Five Stories, Four Walls, One of them Broken

I love a good story. I especially love a good story when it’s really well told. But I get the most excited when I encounter a good story that’s told well in a way that’s new to me.

On a recent family trip, we stopped to visit Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. I had lobbied to make it a point of call for us on the strength of a scant few facts: it had enlisted dozens of artists to create a fun house for adults, and it had $3.5 million of George RR Martin’s “Game of Thrones” fortune behind it. The nutritious vegetables of art combined with the delicious cheese sauce of lasers, arduinos, and black lights? Yes, please.

What I didn’t realize until we arrived and began exploring was that there’s a coherent narrative that underlies all of the mad, divergent installations that fill the House of Eternal Return’s 20,000 square feet. The story of an Orwellian totalitarian society, a family of experimenters, and an immortal hamster is told by means of pictures, a clothes dryer you crawl through, interactive exhibits, diaries and notebooks, and newspaper articles. Exploring the vast, dizzying space while stumbling across clues as to what happened to this family and where it lead them was one of the most engaging narrative experiences I’ve had in a long time. (Caveat: when at peak capacity, it becomes tough to fend off the jostling crowds enough to dig into the storyline. The “Blue Man Group has a rap battle with Burning Man while Tim Burton judges” vibe is still terrific, though.)

While not everyone has a taste for this sort of creative weirdness, I love it when storytellers try new things. If you’re a fan of this sort of thing, here for you are a few of my other favorite stories told in unusual ways:

The Skin of Our Teeth

Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of our Teeth” was the first play I remember seeing where the characters of the play address the audience directly, and the world of the story gets thoroughly mixed with the world of the play’s production. It blends the silly, serious, and sublime irresistibly. When I saw it for the first time in High School, it was one of the most emotionally affecting experiences I’d had up to then, even 40 years after it won its Pulitzer Prize. It gets produced from time to time on both amateur and professional stages; keep your eyes open for it!

Device 6

Device 6” is a narrative game that runs on iOS devices. While largely prose based and story driven, it does weird and wonderful things with the text that wouldn’t be possible in a more traditional medium: turning words of the story itself into a map of the protagonist’s travels, blending beautifully-produced audio into the game’s puzzles, and having the soundtrack’s composer make an appearance in-game. It’s well worth the purchase if only to see the fascinating narrative devices that Simogo uses to tell its tale; the fact that it’s actually a good story is lagniappe.

S (Ship of Theseus)

Doug Dorset and J.J. Abrams, the same fellow who brought us “Lost” and some of the recent “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” films, also penned “S” (also known as “Ship of Theseus”), a terrifically interesting experiment in narrative in novel form. There are several parallel stories going on as you read through S: one is the text of the book itself. Another is a dialogue in the margins, purportedly left by readers of this copy of the book who wrote back to forth to each other in marginalia. Additional depth comes through other “real world” items — postcards, newspaper articles, ticket stubs — stuck in the book. Reading through all of these things and piecing together how the disparate parts fit together provides a wonderful sense of being “in on it,” of having stumbled across a rich, private world by accident.

Majestic

Back in 2001, when I was working for Electronic Arts, that company launched Neil Young’s “Majestic,” a groundbreaking Alternate Reality Game. At its heart, Majestic was a conspiracy-theory riddled science fiction thriller. The storyline itself wasn’t particularly novel, but the way it was played was different than anything that preceded it. Rather than launching a game on the computer, players interacted with the narrative using all of the tools of real life: they received emails and faxes from characters in the game, got chat messages, scoured real websites for clues, and fielded phone calls and voice mails that advanced the plot. This blurring of the lines between real life and the game was fascinating and made for a really compelling narrative experience, and increased my disappointment when the game was cancelled around a year after its launch.

Each of these experiences tried something new and made their stories richer. They are some of my very favorite storytelling experiences as a result. What are some of your favorites that have tried new things and pushed the boundaries of the form?

Grafik Intervention

Last night, Kathy and I stopped by a neighborhood in downtown San Marcos to see this:

The project was done by a typography class at Texas State University, and included this historical home, a neighborhood church, and an old jail. Students had researched the history of each of the structures, and then devised projected sequences that told about the history of and future plans for each structure. It was a surprisingly engaging way to learn a bit more about our fair city.

