Keri Maijala is a content strategist in Mountain View, CA. She's been working in user experience since the days of the Dancing Baby, helping companies like eBay, PayPal, and Intuit find and use their voices. You can usually find her on Twitter as @clamhead, but if she's not there, check the line for Space Mountain.
God loves a terrier.
“Oh no,” she said, looking at her phone. “The babysitter has pink eye.”
We had just been talking about how much we were looking forward to our dinner. My friends don’t get a lot of evenings out; their two-year-old and five-year-old daughters take precedence over amber drinks in sleek glasses, delicate vegetables, and tender cuts of meat served in hushed, dusky atmospheres.
But pink eye is not to be messed with. Pink eye wins all of the everything. Pink eye is like the boss at the end of a video game.
My friends immediately launched Operation Find New Babysitter. They called friends of their babysitter. Friends of the friends of their babysitter. People they’d met at the grocery store. That woman they’d worked out next to at the gym that one time. It was a no-go. There was no one to watch the kids. We were resigning ourselves to ordering pizza when their neighbor offered a small reprieve: She could watch the kids for two hours.
Two hours was plenty of time to get drinks and appetizers. And, with a new-fangled service called Car2Go, we could grab a car, leave it in downtown Portland, and get a cab back. It was a perfect plan.
We all changed into outfits slightly more palatable for drinks and marched out the door, hunting down the Car2Go vehicle. We found it, and all three of us stood staring at the car. The tiny, two-seated Smart Car.
My girlfriend stepped up. “I’ll sit in the back,” she said. We peered behind the seats. It was certainly possible, but not ideal. The space was really meant for two bags of groceries, not an actual person, svelte though she may be. She managed to squeeze in the back, and with her legs twisted beneath her and her back pressed up against the rear window, we were off.
We arrived at the lounge and tumbled out of the diminutive car. “Three, please,” we told the hostess. “There’s a bit of a wait,” she said. “How long?” “30-40 minutes.” We’d already burned 20 minutes. This would not work. We looked at each other, sighed, and were off again.
Not wanting to cram ourselves back into the Smart Car, we Yelped a lounge within walking distance, raced around the corner, and strode through its open door. We took a seat, and only then took stock of our surroundings. It was not what we had in mind. It was dark, foreboding, and vibrating with death metal. A great dive bar if one is in the mood for that. We weren’t. We attempted to make a go of it, but then slunk outside. We were 45 minutes into our two-hour deadline.
The last place suggested was also in walking distance, but in a seemingly deserted, industrial area. The train roared by in the not-so-distant distance. I mock-whispered to my girlfriend, “This is how we die.”
The restaurant came into view, and we slid inside. It was warm, glowing, and smelled glorious; we inhaled the scent of meats, wood, and spice. We’d found our place. My friends texted their neighbor and begged for an extra half an hour. It was granted.
What followed was a 90-minute parade of amazing small dishes, each one unbelievably better than the previous one. Glasses containing cocktails and wine were drained. And the dessert… I still can’t even talk about the dessert without bursting into happy, incredulous tears.
It was all so, so, SO good.
“We got lucky,” we said, but then realized. No. It wasn’t just luck. It was that we didn’t give up. We could have given up at the pink eye. We could have given up at the two-seater. We could have given up at the long wait or the screaming biker bar. But we didn’t. We were tenacious little terriers, insisting that WE WOULD HAVE OUR NIGHT OUT.
As we talked in the cab on the way home (the cab that materialized out of nowhere the second we walked out the door), we understood that the original plan was great. It was lovely. But it wouldn’t have been as nearly as fun (and that picture at the top wouldn’t exist).
Of course, tenacity isn’t everything. But when I look back over this year, I find that the best things that happened were hard-won. Tenacity forces you to examine different avenues and solutions. It makes you be creative, and find new paths to your goal. Tenacity makes you take the road less traveled... and like it.
And sometimes it doesn’t work. But sometimes… sometimes, it does.
And it’s even better than you imagined.
