May 12th, 2015

Everybody seems to wonder
What it’s like down here
I gotta get away from this day-to-day running around
Everybody knows this is nowhere.

— Neil Young, “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere”

The lights can be blinding when you wander into focus. When everyone starts looking at you; when you have become the subject of everyone’s sentence. There’s a pause, and in that pause there’s a choice. You let this bother you. Or you don’t.

This post originally appeared May 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

Sometimes the choice is easy. You just do it. You have nothing to lose. The stakes are not high enough.

Yet, sometimes…

You do what you do. You entertain, you teach, you present, you learn. You are at the head of a conference table explaining your decisions. You are on stage in front of 200 people. You are in a discovery meeting justifying your position.

As you walk off stage, you have an idea of how it went. It went perfectly. It went horribly. It just went.

And then you look at the feedback.

The One Side

The first time I spoke at a conference, I nailed it. This is not bragging – I honestly had no idea my talk would go over as well as it did. But it did. And as I wandered amongst friends and conference attendees and other speakers at the conference party, I felt everything wash away. I had looked the beast in the eyes, and I had slayed it.

I can do this, I thought. Though, there shouldn’t have ever been any doubt. I am a trained teacher with a degree in secondary biology education. I had handled worse crowds as a fresh substitute, filling in for advanced-level high school Biology II classes, trying to reign the wandering minds of students that were only five years younger than I was.

Seriously. What the hell could a conference crowd do that an 18-year-old with senioritis couldn’t?

And Then the Other

And then, last week, I gave the talk of my life. I had worked and fretted and made myself insane over this talk. I took to heart all of the feedback I had ever received: make sure you give the crowd something they can act on. Be funny. Give a little bit of your own personality. Practice. Do it. Be it.

I nailed it. Again.

And then I looked at the feedback. It wasn’t pretty.

I remembered back to the first time I ever led a discovery meeting, where my lack of experience had been exposed and I felt like a complete fraud. I went into the meeting with the idea that I could do this – that this was going to be a fantastic meeting – and left wondering what had happened.

When pressed, I had no answers. When prodded, I shuddered and hoped it would somehow go away.

Years later, I understand that the key to thinking on your toes is to assume you know more than everyone else. But that’s not my style. A fair number of us don’t think that way. It’s not introversion – the great over-diagnosed condition of the web era. It’s just that we hedge our bets and we assume that there’s always something more to learn. We aren’t wired to be forceful and confident.

But sometimes that’s what we need. We need to pretend we are forceful and confident. We need to play that part, like going against type in a community theater play. We need to stop assuming we’re Seymour and start playing the part of the Audrey II.

Ignore or Push Forward

When I walk into the lights, I want to be perfect.

I want to be Don Draper. I want to be Ginger Rodgers. I want to be every character in the Ocean’s movies.


I can’t be perfect, and you can’t be perfect, and no one can be perfect, because this shit isn’t scripted and despite the fact that we try really really hard we’ll never be perfect. Every time we step on stage, we’re less than perfect. Every time.

Every time. We fail, because we want to be mistake-free, and we forget that mistakes are what make us normal. Relatable. Human.

And we could feel horrible about that. Or, we could stop worrying and just try to be good. Because we are good. It’s just that sometimes we freeze up under pressure. That’s what pressure does. That’s what humans do.

So I can’t be perfect. I just need to be good. And make an impact. Even if that impact doesn’t fit into the Hollywood storyline.

That Moment

I got bad reviews – at least the ones I snuck a look at before shutting it down and ignoring the rest. I was completely and utterly shattered for two days. Why do I do this? If this talk sucks – a talk I gave specifically to a set of people that I thought would understand it, a talk that I thought had gone as well as any talk I had ever given – then what do I do?

Do I scrap it? Do I give up? Do I spend the next 21 days fixing it before I give it again, not knowing if anything I’m doing is going to actually help?

Or do I reframe the question?

Because the opinions of that vocal minority – the 8% of people who had responded – shouldn’t really dictate my feelings. They should not determine whether or not my performance and message were worth it to the rest of the group. I can allow them to represent a small portion, but I’ll never know how everyone thought.

So I had a choice. I could trust my gut, or I could pay attention to a few people who gave me a bad score.

And, after a few days, it was easy.

I was going to trust my gut. Because regardless of the platitudes and positive feedback and negative vibes, my gut doesn’t feed me any bullshit. It just tells me when I think I’m doing okay.

And, to be honest, that’s about as confident a cheerleader I’ll ever need.

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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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February 12th, 2015

Used to be there was one way to become a major recording star, and that’s by finding a major recording label. You could woo the crowds in Nashville and make the crowd swoon, but you weren’t going to make millions until Capitol Records showed up on your front step.

