Monday, June 18, 2012


I will be out fighting bad guys until August 1, so this blog will be on hiatus until then.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Questions for Shane Benedict, Kayaker and Kayak Designer

Shane Benedict learned to kayak more than three decades ago and has long been recognized as a world-class paddler.  A 10-year US Freestyle Team Member and a two-time World Freestyle medalist, he continues to gain acclaim as a kayak designer and one of the founders of Liquidlogic.

How would you describe what you do?

I would describe what I do as someone who designs, produces, markets, sells, and paddles kayaks. Pretty much what I do is make things to play around in the water, which is one of the things that I love to do more than anything around in water.

Is this different than what other people think you do?
I think that other people know all the things that I do but I think they see the glittery floating down the river side much more prominently than the day to day gritty details.  The cliched term "gritty details" is very relevant. 
How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?

I know when I am on the right track in a project if I feel excited about it.  It is a very giddy unsettled feeling like something very cool is coming.  "the ice cream truck might be coming down our street!"  I think I am on course if I wake up at night thinking about it.  I start talking faster.  My brain goes faster than I can communicate.

How do you go about making choices?
Making choices is difficult for me, to a point.  I have to take in a lot of information.  I like to hear everyones thoughts.  I try to bring in as much information on the project as possible.  I pace back and forth.  And then suddenly I settle on an obvious choice.  It feels right, but sometimes it takes a long time to get there.

How do you know when you’re done?
I am never done.  There are two points that feel really incredible and doneish..  The moment when we put the model in a crate and put that crate on a truck feels like done but its not even a boat yet.  The mold has to be made and then boats made from the mold.  The other moment that feels done is when I see the first new boat out on a river being paddled by someone I don't know but those are very fleeting moments because it is not long after that I am already moving on to the next thing.  I see things that I would change immediately after I am "done" so it always feels like I am designing.

What’s your workspace like?

My work spaces are many but they start completely clean.  If I were a writer I would have the pencils and paper all lined up, the desk completely clean, and the computer lined up square with the desk. By the end of the project my work space is a total disaster with beer bottles, food scraps, wrappers, instruments askew, and the smell of sweat.  I am a visual person. I need to see what I am working on.  So that lends itself to lots of stuff lying around so I can see it.  

What are your essential tools?
There are so many tools and offices for me I am getting confused.  There is an old rule... You must have the 5.  Helmet, Lifejacket, Paddle, Sprayskirt, and Boat to successfully kayak whitewater (you would be nude but you could do it).  The obvious answer is my brain.  When I am paddling whitewater the most challenging thing is to see through the chaos of whitewater to see the line, and to see through my confidence, fear, ego, and understanding of what I can do to paddle through the rapids.  In the office my essential tools are simliar to anyone else in an office but my new favorite is a giant whiteboard.  I am very visual.  I like to see what is on my board to be done.  It feels good to write it up there and wipe it off.

What’s the most surprising tool you use?
The tool that others are the most surprised by is my chainsaw.  I love to rough cut some of my models with a chainsaw.  It's fast and messy and the boat shows itself quickly from the block of foam.  The tool I am most surprised by is my eye for design.  I had no idea I could be a designer it just happened.  For some reason I looked right past the fact that my dad was an architect and designer, my mother an artist.  I just thought it was normal for people to see the shapes, colors, and patterns that make things the way they are.

What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from?

My biggest mistake was making something that I didn't think was cool in some way or another.  I only made it because I was supposed to at the time.   I didn't throw myself into it.  I didn't paddle it very much and thought it looked ok at the time.  I let others tell me it was good and didn't really check it out myself.  It was terrible.  What I learned was that I can find something about every boat that is interesting.  In fact I can find any project completely exciting because i really do love to design stuff but I can also get a little complacent.   That is my biggest mistake... just letting it ride and not diving into it.

A few of the models Shane has designed being put to use on the Chattooga River.

Shane's Blog:  Shane's Logic

Monday, June 11, 2012

River Lessons

          I just had the privilege of kayaking on a trip organized by Shane Benedict of Liquidlogic and Betsy Towns, two wonderful generous artists (both of whom will be interviewed later on this blog).  I had done a few rafting trips before, one roughly fifteen years ago and one almost twenty-five, but I had never been in a kayak.  We spent two days on a “wild and scenic” part of the Chattooga River which serves as the border of Georgia and South Carolina.