By Any Other Name
I reached into the pocket that hadn’t seen my hand since October, and found something soft. I pulled out a pair of forgotten fingerless gloves, pure cashmere, purchased from a tourist shop in Scotland (and thus were probably not exactly pure cashmere). They were once aqua blue, my favorite color, but were now tinged with the dirt of the Icelandic horse whose muzzle I’d held in my hands.
I brought the gloves up to my face. They smelled of the horse and sulfur and cold; they smelled like Iceland. I put them on. Every few minutes for the rest of the evening, I covered my face with my not-quite-cashmere hands and breathed deeply. Every time I did so, I was transported back to that place of lava rock and snow, of spongy moss and grass roofs, of alien lights in the sky.
They say the sense of smell is the sense most closely linked with memory (SCIENCE). I believe it. A blast of Aqua Net will transport me back to my junior high winter dance. Diesel fuel is Disneyland (early Autopia cars). Strawberry Kissing Potion. Noxema. Pipe tobacco. And then there’s this fragrance combination I can’t identify—not quite cologne, not quite soap—that makes me fall in love whenever I catch a whiff of it.
I sometimes use this power to create this phenomenon. At the beginning of a big trip, I buy a slice of luxury soap from Lush or an independent crafter. I use it throughout my travels, and save the remnants in a plastic bag. Every now and then (usually when I’m packing and come across it again) I’ll revisit my adventure by breathing in its scent.
The human brain has a tentative hold on memories, and the older you get, the less room it has to store new ones (SCIENCE). Photos help, but they have a funny way of becoming memory itself, which makes me wonder if I'm remembering the actual event or just the picture.
But with the sense of smell, memories materialize differently. They appear as amorphous colors and shapes and impressions. It’s the overall feeling of being there rather than a single moment in time. I find it infinitely more powerful than the 2-D visuals because it conjures emotions; it's like I've been dropped right back into that setting.
I sometimes wonder what the proliferation of social media will do to our memories. On one hand I'm grateful for tools to keep track of where I've been, what I did, and who I did it with. But on the other, I’m already noticing my mind giving up its hold on recollections and handing over the reigns to posts and feeds and services like TimeHop.
But it’s nice to know I have access to my own little version of a time machine.
Albeit a nose-shaped one.
That's How the Light Gets in
A few years ago, I was working with a client in Chicago. One of the women on the team mentioned she’d been an extra in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” specifically, one of the little students in the museum scene. She explained they were to hold hands and walk in a line. Her friend, Maya, was the little girl who broke the chain then scrambled to catch up.
My colleague said, “Maya was so upset she messed up. She thought she’d ruined it.”
We hold up perfection as the pinnacle of achievement: the Natalie Portman last-gasp proclamation; the Mary Lou Retton landing. But perfection isn’t necessarily the best version of something. My friend since childhood, Taro Gold, wrote a book about this called Living Wabi Sabi: The True Beauty of Your Life. In it, he talks about Wabi Sabi, an Eastern aesthetic celebrating the beauty of imperfection (in simplistic terms. I think. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about).
I would argue my nose is, in fact, Wabi Sabi. Growing up, I was envious of my little sister’s ski-slope nose, my mother’s nose. I, on the other hand, got my father’s nose. It looks just fine on his face, but on mine I felt it was like someone rolled a ball of Play-Doh, stuck it to the end of my nose-thing, and forgot to smooth it out.
Then I got skin cancer on that ball of Play-Doh.
It’s fine, I’m fine, but its removal left a little scar along the side of my nose. And now, I love it just the way it is. It took this imperfection to remind me that my nose is healthy, living, changeable. While a few years ago I was Photoshopping my nose into LaToya proportions just to see what it looked like, now I’d no more carve it up than I would my antique dining room table (I don’t know. I’m bad at analogies).
