Bottom Lines

Trung and I talk about our work often, as most good friends do. And what usually ends up happening is a dissection of the personalities that we both deal with in our lines of work.

Okay, it usually ends up with both of us getting drunk and then watching Midsomer Murders to yell about how much we miss Sgt. Troy, but the lead-up to that is always interesting.

One of our general themes has been to differentiate people by their bottom lines.

Despite the differences in web development and commercial plumbing, our conversations always boil down to this saying, which I think Trung really should trademark:

It’s not the job, it’s the people.

What is this person’s bottom line?

This almost always affects the outcome of the work and how many fistfights you are bound to have.

Money as Bottom Line

There are the old school folks, where the bottom line is money. There is absolutely nothing wrong with people being aware, or even prudent, about costs.

But in a sense (and based on past experiences), they are the ones who tend to reserve spending on materials or resources and almost always settle for “Good enough,” look at the end result, and however we all get there, the ends justify the means.

The bottom line is having enough resources at the very end, so that it can be spent on something else.

The tough thing, though, is when you start having awful conversations about reaching the bare minimum, and how it could also be possible to bring that standard even lower to save another $10.

I find that these people do tend to have more money, and that’s great. Because that’s their bottom line. They’re able to shell out for emergency dental work or send their kids off to boarding school. Damages that occur without home insurance could easily be paid for by the money that they saved from not getting it in the first place.

They spend more time on the same project. And maybe because they just have better focus. I really don’t know.

Convenience as Bottom Line

Then there are the Convenience as Bottom Line People, which I think I am definitely a subsect of.

I don’t think we are a particularly smart bunch, but I’ll be honest in saying that I have fewer regrets. It’s almost like I’ve spread out my stress over time, instead of collecting it all at the very end.

For this tribe, it’s more about freeing up certain resources to be able to focus on or achieve a goal. And if that means paying more for something, so be it.

And this doesn’t necessarily equate to just money or expenses. To me at least, the bottom line question is:

What is your time worth?

I would rather invest in a $1000 tool that saves me 6 hours of work than use a hand-crank or screwdriver.

I would rather pay someone to paint the apartment in a day than spending two weeks stepping in plastic dropcloths and shit, doing it on my own, and getting really shitty results. I’ve had experience with painting spaces before, and while I do consider myself capable of doing this myself, I would much rather be doing something else. Like working my actual job.

I would rather share the job, make less profit, and get it done faster and more efficiently, instead of doing everything ourselves, stretching ourselves thin to deliver a kind of passable outcome.

Not to say one is better than the other

I find that at least in my conversations with Trung, this dichotomy of people exist like people who prefer showers over baths; people who eat the soup first before noodles; or people who really like Metallica or just think that they are self-centered babies because of that documentary.

There are downsides and upsides to being either type of person. I always concede with the knowledge that I will never become rich, but also comfort myself with the idea that at least I won’t spend 90% of my life being tired or sweaty or stressed out. All of the things I hate being.

I’m pretty comfortable with where I stand on this, and I have to admit also that I kind of enjoy talking about these differences with people.

To some extent, I also see it related to the type of people who either like super focused projects or those who like various things happening at once.

Free Agency Turned 10

Ah, Free Agency’s 10-year anniversary office-warming.

What night with FAC is not complete without me saying at least seven idiotic things?

Here’s one:

Me: Congratulations, guys. You are awesome. Man. How long has Free Agency been around?
Don: (long pause) Ten years.

(pan right, to a sign at reception right behind me, where it says “THANK YOU FOR THE LAST 10 YEARS”)
(cut to, weeks prior, where I was opening my email and a giant e-vite pops up, “JOIN US IN CELEBRATING 10 YEARS”)
(cut to, a small collection of books that say, “WE WOULD NOT HAVE LASTED 10 YEARS WITHOUT YOUR SUPPORT”)
(cut to, a plane hovering past, with skywriting, “HAPPY 10TH ANNIVERSARY, FREE AGENCY!”)

Free Agency has been such a huge part of my life here in Vancouver. There have been so many memories and stories, and their beautiful office space was alive and abuzz with these that evening.

I’ve said it before, but I really do love FAC. Part-big-brothers, part-mom-and-dad, Don and Tak have always taken care of me. The night was a reflection of how far they’ve come in the past decade, and as I’m super self-centered, I found myself looking at how I fit into all of it.

I can’t look back on my years here in Vancouver without thinking about Don and Tak. I don’t know if anyone else feels the same way about them, but I tend to cling to people I admire. It’s important to recognize that point where you have no fucking clue what to do. It’s more important to seek out the individuals who will point you to the right direction. And I’m not the only one they’ve done this for.

