To Jody, Blackbirds, And Never Having To Go It Alone

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When you start something new, it’s almost impossible to not feel a little crazy. 

There is a voice - really, a full choir of voices - warning you of everything that’s going to be hard and everything that’s going to go wrong; reminding you of just how draining and painful and terrifying and frustrating the journey can be; putting right back front and center the fact that you were pretty sure you weren’t ever going to do this again. 

Of course, you don’t listen. Or at least, the part of you that just can’t not create, can’t not build, can’t not believe and try, wins out. 

And then, there you are, naked to the world. I forget, every time, how much of the beginning of entrepreneurial projects is asking for help - in just about every way one can ask for help. 

If you’re lucky, there are two types of people that answer the call, and the two different types of what they provide is each essential in its own way. 

The first are the people who are going to help you, no matter what, because it’s you - because they’ve decided they care enough about you that it’s just not a question. 

When Jen and I started Instigator, we came up with the crazy idea of asking startup entrepreneurs to crowdfund our first wine. The first email we got was from my friend Micah. I’ll never forget it. It said:

"1) congrats

2) lets hang soon!

3) you know that Im sober (for 6 years)

4) even so, Im in.

love ya,

micah”

There is nothing that can replace this type of help. It’s the type that let’s the belief win out over the fear in the first place. 

But there is another type, which, as the journey progresses, becomes as important as air and water. 

That type of help is the type that comes when you share your ideas with new people who - with no personal history and no obligation - decide to help you anyway. 

The first Original Instigator to come from outside my group of friends was Jody Sherman. 

Jen and I were in Eden with the Summit community last summer, enjoying an amazing Michael Hebb dinner, sipping wine and reveling in the sense of promise that permeates that place. 

We had been running late and so everyone was already most of the way through dinner when we got there. I liked the look of the dude with the crazy hair and tattoos, so we sad down. 

It took no time to get into it…It felt like within seconds, Jody was zoned in, asking questions and sharing ideas. It was one of those conversations where you find that a new person has somehow climbed right up and plopped down right beside you in your own head.

It was probably only 15 or 20 minutes before Jody had to head off, but he ended it with his pledge to join the Original Instigators and a promise that he would introduce us to his old investor friend who taught him everything he knew about wine. 

I thought about that conversation a lot over the next couple months, especially in the inevitable, wait-what-the-hell-am-I-doing-again-rocky periods. 

I’m thinking about it a lot today, the day after I heard that Jody was gone

I wanted to start this company because the thing that brings me the most joy is helping people get out and lead the lives they were meant to lead. I believe from my core when more people do what they love, the world gets better. 

We all need people along the journey. No one can live their purpose - no one can live their passion - alone. 

And even if we could, what the fuck would it matter without others to share it with? 

In 1984, Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s nest, lost his college-aged son to brain damage a few days after a car accident. He wrote a letter to a few friends telling them about the moment in the hospital when his boy finally gave up the ghost.

As the last breathe passed from Jed’s lips, the doctors came in and asked Ken and his family if they thought maybe their son might have been interested in sharing his life with others who needed the parts he had left behind. 

Yes, yes of course! Was Kesey’s excited answer - being an organ donor would have made Jed incredibly happy. Hours later, they got a call that their son, just a few hours gone, had already helped save a dozen others. 

"And the redwinged blackbirds sing in the budding greengage plumtree," he wrote.

I didn’t know Jody well, but I know his spirit is now a part of this company. I know his spirit is now a part of me. And maybe most importantly of all, I know it’s going to be a part of whoever I’m able to touch with the time that I have. 

Wish I got to knew you better. Glad I got to know you at all. 

Resolving To Live Free Of The Fear Underneath New Year’s Resolutions

The dark underbelly of New Year’s isn’t debaucherous parties and drunken mistakes, but fear. 

Every resolution contains within it not just a hopeful notion of a future self, but an admonition to fear of being or becoming someone we don’t want to be; of being lost in waves of time that crash unceasingly onward. 

**

There is a truism that it takes one seven years to decide what to get as their first tattoo, and seven minutes to decide what to get as their second. 

Almost before the ink was dry on the quill on my right forearm, I began thinking about where to put an oar crossed with a harpoon. 

The reference was, nominally, Moby Dick. I think Ahab is one of the most important characters in literature. On the one hand, he represents the power of the entrepreneurial spirit - the very drive, ambition, and unwillingness to stop that made America great. On the other hand, he ended up literally consumed (in this case, by the great white whale) because nature or the universe whatever you want to ascribe it to simply didn’t care; he was, for all the majesty of his ambition, in their eyes small. 