Along the same lines, I bought a giant original movie poster on eBay (“An American Werewolf in London,” if you must know). It had been displayed outside a movie house in 1981, and it showed. There were wrinkles and tiny rips along the edges. The woman at the framing shop frowned. “It has little tears,” she said, pointing them out. “I’m not sure I can fix them.” “Don’t worry,” I said. “I like that it looks a little worn.” She turned her frown on me. She didn't understand.
But I didn’t want a pristine version of this thing. I didn’t want it to be something that a vendor pulled perfectly preserved from a museum-like warehouse. I needed to know this poster was near the theater while my favorite movie played. I wanted it to have a previous life.
Imperfections are proof that we were here, even for a short time. That we lived, participated, made mistakes. That damaged occurred, healed, got patched up. There is character in faults, truth in blemishes, and beauty in flaws. It’s what makes us real and relatable. It’s what makes us learn and grow. It's what makes us human.
Back in Chicago, we all stood around a computer and watched the clip from Ferris Bueller. “She didn’t ruin it," we agreed. "She made the scene. They couldn’t have planned that any better.”
Go ahead and aim for perfection. Then celebrate when what you get is practically imperfect in every way.
Dear person from last week/5 years ago/30 years ago,
I’m sorry for the thing I said/did. I still think about it. It makes my eyes fly open in the middle of the night and my face glow shame-hot in the dark. I’ve often wished I could take it back. I always thought that would be the ideal solution. But now—writing this—I think a better option would have been owning that moment. Taking responsibility for my words and actions. Learning from it.
I didn’t mean to hurt you. I was most likely trying to be funny. Always with the funny. Or perhaps I was trying to be right. But sometimes in the quest for those things I hit a little too close to home. And I saw it: The flinch, the shock, the darted look away. I knew that if I were to look down at that moment, I’d see my right foot firmly planted over the line.
You may have received an apology, a cobbled-together mess of words that included, “but…” or, “that you feel that way,” or, “drinking.” I’m sure I thought I was sincere, and so very mature for apologizing in such a way. Or really, for apologizing at all. But real apologies have no conditions or excuses. Apologies are humble and vulnerable; fumbled and ill-formed. Apologies are felt rather than recited.
And, person from last week/5 years ago/30 years ago, while we’re on the subject, I’m sorry for the thing I didn’t say/do. I didn’t know how, so I avoided it or you. Or, my God, made a joke to ease the tension and excuse myself from being a part of what you needed. There were so many simple things I could have said/done. I could have listened. I could have sat with you and said nothing. I could have stayed. I said I had to go. I always had to go.
Oh, person from last week/5 years ago/30 years ago? I really hope you’ve forgotten about that time I said/did something incredibly stupid. Wow, what an ass. I can’t believe I said/did that thing in front of you/that person/those people. If I could Eternal Sunshine that shit out of my brain I would. But I can’t. It’s on call, waiting to pop up like a dormant disease, making my face contort unwillingly into a wince.
So, person from last week/5 years ago/30 years ago, if you remember, I’m sorry.
If you don’t remember, that’s okay.
How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love the Mountain Climber
“I hate this,” I repeated. The first time I’d said it I thought I’d hissed under my breath, but the instructor heard me. She asked me to share my insight with the whole class. So I did. Loudly.
I was in a high-intensity interval training class (“HIIT” for short). In HIIT, you’re asked to do something difficult for say, 30 seconds, followed by something tortuous for say, 30 seconds. Repeat for 30 minutes. I was on minute 17, and I wanted to hurl my dumbbell across the floor. Or just hurl.
I’d put down a deposit on a Machu Picchu trek a few months earlier. My original plan was to take the train up, but then I decided I’d do the classic four-day hike. It’s not an easy trek and I’d never been hiking before, so this clearly made a lot of sense.
I started training. I focused on my butt and calves and lungs in anticipation of the ascent into the Peruvian mountain range. Treadmill work, lifting, and various aerobic classes rounded out my workout landscape.
And a lot of it was unpleasant. I hated the way my lungs wanted to escape by way of my mouth, and how my ass regularly informed me it was on fire. But I kept it up, and met with a trainer every week to check in and readjust my workouts as needed. One of her favorite things to assign me was my most dreaded: The mountain climber.
