UX and the concept of play, or: disappearing into an ATM

If we want to get really technical, I designed my first user interface at age 11.

Sort of.

I made a series of paper “screens” for a fake ATM, each attached to long strings that we dropped down from the second floor. They were essential props for a game of “bank” which my two younger sisters somehow agreed to play with me. We had a basket of old poker chips and checkers, for money. We reeled the papers down over the second floor’s low wall, which overlooked the stairwell. Each piece of paper mimicked a screen of the ATM I’d seen when my parents withdrew cash at the drive-through bank.

Welcome! Enter your pin. Deposit or withdrawal?

Someone played the customer, who stood at the bottom of the stairwell, and the others of us hurried around dropping the paper drawings of screens so that the ATM worked. We lowered the right amount of money at the end.

I wish I had those old props and fake screens– I do wonder if they made any sense at all. I also wonder why, oh why, this became a game. What did we even do? So many of the games that we used to play as children are totally incomprehensible to me now. They weren’t games with rules or narrative structures. Playing, for us, was just slipping into an alternate world and living there for a little while. I don’t remember us assigning characters and developing a plot. We simply “played bank” for a few hours.

These are the kinds of things that children are permitted to do; no one questions the sanity of little girls who are pretending to operate an ATM — although they might wonder why they’re not playing something a little more traditional, involving tea and dolls.

I still lose my rootedness in reality, and in the moment. Some of that is because of an over-developed sense of empathy that vaults me into others’ experiences. When I see someone who has been injured in a visible way, I often feel that wound in my body. The gash in a stranger’s arm blooms in my own; it’s not usually a sharp pain, but it is a strong, ethereal tingling, similar to hitting the funny bone of one’s elbow. I also experience something called hyper-focus, where entire hours spin by without my noticing–what some people experience when they fall into a Wikipedia hole, except it happens for anything that I’m really interested in or curious about. Now that I spend most of my days doing things I love, Pat has to text me to eat lunch. It’s not considered to be a good thing or even a normal thing to lose oneself so easily. It seems a little odd.

But for people who design experiences, especially narrative ones, making people “lose themselves” is the holy grail. The best stories, the best designs, are so seamless that we don’t even know we’re slipping into them. They envelop us; shroud us from our regular lives. We lose ourselves and also lose the world. Not because something claims to provide an immersive experience, whatever that is, but because our self-concept of me, myself becomes momentarily malleable. We are Juliet clutching the poison. We are Furiosa in the desert.

It’s not so different from falling in love, just on a micro, temporary level. Those heady romances make our self-borders porous and filmy, especially in the early years. In psychology, this is called having boundary issues. But there are times when our boundaries are best dissolved. We said we were playing bank but really we were just playing.

I tried Google Cardboard, by the way. I can’t say that it’s the future of everything, but something like it could bring us into so many more corners of experience. And maybe we lose ourselves again. Or maybe, because that sense of losing is so forcefully and artificially induced, it just makes reality less bearable. I fumbled around my upstairs hallway as though it was Rome, but when I set the device down, the walls seemed more iron than ever.

Fire in a bowl

We moved in August to a new house, which has been the kind of place that asserts its place-ness at every turn. It wasn’t interested in our convenience; it had its own drama from the start. The front steps wobbled like the teeth of a veteran boxer, the wall in the downstairs bathroom bubbled with water from a thousand rains, and then, oh, a whole nest of yellow jackets rooted itself in the gutter and sent its little tiny emissaries in through the cracks. By the half-dozen, they roosted on the wall in the upstairs hall every morning. Waiting.

These things got fixed. One by one. And we unpacked boxes, and books went onto bookshelves, and- and-… we live here. It is good. We’re across from a big park, situated on a corner so there’s light on all sides, and we have a big front lawn that’s weedy and weird, bordered by thorny old rose bushes. It’s me, Oriana, Whit and Pat, and this is the best. Because it means the house is always full of food and friends, and this makes such a difference for things like mental health, peace, safety and general calmness. Someone else is making coffee, someone can listen to the bad day and the good day, and someone knows just what cocktail to make for each.

