Wednesday, April 13. The shoes I wore to meet the architect.

Living in a trailer isn’t so bad. That’s what I like to tell myself, anyway. I moved into my first one in 1975, a year after my mother died and my brother saved me from foster care. A step up from the low-income apartments we lived in (all seven of us), it was a “14 x 70”; i.e., a single-wide designed to fit snugly in one highway lane, towed over Independence Pass by an experienced, weathered, snuff-chewing trucker, no doubt. One who knew how to traverse the Continental Divide without slipping over the edge.

Mine Water Poses Danger of a Toxic Gusher

Losing a mother early shapes a woman’s emotional terrain for life

Assessment of blood lead levels in children living in a historic mining and smelting community.

Ozzello explained the blood lead program Lake County had initiated and their successes in just the first few years. They were targeting areas where the danger was highest – the east side of town, Stringtown, and the Lake Fork Mobile Home Park. Blood lead levels were already dropping. At Lake Fork, the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels had dropped in half since 1993, and more than eighty homes had already had or agreed to have their soils tested.

Leadville, the Struggle to Revive an American Town, by Gillian Klucas.

It was parked at the foot of Mount Elbert, the highest peak in a state called Colorado and a town called Leadville and a neighborhood called Stringtown and a trailer park called Lake Fork. My “rich” friends lived in trailers, too. Around the corner in double-wides and man did I envy their extra girth. More bedrooms, bigger kitchens, nicer finishes. Depending on your vantage point, living in a double-wide constitutes either the lap of luxury or the depths of despair.

Lake Fork

The entrance to Lake Fork Trailer Park in Leadville, Colorado, where I lived as a child from 1975-1979.

So when I tell you that this visit to the architect was one of the most disheartening experiences of my life, I tell you in the context of having lived knowing far more fundamental, less privileged problems.

On the east side of town, in Stringtown, and at the Lake Fork Trailer Park at the confluence of California Gulch and the Arkansas River the numbers reached 22 percent. The average blood level for the entire town was only 4.8 micrograms, and the highest blood lead hit just 16.7 micrograms. The EPA, ASARCO, and the town all claimed victory. Nine percent was much lower than the EPA’s original prediction and the state’s previous results, and Leadville felt vindicated.

Leadville, the Struggle to Revive an American Town, by Gillian Klucas.

I used to play in the Arkansas River at California Gulch. Wandered down as a lithe, trusting nine-year old, hair as rusty as the mineralized water, exploring alone on the metallic banks, passing away many a cold summer afternoon.

Their town wasn’t the diseased community the EPA and the national media made it out to be. “This is nothing compared to what you see in inner cities,” a Lake County Health Department employee told the USA Today in 1994. “Of course there’s no one to pay the bills there. The EPA sees a mining company with deep pockets here.”

Leadville, the Struggle to Revive an American Town, by Gillian Klucas.

Will got laid off three days before my birthday. Six days after I’d picked out the bathroom tile. One month before we were scheduled to start construction. One week after we’d written a $10,000 non-refundable check to the builder.

So the shoes I wore to meet the architect this time are the shoes I wore to table a dream. For now, this project is on hold. Again. But, to put it all in perspective, I lived in trailers off and on for the bulk of a motherless childhood and a chunk of a penniless first marriage. I’m sure I can handle life in an old, small house in one of the nicest neighborhoods in one of the nicest cities for a little bit longer.

And the drawings. The drawings are done and we will always have the drawings. I’ll be goddamned if I’m giving up on this house now.


On being subtle but not small.

Subtle. The difference between a male and female jawline. The angle of the forehead, the curve of the brow.

There’s an algorithm for that: an electronic tongue taste differences in beer.

Minor. The delta between the girl and boy nutmeg trees. One bears fruit, the other, the flower. In the beginning, differences so subtle, they’re almost invisible.

From the Smithsonian: Is the skeleton male or female? The pelvis tells the story.

Little. The crevice between red and pink. The flavor variation between oregano and thyme.