One of the greatest challenges for human beings in general and, I’ve found, entrepreneurs in particular, is accepting the paradox of how much power we have to shape the destiny of those around us while simultaneously being a tiny spec in the cosmic consciousness. 

How much of our lives are spent exerting trying to exert our will on the world - attempting to reorient and reshape the forces around us to achieve the goals we have? This is both in the metaphorical sense, as well as in the very reshaping of the physical world around us. 

Yet no matter how enamored we become of our dominion and mastery over nature and fate, one disaster - on the personal or collective scale - is often all it takes to remind us of how little control we really have. 

There is something interesting going on this year, at least within my community of friends. 

More and more, the entrepreneurial people I know are asking themselves how much they’re willing to trade today’s happiness for the potential of some theoretical future objective. They’re wondering, to put it another way, whether success is a place you get, or whether it might instead be a way of being. 

These are, by and large, positive people, and most of them seem to frame this exploration in positive terms - in the context of a search for something better. But for many, I think there is a desperate fear underneath. It is a fear of waking up tired and slow, with only a spark of the passion they once had, wondering in spite of their achievements what it was all for. 

This is finding expression in a different attitude towards New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve seen a half dozen posts, tweets, or status updates that are effectively resolving to not have resolutions, but to simply live. 

What strikes me about this is not necessarily that it’s new - these sorts of internal conversations about the prioritization of today vs tomorrow are a part of the human canon. What’s interesting is that they’re being had in public by the entrepreneurs who in years past would almost certainly have been the loudest in setting goals and bounding restlessly and relentlessly to the future with little regard for the present. It feels to me like part of a changing trend in how we, as a people, think about success. 

As for me, the volume on these conversations has been turned down just a notch, if only because the last year has so clearly demonstrated how unintended paths can lead one to wonderful places. 2013 is a year for creating the future; but it’s not the future I would have known I wanted to create not too long ago, and there is something contenting about that. 

I don’t have that tattoo yet, because I’m not sure where I want to put it. I’m pretty sure I’ll know when I know. 

Experienced But Not Expressed (My New Music Blog)

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Here’s the rub. I spend – and have spent, every day, since I was about 11 – hours and hours hunting for new music. And at the end of every year, all too much of the week between Christmas and New Years is devoted to sifting and sorting through it to put together some end of year list. 

The thing of it is, this year’s summation damn near killed me. The advent of digital production and distribution has led to an explosion of innovation, and genres are crumbling faster than weigh loss resolutions in February. There is simply too much good music to try to capture it all once a year, and so I find myself needing a new strategy. 

The title of my new music blog comes from an essay by Aldus Huxley called ‘The Rest is Silence.’ In it, he writes:

From pure sensation to the intuition of beauty, from pleasure and pain to love and the mystical ecstasy and death — all the things that are fundamental, all the things that, to the human spirit, are most profoundly significant, can only be experienced, not expressed. The rest is always and everywhere silence. After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music…

For me, writing has always been simultaneously an act of futility and aspiration. Words are, ultimately, our best attempt to give life the feelings inside of us that are so wonderful, so overwhelming, so hopeful, horrifying, harrowing, of just simply huge that we must try to share them. 

Of course, we can’t. What language does is give us a means to provoke in someone else feelings similar enough that they grok our clumsy attempts at explanation. How well someone resonates with our particular words often determines how close we are with them; how much of love is looking into someone’s eyes and knowing, without words, that they understand that great incommunicable thing? 

But there is something about music that is different. In its greatest moments, it doesn’t just connect us to ourselves, but undermines our ultimate cosmic loneliness. Every day, in concert halls and on festival grounds, people, lifted by euphoria or tragedy or whatever emotion the music demands, find that they have ceased to be individuals and are instead subject to the same transcendent experience, on fire with connection and hope and mysterious wonder. 

Given all this, it seems like double folly to try to write about music. There is even a famous quote, variously attributed to about a half dozen different musicians, which goes something like “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Still, what are we if not great try-ers? The point of being alive, one might argue, is to be found in the striving. So here I am, and here is my new music blog. I hope you enjoy it. 

-nlw

Dec 31, 2012.

NLW’s Best Dance Tracks Of The Year 2012

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After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

-Aldous Huxley

Dance music exploded into my life in 2011. It was the soundtrack to a newly discovered, less serious and more in-the-moment part of my personality; a euphoric side of myself that wanted to get lost in, rather than constantly try to understand and analyze, the moment. My connection with it coincided with a larger explosion of dance across the spectrum of American popular music - the amount of ink that has been spilt exploring the new dominance of dance in 2012 is significant.