Last night Oriana made a big dinner for us and a childhood friend of hers, and afterwards Pat built a fire in the fire pit out front. It made me remember just how calming a contained piece of fire can be, and how watching an element at work can erode the layers of worry that build up over the course of the day. You can be the happiest person, and still worry, and still need fire to stare at until the logs split, into glowing embers pushing through a spiderweb of cracks.

But the good part is, I don’t have as many questions as I used to. I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t stare at a fire and wonder what it all means. I know exactly what it means, that we are insignificant and mutable, that we hold on to what we have until it falls away.

Pat and Lindsay, who are now married

The boy asked if Pat was a ghost.

Our house is tucked behind a brick storefront, separated from the back of a bike shop by a narrow lane of concrete. There’s a front porch, though — a relic from before the store, we think, and we sit out there sometimes. Yesterday Pat was writing on the porch when an older woman and a little boy came around the side of the store and stopped right in front of our house.

She carried a sporty hiking stick, had short Grandma-coiffed red hair (dyed?), and clip-on sunglasses. The little boy wore spectacles and could have been a young Harry Potter. They froze when they saw Pat.

“Oh, we’re just out here looking for zombies and ghosts!” she said, casual and jovial like she was in a department store “just looking”.

She went on: “We found this house back here one day and now we have to go check on it every day.”

The boy whispered something up to her and she whispered something back. Then he called out manfully but shyly to Pat, “Are you a ghost?”

I was watching all this from a chair by the window.

Pat looked positively tickled but held it together. “No, just a person!” he called back. The boy nodded, the woman nodded, and off they went.

Pat and I got married! We did. A wedding a wedding a wedding. With so many of my favorite people there in actual life and many well-wishes sent via electronic digitalness and paper. I wore a short dress made by my friend Rachel’s Cambodian clothing company, cut to fit on my dining room table the day before.

Our ceremony at Humboldt Park — where everyone sat around us in a circle, felt electric and serene at once. Violin music, flower petals, and we walked together. Our funny, kind friends wrote and read things. Thea played a silly, lovely sing-a-long. We did it. Our friend Josh officiated and at the end said, “I present to you Pat and Lindsay, who are now married.”

We exited the building into a tunnel of people blowing bubbles. Then we piled onto a school bus, docked at an old loft space in a warehouse district and slipped into a dream — the most light and love I have ever seen in one place, radiating through two stories of glass, across gleaming wood floors and sparkling china. This was for us? It was.

Pat and I danced to an Otis Redding song. I danced with my dad, to a lullabye he used to sing us girls. Everything was good, and okay, and better than good or okay. Oh, and pie. Instead of cake. Of course.

Senior year of college I wrote a list of what I wanted out of life. It was a joy-centric list, in opposition to the success-centric pressure coming from all around me that felt strangling.
I said on this list, more than a decade old now, that I wanted margaritas, Cadbury eggs, and music I could dance to. And, strangely, at the wedding I got all of those things. We ate margaritas and tacos. There was a basket of Cadbury eggs (IMPORTED FROM THE UK SO THE CHOCOLATE WAS BETTER) by the door, for people to take as they left. I danced every single song.

All the while I wanted to bottle it. Our parents, healthy and happy, our siblings, knitting into one goofy, dual-familied pack, our friends, dressed in bright spring clothes. If you’ve never danced in a twirly white dress in a circle of people screaming that they love you, well, you are missing out.

When everything wound down, we took a black car to a fancy hotel, where we managed to drink two more beautiful goblets of room-service champagne. In the morning, we woke up to time that felt molasses-slow. I shoved my dress into a clear plastic bag and ferried it homeward in a taxi. A useless and lovely parcel. We got out about a ten-minute walk from the house and stopped for coffee. Pat, talking to the cashier at Starbucks, referred to me as his wife for the first time. We walked home on a cloudless April day through our sleepy neighborhood — the buds just coming out, me swinging that dress in the bag.