Tiny. It takes special tools to tell the difference between a zirconia and a diamond.

Subtle changes in ocean temperatures can mean the difference between life and death.

Hidden. Which is the truth, which is a lie? Sometimes, subtlety is intuited from the gut. Sometimes subtle is a clue.

Subtlety is often a synonym for the small and barely noticeable. But what does it mean to be subtle, really? What does it mean to sport a change so minuscule indicating a variation on the majuscule?

Climate, terroir, and taste in wine: “Geology and soil do not produce these broad differences, but they do produce the subtle expressions of these qualities within the same climate or region.” The same could be said for cacao and wheat.

In the absence of externalities, i.e., skin, hair, fat, and muscle, forensic scientists can tell the difference between male and female skeletons based on subtle differences in geometric angles of key human bone structures, like the jaw, hip, and brow.

In the absence of light, dogs can smell the difference between a healthy mole and a cancerous one. In the presence of tastebuds, slight differences in flavor profiles of single-origin chocolate, coffee, or wine can signify variations of thousands of miles, cultural deltas of distant peoples, and chemistries of entire continents.

That is to say, the drastic is often indicated by the seemingly small. Whisper. Trickle. Glance. Brush. Tap.

Subtle things are not little. Subtle things are big. Subtle things the signifier, big the signified.


When you’re in love with a black baby.

She got on the Number 13 at 2nd and Galer. A white woman and a little black boy. You don’t see that combination very often in Seattle, let alone on top of Queen Anne. His cherubic, brown cheeks. Bright yellow jacket. Baby hoodie with khakis and little black Nikes. What was he, two? Maybe three? They were going to the science center, she said. The Pacific Science Center. He was a black baby and she obviously loved him. She was a white woman in love with a black baby, just like me.

When you’re in love with a black baby, you learn things you already knew. You learn that watching babies grow is a miraculous, incredible thing. You learn that babies are people, too, with personalities and minds of their own, who exert more force on the universe as they grow. You learn that babies are little scientists. The whole world is her lab and she quickly professes favorite things, like blueberries and princesses, pistachios and saucisson sec. You learn that she loves to go on “bike wikes!” and to the “pwaygwound” and to see the Space Needle from the city bus. You discover that her mouth is just like her Uncle Seth’s and her feisty spirit just like her Tt’s.

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When you’re in love with a black baby, you learn new things, too. You learn that people stare when they see a white adult loving a black baby. You learn that people ask pitifully if she’s adopted. You learn that black hair feels a lot like you imagined it would: springy and soft. You learn that you can tame this crazy, curly, beautiful hair by watching YouTube videos and asking your ever-so-patient black friends and black strangers at the farmers’ market lots of questions. You learn that olive oil is in. You learn that chemicals and shampoo are not. And you learn the hard way, the white fucking clueless way, that there exists another “N word” in reference to black hair that white people should never, ever use.

Six Words: Black Babies Cost Less to Adopt

You learn that little black girls want to be princesses, too. You learn that up until 2009 – TWO FUCKING THOUSAND NINE – all the Disney princesses were white. You learn phrases like “white male gaze” and that brown lives really are worth less, literally.

On the killing, assault, and devaluation of black girls and women: Why don’t we talk about young black females?

You learn that her existence will likely be very different from your white, privileged own. You learn that there are some things she will never be able to take for granted simply because of the color of her skin. You learn that she needs to know her black roots. Because even though she’s as much white as she is black, her skin is brown, her hair tightly coiled. Which in America means she’s black.

If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. 12 Things White People Can Do Because Ferguson

If you’re sensitive enough, you learn that real knowledge of her black roots sure as hell isn’t going to come from you. You learn to appreciate the strong black women in her life who will teach her things you cannot. You learn that the knowing, empathetic bond that black people share is a beautiful thing that white people will never know. So you learn to respect being on the outside looking in. You learn that as a white person, the best thing for you to do is sit down, shut up, listen, and believe.