For me, the reasons seem obvious. Kids today (including those of us discovering that being kids doesn’t necessarily end in your 20s and 30s) have grown up in an era in which the rapid changes of technology both model and enable our particular mode of cultural creation and interaction. We experiment, remix, and iterate, never sitting still, and always wanting more, wanting new. At our best, we strive constantly to become a better version of ourselves and to create a better version of the world. We tend not to find our way to contentment easily, and certainly, we have a hard time sitting still.

No genre better fits this way of being than today’s dance music. Avicii’s “Levels” was the biggest hit of..well, fucking ever…and certainly of 2011. Avicii’s great, but I’m a hardcore, punk, and metal kid at heart, and Skrillex and his ilk have always been more my jam. Indeed, that melodic heavy womp was my gateway into the genre. I remember, one night in November of last year, noticing people tweeting about a Youtube video that had the words Skrillex and Avicii and Levels all together.  I was, suffice it to say, excited.

The video was a grainy phone capture of a Skrillex show in Sheffield in the UK. He says “Literally, I was a little bit late because I was just upstairs finishing this song. You’re the first to hear it.” It was the first ever drop of his remix of “Levels.” It was finished in a hotel room 5 minutes before it was performed for the first time. Within 6 hours, the video was on Youtube and kids like me were watching it. Within a day, bedroom producers had reconstructed it to the best of their ability, and some were already remixing it. It would be months by the time it was formally released, and by then it was already familiar to anyone who cared to pay attention.

For all the bad of our modern era - the haste, and chaos, and confusion, and disruption, and scary unknown of the future, dance music represents the best; it models the best of our expanded opportunity for creativity, and collaboration, and synchronicity, and the elevation of the human spirit through shared experience.

I’ve been thinking about this music list all year. Below is my list of the top tracks of 2012. It’s stupidly long, due entirely to the fact that I’ve spent a stupidly large percentage of my year paying attention. When it comes to rankings, I think that as bullshit as rankings inherently are, the top part of this list - let’s say the top 25 at least where I’ve actually described why a song is where it is - reflect two things: first, what I see as important trends from the last year; and second, what I loved most. The fun thing about creating a list is that it is ultimately as much about telling your story as any other.

Debate, disagree, digest. And dance. Whatever you do, just.fucking.dance.

*A note on methodology: Believe it or not, I really thought a lot about these rankings, especially at the top. Step one was I went through all of my Hype Machine favorites, Shazams, and RDIO collection to pull out the tracks I loved. For each, I gave it a rough ranking (top 20, top 50, top 100, etc). Then, I went through and figured out my top 10 or 15. These were based on two factors: 1) their significance to the genre/demonstration of important trends and 2) how much I liked them. After that, I pretty much just went down the listed and slotted things in where I liked them best. It’s definitely me - as in, it’s real heavy on the heavy, and real light on the straight house. Sorry Afrojack. 

*A note on tracks: some of these are remixes that simply aren’t available on RDIO & Spotify. In those cases, I’ve embedded a Soundcloud file of the song.

RDIO playlist: http://rd.io/x/QBwGL14M2w

Spotify playlist: http://open.spotify.com/user/nlwhittemore/playlist/28ng9anPIR4UD7r38NeM0E

Full list after the jump.

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SOMA Is A Preview Of The Future Of Great Product Brands

SOMA is a new approach to home water filtration, started by a collection of social and technology entrepreneurs. In just 9 short days, they exceeded their $100,000 Kickstarter fundraising goal. Any one who wants to know what a great product brand looks like in the future needs to be paying attention. 

**

For many, brand is a four-letter word; a tool of marketers for deceiving, selling, and taking advantage of the worst impulses of mass consumer culture. And in the context of an approach to capitalism which has for decades embraced the mantra of faster, cheaper, crappier, the skepticism is understandable. 

At their best, however, brands are vehicles for simplifying the complicated stories of people, organizations, and companies in ways that invite others to join those stories.  Apple’s logos and advertisements aren’t just tools for marketing; they’re attempts to capture a worldview that celebrates creativity as the pinnacle of human achievement. Red Bull’s sponsorship of crazy, adrenaline-fueled events aren’t just lusting after social media shares, but are designed to create tangible examples of the sort of ridiculous, experimental, and ultimately fantastically fun life they imagine Red Bull being a part of. 

In the last 20 years, both product and information saturation have reached new levels. The generation that grew up with the internet had more consumer choices than any generation before it, as well as dramatically more advertising and marketing messages thrown at it. One of the consequences has been a higher level of skepticism about marketing, and a greater desire to affiliate with companies that they believe are authentic in their desire to create real value in the world. 

In the future, brands will be competing in a marketplace where consumers simply expect more of companies. So what did SOMA do right?