Had stage fright? Didn’t like to travel? Didn’t want a label producer tweaking your sound? You’re out of luck. You had two paths: you can be a gigantic player, or you could go home, unknown forever. You couldn’t both be successful and stay true.

This post originally appeared February 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

And then, the independents rose in defiance, bolstered by 70s punk. There was another option — a way to be nationally known without exceeding scope. The floodgates opened, and suddenly everything started sounding a little different.

Updating the Path to Success

Most of us grow up assuming the road to success is paved — that regardless of the end destination, there’s one main artery with very few exits. You go to school. You get a degree. You work within that degree. You move up the ladder and retire at the top. Any other path is an uncharted dirt road, slower and more dangerous. Drive at your own risk.

It doesn’t take long before we understand the limitations of that career arc. The closer you get to the top, the more crowded things become. The road to success isn’t even a road — it’s a bottleneck of toll booths, weeding out people as the pack moves forward.

But, like those early record companies were usurped by both the advent of a viable independent record industry and the internet, so too is the traditional sense of success. Smaller voices are being brought to mainstream attention, and in some cases we’re detouring around mainstream attention altogether.

Now, there is no need to aim for the top. You can do what you love — modestly, with attention to size and scope — without being tied to a larger concept of “success.” Those independent record labels? They were filled with fantastic artists who were trying hard to make great music — with or without the trappings of a major label arena act. Top-of-the-charts success was no longer the only path to happiness.

We’re learning this slowly in tech. Sure, some sectors are still focused on being that big dog mentality — getting backed by insane venture capitalist money, or becoming an agency executive, or landing on a powerful board of directors.

But not everyone. Not anymore. Sometimes, we’re just looking for a different destination. Not everyone wants to end up at the top. We’re slowly embracing the idea that sometimes staying small is exactly the right place to be.

On Being Happy With Small

Where I may have once measured my own success by where I fit along someone else’s career path, I now focus on what I can borrow to take me down my own road. I’m no longer looking for a map or compass — I’m looking for tools to help clear the brush.

We are fortunate to work in an industry where measures of success and worthiness have forked thousands of times. We don’t compare each other based on titles and location — we measure each other based on knowledge, community, and honesty. Which means what once felt like the traditional path — Work Hard, Get Bigger, Take Over — is no longer the assumed path.

Some people get to stay small. Some people thrive by staying small.

I may never work on a project as large as the New York Times. I may never speak on stage in front of 7,000 people. I may never own my own company. I may never write a book. I may never become the voice of my industry.

I’m okay with this, because these are not my goals.

My goal is to live a balanced life, where the work I do is important, where the time I have with my family and friends is plentiful, where I can grow and improve and do fantastic work. I don’t need the big stage to do these things.

Everything else is an added benefit. I might never get that hit record, but I’m going to have a hell of a time making something awesome.

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February 4th, 2015

Here’s a bit of truth.

Time is limited. The things we want to do require time, and that time is not infinite. Our bad habits take time. Moving from place to place takes time. Sleep takes time. Eating. Sulking. Living. Ambition. It all takes time.

Aspirations, however. They don’t take a lot of time. They just require an active mind. Aspirations lead to great things. Aspirations lead to groundbreaking projects and pure joy and unbridled excitement.

Aspirations are timeless.

Putting them into reality, though. That takes time.

The value of those aspirations, the quality of our eating and sulking and living, the strength of our ambition – these things are all varied. They can all be debated and fought over. But time is limited. That much is truth.

I’ll go on.

A Problem

Over the past decade, I’ve seen a pattern in the people I respect.

They look for good. They admit when they’re wrong. They challenge things, and they further great causes – and when they can’t, they support those who can. They get less prolific, but they get more focused. Quality over quantity. Signal vs. noise.

They don’t feel the need to be everywhere at once. They admit when they’re overwhelmed. They balance their life. They make time for the right things.

They know when to disengage.

Me, however? I was having a hard time disengaging. I was part of the mid-00s blogosphere. I found a voice before I had learned moderation, and I loved being a part of something so big that I couldn’t bear to lose it. I was too afraid to disengage.

I wanted to connect with everyone. In doing so, I never formed a real connection with anyone. I pinned things in maps.

Some of those pins were valuable. They became friendships.

Some of those pins were redundant. They were my existing support, and they’d have been there without the map.

Some of those pins angered me. They angered me with their assumptions. With their transparent lousiness. With their pretentiousness. Things you can’t comment about on the internet, because even the most well meaning grapes seem sour when spelled out in 140 characters.

But the pins that angered me stayed on my board out of obligation. If you ask me what I’m most embarrassed about in the past five years, it’s that I kept my friends close, but I kept my unrelated annoyances even closer.

