkward angle, its front wheel released from the frame and its front fork jammed into the grass. The reflector lay strewn across the parking lot. My friend, who shifted from laughing to not laughing to genuine concern, ran behind me, trying to catch up.

I would later recount the scene to my father, my mother, an admitting nurse and a reconstructive surgeon: I was a half block from my house when my wheel had come off my bike. I was riding down a hill. The fork of my bike came down first, and I went up and over. My face went into the concrete. Where I slid. Where I spent just fractions of a second, jarred, confused. Then: alive.

I was alive. But I wasn’t hurting. I wasn’t in pain.

I was scared shitless.

Not Knowing Enough To Know What You Don’t Know

The web moves quickly, and we struggle to run along with it. I was reminded of this at the recent IA Summit in New Orleans, where I found myself hanging out with a group of the weekend’s speakers. As we laughed and ate and drank and talked about anything but information architecture, I realized that these people knew each other from way back. I was lagging in both familiarity and experience.

And, as the weekend rolled on, I realized just how much I was lagging in knowledge. The people I had spend the weekend getting to know were all accomplished speakers who could engage in hour-long discussions on IA, while all I could do is sit back and soak it in. I walked into the conference expecting to learn more about information architecture. I never expected to leave learning just how much I didn’t know about the field.

Turns out, this isn’t rare. This shit happens all the time.

Here’s some dude walking into a meeting with his first big client. Here’s a new author who’s signed an agreement for her first book. Here’s a small-time strategist who’s been asked to speak intelligently with much smarter people about things that may or may not be over his head.

These situations are common. They are called “New Situations”,” as in “This is something you’ve never done before.” They are situations in which we are required to be on point, knowledgable and charming, lying through our teeth about our experience. At all times, we’re scared to be found out, which means we’re scared of being discovered as an amateur.

As if we didn’t all start as amateurs. As if we weren’t all scared when we started something new. The difference is whether we took that fear and used it to our advantage.

My Little Black Book

I collect fears like some collect phone numbers, storing them away for future correspondance. Each one is categorized by relationship, given its own avatar and recalled as the mood fits.

Here’s a section I like to call “Professional Disembowelment.” It’s filled with doubts. I met them all when I started writing, and they still threaten to tear me apart. There’s the Fear of Being Found Out. There’s the Fear of Hackitude. There’s the Fear of Speaking and Not Knowing What I’m Talking About. The gang’s all here, folks, and they’re ready to party.

Sometimes, I steal fears: “Will My Child Be Okay?” and “Am I As Big Of An Asshole As I Sometimes Seem?” are things I’ve seen manifest in close friends. “Will I Be Overweight Forever” was borrowed from the Mass Media Television Complex. “Am I A Good Husband/Father/Friend” was lifted from everyone, everywhere, ever.

We all have these little black books, where fears and anxieties collect and pool and begin choking on our ability to work and create and live. They stop circulation. As the pools become muddy and still, they continue to coalesce until we do something about them.

We can ignore them and watch as they silently take over. We can accept them and stay stagnant. We can confront them and learn from them.

I never delete a fear. I never know when I’ll need it again.

Here’s a Moral, I Guess

Without fear, I am nothing.

Without the fear of being left behind, not accepted by my peers, forced to live in the nerd I’ve imagined myself to be, I’d have never met any of my best friends. What’s more, I’d have never met Kerrie. I’d have never captured her heart. I’d have never learned to feed off of her strength.

Without being thrown into a new industry, forced to write by the seat of my patched-together pants, scared to death that a client was going to come back and ask why they had hired such a damned hack, I’d have never pushed myself to become better.

Without the fear that I’d be left out of something wonderful, I’d have never moved toward the web.

Without the fear that I’d be discovered as a fraud – scared shitless that I’d open a drawer and find a litter’s worth of rabbit feet, proving that everything from the past five years was an extended exercise in luck management – I wouldn’t keep fighting to learn more.

Where there’s fear, there’s consciousness. We don’t fear things we don’t care about. I am who I am because I’ve stopped fighting the uncomfortable. I’ve accepted fear as a necessary part of progress, separating it from anxiety, using it for good instead of for ulcers. I haven’t done anything special – nothing that we all can’t do. I just bucked up and accepted life. Accepted fear. Accepted progress.