**

1. Problem selection

The entrepreneurs behind SOMA didn’t just want to build a big company. They didn’t want to just make money. If they were going to spend their limited time on earth building something, they wanted it to be meaningful. They wanted it to be important. 

Water, the resource at the very center of all organic life, seemed like an appropriate place to start. The industry for home filtration was full of tired products and tired ideas, and the founders believed they could bring not only better filtration methods, but more beauty in the actual product experience. 

What’s more, a home water system created a starting point to use the company to launch a broader conversation about access to the water around the globe. From the very beginning the company has been building partnerships with water focused nonprofits like charity:water, to ensure that they are a force for good in the world. 

2. Approach

SOMA is the type of company that, in the past, might have decided to simply dress up some old filtration methods, produce everything cheaply in some far-flung corner of the globe, and then dress it all up with great marketing. 

Instead, they’re thinking about every detail – from which filtration systems match a great consumer experience with a great environmental experience to which eco-friendly companies to work with to produce the glass carafes that the filters will live in. 

A huge part of brand is coherence, and SOMA’s meticulous approach to making the product in the absolute best way – for consumers and for the world – reinforces their story as a company that is striving to be the absolute best it can be. 

3. Community

The founders of SOMA are successful entrepreneurs, and it would have been easy for them to take an “if you build it, they will come,” approach to launching and distributing their next-gen water filters. 

Instead, they’ve invested an incredible amount in rallying their community – anchored in the networks they’re a part of such as Summit Series and Sandbox Network – to help them build momentum and tell the story. This rallying has included in person demos of the various carafe designs in San Francisco, highly-intentional digital community curation to share news and excitement about launch progress, and the active recruitment of their friends to tell the SOMA story through their own eyes. 

The net result is a powerful handful of influencers who believe in the SOMA story, and who are going to share their personalized version of that story with the communities of people who care about what they have to say. 

**

The point is this: SOMA’s brand isn’t just a new approach to water filtration, but a new approach to business that is more authentic and intentional, and which believes that the best long-term financial strategy is to be the absolute best version of their company that they can be. 

Check out the campaign here: http://bit.ly/somawater

Our Very Own Eden

Summit Eden

But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. 

-John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Ideas, once uttered, sometimes acquire the force of destiny. 

**

Since quiet beginnings as a small weekend gathering in the Utah mountains to much louder entrance to the public eye as an epic entrepreneur cruise, people have asked just exactly what is Summit? 

To some, it is an event – a time each year for being reconnected, reenergized, reinspired, and reawakened to the incredible opportunities our world affords. To others, it is a community – an emotional and intellectual homebase that makes it feel less crazy to believe that in spite of all obstacles, one can make a dent in the universe. 

The truth is that it is these things, and more. But it is anchored by something deeper. 

Roger Martin is a professor at the University of Toronto who researches the traits of exceptional leaders. In a speech at the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship in 2009, he advanced that the single most prominent trait among great leaders is that, when presented a choice with two undesirable alternatives, they rejected the premise of the question. 

Summit contains within it a rejection of old, tired norms: a rejection of the false dichotomy between making money and having an impact; a rejection of the idea of career as constrained to a single company, or even a single industry; a rejection of the choice between success as financial security and prestige and success as happiness. 

Indeed, the idea at the very center of Summit is a new idea of success. This idea of success is about each of us finding our true north - that passionate pursuit that keeps us up late, gets us up early and the story of which comes pouring off our tongues in torrents of barely controlled excitement. This idea of success is about surrounding that passion with a complete life – full of partners, friends, conspirators and lovers; full of experiments and adventures. This idea of success is about knowing we are unfinished, and constantly striving. 

Today, Summit announced that they’re creating a permanent home for that idea in the mountains of Utah. 

The Eden project has been swirling for months, as the Summit team has slowly brought their community into their vision for a space for retreat, for play, for contemplation and for creation. Forbes and TechCrunch have many of the details. 

Spaces, like ceremonies, are symbols that make tangible ideas that might otherwise flit away like ghosts in the mist. This is why we have temples, churches, and shrines. 

Summit’s new home in Eden gives physical life to their way of seeing. It’s a way of looking at the world that has changed the way many of those in the community look at their lives. 

Today’s first public announcement was remarkable not just because of the beauty of Eden or the staggering scope of the vision, but because of the way members of the community chose to share it. 

Facebook, Twitter, and Path were full of messages, yes, of excitement, and yes, of congratulations. But much more, they were filled with messages of gratitude for the gift of finding so many people who made them feel more alive and who inspired them to reach for more - gratitude for a future that is different and more full of possibility for Summit, and the community it represents, being in it. 