Essentially, Don and Tak were the ones who got the memo early on, and they were kind enough to relay the message to me. They were in line when they were passing the brains out, and they generously passed some of that shit over to my direction.

Okay I’ll stop.

I feel like one of their young veterans, talking about “the old Water Street office” and meaning “the big one, when Don used to live there.”

There was a time in FAC where everyone who worked for them was gorgeous, and the office basically felt like a modelling agency. I swear to God. It was beautiful women designing Home and Garden Show collateral, and me in the corner, 20 years old and desperately trying to figure out how to turn on a computer without looking like an idiot.

I also did not look like a model. I looked like a half-baked turd sitting in the sun, just waiting to be stepped on. Nowadays I just look like a teenager. Or worse, my mom.

For the past few years I’ve known them, Free Agency has really cultured a way of gathering great students under their wings and training them really well.

What I also found that evening is that this training ground has started a weird but awesome sub-culture.

There were complete strangers talking about the same things and I found myself building a common understanding with them. When I mentioned specific clients, a couple of eyes twinkled and a few smiles crept in. Not because of anything remotely negative, but anyone who has worked on a couple of their larger projects knows exactly how much collateral and how much production goes on during the summer months. And of course we all shared and exchanged stories about the hilarity that ensued for each of us.

When I mentioned Tak and K-OS (the rapper), a few heads turned around to laugh. Because they also knew what that meant.

I think being the reason for these connections is an amazing thing. They’ve told me before about how they started in Don’s basement kitchen, and I’ve seen first-hand how hard these guys work. The fact that they are able to pass on that kind of experience and develop that work ethic among their students, my colleagues and peers, that takes some pretty serious commitment to what you want to do.

They haven’t just been doing it for themselves this whole time. Haha and whether or not they have planned that deliberately, I know I learned shit tons of lessons from Free Agency, and I don’t feel obligated to reciprocate anything. I genuinely want to extend the same courtesy, respect and faith to my other homies in the design biz. Whether you’re a student or a colleague, we’re all in the same community. And being able to grow that community is a fantastic privilege, bros. We can’t waste that or take it for granted.

These guys are serious about giving back. Not just because they love doing it in a Mother Teresa kind of capacity. They understand the idea of investing in people and seeing those returns later on. It’s a smart, kind and exciting way of doing business—a way that I first learned from them.

I’m grateful and sincerely happy for Free Agency, and I can only hope that there will be another time where we see Don put on Tak’s tiny track pants for another office laugh. Or order 20 cheeseburgers from McDonald’s so we can all eat family-style in the middle of a big table, drinking beers.

Congratulations on your 10-year-old baby, guys. Soon it will go into it’s teenage years and start mouthing off. I hope you’re ready when it turns 20.

Dale Chihuly

I went to visit my friend Rada in Seattle last weekend, and we went to see the new Chihuly exhibit near the Space Needle. Really nice work. I told Trung about the show when I got back, and his only reaction was, “Oh, the one-eyed guy?”

Beautiful work, really. It was like stepping into Willy Wonka’s factory at some points, and I found myself with my mouth agape a couple of times. That doesn’t happen often. Mainly because I don’t go to art shows very much.

Here are some photos of the show!

Gonzo

Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

I was supposed to be at a party by the time I was halfway through watching this film. But I couldn’t peel my banana-eyes away from this beauty of a documentary.

What a great account of one of the weirdest literary figures in American history.

Gonzo

Gonzo follows the life and career of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson as he goes from an unknown journalist for Rolling Stone Magazine to becoming one of the most exciting political voices in the 1970s, and later, the legacy he leaves behind after he commits suicide in 2005.

To me it was partly a study of what happens when one encounters fame, and the shortfalls that beset a person once that name becomes recognizable from a distance. The film touches on one of the things that fascinate me the most, and that is accountability for being interesting in a public arena.

He wrote his best work when nobody knew who the hell he was, and he was free to write honestly without hesitation because of that. Partnered with his assignment to be a political correspondent for Rolling Stone Magazine during the presidential elections in the early 70s, this guy was a lunatic firecracker with a pen. He got into trouble for his opinions, as most people do, but he somehow became an even more extraordinary figure because of it.

Accountability becomes the scary part, as once others start challenging and questioning your work, it becomes not only a mission to prove its worth, but your character’s as well. There is always a tension that happens when someone so interesting/controversial/peculiar goes through the gauntlet. Most look like idiots (thanks, Jon Stewart & Gang), but some come out like fucking splendid gladiators.

