Entering Romania

After an hour circling Budapest trying to find the superhighway, we drove east across dry plains to the border with Romania. Clouds piled up behind the line of security stations. My friend Loren, his head bare, sniffling and coughing, drank water from a 1.5 liter supermarket bottle, and with each swallow I thought: How. Can. He. Drink. So. Much. Fucking. Water? After the border crossing we drove into the city of Cluj and stopped at the central square, curious. I had never seen such a dark place—blackness smeared the buildings. What was it? Soot? I didn’t know. We drove on. 

Having left Strasbourg with only a large-scale map of Europe, we had little detail on Romania, and it was the least developed country we visited. Always the geographer, I looked for clues. Was there a more alive place somewhere nearby? We stopped for lunch, crashing a country wedding which smelled quite clearly of sewage. Long hours in the car were nothing new on this trip, but it never occurred to me to get out of the car to walk, run, or just to stretch my legs. The cramped cabin of the Peugeot 207 was not my ideal environment. Enacting one of my maxims—turn left three times—I ordered Loren to leave the highway and turn onto a small, unmarked road leading up a ridge. Quickly we found ourselves in deep forest, without much to guide our next move. Just like the early computer game Adventure, “a maze of twisty passages, all alike”. Again I chose left. The road narrowed and the sun was setting. 

We came upon a large building, perhaps a hotel? It seemed abandoned, but there were some lights on and the entrance was passable, although partly destroyed. We explored for a few minutes, wandering expectantly around the dining hall, but found only dust and shuffling ghosts. A strange and again a dirty place. Finally, as darkness overtook us, following a heavily potholed dirt road into a valley, I spotted a small yellow sign. Romanian is a language much like Italian, which I can read even at a distance. Agriturismo. All of our left turns had finally borne fruit: a sane little village with a creek and a church, and a farmhouse with rooms to let and dinner on the table. 

I was a teenage boozehound—
until age 48

Growing up in San Francisco, I don’t remember much sun. We natives were born into the fog and loved it as our own. To go to the beach you had to go to Santa Cruz. I think back and I can clearly see the blowing grey wet, not quite rain but enough to darken the streets and drip from the trees. This was normal, every day, how it was, the breath of the Pacific blowing through the avenues. Far from grim, I love this maritime landscape.

You get good at what do you. As kids here, we got good at bong hits, bombing hills, buying booze, riding MUNI, finding parties, skipping school, and climbing the many dark hills of nighttime San Francisco. Every hilltop — and this is famously a city of hills — was our midnight home, a high lookout over the glowing city lights, the bay, our streets. We all knew the city from above, where the smooth pavement was, the metal curbs, the smoothest and most gravitationally efficient ways to get from X to Y. We would often skate from one side of the city to another and back, much faster than what I have always heard to be the average speed of MUNI: 7 miles per hour.

The first time I got an alcohol buzz was in third or fourth grade. My mom packed a bottle of apple cider in my lunch and by the time I opened it, it had gone off; fermented and produced enough alcohol for me to feel it. I loved it. Not long afterwards, I stayed over at my friend Zack’s place one night when his parents went out to a movie (North Dallas Forty, and I recall that pretty clearly) and left us on our own recog. We raided the liquor cabinet and drank three (that’s what I remember) bottles of some sort of sweet white wine. Zack puked his guts out and pissed the bed. Feeling fine, I had an enjoyable evening playing Adventure (or maybe Zork) on his Apple I and then helped clean up the mess. Back in Noe Valley when I was nine or ten, some neighbors’ boys invited me up to their attic to smoke some weed. I didn’t care much for their company, but I took very easily to altered states, and started seeking out more interesting friends who liked to get high. By the time of my second year at Everett on 16th and Church I was regularly drinking and smoking weed with a group of friends from school. This was in 7th grade, at the age of 11 and 12. We started with beer and would switch it up with Popov vodka and frozen concentrated orange juice. And whatever else we could get our hands on. It’s hard for really young kids to buy harder drugs, but not impossible. I scored some LSD from a friend in Berkeley. A kid I met at dive camp. Went to buy it on Telegraph actually, old school—and very young. I was 13 that year.

Drugs were a major priority in high school, and everyone was holding. Some kids had real Northern California weed, and acid, mushrooms, and coke were usually available. No joke, you could buy any of that stuff just by walking down into the Pit at Lowell High. School came easily to me and I got mostly A’s except for some of eighth grade and most of ninth, because I had figured out that those years didn’t count for high school (8th) and college (9th) admissions—in those two years I got a lot of D’s and two F’s. I just stopped going to school, or only went when I felt like it, to see my friends, get high, hear where the parties were. There were a lot of parties, and there was always a lot of alcohol. Kegs of beer in the bushes at Lake Merced, house parties with whatever booze people brought (always: as much as you could afford), 40’s of Mickey’s before a show, six-packs of Beck’s in the treehouse in the Presidio, man there were a lot of parties and drinking was always involved. It wasn’t a party if there wasn’t anything to drink, and the main point wasn’t even to see your friends: it was to (see friends and) drink and get high together.