A Solution

I have aspirations, and those aspirations require action, and that action requires time, and I was spending too much time was spent wondering how in the hell that person has the nerve to be so transparently arrogant and why is this person actively channeling what seems like an overly sexist and naive line of thinking and oh my god I can see through the mindlessness and carelessness of this messaging so why can’t anyone else.

My aspirations were taken hostage by people who I thought I needed to care about. There was so much noise.

And then I had a weird and obvious moment of clarity, when everything came together – a few minutes after a rant about someone I barely know on a social network I barely liked. That’s when my friend Eileen asked a simple question.

“Why don’t you stop following that person?”

I mean…


So I did.

An Action

I unfollowed one. And then another.

Every time someone would raise my ire, I would examine that ire. Is this a one-time disagreement? Or is this just another in a long line of things that I’m irrationally angry about, another drop in the bucket of a relationship that, while beneficial or important in some superficial way, is ultimately bound for failure.

If I found myself getting frustrated over and over again? I unfollowed them.

I left Facebook altogether, which meant I left Foursquare. I left Timehop. I left everything that was tied to Facebook, and with that noise cancelled I began looking further out. I stopped worrying about everyone else.

I started worrying about me. Not selfishly, but practically.

And, with the support and backing of my friends and family, I have transformed that worrying into productivity. No longer comparing, fuming, fighting fights that weren’t worth winning. So much more time to do the things I love. So much more peace.

Change came not from new insights, but from the absence of some old ones.

A Resurgence

I have started writing again. I have started booking speaking engagements. I was on a year hiatus that, in some part, was fueled by the frustration of being a part of a toxic rat race of being The Most Right.

I am thankful that I am still an unknown entity, because I can use Twitter to my own specifications, unencumbered by random responses and thread-jacking.

Most of all, I’m thankful that I can somehow balance being both unapologetic and deliberate. That I can let go of someone and not care. That I can give myself space. That I can turn things down without guilt.

I have aspirations, and I am turning those aspirations into action. Because time is limited. Because my attention deserves more. Because I don’t need to be a part of everything.

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January 21st, 2015

I worked on a project for a few hours after work today. It felt really good to finally push some thoughts out. I was on a roll – lost in some jazz record recommended by Twitter, free-flowing through a kind of giddy atmosphere. I didn’t think. I just wrote. I just wrote, and then I wrote some more, and then I had a lot of words and I was happy and the sun returned to the sky and everything was beautiful again.

I took a break. I looked at my fantasy basketball team. I looked for another jazz record.

I returned to read through everything, and realized it was time to cut loose. Because the sun was gone now. This shit was horrible. Trite. Without passion or logic. Oof.

And yet, I still felt pretty good. It’s weird how the exercise of intense writing – unbridled spillage, really, with no real place in the world – can fail so spectacularly, yet still end up as valuable as publishing something fantastic.

There are a lot of clogs in our head. When they’re flushed out, they are often gross and unusable. Gotta keep flushing them out, though. Gotta keep flushing them out and throwing them away.

So I dismissed my day’s output. I filed it away. For later, maybe. Probably forever though.

And then the my internet connection disappeared. I packed up and went home. Exhausted from writing thousands of words. Refreshed that I decided to keep none.

Category: Writing

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January 12th, 2015

If I could find a good quote, I’d put it here. Something smart from some science fiction writer about the future – about losing ourselves in documentation, about how our technology captures us and keeps us from enjoying life. Something from Le Guin. Something from Bradbury.

Instead, all I have is a few words about quitting things.

This post originally appeared January 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

Last year I quit using Facebook. It changed things, but not in the way I expected. I assumed I was going to have more time to do things; more attention and focus.

I still don’t have those things. Quitting Facebook didn’t make the day longer. It didn’t sharpen my attention. To be honest, Facebook wasn’t even really my problem. It’s a sharing and documentation system – it’s hard to blame it for my squishy inability to let go.

Still, losing the system mattered. I found myself losing connection with tons of events and updates. I no longer knew what was happening. I would learn things second-hand. I was out of the loop.

It could be argued that I was already hearing things second-hand, though – the Internet itself serving as the conduit, my life collecting a series of updates and images and feeds, everything being filtered not through the eyes of experience but through selective representation. Only the things worth squirreling away were presented. I didn’t live: I collected and posted.

My relationship with social media is less about communication and more about collecting. Each experience becomes little more than a pin on a map – a single point of data free of any connection, the metadata stripped away. I had lists of past vacations and folders of photographs. I had a pile of Foursquare data that I could view a year later on Timehop. I had touch points but no feeling.

Getting rid of Facebook – which in turn forced my hand on several other social apps connected via Facebook – allowed my mind to ease off a bit. I stopped collecting, and became more deliberate with the few social networks I still enjoy. I’ve started writing again – the one data collection method that actually enhances my experience of an event or feeling.