I disliked it because it combined aerobic activity with butt work, and it rendered me breathless almost instantly. I was panting my way through yet another round of them when I repeated my mantra, “I hate these.”
The trainer sighed. “Keri. If you’re hiking Machu Picchu, you need these. They’ll help you get up the mountain. They’re called ‘mountain climbers’ for God’s sake. Now get up that mountain.”
And right then, I begrudgingly changed my attitude and stopped maligning the poor, innocent mountain climbers. Okay fine, I didn’t love them, but I appreciated them. After all, they were going to get me up the mountain.
Since that session, I’ve tried to look at things I purport to hate, and ask myself: Do I hate this because it does harm, or do I hate it because it’s uncomfortable? If it’s the former, I dispense with it. But the latter gets more consideration. If it makes me uncomfortable, I probably need it.
A few weeks ago I found myself at Machu Picchu, at the spot where everyone takes the photo that will eventually become their Match.com profile picture. The trek was hard. Really hard. But I did it, due in no small part to those mountain climbers, HIIT classes, and the constant smack-down from a diminutive but fierce trainer.
No matter what goal you have in mind, there’s a tortuous and necessary task designed specifically for that goal. You have a choice: Hate on it, don’t do it, and fail; or embrace the discomfort, do it, and have a better chance of succeeding.
Now. Get up that mountain.
But Not Ha-Ha
Mom called it. She said, “It’s funny. Some people will show up in your life and you think they’ll be around for a long time. And then they just aren’t.”
I don’t think I believed her when she first said it. Surely one could tell the difference between a passing acquaintance and someone who’s in for the long haul, right?
And then it happens. You meet someone (friend, client, romantic interest) and you click and it’s great and you’re happy. And you might have had plans. And you may have been scared. And you could have imagined a future.
Then, sometimes without warning or explanation, that person is gone as quickly as they showed up.
And with that person’s departure, you’re confused or relieved or angry or a combination of all three. But ultimately it doesn’t matter how you feel. The person is gone – your feelings be damned.
I’d love to say there’s always a profound lesson involved. Something to be learned from each encounter with everyone you connect with in your life. “Ah, but they taught me how to let go and be more spontaneous.” “O ho! Now I know what it’s like to work with someone truly brilliant.” “Aw, yeah. I’ll recognize amazing chemistry when I experience it again.”
But there’s not always a lesson.
Unless the lesson is, “Sometimes people materialize then evaporate for no reason whatsoever. And it’ll make you sad or mad or glad, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”
It’s just life. And like most things, Mom’s usually right about life.
Eight Legs and Cowboy Boots
My muscles were sore from an over-exuberant exercise session. I knew what I needed, but I was out of bourbon. A hot bath was the next best thing.
I drew the bath, pouring in a generous amount of bubble solution. The water frothed and steamed, and I eased myself into its artificial-vanilla depths. I sank deeper, sighed, and turned my head.
There was a spider on the wall. It was large, it was enormous, and it was large.
I am not necessarily afraid of spiders. I think of them as I do people, that is, most are good, and some are venomous (the difference being dangerous spiders generally have clear markings to show they are not to be trusted; dangerous people do not). But I’d never seen this one’s like before.
I blinked at it from my foamy garrison, then shrugged and closed my eyes. I’d deal with it after my bath. But three seconds later my eyes popped open in alarm.
What if when I finally got out of the tub, I found an eight-legged guest in my robe sleeve? Even worse, what if I couldn’t find it at all, and it found me… while I slept? I don’t fear spiders, but that doesn’t mean I want one curled up next to me on my pillow.
I hoisted my groaning ligaments out of the tub and donned my robe and Turbie Twist, never taking my eyes off the spider. The spider was regarding me. I smiled at it, hoping to assure it of my good intentions.
I had a small Mason jar in the bathroom I used to store hair ties. My plan was simple. Coax it into the jar. Run with as little screaming as possible to the backyard. Wish it a prosperous life. Set it free. It was a good plan.