Without the fear, I stand still. We all do. Fear is the next killer productivity app.

We Move On

It only took a few minutes to get to the emergency room. My mother arrived shortly after. I was bandaged, gauzed and cosmetically altered, my chin sewn together and swaddled in gauze.

I usually forget about the accident, but I’m often reminded of the scars. I can still feel the lump where my tooth punctured my lip. I can still see the white line on my chin that refuses to beard over.

I can still feel the impact. Every time I get on a bike. Every time I ride down a hill. Every time I wobble, my tire sticking in a curb or against a railroad track.

What’s more, I feel it every time Sierra gets on a bike in the backyard and starts riding in circles. I feel it every time Isaac, unaware of his own mortality, speeds down the sidewalk head first, feet dragging, full speed. It was my accident – my blood, and my shock – but I’ve saddled them with the repercussions. I hover over them, I coddle them, and I sometimes block the warm rays of carefree childhood.

When I was a kid, I was scared of people. I’ve never gotten over that; struggling against the undertow of introversion has become one of my pastimes. I hope that my kids will learn from my mistakes – that being scared is okay, that you SHOULD be scared, that you can’t progress without the fear of failure and the fear of mistakes and the fear of being discovered.

But they probably won’t. They can’t. They have to make their own mistakes. They will develop their own fears.

They will learn from them. They will become stronger. On their own. In time. With or without my help. Which means all I can do is hug them and comfort them and hope they learn their lesson long before I did.

March 27th, 2012

I spent this past weekend in New Orleans, attending the Information Architecture Summit. It’s a wonderful city – just as beautiful as I had remembered.

Kerrie and I spent our honeymoon in New Orleans. We were stationed in the French Quarter. This was in 2003 – before the term “pre-Katrina” had any meaning. We were young. We spent a lot of time in bars. We had no children – no house payment, even. We were as free as New Orleans would allow us to be.

Nine years later – and despite the conference hotel being a mile away – I found myself wandering toward the French Quarter whenever I had a chance. There was never any purpose – just aimless wandering, walking through memories. Much of the area is still identical – little has changed in the Quarter over the past decade. Sheltered from the hurricanes, it lives on as a testament to New Orleans’ perseverance.

I expected to be disappointed. I’d built New Orleans to unrealistic expectations. I assumed I’d have the place all wrong – that New Orleans could barely live up to the image it creates for itself, let alone my own memories.

But every day I’d wake up with this longing. I wanted to go back into the city. I wanted to wander some more. I’d come across poverty, and run down buildings, and wonder why this wonderful city couldn’t get its shit together, and I’d turn the corner and see the lattice balconies and smell the best food in the world and remember that it’s to be expected. The city’s been knocked down enough times. At least let it get up before the 10 count.

When we got back from our honeymoon in 2003, I wrote a little narrative about our trip. It wasn’t great, but I found it mirrored my experience this weekend. It’s touched with the same sense of longing – and the same feelings of disgust. An exerpt:

The next morning, after running a few errands, we found ourselves standing in Louis Armstrong Park, located on the north side of Rampart Street: the “wrong side of the tracks” and the thin line between tourism and poverty. I was in a definite “bleeding heart” sort of mood, saddened to see what once could have been a majestic park, a historic land mark for one of Louisiana’s own sons, so out of maintenance, with murky pools, cracking asphalt, and a general air of dirtiness. I was, at the time, sort of disgusted that things could have become so worn out, that New Orleans could let itself get so run down.

But now, writing this, I realize that this isn’t just a solitary event, one that could be stopped and reversed, like a botox injection onto the dotted line at Rampart. This is New Orleans. And this is how New Orleans deals with itself. It’s a city that celebrates and clings to its history by allowing it to age – by letting those cracks and that dirt show up to the tourists. I have heard many people tell me that New Orleans is so dirty – so “vile” – and that, because of this, they didn’t really care for the Big Easy.

You know what? Those people are right. New Orleans is dirty. New Orleans is vile. New Orleans is somewhat incredulously without care. New Orleans is a city that never makes excuses for itself. It lets everything hang out, all of the inspired debauchery, the uneven streets, the garbage on the ground, and even the smell.