More than that, I’ve finally been able to get a bit of clarity. I know that engaging with the web – posting status updates and making Twitter jokes and checking in on Foursquare – doesn’t approximate a life lived. Experiences and relationships and laughter and rage and the bruises I get from the knees of my children – these are a life lived.

I knew this. But I never acted on it. Until I had no choice – until I pulled the trigger and stopped judging things based on whether they’d make a good post.

It’s more clear, now, when I stop and think, “What makes this moment worth documenting?” knowing that when I put that thought into the world it’s not just another pin on a map.

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December 16th, 2014

I am not a collector in the most common sense of the word. I rarely care about free market value. I only care about personal completeness.

An example: I do not buy expensive records. I guess I collect vinyl by the strict definition of the word, but I do so for a specific reason: I like it, and I like music, and I like the bands I like.

My rarest record might be worth nearly $40. I suck at collecting.

It’s cool. My dedication comes from a different point: I’m in this to pay my respects. I’m repurchasing my favorite albums on record because I feel affinity toward them. These are physical manifestations of my life in music. I collect not to invest, but to celebrate.

For a while there, though, that was harder than it sounds. Several of my all-time favorite records had not been released on vinyl in decades, meaning their cult-status had driven prices up to $150 or more. The market dictated that Modest Mouse’s first two full length albums were worth somewhere around $300. And good luck finding those They Might Be Giants records.

But, as with all good things, patience paid off. Let’s all thank the concept of Record Store Day (and the upcoming 20th anniversary of most of the records you might have liked in high school or college) for a bevy of re-releases and new deluxe versions of great records. That $300+ market for those Modest Mouse records died when both were re-released. And this past Black Friday Record Store Day saw the re-release of one of TMBG’s most beloved full lengths, Flood, paired with an earlier re-release of Apollo 18.

What’s old (and expensive on eBay) is new again. But we’re not all the way there, yet, and there are records I still wish I could find at reasonable prices.

Indulge me for a moment: I’m list-making.

  • Mike Watt, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?
    HIGHEST PRICE: $50.09

    Watt’s first solo album was more of a who’s who of late grunge, featuring Watt on various instruments backed (and fronted) by everyone from J Mascis to Thurston Moore to Eddie Vedder. It’s an eclectic slab of music, highlighted by former 120 Minutes standby “Big Train,” which has also become one of the most requested songs on my kids’ Rdio playlist.

  • R.E.M., Automatic for the People/Monster/New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  • LAST PRESSING: 1992/1994/1996
    HIGHEST PRICE: $62.29/$82.72/$350.00

    The mid-to-late 90s brought R.E.M.’s biggest hit, biggest disappointment, and last great album – all in order. Yet, finding these records is difficult, if only because they came at vinyl’s lowest point, when CDs were king. (I also really like Monster, so there’s my dirty secret.) The current cycle R.E.M. is on focuses on re-releasing vinyl on the 25th anniversary. We’re just three years from that Automatic re-release… and still seven away from seeing New Adventures.

  • Promise Ring, 30° Everywhere
    HIGHEST PRICE: $125.00

    Emo as hell, yet underproduced. This isn’t the Promise Ring album you’ve heard of, but it’s their debut, and it’s still my favorite. Good luck finding any of those old mid-to-late 90s emo records, most often sold to young punks at 50-person shows.

  • Ugly Casanova, Sharpen Your Teeth
    HIGHEST PRICE: $180.00

    We got the major Modest Mouse albums re-issued, how about the only official album from Isaac Brock’s side project, Ugly Casanova. Just as sought after as the previously unfindable Modest Mouse records, Sharpen Your Teeth still nearly get into that $200 range.

  • Frank Black, Frank Black/Teenager of the Year
  • LAST PRESSING: 1993/1994
    HIGHEST PRICE: $122.56/$246.66

    After The Pixies and before The Catholics was Frank Black’s most visible solo records – I’m a gigantic fan of Teenager of the Year, but most people go for the first, self-titled record. For an artist that waxed poetic about Pong and UFOs and spies, it can’t be long before his early solo work shows back up on the scene.

  • Jets To Brazil, Orange Rhyming Dictionary/Four Cornered Night/Perfecting Loneliness
  • LAST PRESSING: 1998/2000/2002
    HIGHEST PRICE: Unknown/$49.99/$99.99

    I dunno. I like Blake Schwarzenbach. But unlike Jawbreaker, there are no former band members actively promoting and spearheading the cause for the Jets to Brazil discography.

Everything old is new again, and that’s exactly how the record industry works. You give a band a reason to re-press some vinyl, these days that’s as good as a bundle of cash. The only people who miss out are those who are too slow to snatch up some classics.

And those poor souls with $300 records on eBay. Sorry, dudes.

Category: Music

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