**

The difference between dream and vision is usually contained in the spark of a single moment, as hungry eyes meet and agree that the weight of possibility has instead become the first flicker of inevitability. 

Summit’s new home in Eden is a space for those moments, and it is nearly impossible to imagine all the good that might come of it. 

The Character Paradox: Why We Love Heroes Like Us That We Can Never Be Like

Spoiler alert - the last two paragraphs refer to the final scenes of “The Dark Knight Rises.” 

At the end of 2008’s seminal “The Dark Knight,” Heath Ledger’s Joker hangs upside down from an unfinished building, taunting Christian Bale’s Batman:

"Oh, you. You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever." 

The power of the scene - the power of the trilogy which completes with the just-released “Dark Knight Rises,” and which has already become one of the most beloved in the modern popular film canon - rests in the intense complexity of its most important characters. As the Joker swings silently in the night, literally the inverted form of Batman, the ultimate paradox is clear: no matter how much they loathe one another, they are not themselves without the other. 

In his book Proust Was A Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer lauds the eponymous writer by saying that he understood that “idiosyncrasy is the essence of personality.”

Most people have an intuitive sense of the tension between unlike forces at the heart of so much of our individual personalities and collective culture. When we deny ourselves urges that feel primordial; when we recognize that the traits that draw us towards our partners become, in the extreme, the same traits that push us away; when we come to appreciate that a country like America, such a beacon of freedom to the world, could be built on the backs of one of the greatest exploitations in the history of humanity, we recognize the truth behind Walter Benjamin’s admonishment that “every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism,” and we live inside the paradox at the heart of the human experience.

In an essay published last year, author Michael Ellsberg used an interesting example to point out our attraction to unexpected dynamic tensions. He presented a list of types of people - a convicted murderer, a buddhist, a brilliant scholar of 19th century literature, a death metal fan - and asked his readers to think about which they’d most like to read a story about. His guess was that none of them would be particularly interesting. 

Where it gets interesting is in the next paragraph, in which he now asks readers to review a slightly different list of types of people - a convicted murdered who is a brilliant scholar of 19th century literature, a Buddhist death metal fan, etc. - in which two of the types have been combined in one unexpected whole. The list is almost undeniably more interesting, which is exactly Ellsberg’s point: that paradox creates tension creates intrigue. 

The canon of superheroes is practically defined by an intentionally hyperbolic amplification of paradox. Superman, Batman, Spiderman – all are heroes with two totally different sides to their lives. And what’s important is not simply that they embody a simultaneous yin and yang, but that the question at the heart of the tension between the two sides is a question of cosmic significance.

On the one hand, these characters (at least feel) as though they have a chance of a normal life. In this instance, “normal” is not a factor of wealth (Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne could hardly be more different in the social strata), but a vector of obligation. In each case, the normal lives that these superheroes could lead are filled with the comfort of predictable expectation, whatever form that expectation may take.

The other side, their heroic side, is defined not by any one type of act, but by a surrender of the expectation of predictability, and the loss of the pre-defined limits on achievement. In the world of the hero, a world in which there is always more evil, always more violence, always more depravity, callousness, and pain, there is no “good enough” and no comfortable end point. There is no one else to determine when it is okay to stop, only one’s own choice, and it is a choice with direct, profound, knowable and (usually) bad implications for others. 

The superhero paradox is an exaggerated drama that models the central existential question that most thinking humans contemplate at one point or another: what is my purpose? 

In a TEDx talk in Las Vegas, coach and entrepreneur Bryan Franklin articulated something he called the “universal paradox of significance.” Simply put, it is the tension between two undeniable and seemingly irreconcilable facts. The first is the fact of how much we matter - the ability we have to touch lives, deeply, and profoundly, and the ripple effects that emanate from those experiences as the people we’ve touched interact with others in ways that they wouldn’t have were it not for us. The second is the fact of our ultimate and overwhelming smallness in the face of the universe, the incredible lack of control we have to shape the great patterns of history. 

Our quest to discover meaning, purpose, vocation and fulfillment take place in the gray area between these two realities in which they are both undeniably true. The happiest people are not those who exist at the poles; neither the couch potato nor the emperor contains the key. It is instead the people who find where their particular story - their passions, their desires, their gifts - intersects with the universal story of becoming that is played out every day, infinitely, whether recognized or not. 

In his celebrated novella Demian, Herman Hesse wrote “Each man’s life represents a road toward himself, an attempt at such a road, the intimation of a path. No man has ever been entirely and completely himself.” His point was that this process of becoming is a perpetual journey. It is not something with a distinct end; indeed, the feeling of having come to oneself is illusory and ephemeral - simply another stop on a journey.