Read more details about the project here.

Humanities and Technology

Yesterday the kids were off from school for teacher conferences. We started off with 10 young people under the roof, thanks to sleepovers, with the remainder of the day continuing in the same busy, wild vein.

And then, on the way to pick up a collection of teenagers from the river, I heard on NPR that Steve Jobs had died.

I had never met the man, and was surprised to realize how sad the news of his death made me. As I’ve mulled over various tributes and retrospectives, I’ve come to a better understanding of why that is.

The products and technology he brought about have, of course, been a large part of my personal and professional life. His commitment to excellence has been inspirational, and his drive to achieve great things stirring. His charisma and capability as a leader were instructive.

But the most interesting, distinctive thing about his career and success is this: its humanism. While the rest of the industry has often been content to make computers do what computers do better, Mr. Jobs had an unwavering focus on using technology to help people do people things.

What do people do? We communicate. The iPhone, Facetime, and iChat spring from this desire. We make and enjoy art. iMovie, Garage Band, iPhoto, and the iPod all have their roots there. We enjoy relationships with other people. Thus, integration with all sorts of social media, facial recognition technologies, etc. We tell stories. Pixar does some of the most brilliant storytelling of our generation. (“Up” made me misty-eyed in record time, and “The Incredibles” remains one of my favorite films ever.)

For many technologists, the instinctive thing to do is to span the gap between people and technology by having the explorers build a precarious rope bridge which will allow the tenacious to, with a good deal of effort, make it to the other side. Steve’s unique genius was that, having made it across, he then turned his fellow explorers right back around and had them build a sturdy, capacious, beautiful bridge for the rest of the world to follow the explorers.

Indeed, he made technology “for the rest of us” — not so that we could have better gadgets, but so that we could ultimately have better, richer, more fully human lives. Thanks, Steve.

Marvelous Birthday Present

As all you regular readers of this blog already know, my friend Jason Young and I are rather prone to building things that break other things. For my 40th birthday, we built a potato cannon and used it to shoot down my birthday piñata. For my 41st birthday, Jason used this photo from the 40th:

To commission this original artwork for the 41st:

Utterly freaking awesome, I think you’ll agree.

The best part? As the guy who did the drawing detailed in his blog post, it was not until Jason actually ordered it that he realized the artist, who he had discovered out in the untamed wilds of the Internet, lives two doors down the street from him.

Thanks Jason! (And Ben the artist!) This is now one of my most prized possessions. Great stuff.

The Need for Beauty

I don’t often post mere links to other people’s essays here, but The Need for Beauty mirrors some of my own thoughts and challenges as a parent and a creative person so nicely that I couldn’t pass it up without pointing more folks towards it. Well worth a read, especially for people who fall into both of those camps.

Wire Tree Prototype

Several months ago I was out in Wimberley, visiting my favorite hill country art gallery, and stumbled upon a huge, lovely tree sculpture made of wire. I was so impressed with the piece that I immediately decided to learn to make something similar myself. So yesterday, I picked up a dollar worth of florist’s wire and found this article. Thus armed, I embarked on my first attempt to prove Joyce Kilmer wrong.

An hour of fooling around with wire and my leatherman in the front yard yielded this:

Tree and Me

Lone Tree

Altogether, a credible first attempt, I think. A few things I learned along the way:

  • Green wire makes everything look like a cactus.
  • While tree roots are, in fact, as extensive as the branch systems, they’re usually below ground. Thus, using only 1/3 of the length for roots makes more sense than 1/2.
  • Modeling the upper branches is hard once the lower ones are done. Next time I’ll experiment with working from the top down instead of the bottom up.
  • Leatherman tools are awesome.
Posted in Art

Mistletoe Furlough Redux

We’ve made it home safely from our grand Christmas roadtrip, and are enjoying the comfort of sleeping in our own beds once more. I don’t have the time or skill to do the trip justice, but here are a few of the highlights that stick out in my memory:

  • A wonderful extended time of visiting with the Adams family. Though we unfortunately never were able to visit them in Uganda while they were doing teaching and mission work there, having a full week with them was a good bit of make-up. It was terrific to get to enjoy long talks, trips to the park, ice cream, Carcassonne games, etc. without the time pressure that often characterizes our visits with family and friends.
  • Visiting the Frontier Culture Museum. This historical park recreates farms from the homelands of the various people groups that settled in the area by transporting buildings piece-by-piece from their land of origin and training guides to explain life at that time in character. It’s a fascinating place with  sound educational value.
  • A mini college reunion. My old college friends Jonathan and Nadja were kind enough to put us up for two nights in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. To my surprise, they also coordinated with Steve and Debbie and Bob and Sonia to bring together a wonderful dinner of old college chums. It had been a decade since I’d seen most of these folks, and I was struck with how much I still enjoy their company and the richness of their friendship.
  • Laughing about the “5 kid tour”. Three of the families we visited with over the course of our trip had 5 children in their family. For the first time ever, I felt like a bit of a procreative underachiever!
  • Going snow tubing at Ski Roundtop. We had hoped to do a day of snowboarding at some point on the trip, but weather and schedules conspired to make that an impossibility. Two hours sliding down a snow-packed hill on tubes was a decent substitute, good enough that Liam declared it his favorite part of the trip.
  • Visiting the museums and zoo in Washington DC. I was particularly thrilled to see Spaceship One, as well as a giant piece by Andy Goldsworthy at the National Gallery. (If you haven’t seen Rivers and Tides, the documentary on Andy’s work, it’s well worth renting.) We also got to see the Giant Pandas at the zoo feeding and quite enjoyed the bird displays.
  • Staying with Rob and Kim and Glenn and Michelle in Nashville. Glenn and Rob were among my closest college friends, and it was an absolute pleasure to get to catch up with each of them and their families. I only wish we had been able to linger — the visits both seemed far too brief!

To my surprise, the kids did really well with the long car rides, which topped out at about 14 hours in a single day. They were, however, pretty gleeful to see the end of their time trapped in the back of the vehicle, rolling around on the ground and squealing with glee when we returned home at last.

Thanks to all who contributed to the success of the trip. We enjoyed it a great deal, and are very glad to be home safely!

Surpassed

One of my favorite things about being a parent is those sterling moments when I suddenly realize that one of the kids has gone beyond me and done something of their own accord that I didn’t prompt or of which I’m not even capable.

Emily’s artwork has been one of those things for me for a number of years. She does terrific work, and will often get an idea in her head, disappear into her room for six hours, and emerge with a finished piece. Her skills long ago surpassed Kathy’s and mine, and it has been a pleasure to watch her mature as an artist and to have the chance to learn from her and to enjoy her accomplishments.

Abigail has become quite a reading buff, and I’ve delighted in swapping books with her and getting to enjoy some good stuff that I otherwise would never have stumbled across. Her French Horn playing has also been improving steadily as a fairly direct result of her discipline in practice (something I’ve never been as diligent about as I should be), earning her second chair in her school band. And while Maggie at age 8 is still coming into her own abilities and interests, her impish and playful personality is already very apparent, and promises a lot of hilarity and joy as she matures.

Recently, it was especially delightful to me that, when Kathy and I returned from our day-long date to celebrate her birthday on the 16th, Liam slipped into our room and handed Kathy two sets of earrings from his school teacher (who makes them) which he had purchased without any help or prompting from me — the first time I’ve seen him take that kind of initiative with gift-giving. I was extraordinarily proud of the maturity and selflessness he showed by doing so.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to see all of these children turning into very interesting, utterly distinct people. I’m tremendously blessed by the opportunity to be a part of that process.

I’m a Mythical Beast

And it’s not just my wife who says so.

When I’m going to take a day off from work, I email our team to let them know I’ll be out. Here’s a recent missive:

Hey y’all,

I’m planning to take Friday off as a sanity day and to strip down, don the
headdress of the fabled jackelope, and beat a drum in a sweat lodge in the
woods for a while while shuffling around the smoky fire in ritual native
american dance.

Or maybe just enjoy a book and some tacos. Either way.

Laura, one of our awesome graphic designers, responded with this:

May the spirits guide you on your journey

Sean as Jackelope

Sean as Jackelope

Truly, I work with some amazing people.