I placed the jar directly under the spider and nudged it with a tube of toothpaste. Instead of obediently walking into the jar, the spider dropped onto my hand.
My neighbors were treated to a shriek and the sound of shattering glass. Now I was sore, wet, barefooted, surrounded by pulverized Mason jar, and being watched by a confused, big-ass spider. I grabbed one of my slippers and placed it over the spider, but now at least one of my feet was in danger of laceration.
I opened the bathroom door and peered out. A pair of cowboy boots stood in the hall outside the door. Keeping my feet where they were, I was just able to contort enough to reach them. I pulled them on, then line danced to the kitchen for the dustpan and broom.
I spent the next hour dressed thusly – robe, Turbie Twist, and cowboy boots – sweeping up shards and keeping watch over a fuzzy pink slipper. But eventually, I had to address the spider. I procured yet another Mason jar (I still thought it was a good plan) and prepared myself, one hand over the slipper, the other hand hovering the jar.
I lifted the slipper the same way a magician would lift a box to reveal something astounding. But at the exact moment the glass dome was to encompass the unwanted guest, the spider jumped straight up.
You with me? The sumbitch jumped. Like a jumpy jumping thing.
But this time I was ready. I waited until it landed, calmly placed the jar over Tigger, then slid the lid into place. The spider moved onto the side of the jar, glaring at me, giving me the arachnoid version of the finger.
I did what anyone would do: I took pictures.
Then I reverently walked it to the backyard, wished it well, and set it free.
With my pictures, I was able to identify its type. It was a wolf spider, and I was glad to learn they lead solitary lives. I didn’t want to meet its friends or family. Also, I was running out of Mason jars.
The bath was cold and the bubbles dissolved into film. I pulled the plug and sadly watched the water drain, then I moved into the living room where I kicked my booted feet up onto the coffee table.
Bourbon would have been good.
Life Lessons from "Life Lessons From Candy Crush"
I had something all planned out for this space. It was to be called, “Life Lessons from Candy Crush” and it was to go like this:
Just because someone says you should do something doesn’t mean you should do it.
You may need a little help seeing the obvious.
Don’t worry about the bombs so much. They’ll often take care of themselves.
But if something is obviously ready to explode, take care of that shit.
Occasionally, despite your best efforts, things explode anyway.
Sometimes you’re dealt a crappy hand and there’s nothing you can do about it. Sucks to be you.
Slow down. Look at the whole picture.
Blowing shit up can be very satisfying.
Get rid of the negative things that keep creeping back into your life (I hate those stupid chocolates).
A problem may need to be revisited two or three times before it goes away completely.
A good reshuffle can do wonders.
At some point you will run out of lives.
You can ask for help from your friends, but after a while, even the most generous friend will get annoyed.
Clear all the jelly.
Oh man, I was so proud of myself. You should have seen my smug face. “This is genius,” I thought, advance-counting the glorious shares, retweets and recommends.
Then it occurred to me: I couldn’t possibly be the first person to think of this. Sure enough, there are 61,000 results for the exact phrase, “life lessons from candy crush.” A broader search for “candy crush lessons” (no quotes) revealed 22.4 million results.
I was not a genius to the tune of millions.
I was crushed (I didn’t mean to write a pun, but whatever, it’s out there now). I’d spent time on this idea. I updated a little notebook as I played the game. I refined and added and edited. And none of it mattered because it'd been done before. A lot. I’m just a unimaginative hack copying the 22 million people who’d gone before me.
I put this post away and began pondering other ideas.
But I eventually came back to it. Did I really have to toss this post just because it’s been done? Furthermore, is any thought or story or idea unworthy if it isn’t completely original? I’m pretty confident the inventor of Pepsi didn’t subscribe to that notion. Caleb didn’t say, “Welp, Coca-Cola exists, so I guess I’m out.” Caleb made his own cola, added more sugar, and ultimately lots of people pledged allegiance to his caramel-colored sludge in the fabled Cola Wars of the 1980s.