Halfway through high school, Lowell finally cracked down on the drug scene and I switched schools to McAteer. I didn’t switch schools because I thought it would be easier to get high—or at least not only for that reason. There were some interesting programs at Mac — SOTA, the School of the Arts, ALTA, and Wayne McDonald’s Urban Pioneers (thank you Wayne). In that second half of high school, we were introduced to new stuff: speed and pills. Speed and booze is a great combination: you can drink more, for a longer time—and still feel like hell in the morning. Such unique hell that we called it the “padded cell”. By this time, I had a motorcycle (thanks Dad), as did many of my friends, and we would blast all over the city going to from party to party, often high on a variety of things, kept alive, literally, by youth and the night air. I pretty much stopped smoking marijuana; my potent combination was beer, booze and some speed.

Sweet sixteen. That’s me on the left.

College still involved a lot of drinking, but I took the opportunity to get away from the harder San Francisco drug culture. Many of my friends had gotten deep into speed, heavy pills, heroin. Many of my friends died very young: Colin Leeds. Sandy. Doug Kelly. Curtis. Several others. Thankfully, I was self-aware enough to avoid taking that path. I only tried heroin once. I stopped messing with speed and stuck to drinking. I got good at throwing parties.

Straight out of college I moved to Ann Arbor Michigan to take a job. A dream job really, and I had done well to find and land it. My girlfriend Julie and I moved out there together and, after living in a farm house a few miles outside of town for the first several months, we moved downtown, to be closer to our favorite bar, the 8-Ball Saloon. A fucking cliché, I know, and it’s true, that’s what we did.

In my mid twenties I took a job as a traveling consultant. It was like being at sea. Making money, and not spending any—of my own. I had a per diem. I could eat and drink whatever I wanted. Fuck it, I was on the road! I went to a wedding in Minneapolis, got hammered, met some chick named Lori, and she was naked, screaming at the top of her lungs (of her own accord, out of sheer enthusiasm—and we weren’t getting it on), in the car heading back to my place. I very quickly got tired of traveling so much and took a job at WIRED in San Francisco. After a few years of what Mark and I called “Thursday night whiskey night” in North Beach, I got my own apartment on Hayes and Lyon where I hosted Rammstein-and-wine parties and “Russian breakfast” (buckwheat pancakes, Pavel’s yogurt, and cold vodka). Fuck yes.

In my thirties I left that job, gave myself a sabbatical at grad school, and started a business. I fell in love with a girl in Madrid, and another in New York. I had had some episodes of depression in my late twenties (and probably before that, but it was then that I started to get to know it). It started before I went to grad school actually—when I blew a disc in my back. And got sued. And lost! Rough enough. In grad school, I developed a serious taste for bourbon and spent a lot of nights in a dark place there in Madison (thanks L). Mornings were often pretty rough. I dropped out of grad school when I ran into an an ex-girlfriend in San Francisco and proposed on the spot. We got engaged and stayed together less than a year. I knew it was a mistake from the start. She tried to give me an early out. Thanks J. When we split up I really went downhill. I knew that I had fucked up, and I didn’t have the clear vision or judgement—or the courage—to see my way out of it. This is when I came to experience serious depression.

Without going into depression too deeply here (that’s another piece), I’ll say a few things: 1) Like anything else, at the end of the day, depression is my own responsibility, not something to throw up my hands about. I don’t like how people say “my depression”. It’s only a thing if we give it a name and invoke it. It’s a collection of ways of feeling less than good that can be caused by many things—and feelings can change, and can _be changed_. 2) Feeling down enough to say yeah “I’m depressed” means you are definitely not fucking happy. I don’t know exactly how happy other people are, and I know that’s not really supposed to be the fucking point of life anyhow (really?), but I have not been a very happy person for most of my life, and I have to say, I feel like I have missed out a bit. I am happy, even very happy, like ten or twenty percent of the time. In between, I am neutral, and sometimes, or often, below neutral. This has improved in recent years and now I know what it’s like to be above neutral. It’s a very very notable difference. Even so, I can still always see the possibility of falling through the floor. 3) Depression and alcohol went hand in hand for me. I don’t mean that one caused the other, but when you’re down, you sure want a drink. And as we learned in drug class in high school, alcohol is actually, literally, a depressant—which makes you, literally, depressed. I guess I never really thought that “depressant” meant “depression”. Like it was just temporary. That’s the hangover. I mean the more subtle downer that is fewer hours in the day, less energy, pain in the body, slower thinking—all of those things that sound like depression, because they are depression. Whether one leads to the other doesn’t really matter. They make each other worse.