It is difficult, exceedingly difficult, to embrace the idea that change and transformation do not have a clear end at which point we can feel wholly and truly ourselves. If there is something about our love of superhero stories that is dangerous it is this: we look to them as prescriptive, dramatized self-help stories that can guide us to make the right decisions about who we should be. 

Life is never that simple. Indeed, the best fiction tends to rebel against the view of its characters as role models. Author Rosellen Brown, wrote once about how people who didn’t like her books often told her how disappointed they were that her characters didn’t behave in a more idealized way: 

“‘After she got over her initial embarrassment at being disarmed — no, she hadn’t much liked the book, but she hadn’t thought it showed — she said: ”Well, look, I’m a lawyer, too, and a woman, like your character, but” — and her expression became urgent as if she had clamped her hand to my arm — ”the book was no help to me. I didn’t tell me how I should live my life.” 

To Brown, this wasn’t the point of her writing at all: 

"To be reminded of the difficulty of things — to be taught the inescapable complexity of the world — frequently makes one unfit to be a smiling moral arbiter. The writer may organize the chaos of our lives a little, which makes the questions clearer, but that has nothing to do with the provision of reductive answers or people who always respond ”appropriately.”

I have nothing against lovable characters; there are a great many wonderful ones out there…But our first obligation is to create interesting, suggestive, realistic, possibly even challenging situations, set our characters down in them and see where they go. Which may not be the way you wish they could; rather it is the way, given who they are, they must go.” 

Ultimately, this is the question of a life well lived: to discover where, “given who [we] are, [we] must go.” Our love of superhero characters rest in the simple fact that their turmoil on their way to becoming reminds us of ourselves, while their resolution into lives of incredible significance feels like evidence that we too can lead lives of great meaning.

The paradox of our love for these characters is that their reminder that lives of great meaning are within our grasp is absolutely true, but misleading in what, for the vast majority of us that meaning will consist of, which tends not to be cape-bound heroics, but to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, myriad, petty unsexy acts of sacrifice and caring.

The wonderful and satisfying irony at the conclusion of the Dark Knight trilogy is that, when all is said and done, happiness, significance and contentment do not come to Bruce Wayne through martyrdom but through the quiet sharing of a life with someone else. His transcendence is that he is able to trade a foil – in the form of the Gotham Criminal – who brings out his heroic side, for a foil that allows him to be content in the absence of heroic acts.

The final irony is that it is not we who want to be like Batman, but Batman who wants to be like us. 

How You Know You’re An Adult: The Last Days Of LCD Soundsystem

Last night was the one-night-only movie theater screening of the rockumentary about LCD Soundsystems last few days and final concert at Madison Square Garden. 

While it is a dicey business to create hierarchies of greatness in art, it still seems as though there is broad consensus that some artists are just on a different plane. It’s kind of like major league sports: even though the talent required to get there in the first place makes every professional athlete other-worldy relative to the average person, there are All Stars that make the mass of their peers look nearly like amateurs. 

LCD Soundsystem always felt like one of those bands to me. For those of us coming of age in the 00s, they defined the intersection between indie rock and dance music that would come to shape so much of the music that we’ve listened to for the last five years. What’s more, they – like great artists tend to do – came to symbolize not just their art but the distinct and fleeting of moment of culture that surrounded it. 

For my friends, it all started with “Losing My Edge,” 7 minutes and 53 seconds of pure sex with some of the smartestly ironic lyrics we’d ever heard.

It was 2002, and here we were, wondering just what it meant to be young growing up in George Bush’s post-September 11th new millennium America. The internet crash had already happened, but who among us gave a shit about stocks? The fact was our lives, even then, were happening online. 

Whatever our culture was going to be was still just being shaped, even if the architecture was already in place. Even then though, we had a lust to find something that was real and authentic and powerful. Something that could carve through the noise and bullshit of advertising that surrounded us; something that could stand out from the silly rhetoric of the triumphalist 1990s or the increasingly stupid jingoism of the pre-Iraq 2000s. 

I know that, whatever was the case for my generation, I had no goddamn idea who I was going to be in late 2002/early 2003. I had just gotten to Northwestern. My heart had been broken for the first (but not the last – this is life, remember?) time, and I was just starting to fall in love with being in college. Not the parties, or the classes, or anything like that - just the sitting around thinking and talking and dreaming with people who were completely happy to do the same. 

“Losing My Edge” started to make it around my friends, released as a single three years before it made it onto an album. This distribution was strangely prophetic, and would become the standard way of dance music 10 years later. 

The song was an ironic choice for a generational anthem, as it basically was a created when LCD frontman James Murphy freaked out at the fact that kids 15 years younger than him were playing the same obscure cuts he was in DJ sets, using the internet to access and appropriate music that had nothing to do with their lived musical experience. He called it “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered 80s.” 