The group included ten adults, several of whom were long-time paddlers and guides, and nine children ages 4 to 10.  It was fascinating to watch the experts teach, take care of, coax, correct, console, and inspire the kids (and novice adults like me).  And, as we went along, it was impossible not to have a half-dozen, not very deep, but basic thoughts, including:

The River Will Go Where It Goes.  You can make choices, and you can take certain actions, but the river is going its way.  You can work with the current or around it, but if you fight it, don’t expect to win because...

The River Is Stronger Than You.  If you stand on the bottom or put your hand in to push off, you might be able to accomplish what you want, but don’t think it’s because you’re stronger.  It can take you down in a second.  It has toppled huge trees and tossed them high onto granite ledges.  It has worn through layers of rock, and, speaking of,...

There’s No Point in Cursing a Rock.  I spent a lot of time hung up on rocks and trying not to get hung up about them.  Similarly, my six-year old son kept finding himself stuck or jammed up, and he would cry, “Again?  Oh man!  Stupid rock!”  The rock has been there for centuries before our arrival and will be there for a long time afterwards.  Swearing at it does little good although it can be a logical response when you’re heading right for it because...

The River Is An Exercise in Managing Adrenaline and Anxiety, Fear and Frustration.  As I watched my children zigzag back and forth, I realized that as they learned to control their boats, they also were learning how to control themselves – both their bodies and their emotions.  They wanted to be good right away.  They wanted to be fast and smooth, and they were frustrated at their lack of skills.  They also found themselves scared at moments.  The first time my daughter tipped over, she came up crying.  The second time, however, she came up laughing.  Simultaneously, as we parents watched our kids, we were learning how to control our fear.  My son fell out of his boat, and my first reaction was to jerk towards him which meant I fell out of mine.  Now, instead of one person in the water, there was two.  I hadn’t helped him, couldn’t help him, and had made matters worse.  Luckily, I wasn’t needed because there was a calm, experienced adult, paying attention, ready to fish my son out because the guides knew...

The River Takes Planning and Preparation (if you want it to be rewarding). Shane and the other paddlers would scout out parts that would be challenging, plan routes, and station themselves to be ready if people got in trouble.  In fact, they had planned the entire trip this way, sending maps, arranging food, bringing boats and gear.  They not only had equipment and clothing for themselves, but for others, and they willingly shared it.  My family ended up borrowing gear from several people to stay warm because we weren’t ready for a day of near constant rain.   And, as we went along, the group willingly and  generously stopped if someone needed to change or make adjustments.  No one was rushed.   No one was made to feel like they were imposing or doing something wrong.  Perhaps it’s because the guides understood and we learned...

Going Back Is Usually Impossible (and even when it’s not, it’s probably not worth it).  There are times when you can’t stop no matter how much you may want to, so stop when you can, and when you can’t, keep going and try not to tip over.

There is much to be learned from a river.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

National Donut Day

           Yesterday was National Donut Day, so I decided it would be a good time to do a little field work.  I gathered a crack research team – a third grader (9 year old girl), first grader (7 year old girl), kindergartener (6 year old boy), and preschooler (4 year old girl) – and we set off to tour a few of the donut shops in town.
            Before we started, I asked, “Why do you think there is a National Donut Day?”

Third grader – Maybe to get the national donut industry going.
First grader – A lot of people like donuts.
Kindergartner – People want to eat them.
Preschooler – I don’t know what’s in them.  I’m allergic to polenta and carrots.