Everything is done its own way, as if New Orleans itself was turning to the rest of the metros – looking New York City and Los Angeles in the face — and flipping them the bird with one hand while holding a fifth of Phillips Rum in the other; the cousin from Louisiana that everyone is both embarrassed by and fascinated with.

I know now its mystery, though I could never start to understand it. I try to accept its fallacies. I embrace its undying quest to be the drunkest town on earth. It isn’t hard to imagine getting sucked into the history and charade of New Orleans.

It’s everywhere you look, in every gated doorway, around every rustic street plaque, under every iron lattice balcony. It’s at the bottom of the beer you drink while swapping stories with a local land owner. It’s in the neon signs that line the French Quarter at night. Everyone gets sucked in. That’s the whole point of New Orleans.

What takes time to develop is an appreciation for the legend of New Orleans. An appreciation that, no matter how dirty, or unorthodox, or insanely confusing it gets, New Orleans is in control – and always has been. There’s nothing that has happened that she doesn’t know, and, thankfully for everyone who has experienced a few minutes of uninhibited Louisiana pleasure, she never tells a soul. Orleans never shares a secret.

And New Orleans has a lot of secrets.

My feelings haven’t changed a bit. I love that city, even if all I wanted to do after the first two days was come home. I love it in spite of itself.

Category: Travel, Vilhauer

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February 8th, 2012

Recently, I’ve taken up running. I challenged myself to a 5k race in March, and to train I’m using the Couch to 5k training program.

I couldn’t believe how hard it was.

The program is simple – you run longer and longer each time, until your body is accustomed to running for 35 minutes at a time. The first week has you pairing one-minute runs with one-minute walks for 16 minutes. By the third week, you’re running 3-5 minutes at a time. By the end of the seventh week, you’re up to a single 25-minute run.

In the past – as many of us have – I’d have accepted this 5k challenge by jumping right into a 5k run. Just do it. No guts, no glory. No shins, either, as they’d have died the next day.

In running, there’s no concept of all or nothing. Instead, you must respect time. You must earn your place. And if you do, running is no longer hard. It just becomes part of what you do. It finds a niche in your routine and takes root.

There’s a life lesson in there, somewhere.

Category: Sports, Vilhauer

May 1st, 2011

Fourteen years ago, I went to the Lincoln High School senior prom. Tonight, I went back.

Then, it was the El Riad Shrine Mosque. Then, I was dressed in a black tux with a blue pocket square, with my date and then-girlfriend wearing a matching blue dress. My friends were there. My future wife was there. And though I’ve never been much of a dancer or public performer, I gave in. I loosened up. I had fun.

Tonight, it was also The El Riad Shrine Mosque. Tonight, I was dressed in a black vest, weighed down by a camera and flash, sweating as much as I did in that tux but for a COMPLETELY different reason this time.

I didn’t participate. I only took pictures. And I had a blast.

I had forgotten in the past 14 years just how fresh faced we were, and what’s amazing is that these kids are no different. Senior prom is the last step before graduation. It’s the last stand for teenage butterflies, our queasiness shifting from girls and boys to “life after high school,” our friends becoming memories and our relationships becoming real.

Everyone smiled. Everyone danced. Everyone sang. The DJ would drop another song, and the crowd would rise as one. With a kind of solidarity I know we didn’t have, they jumped and moved and acted in one movement. As a cohesive unit. Everyone, from the uneasy loners to the homecoming queen.

This wasn’t a class. This was a family. I’ll be honest: I didn’t think things like that happened in high school.

A lot has changed in the past 14 years. The music has changed. The trends have changed. My customs are no longer relevant. But there was still the same optimism and puppy love and excitement and bravery on that dance floor tonight. And a little grinding, yes. But mostly excitement and bravery.

Fourteen years ago, I went to my senior prom. I remember it for looking across the dance floor and falling in love with Kerrie. But it was also when I gave every last ounce I had, because it wasn’t long until graduation and who knew when we’d see each other again after that.

Tonight, they played Lady Gaga. The crowd roared in approval. The student body jumped in unison, their fists pumping the air as if they were forming a mosh pit at an Earth Crisis concert.

Then, goosebumps. Not from nostalgia, but from pride.

Category: Vilhauer