On Demystifying Our Lives
We moved into a new house last year. It came with a hot tub.
- “Do You Remember Walter?” — The Kinks
- “Singer Songwriter” — Okkervil River
- “History Lesson Part 2” — Minutemen
- “Digger” — Great Grandpa
- “Setting Sun” — The Chemical Brothers
- “Flute Loop” — Beastie Boys
- “Fa All Y’All” — Da Brat
- “Yes I Need My Generator” — Mall Grab (w/ Turnstile)
- “Dungeon” — Bit Brigade
- ”One Stop Shop (For A Fading Revolution)” — Twen
- “Car Crash” — IDLES
- “As the Rhyme Goes On” — Eric B. & Rakim
- “Alpha and Omega” — Blackalicious (w/ Lateef, Lyrics Born, Monophonics, & DJ D Sharp)
- “I Kicked A Boy” — The Sundays
- “Down the River” — The Crane Wives
- “Me and Paul” — Willie Nelson
- “Black Cat White Cat” — Annalibera
- “Weird Sad Symbol” — Heavy Gus
I never had a hot tub growing up, so I made a lot of assumptions early on about how to take care of a hot tub. Much of this was compounded by the Hot Tub Treatment Plan that we found in the garage: a single sheet of paper that outlined, to the teaspoon, the amounts of different chemicals and additions required to keep things clean.
A half cup and two tablespoons of bromine granules. Three tablespoons and one teaspoon of pH increaser. A quarter cup of hot tub shock treatment.
Even worse, these measurements are completely situational. If the chemistry is a little off — the hardness, the balance, the amount of weird gunk that collects over time — you’ve got an entirely different set of chemicals to throw in. It’s overwhelming, to say the least, and so I didn’t even fill the hot tub for the first few months. I assumed we’d never use it. I assumed it was too much work.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about demystification, and specifically about the perception of complexity. About how we freeze when we encounter complex concepts, believing that we lack either the skills to take them on or, at the very least, the information necessary to do them correctly.
I’ve been thinking about it as a part of my job, because my job — web content strategist and information architect — has the tendency to sound more complex than it actually is.
At a high level, what I do is research the needs of people, and then translate those needs into web content and web functionality. For a university site, this means doing a lot of research into the people part of the equation. What does university leadership need? What do new and prospective students need? What does the editorial team need? What do the governing bodies need? From here, I help translate that list of needs into a set of layers — a system layer, a content layer, a design layer, an editorial governance layer, and so on.
It’s a lot of organization. It’s a lot of interpretation. But, more and more, it’s a lot of explaining.
As the discipline of web design and development has become more and more complicated, the barrier of understanding has become more difficult to get through — web design has its own language, and its own seemingly impenetrable set of skills. For clients — for those who ask for the work, but don’t actually do the work — it can happen in a kind of black box. A good web partner will check in often and explain what each stage means. A bad web partner will disappear for ten weeks and come back with a new website. Like magic.
Web design isn’t magic. Sometimes it feels exotic and natural and mystifying — and sometimes it feels oppressive and over-corporate and boring. All of these things are true, at different points. But none of them are magic.
When something like web design — or any practice, whether that’s plumbing or landscaping or architecture — feels too difficult to understand, we tend to shrug and laugh at ourselves and say “well, shucks, you’re the expert” and never try to learn any more than what’s right in front of us.
That’s natural, and that’s expected, and that’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about demystification. The dynamic between people and the experts they hire is so unbalanced — so what can we do to help make both sides more comfortable? To help ease the language barrier, and to create a more collaborative experience? To do good work without making clients or customers feel stupid?
How do we demystify what we already know?
I’m currently reading Our Band Could Be Your Life, a biography of a dozen or so bands from the 80s underground scene. Not just bands, though — underground legends: Black Flag, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth. The bands that every band wanted to be — the bands that started hundreds of new bands, or kicked off the careers of legendary producers. Bands that are still cool to name-drop.
Except, to the scene itself, they were just bands. The thing that stands out is that most of these bands were successful despite themselves — they brought a “do what we want” aesthetic as far into the mainstream as could be done pre-Nirvana, but attempted to sabotage themselves at every point along the way. Black Flag swapped band members every few months; The Replacements purposely played exactly the opposite of what they were expected to play; The Minutemen refused to pop up their sound and continued on as weirdos.
They inspired hundreds, but they did it through … hard work, I guess. Persistence. They caught the right sound and knew a person or two. They were just people in bands. They toured, and they worked, and they went back to day jobs, often. There’s nothing mystical about them at all.
Rock and pop music have always been steeped in idol worship. But, in reality, every band has its own issues. Every band is human-focused, stumbling around, falling into a specific sound, and sometimes cutting through the noise. There are systemic jumps that can happen when more people get involved — when record label money and chance virality and right-place-right-time situations sprout out of nowhere — but these are the exceptions. Most bands just make music for a while and disappear, their level of success completely at the whims of fate.
Seeing bands as humans first helps bring them back down to earth. It makes them approachable and inspires us to do the same thing — to create our own bands, to write our own music, to develop our own art. Nobody is born with the ability to write Double Nickels on the Dime, just like nobody is born to create web architecture documents. There’s no magic formula. There’s just doing the thing and luck.
When we dream about success, we’re often just dreaming about unlocking doors and walking into hidden rooms. We’re dreaming of access. We’re looking for keys.
Most of those keys are held by other people. I believe, if we hold these keys, that we should share them.
I believe most mystifying concepts are actually relatively easy to understand, as long as someone has enough patience to help you through them.
I believe that if someone isn’t willing to share their key, it’s because they’re afraid you’ll find out how easy it is. They’re afraid you’ll do it yourself.
I believe that we, as humans, owe it to each other to demystify as much as we can. To clear the haze; to unlock the doors.
To demystify everything. Demystify diseases: they’re biological realities that can be solved by science. Demystify music: every band and artist used to be bad at what they do; most of the popular ones got a lucky break. Demystify gender norms and demystify the writing process and demystify how video games are made. (In order: they’re not real, it’s hard but not impossible, it’s grueling and no one really likes it.)
The first time I filled the hot tub, I followed the sheet exactly. I didn’t learn anything, so the next time, I asked some questions and got help from a hot tub dealer. I did a very small amount of research. I messed it up — I put too much bromine in, and it smelled like a bucket of bleach.
A few days later, it was back to normal, and now I know what not to do. It wasn’t hard at all — I just needed to understand a bit of balance and stop being afraid of screwing things up. I gathered some keys and left the doors open, and now I run wild — I haven’t used a measuring cup or teaspoon for over a year. I know that nothing needs to be perfect. It just needs to work well enough to get in.
There’s nothing magic about any of these things. There’s just our willingness to jump in, and others’ willingness to throw us a lifeline. These complexities could be your life. They probably already are.