It was pretty great.


My sisters and I had a mysterious house that we checked on, when we were kids. It was set way back in the woods, and we only knew it by its mailbox, which said, “Shube”. On long drives with our grandmother we would pass it. We never went back there. But we surmised that a woman named Mrs. Shube lived there in a wooded hermitage, and we longed more than anything to see her. We imagined her life so vividly. Every time I am back in the area, I look for it, even though I know the house is gone now.

We eventually found out through the yellow pages that the name was actually “Shubert” — and if you told me you knew something about that house, to this day I’d be all ears right away.

Now it’s funny to be that mystery house for another kid and his grandmother. A special kind of life cycle, a circle of imaginative children and the adults who let them dream.

We are ghosts, though, contrary to what Pat told that little boy. We are happy ghosts and loving ghosts and ghosts of immense intelligence and purpose, but ghosts just the same, to be checked on every day. We are here for just a flicker and constantly shape-shifting, ghosts of our old selves, not yet our new selves. Surrounded by ghosts, too, of our grandparents and great-grandparents, their guidance still flowing through our veins.

Ritual eases that ghost-y feeling, I learned.

I wasn’t always convinced about the wedding— why have one? So much work and money and time! So many people, diverted from their daily routines! But the wedding is a pause. It freezes us. Full stop. Exist here. Be here, just for now — ye shapeshifting, translucent, unpinnable ghosts, with these people, in this place, with this love.

Crossings + the holdout hollering in the back

I’m thinking about borders again. It’s that old saw, that old pull. Maybe it’s because I grew up a stone’s throw from Canada, where THE LAWS were different, and television news anchors pronounced their “ou” sounds differently. Maybe it’s because I grew up on the edge of a subdivision on the edge of a town that was, itself, edging away from its farmland roots. On the edge of the working class, on the edge of the century.

It’s a chant in my head — push the edge, cross it. 

What edge? Where?

I’m not even sure.

Everything I am doing is my favorite thing I have ever done. Writing about the intersection of journalism, social good and data. Musing about user testing for civic apps. Co-writing a play about digital media, and performing it for audiences three times a week. Giving a Pecha Kucha talk with 300 people excited to hear my theories on cultivating a dynamite creative practice. Oh, and — you know, a new book of essays.

I’m combining media, non-fiction, performance, design and publishing in new permutations, which is what I have always wanted to do.

Maybe this push-pull is from a holdout contingent in the council of my brain. One old wheezing member hollers from the back.

“What? You are doing what you love? For money? For people? And they LIKE it? Well, this is absurd. Rewind time, get back in your box.”

Trouble is, I don’t think I can.

Or maybe it’s a voice in the hallway, on the other side of the door. Wondering what’s taking me so long.

One day we will eat the pie

“How’s the wedding planning going?”

So funny that you ask.

It is, in a word, going.

I love flowers. I love good food. I love music and dance, dance, dancing. I love all of the humans on our little list of guests. I love pie. All of these things will be present at the wedding. This sounds like an overflow of riches, right? I mean, you can never have too much key lime pie.

But you can have too many details about the pie, such as:

Would you like the pie purchased through the caterer or dropped off directly from the bakery?

I guess… with the caterer is good, why don’t we just–

Would you like it pre-sliced for an extra $5 charge, or would you like to slice it yourselves? 

Well, I guess, $5 isn’t so much, but–

Would you like it in basic tins or do you want to purchase ceramic serving plates?


Would you like to– 


And we will. We will eat the pie. Everyone calm down*. It’s going to be great.

*Everyone means me.

Two proposals, one wedding

The strangest thing happened. I decided to get married. It was a decision, and not just a proposal and an okay-yes!, because of how the whole thing went down. And LADIES, this non-traditional process is not the worst idea ever.

The guy proposed, with the bended knee and an origami ring. The Guy. I should say: Pat! That’s his name. Writer/curious soul/friend since 2007 and boyfriend for the past two circles ’round the sun.