You learn that things that happen in Ferguson and Florida and Ohio to boys named Michael and Trayvon and Tamir really bother you. I mean really, really bother you. Because you learn that the odds are against young black females, too. You learn that that kind of injustice, which bothered you a lot before, almost rents your heart in two.

You learn that there are fires raging in your heart. One from loving that baby and the other from seething hate. Hate for the forces that conspire to stereotype her. Break her. Silence her. Destroy her.

Most White People In America Are Completely Oblivious

When you’re in love with a black baby, at least one black life matters. A lot. And you learn that in that one important life lies the beautiful black lives of many preceding her. You learn that love breaks stereotypes. You learn when a child takes your heart in her hand and leads you out of your comfort zone, that maybe you’re more prejudiced than you once knew.

When you’re in love with a black baby, you learn it’s not about blackness or whiteness at all. You learn it’s more about the humanity we share than the things we don’t. You learn that it’s simply about loving a beautiful baby.

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Will writes.

Architecture and writing rooms.

The table is dark wood with a walnut swirl, 5-6 feet in diameter. It’s nestled in the southeast corner near the window facing Galer Street, holding court with seven wooden chairs on a matching wooden floor. There are always at least two people there when I arrive. The regulars. An Asian midget and one tall white guy wearing his Irish flat cap. He always says hello and I’m never sure if he’s flirting with me or not. Lately I always get tea instead of coffee. Jasmine. Because I love jasmine tea and most of the time I’ve already had my espresso quotient for the day.

Ernest Hemingway didn’t stop at just one! The many “writing rooms” of Hemingway’s Paris.

The back of the cafe is too dark, but the front of the cafe…. The light streams in, even when it’s gray out, a welcome syringe drawing words from my fingers. When I’m in the mood to write in a coffee shop, I go there. I could go anywhere within a four block radius – to Starbucks or Ladro or Top Pot or Storyville, or walk a mile down the hill to Milstead one way, Vivace the other. But I go there. Straight down Fourth if I leave out the front door. Then hang a left at Galer for one last block. Or out the back and down the alley. Left on Howe, right on Third, then straight to my writer’s room.

Scientific American: How Room Designs Affect Your Work and Mood

See also: The Psychology of Architecture

In a not-so-recent edition of T Magazine (one that I just found on the floor of my bedroom because until our new house is built, I have no proper, decent place to store my piles of books), five writers say this about their writer’s rooms:

“A hundred pages in the dining room, 100 pages in the living room while the kid’s at school. It adds up. For the first half of a new book, maybe you want your back against the wall. Gunslinger style. Nothing can sneak up on you except your own bad sentences. Try it.” –Colson Whitehead

“On the shelves are a variety of architectural models and shapes derived from building kits. When I’m writing I look at them to cleanse the palate of my brain. Writing takes place in time, while objects take place in space, and entering space for a few seconds helps me mentally change gears. I’m a visual thinker, but most writers are not. Writing in a big empty room would give me the bends. I need density around me.” –Douglas Copeland

“This writing room replicates, to a degree, the old, lost vistas of my childhood. What it contains is less significant to me than what it overlooks[…]. Like all writers, I have made my writing room a sanctuary of the soul.” –Joyce Carol Oates

Architecture affects the psyche. A barista at one of the coffee shops I frequent for espresso saw me at my writing place and accused me of being a traitor. I know! I said. But I’m not sorry. Because there’s something about that place – that round table, really – that makes me want to write.

Hemingway and Rams

On what designers can learn from icebergs and Ernest Hemingway.

My favorite passages In Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast are the direct, austere descriptions of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Painting vivid pictures with minimal words is the hallmark of Hemingway’s writing, which he developed into The Iceberg Theory.

Write like Hemingway! The Hemingway App.