But what’s a Millennial if not a person who can take a criticism and somehow turn it into a positive? When he called us “internet seekers” it just kind of fit. And the way he described that search was just so spot on:

“I hear you’re buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and are throwing your computer out the window because you want to make something real… 

I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables. 

I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.”

For my friends and I, that paradox hit the sweet spot of the low-grade existential hum we couldn’t turn off and LCD became not just a band but a cultural touchstone. 

Over the next 10 years, the music landscape changed in many ways that were preceded by LCD Soundsystem. In the middle of the decade we got a wave of dance-rock bands, and while most of them came and went, the influence of dance in mainstream music just absolutely exploded. LCD was always ahead of that curve, never self-consciously trying to combine genres but simply being James Murphy’s vehicle for soulful songs that happened to bounce. 

In that period, LCD put out two additional full-length albums, plus a totally contiguous 45 minute track designed to be the soundtrack of a run. Tracks from those albums like “All My Friends” reached new heights of fame, becoming anthems for people far beyond the group of ironic hipsters who “Losing My Edge” had hit so hard a half-decade earlier. 

We got older too. The Iraq war faded into the Obama years. We graduated from college. We got our first taste of trying to align passion with real life outside of the comfortable embrace of the university system – a battle that’s ongoing but one with regard to which I feel pretty okay about our progress. We started listening to dubstep. So. Much. Fucking. Dubstep. 

People have a tendency to use art to bookend eras and to try to capture the spirit of distinct periods of time. What goes into making a moment feel like something distinct is so immensely complex that trying to explain it in words just feels stupid and inevitably underwhelming. Music, on the other hand, is like sonic gestalt. The right song, the right album, the right band becomes emotionally woven into our experience, and serves as a starting point for remembering everything else.  

When James Murphy announced that LCD Soundsystem would be calling it quits in February of 2011, it felt like the end of an era. Not so much an era in music, but an era in my generation. We were 28 now, and if we didn’t feel that different than we had when we were 18, the truth was, we were. That idle speculation about our culture and purpose that had so endeared us to this weird rock band had much more profound implications now. Who we decided we were, what we decided we wanted to achieve…all of it actually mattered now – to us as individuals and to the world which we had more and more power to shape. 

One of the most profound shifts from youth to adulthood is realizing that all things end. People– including James Murphy himself, probably– will wonder forever if it was crazy for the band to call it quits on such a high. But they did, and with the decision ended their time at the forefront of our musical and cultural consciousness. 

When they named “All My Friends” the #2 song of the 00s, Pitchfork wrote that “”All My Friends” survives the high-wire act of growing mature without getting boring…” 

As we enter into whatever version of adulthood we’re about to create, LCD Soundsystem will always have a place in the cultural canon of the decade that so shaped us. I’m never going to be able to hear “Losing My Edge” without being immediately back in Chapin Hall, sitting on a shitty dorm bed bullshitting with friends about things we barely had any idea of what we’re talking about. I’ll think about those quiet moments before I became an entrepreneur, or a venture capitalist, or a writer, or anything really, and just was young me. 

I don’t know if James Murphy was right to call it quits, or what the obligation of artists to their fans is. But I know that those memories are treasures, and I don’t really know that one can ask a lot more from music or the people that make it than that ability to call them back with just a few simple notes.  

Me and my dumb friends in 2003/2004:

noarchitect:

Nathaniel Whittemore
La Quinta, 2012
..

Not a new essay, but great author shot from Ike. 

noarchitect:

Nathaniel Whittemore

La Quinta, 2012

..

Not a new essay, but great author shot from Ike. 

Til Death Do Us Part - Tattoos & Permanence

This past week, I got my first tattoo. 

The institution of tattooing tends not to inspire a lot of ambivalence. People either think they’re fucking rad, or alternatively can’t imagine putting something on their bodies forever. Because while there are specific cultural mores that influence which side of this line people come down on, the real determinant is usually one’s emotional relationship with the idea of permanence. 

Although we don’t often frame it in these terms, our relationship with permanence has an extraordinary influence on our self-conception and behavior. To be more direct, the way we understand our ultimate impermanence has a dramatic influence on the way we live our lives. The fact of our ultimate mortality is the root of almost all existential philosophy - be it nihilism or Christianity. 

While most of us don’t sit around all day contemplating mortality (the normal among us, of course, saving that meditation for airplane turbulence), there are a set of situations that come up in regular day-to-day life that, without meaning to, bring up the question of forever. 