We were in Phnom Penh, my one-year hometown, my touchstone on the other side of the ocean. And I had woken up thinking about so many things. Like: Move back? Like: Will it be hot today? Like: Such jetlag! Like: I want all the things I love and miss, want the iced coffee and the moto rides with my students and soup from that good place and…. Everything that year was a first kiss, and I was churning back through it all in my mind, which had floated a million miles away from Pat as we took a walk.

Which Pat couldn’t have known. And he pulled an origami ring out of his pocket, which had been painstakingly folded and then transported for more than 24 hours of travel time.

It looked like the perfect scene, probably — a walk by the river, before breakfast, just after waking.

And I was like, “What?”


Not right then.


Pat suggested, with the most love and kindness of any human I have ever seen (although I never did get to meet Mother Teresa) that I propose in return, when ready. And I believed that it would all be ok because he articulated my tendencies and quirks so precisely. He knew that I am easily rattled by change, even though I sometimes mainline things like trips to Phnom Penh and fast rides on two wheels. A reluctant adrenaline junkie.


Paused it. Kept on.


And one summer day back in Chicago, I tricked him into coming to meet me by the Chicago river (such trickery, these proposals always involve). Then I opened my backpack to reveal a bottle of champagne and a typewritten letter, and two rings. One, a ring made from a dime taped to a circle of wire. Dime. On. Ring. My grandfather’s gambit with my grandmother. Another, made from a binder ring, to go with the DIY theme. We slipped these on together and drank the champagne, and somewhere in there he said yes but I don’t remember how it all went.

You don’t remember?

I truly don’t. My memory during important moments is like a chalkboard in a rainstorm, and I rely on tangible objects to remember what happened. The empty champagne bottle. The ring on my finger is now a real diamond, from a vintage shop in Buffalo, bought a few weeks later. He said yes.

Because I proposed in return, I learned just how nerve-wracking it is to ask someone to marry you. It is terrifying. Even if you have been with the person a long time. Even if, no matter their answer, you are going to be fine. It is far more terrifying than sky diving, which by comparison was a walk in the park. It’s scary for a reason that I’d never considered before I tried to do it: You are holding the kill switch on Life As You Know It, in hopes that when you push it, the future is magically ransomed free and rises like a genie released to say: Hey. I’m supposed to be here. Where’s the party?

Well, the party is in the works.

We are in fact planning a small little thing called a wedding, where we will gather with our many, many family members and whatever friends we can fit in around them without the whole place collapsing. Yes.

Remembering in the time of unnumbered pages

Cambodian coffee brewing. The New Yorker fiction issue spread in pieces on my lap.

It’s July. Just the beginning of July, feeling like May, and time seems slippery. Fish-slippery — or tiny-crab slippery. Always running away from me.

(On the beach of the island where Kerpowski and I landed after our long boat ride into the sunset, tiny crabs burst up from the sand, one after the other. Dodging them made me think of heroes in the movies, the bullets always missed. I kept Not Stepping on Crabs but unsure of the physics.)

July. I wanted very much to start pie-making, because it’s summer and there’s fruit now, but I’m headed to Copenhagen for a SOMETHING I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO which is take a workshop at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. 

So, pies have been delayed while I pack.

No, packing has been delayed for this coffee, which has a maple-y sweetness to it that no other coffee does. And the New Yorker fiction issue, which was a June thing. It’s the best way to spend a morning, sinking and rocking into a sheaf of pages that someone else wrote. Not even all the pages, just the hand-picked ones. The best ones.

I have lots that has not been written, and time keeps happening before I can write it. There’s a menace about that feeling. It floats lazily through, yellow-jacket menacing. Things will just keep happening, and I won’t be able to record them.

The island felt totally wild and completely inhabited at the same time. We stumbled over rocks, dodged crabs, and then walked under an archway of bent branches and down a dirt path until suddenly there was a circle of candelight, a thatched-roof hut and the slow murmur of traveler’s conversations. I guess we were at the front desk.