So sure, 22 million people had gone before me, but none of them had expressed exactly what I’d written:
“A good reshuffle can do wonders” = 0 results.
“But if something is obviously ready to explode, take care of that shit” = 0 results.
“Get rid of the negative things that keep creeping back into your life” = 0 results.
An argument could be made that “Life Lessons from Candy Crush” is a bad idea because it’s stupid, but not necessarily just because it’s unoriginal. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, no one can tell your story like you can.
So go tell your unoriginal story in your way. It’s okay.
And seriously, those chocolates are the fucking worst.
Letting Sexy Go
I was an independent consultant for a little over three years. I loved it. I loved the variety, the freedom, and the daily outfits of hoodies and yoga pants. Even so, I decided to jump back into the world of full-time employment.
It wasn’t about the money. I have the good fortune of being in a discipline full of lovely, kind people who often sent referrals, so I was getting plenty of work.
But I missed the daily collaboration with other content strategists and user experience professionals. And after three years of working (and living) solo, I sometimes found myself looking up at 2 PM on a Thursday and realizing I hadn't left the house all week.
“This,” I thought, “is not healthy.”
But returning to full-time work seemed like I was broadcasting failure. Being my own boss was appealing to everyone else. So sexy. Why in the world would I give it up?
Around this time I was asked to interview with two big-name companies. Joining one of these companies would make sense. It would certainly create the sexy narrative I longed for.
So I labored on the assignments they gave me, confidently presented my work, and had one-on-one discussions with lots of people. And though my experience varied from person to person, the overall feeling I got was, “Impress us.”
And sure, that’s part of any interview process, especially at a big name. But shouldn’t any successful relationship be mutually beneficial? Shouldn’t there be a conversation about what I wanted as well? At one point I asked an interviewer, “How will you interact with this position?” and was told, “I’m not going to talk about that right now.” I was floored.
During all of this, I was consulting for a little-known company in Sunnyvale. The woman who hired me was an adored former boss, and her team was made up of smart, talented women. They were tackling interesting problems and I had fun working with them.
Sunnyvale wanted me full time.
“Unsexxxxxxxxxy,” my brain hissed. After years of trying to build my career with big names and the “glamour” of working for myself, would it look like I was settling? “But this is a great team,” I thought. “The work is super interesting. I’ll get to build a brand from the ground up. When does anyone get to do that in an established company?”
“Unnnnnnsexxxxxxxxxxy,” my brain insisted. Taking this job meant I would need to repeat my company name and explain what we do. There would be no envious looks. No one clambering to talk to me at meetups or conferences. A steeper hill to climb to get a speaking engagement.
But in contrast to the big names, Sunnyvale was working really hard to make sure this was a good fit all around. They rewrote the job description to better match my interests and skills. They took my salary requirements to heart. They were cool with me starting five months later to accommodate my living arrangements and travel plans.
Meanwhile, from the big names, I got a turn-down and a never-heard-from-again. The rejection from the first left me heartbroken and confused, but I was relieved about number two. I knew it wasn’t a good fit, but I might have accepted because of the sheer sexiness.
Sunnyvale was still batting their not-bedroom eyes at me.
With no-gos from the sexy twins, I worried even more that taking the Sunnyvale job would look like I had no other options.
But I did have other options. Lots of them. I could keep consulting. I could talk to other companies. I could maybe try again with the big-name heartbreaker.
Sunnyvale continued to serenade me in sandals and black socks.
And you know, it felt good. No, it felt fantastic. And I realized that making a decision based on “sexy” or how it would appear to other people is a spectacularly bad idea. This was a great company with a great team making me a great offer. And honestly, who did I think I was that I assumed anyone would give a shit about my career?
Sexy is wonderful. Nothing wrong with it. But it alone can’t sustain a relationship.
I accepted the offer. It was, without a doubt, the right decision. Because sexy is as sexy does.
And damn, I’m feeling sexxxxxxxxxxxy.