He was a true “free lance,” in the sense that he was an angry man willing to gore every sacred cow in his path. So he was fearless — he went after people, and he did so with a wicked sense of humor that everybody appreciated. At the same time I think he had his finger so much on the pulse of the American character — both what makes it great and what makes it horrible. He understood the tremendous idealism in America, and he always wore his heart on his sleeve. At the same time, he always understood the deep fear and loathing, as Hunter would have put it, at the heart of this society. —Alex Gibney on The Reeler

It becomes a test of a person’s wit, grace, style and intelligence, really, and I think that’s why it’s so interesting to me. Throughout his career built on harsh words, cut-off shorts, vices and guns, Thompson somehow kept the same spirit as he aged. If not from his work (which suffered after he failed to cover the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with Ali  and Foreman), then from the people who remember him so fondly and so well. He seemed so well-loved and well-regarded, that it really became a matter of being an impressive person rather than just an impressive writer.

While some people don’t last as long, or really, live as long, Thompson blew through the 70s through the 90s like a champ. Gibney intersperses the movie with soundbytes and recordings of Thompson’s work, which was a fucking blast of confused statements intertwined with very astute questions. He was a real poet, this guy, and such a pleasure to learn about.

I’ve yet to have the experience of reading his work as a whole, much like how I only know bits and bytes of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (that movie is so much harder to fucking find than you think). However, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson has always been in my list of to-read-before-go-blind-okay-maybe-if-a-James-Earl-Jones-audiobook-came-out.

—I’ll insert a defensive note here, to mention that I’m quite a slow reader and my reading list is hefty. While some have the wonderful ability to immerse themselves in books for hours, I’ve unfortunately inherited my generation’s attention span of the most minuscule proportions. I’m working on it!

PS. The soundtrack is also amazeballs.

Good Work: Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad”

It’s tough to find a good show to watch religiously these days. Sure, there are a few that are pretty good, but very few that actually utilizes “must see” as part of its description.

Especially with the mudslide of crap that is reality television, some things just feel like little pieces of heaven come prime time. And by that I mean a one-hour long show about a high school chemistry teacher who turns into a crystal meth cook.

I always had a good feeling about Bryan Cranston. He was the only good thing about Malcolm in the Middle (now somehow resurrected—quite feebly—by a new show called The Middle; here’s a short summary: it’s shite). And I’ve seen some of his interviews. This man is intelligent and very talented.

You know that scene in She’s All That, where Freddie Prinze Jr. sees Rachel Leigh Cook not looking like garbage? Of course you do.

Watching Cranston in Breaking Bad is kind of like that moment. Except he doesn’t float down in a red dress—he fucking smashes the stairway banister in half as a Winnebago breaks through the side of the house.

This show is what everything good about writing and storytelling is. From the dialogue, to the subtle hints within the scenes, to the complex understanding of basic human actions. Vince Gilligan gets a lot of this right. So much so that it sort of restores my faith in good television a little bit. The pacing and unveiling of events have the right amount of tension to keep you really interested, but it’s not so tense that you develop butt-cramps from clenching your cheeks so tightly.

Okay, maybe a little bit.

The characters in particular are developed in a way that we get to know them a little at a time, at the pace of a day in the hot New Mexico sun. Gilligan doesn’t rush into anything, but lets the story unfold the way it should be told. The way this show is built and delivered feels like a carefully folded paper crane(-ston?). He’s careful to touch the edges of the papers at their exact points, and creasing each fold with the patience like no other.

I watch reruns and I still find something new in the episodes. The people are “bad” but likeable in the way your racist drunk uncle is, and not the way Julia Roberts is in Pretty Woman. Nobody here really has a heart of gold, nor do they pretend to. That’s what’s so awesome about this. And while themes about narcotics or drugs can become trite in some endeavours, Gilligan swaddles this in enough realism that we don’t end up with any feelings resembling after school specials. The story isn’t about drugs. It just happens to be involved.

There are also no hints of the soap opera type of story arcs here, the ones that made Friends so popular. Nobody hooks up and gathers at coffee shops to talk about the differences about men and women, or you don’t secretly hope that anyone gets back together. The underlying truths that we glimpse here are more universal than that. At the same time, the darker mixes of comedy/tragedy are much more robust than what’s been produced in the last few years. You know, these people actually have problems.

I really believe that Breaking Bad is going to go down in history as a prime example of thrilling storytelling, much like how Tootsie has cemented its way into every discussion about comedy and good writing. It’s good to still have standards like this to look up to, whether we’re delusional pajama-wearing writers or actual professional ones who get paid for it.

Television is still such a powerful tool, in my opinion, and really does a good job of describing any particular slice of society at any point in time (well, after television was invented, of course). I’m still hoping that more shows like this get produced, so researchers and doctorates in history fifty years from now don’t funnel our time & generation into assumptions of millenials being shallow idiots who were into people famous for nothing.