The Iceberg Theory (also known as the “theory of omission”) is the writing style of American writer Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway began his writing career as a reporter. Journalistic writing, particularly for newspapers, focuses only on events being reported, omitting superfluous and extraneous matter. When he became a writer of short stories, he retained this minimalistic style, focusing on surface elements without explicitly discussing the underlying themes. Hemingway believed the true meaning of a piece of writing should not be evident from the surface story; rather, the crux of the story lies below the surface and should be allowed to shine through.



Hemingway said that only the tip of the iceberg showed in fiction—your reader will see only what is above the water—but the knowledge that you have about your character that never makes it into the story acts as the bulk of the iceberg. And that is what gives your story weight and gravitas.

—Jenna Blum in The Author at Work, 2013[9]

See also: The Age of Invisible Design

How can designers apply The Iceberg Theory to design work? What does it mean to show only what’s useful and meaningful in the tip of a product design iceberg? What does giving weight and gravitas through omission look like in product design? We can start by looking to Dieter Rams, who is to design what Ernest Hemingway was to writing:

‘Good design is as little design as possible’ is one of Dieter Rams’s most famous and favourite phrases. He means this in the sense that a well-designed product should be so good that it is barely noticeable. By omitting the unnecessary, says Rams, the essential factors come to the fore: the products become ‘quiet, pleasing, comprehensible and long-lasting.’ However, to arrive at products with this quality the design has to travel a very long and difficult path filled with questions, trials, discussion, and experimentation. The product may be simple, but the path taken to create it is highly complex for the ‘true’ product designer. Rams explains: ‘Product design is the organisation of the product in its entirety so that it fulfills its respective function as well as possible. At the same time, this design must meet the factual terms and conditions under which the product can be brought on to the market. Designers that confront this task have nothing to do with those who may call themselves designers, but only concern themselves with a retrospective clothing of products purely according to criteria of taste.

—Sophie Lovell in Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible 

wedding vows

On naming and marriage and owning yourself.

When Will and I were married, I did not take his last name. He was a little crestfallen when I told him I wouldn’t. I kept my mother’s maiden name as my surname instead.

“It may mean something different to you now, but it was designed to signify ownership.” Men Who Insist You Change Your Name Make Terrible Husbands.

Her biological maiden name, not her adopted one (i.e., “Ellis”). I had taken a man’s surname once before, and didn’t want to again. So I took a woman’s name instead. My mother’s, after I divorced Seth and Michaela’s father. In honor of her, my mother, who died when I was six.

A History of O’Neylan: an anglicized version of the Irish surname Ó Nialláin.

So how to honor a husband and a mother at the same time? How about this: go down to the King County Courthouse and take your husband’s first name as your middle name. So that 36 years after you’re born, your nominal evolution goes a little something like this: Catherine Neylan Holmes, 1967-1986 (but always call her “Callie”, please. Never, ever “Cathy” and “Catherine” only when she’s in trouble or dealing with the government); Catherine Neylan Pomeroy, 1986-1993; Catherine Ellis Neylan, 1993-2003; Catherine William Neylan, 2003-forever.

And that, my friends, is the story of a name. September 5, 2003.

wedding kiss

marcel waves

On death, salt, and Marcel waves.

There were many things to love about Pat, but one of my favorite things about her were her silver Marcel waves. She was an extraordinary beauty her entire life and for me, her natural waves were the essence of that.

This time last weekend, I was at my mother-in-law’s funeral. My beautiful, wonderful mother-in-law, Pat. I stood in the chapel in nearly the exact same spot I stood ten years ago when, at 80, she married for the second time. The Catholic chapel in rural Maryland, austere in the lush rolling hills of the mid-Atlantic.

Ten years ago I stood in the chapel and laughed. Last weekend I stood in the chapel and cried. The timeless, elegant woman who walked down the aisle then floated down the aisle now. Floated down in a simple, elegant box of pine. How I already miss her.

She was buried in a plot next to her first husband, Will’s father, and her mother, “Mimi”. I, for one, don’t want to be placed in the ground when I go. It freaks me out. Don’t pump me full of chemicals and fillers and make me up so people can gaze at me dead. Gaze at me alive or not at all.