            We decide to call ourselves The Donut Reporters, a name suggested by the first grader, and we piled into the van.  First, we went to my office to pick up a copy of The Donut Book by Sally Levitt Steinberg.  It was given to me by the poet, Matt Mason, years ago.   It is informative, interesting, and true to its subtitle:  “The origins, history, literature, lore, taste, etiquette, traditions, techniques, varieties, mathematics, mythology, commerce, philosophy, cuisine, and the glory of the donut.”  However, as far as I can tell (since it doesn’t have an index), it has nothing to say about National Donut Day.  Nevertheless, the third grader found it fascinating and asked if she could take it into school.
            We began our tasting research at Dunkin Donuts. Since the first grader is allergic to peanuts and soy, we needed to find out what was in the products.  We asked the man behind the counter, and he shrugged, “I don’t know.”  We asked him why there was a National Donut Day, and he repeated, ‘I don’t know.”  Then he added, “It’s not a Dunkin Thing.”  The first grader decided just to get a chocolate milk.  The others made their selections, and I distributed tasting sheets.
            The third grader picked a bowtie, which was surprising, since she usually gets something pink with sprinkles.  She explained, “I wanted to get something different.”  Her notes included, “Sweet. Good.  Tastes like a donut but with an odd shape.”
            The kindergartener picked a specialty Undercover MIB (Men In Black) chocolate donut “because it has stars on it and looks chocolately.”  He bit into it and was delighted. “Hey, there’s chocolate inside too!”  The preschooler told him “You picked the coolest one!”  She herself chose a chocolate with sprinkles because it had “chocolate and sprinkles.”  Her tasting notes, given orally, were “It’s good.  I like chocolate.”
            Since she didn’t get a donut, the first grader was responsible for reporting on ambiance.  Her notes for the Dunkin Donuts eating area read “Small but colorful.  Very good view of parking lot.”
            Next we went to Krispy Kreme.  Driving up the kids began to shout, the Christmas colors having a Pavlovian effect. 
            Personally I have always been wary of Krispy Kreme.  For one, in the 20s, during a boom-time for the Ku Klux Klan, businesses would call themselves things like Komfy Kozy Kabins.  Luckily, it’s not Kool Krispy Kreme.  For another, the Krispy Kreme way is to run everything through its glazer which makes the whole store seem to have an atmosphere of sugar mist.
            We had a hard time finding a parking space, and the line stretched outside.  Not surprising the ambiance notes for the place read, “Very crowded.” They also said, “Smells like donuts.  Trays of donuts.  Very colorful.  Shiny.”  The line went quickly, and the kids stayed calm by watching the assembly line process through the plate glass windows and by trying various ways to wear their free hats.
            The Krispy Kreme worker couldn’t tell us whether there was soy or peanuts in the products, so once again the first grader refrained.  As for the reason behind National Donut Day, the staff member said, “I have no idea.  Ask the man in black.”  We looked around, but there was no man in black.  I thought there was something deep about this, but the rest of the team was just puzzled.
            The preschooler selected a chocolate with sprinkles because it was chocolate and had sprinkles.  The kindergarten picked one that was “Icy with a lot of icing.”  And the third grader also chose a chocolate one because “you don’t want to experiment all the time.”
            Our last stop was Starbucks.  Personally I find the idea of buying a donut at Starbucks silly and even antithetical to the whole donut ethos (not to mention expensive).  But in the interest of research, we went.  The staff member didn’t know it was National Donut Day, had no theories as to what it was about, and refused to give us any free donuts or any discount.  Three staff members together couldn’t figure out what was in the donuts, so the first grader got another chocolate milk.  As for the ambiance, she observed Starbuck’s was, “Boring.  Not so colorful.  Quiet.  Not much going on.  A bunch of grown-up drinks.”
            Starbucks offers only one kind of donut – the Old Fashioned -- so there were requests for cake, suckers, popcorn, and anything within their sight-lines.  It became difficult to keep the team focused, but eventually they settled down to the task of eating more sugar baked in a circular shape.  They couldn’t concentrate enough, however, to take tasting notes.
            When asked to review which had been their overall favorites, the kindergartener immediately replied, “All of them.”  The preschooler said with a zen serenity, “I like this donut that I have here right now.”  The third-grader said, “The bow-tie.  It was different, but still a donut.”  And, the first-grader with allergies snarled, “I hated all the donuts because I didn’t get any,” but she admitted that she still had fun.
            Everyone agreed that it had been a successful National Donut Day. 
            And, the result of our research?  A unanimous belief that it’s a good, important, holiday about which people display a shocking lack of knowledge.  And, a spoiled dinner for all of us.