Marriage is one. Even in a world in which more than half of marriages end in divorce, the idea of the thing is so inextricably linked to foreverness - the goal so culturally reinforced as soul mate-itude - that we can’t help but ponder the big questions as we see our friends pair off or ourselves find another person with whom we can imagine a long future. 

Tattoos, in their weird way, are another. Yes, tattoo removal has gotten safer, less expensive and more common. But it seems to me that the practical cultural impact of that technology is not to de-risk tattoos in general, but rather to simply make sure you’re not completely hosed if you get drunk with a bunch of your tattooer friends and end up with “Wu Tang Forever” stamped on your ass. 

Put differently, it’s still hard not to imagine tattoos as a forever commitment. 

I’m a person who likes to shape my world. I’m not a control freak, but I am certainly, both by nature and by nurture, most comfortable in situations in which I can, by nature of the situation or through influence and hard work, control the outcome. This manifests itself most clearly in my professional life. If we think of entrepreneurship as a risky endeavor, it is actually an approach to work where a massive portion of the likelihood of success sits squarely in the hands of the entrepreneur. This is perhaps even more true of writing, in which the only real accountability one has is to the reader. Given this, it is probably no surprise that I find myself gravitating ever further towards giving it up and just being a writer for once and all.

Ultimately, though, control in one’s professional live is, to greater or lesser extent, attainable. Where control becomes problematic is in relationships. Relationships are by definition about more than you. No healthy relationship has ever been based on the supremacy and control of one person over another. Great relationships - especially great romantic relationships - are acts of surrender and acts of faith. They require one to surrender the notion of controlling outcomes and believe in a happy future without assurance of it. This does not mean that great relationships don’t require work - it’s simply that one must do the work without knowing if it will work. 

Despite my generally higher level of comfort with the clarity of control, great relationships have always mattered so much to me that I’ve never had trouble with the surrender and the risk of sadness and heartbreak that they bring. The benefit has just always been so clearly worth the trouble that it has forced me to embrace another part of myself. 

Interestingly, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that much of my maturation has come in the form of a more generalized heightened tolerance for ambiguity. Which brings me back to the tattoo. 

I’ve thought about getting a tattoo for years. I’ve always been in the “they’re fucking rad” camp, but held back by the notion of permanence. I’ve had a string of ideas - a numeral commemorating weight loss, a symbol connecting me back to my time in Egypt - but none of them had ever made it through the gauntlet of time to actually end up on my body. 

Over the last few months something shifted. I began to notice that the people who were happiest with their tattoos tended to share two characteristics. First, a big part of their enjoyment was not the deep, profound symbolism of the marks, but the aesthetics. They simply thought their tats looked super, super dope. Second, they had completely given up the ghost on the notion that it their tattoos had to be meaningful, at least in the same way that they started, forever. People who loved their tattoos tended to appreciate that they were not a statement of who they were always going to be, but a record of who they were when they got them. 

I found myself starting to view the permanence of the tattoo not as a negative, but as something that actually appealed to me. In a strange way, I liked the idea that I simply couldn’t know if what I was about to etch into myself in indelible ink would mean anything to me ten years down the line. It was an act of surrender to a future I couldn’t know, and an act of faith that I will be able to find new meaning in the context of whoever I am then. 

I made my appointment about a month ago. I had seen a friend’s quill tattoo on Facebook and something in me instantly knew that it was what I wanted. I had the spot - the top of my forearm - picked out. (Based on where I wear my sleeves, and based on my subtle inclination towards provocation, I liked the idea of it peacocking out just a little in meetings). I knew the artist I wanted to work with - a tattooer who had previously been in Portland, Maine near where I grew up and had recently moved out to San Francisco. 

My last act of control was to schedule the appointment about a month away. Within days, however, I found myself not wanting to wait. I emailed the artist and told her I was ready whenever she was. 

Last Thursday I was sitting at my house around noon typing emails about some mind-numbing bullshit when my inbox lit up with her response. She had an opening at 6pm, if I was available. 

I sat there for 10 minutes starting at the empty response window. Was I really going to do this? If I was, was there any difference between today or a week from today? What if I thought of some new thought came up between now and then? What if I decide I was being a fucking idiot to get this thing? What if..?

I sent my response, and my arm will never be naked again. I can’t know the future, but I know that three days in, it already feels like its been there forever - simply another part of myself that was previously hiding. I haven’t thought for a minute about whether I’ll like it in a decade. I have thought, however, about what I’m getting next. Betting pool on how long that takes starts now. 

**

If you like this tattoo, check out the unreal talented Hanna Sandstrom at Idle Hand in the Lower Haight. 

Website: http://kaptenhanna.blogspot.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/Kapten_Hanna

Idle Hand: http://idlehandsf.com/home.html