“All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and therefore we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or watch it – we are going back from whence we came.” – John F. Kennedy

Burn me first.

Then divide my ashes. Mix me with the beauty of the places I’ve loved. Above the snowy tree line in the Rocky Mountains, below the salty tide of the Salish Sea. And don’t forget to let a physicist speak. One last time for me.

See also: Planning Ahead Can Make A Difference In The End



“You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every BTU of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.” – Aaron Freeman

An open letter to NPR about the pay gap, inspired by Jill Abramson.

I have been holding this post inside my head (and heart) for years, and in my WordPress queue for months. But with today’s news about Jill Abramson and the role her legal inquiry about pay inequality at the New York Times may have factored into her sudden dismissal, I am inspired to post.

Dear NPR,

I heard you hired a new creative director. An influential, inspiring, female one. I just hope you’re compensating her fairly. And that she, in turn, fairly compensates those in her charge. Especially the girls.

The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act reinstates prior law and makes clear that pay discrimination claims on the basis of sex, race, national origin, age, religion and disability “accrue” whenever an employee receives a discriminatory paycheck, as well as when a discriminatory pay decision or practice is adopted, when a person becomes subject to the decision or practice, or when a person is otherwise affected by the decision or practice. The law is retroactive to May 28, 2007, the day before the Court issued its ruling in Ledbetter.

Typing “Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act” into your search engine at yields 34 results. Typing in “gender equality” yields 510 results. As a non-profit news organization, you do your share of reporting on this issue, raising empathy and awareness; for that I applaud you. But do you as an employer reflect your progressive journalistic stance advocating equal pay for equal work?

Based on my experience, no. From June 2008 to August 2010, I was a senior designer on your digital media team, part of a talented group responsible for the award-winning 2009 redesign. It was the first time in your history that you really started taking design seriously, building a product team with design integrated as a core function. That smart decision served you well, with our team being recognized again and again for good design, culminating in a year ending with winning the highest honor in journalism, the Peabody Award. I played a key role in these wins, especially in ensuring and advocating for good – no, great – design. I was a tireless, articulate design advocate. Just ask those who remember me.

I have many fond memories of my time with you and count myself incredibly privileged to have been a part of your mission: working at NPR has been, to date, the highlight of my professional career. The people I met in your halls were some of the smartest, most interesting people I have ever worked with, and many are still good friends. I am not just a former employee of NPR: I am a proud NPR alum.

Overall, you were a good place to work, with your own share of quirks, frustrations, organizational dysfunction and strong personalities to contend with, just like any other workplace. Those things were to be expected. What I didn’t expect, however, was to learn after I left that you had perpetuated the same sort of gender discrimination your reporting attempts to expose.

Jill Abramson and The Worst Workplace Question: ‘How Much Do You Make?’

I discovered in a casual conversation with another senior designer who started a year after I did that he was paid roughly $15,000 more per year than I was, for the exact same job. Despite the fact that I had more seniority than he did, more design education, teaching experience at one of the top design schools in the country, and more product design experience (specifically around designing for devices). We worked on the same products, performed the same tasks, handed off the same deliverables. He is a great designer: very smart, talented and deserving of every extra penny in salary he received. But I am equally smart, talented, and deserving of equal pay for equal work. However, my intelligence, talent and added credentials didn’t matter for this simple fact: I am not a man.

Maybe this is why women don’t negotiate as much as men do? Salary, Gender and the Social Cost of Haggling And this, too.

When he told me this, I was (still am) very upset. Not at him, but at you, NPR, at my managers there, at the system that allows this sort of injustice to continue, despite your own detailed, historical knowledge of gender inequality. Granted, he negotiated his salary while I did not. But that is no excuse for an employer to take advantage of the female propensity not to ask for what she’s due. That is no excuse for the managers and HR staff who knew the salaries of all their designers and yet did nothing to rectify these blatant discrepancies.

I have good reason to fear. Look what happened to her: Jill Abramson Fired For Seeking Equal Pay

As I sit here penning this, I am worried. Worried that my NPR friends will think I’m petty and whiny. Worried that they’ll think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. Worried that they’ll wish I would just shut up and get the fuck over it already (I mean, really, Callie. It’s been over three years!).

See also: Jill Abramson and the ‘Narrow Band’ of Acceptable Female Behavior

Worried that they won’t want to talk to me anymore. Worried that my current or future employers might see this open letter and think twice about me. For fear I’m too much of a rabble rouser or a loose canon or an outspoken force (or, god forbid, a pushy bitch) that they’d rather not reckon with. But then I think again, about others instead of myself. About my daughter, my granddaughter, my niece, and my female friends. And their daughters and female friends, too. About my former female students who looked up to me as a woman leader in design and technology. About the younger female designers I work with at Microsoft now who look up to me, too. About my female friends still at NPR, who may very well be making less than their male counterparts and not even know it because 1). they don’t think to ask or worse, are scared to; and 2). NPR managment chooses not to voluntarily enforce equal pay for equal work, despite laws that require them to do so.

I think about well-behaved women not making history and Sheryl Sandberg leaning in. I think about Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem and Rosa Parks and Anita Hill and how it’s more important to me to be like them than to be liked by others. I think about all the other ways females are discriminated against. I think about how if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. About how writing increases knowledge. About how in knowledge, there is power. About how power often gives rise to solutions.

Then I realize I have no choice but to write. To speak up. To lean in. To cry out. To call farce. To get mad. To get fucking pissed off. And then, to take action. So here I am, NPR. Writing, for everyone to see. I love you still, but if you haven’t already, practice what you report. Do what’s right by paying women what they’re due, whether they ask for it or not.

11 ème, Paris.

Letters from Paris: Things Parisians Like.

The thing I love about Parisians is they just don’t give a damn. And that, contrary to popular belief, they aren’t rude. In fact, they’re wonderfully polite.

I think people don’t understand that there are a number of things that are said and that have to be done in order for anything to start. Sometimes I’ll see Americans in a store in my neighbourhood and they’ve gone right to the front – they don’t understand that there’s a line. Maybe they just weren’t paying enough attention. “I want that in the window!” They don’t understand that you begin by saying hello, and you don’t just say hello. You say, “Hello ma’am,” or “Hello, sir.” You have to do that in Paris. You have to say “madame” or “monsieur.” You have to remind them what sex they are. There are these pleasantries that have to be exchanged. It’s like the American South that way.

I always think it’s funny when people say, “Well, they said, ‘Hello, how are you?’ but they didn’t mean it.'” Aren’t you an adult? Nobody means it. You just do it. It’s all part of the conversation. It’s a prelude and it has to be done. But so many people who think that the French are horrible just don’t acknowledge that part of it.

– David Sedaris on misconceptions about Parisians

Listen to David Sedaris talk about living in Paris with Ira Glass on This American Life’s Americans in Paris.

Les Parisiens aiment:
Jack Russell Terriers
Red lipstick on the weekends
Marlboros, Camels, and Pall Malls
Les lunettes trés chic
Department store mannequins in semi-sexual positions
Sitting in cafés. All day and all night. All night and all day.
Du pain, du vin, du chocolat!
Faire du shopping!
Rollerblading in the streets
Living in the moment
Biking in heels
Their beautiful culture
Eminem and Daft Punk
Really bad classic rock
Typography on their clothes
Longer-haired guys
Pacifiers for 4-year olds
Government-sponsored everything!

Les Parisiens n’aiment pas:
Bicycle helmets
Faire du jogging!
Spoiled children
Pedestrians in crosswalks
Les Arabs
Doing business on Sundays
Doing business on Mondays
Doing business after 7pm (or, as they say in France, 19h)
Rude tourists
George Bush
Dick Cheney