It was around this time that I got into therapy. I had seen a couple of therapists in the past, but I wasn’t in a stable enough place to do it on a consistent basis. At least now, back in San Francisco, I was in one place for a solid number of years. I had figured that much out: that I needed to bed down in one place without moving for quite a while, to gain some stability, to get to know my friends and my City again. I had come to feel like a stranger in my own home town. I was living in Potrero Hill and met a guy who became a very close friend who worked as a psychoanalyst. He was a new kind of friend, an adult male friend, a peer, and not a peer through business. He suggested that I get some better help with how I was feeling, and I did. Thanks Pete.

I did ten years with that analyst, and it helped me a lot. I graduated myself from that relationship just two years ago. I had come to feel that we had reached the end of our work. I didn’t think of this at the time, but by two years ago, I was getting more frequent messages about alcohol. That it would be good to drink less. What do I mean by messages? I mean like, I thought “I should probably drink less” in various ways. To me, some thoughts are clearly messages though. Some stick out. And even though I mentioned some of these messages, this analyst never asked me about drinking or suggested that there might be a connection between drinking and depression. I’m sure I was hiding it, but so what. This is a major mental health issue. I didn’t learn how strong that connection is until after ending that analysis. Looking back now, I suspect that part of the reason that I knew it was time to move on was because, unconsciously, I knew drinking was an issue, and I resented her for not bringing it up. Just like my parents didn’t bring it up. So that’s how therapy goes. Helpful, but it’s a winding road.

In my earlier forties, I still loved talking about booze: beer, wine, spirits, bourbon, gin, tequila, grappa, mezcal, amaro—all of it. So many varieties. So many delicious and beautiful things. I’ve had them all. I came to prefer a tequila old-fashioned made with some nice reposado—a lot of it. Still, it wasn’t like I was drinking bottle of the stuff.

I had come across this fantastic mail-order outfit called Garagiste. This guy, he is a wizard. A very talented writer, and the way his business worked was sheer genius. I really admire the guy. In fact I went and met him, in Seattle, some years ago. A very generous and humble person, he took two hours to show me around his entire operation, met his wife, amazing. And the way his thing works is that he just sends you an email. Just text, no pictures or anything. And all you have to do to purchase some of the wine that he’s talking about is simply. to. hit. Reply. It’s too easy. I mean, it’s already too easy, and then there’s his writing. His stories about the wines are like dreams. He hypnotizes you, romances you, sings you to sleep, the super cool young French biodynamic winemakers spring right off the screen and kiss you hello on both cheeks. You hit reply, you buy the wine. A charming elf of a man, and clever.

You know when you have that certain kind of problem that you know is a problem, but you want to believe is not too big of a problem?

I crashed my car, and told nobody. Too often, I would choose to stay in, and enjoy a cocktail and a bottle of wine by myself. I had 15 cases of wine in the garage. I drank a lot of beautiful (and I don’t mean expensive) wine. I told myself that I was enjoying myself, but I knew I was hiding. When I moved house, it sort of stuck out to me. Moving all those boxes. I stopped buying from the just-hit-reply guy, and slowly drank down my stock.

I wasn’t planning to stop drinking, but I did get messages about it. The first (we all know this one) was: I never want to have another hangover. I also started to feel that I don’t have any time to waste, and that it’s always good to quit while you’re ahead. And, I started to feel like I just looked sort of lame with a drink always in my hand. I had had a drink in my hand at every party and every bar, since I was kid.

I took 40 days off drinking in mid-2016. I felt great—and then resumed, but with some restraint. I started to notice the conflict between wanting to enjoy one or two cocktails and/or some nice wine, and other things I wanted to do. I thought clearly for the first time about how alcohol had been part of my life, and my relationships, for so long. I started to talk about it now and then with friends.

That dry spell was actually right in the middle of the time that I was getting to know Kate. When we started dating, a few months later, one of the first things I said to her was that I didn’t want alcohol to be a big part of our relationship. Not invited to the party. And although our first kiss did taste of tequila, alcohol was not the fuel for our attachment, and with some exceptions it hasn’t featured heavily in our time together.

I was getting more messages. Sex is better sober should be obvious. I started to feel that I wanted to set a higher standard for myself, and that I don’t want to celebrate with alcohol. Kate and I moved in together, to a beautiful apartment in Sausalito, with a view of the bay.

In December 2017 I had just returned home after a series of overseas trips: a couple of weeks on a sailboat west of Papua New Guinea, a couple of weeks in Japan with Kate, and then two more weeks guiding kite trips in Brazil. I came back to my golden home of California and the approaching new year and found myself feeling like crap.

I had been thinking the boat trip would be a good opportunity to not drink. When I arrived for a layover in Hong Kong I had a monstrous backache from the flight. The hotel that I had booked was characterless and over-priced. I was ashamed at not having made a more adventurous and less expensive choice. I had wanted to re-visit HK since having been there years ago with my father, and I felt the weight of that history on the busy, rainy streets. I felt like I needed to relieve my pain. I was alone. I spent the next day and night holed up in my hotel room, taking whatever Ibuprofen I had, drinking and trying to knead my back into working order. By the time I left for my flight to PNG I had given up on the idea of not drinking on the boat. A couple of beers and some rum every day sapped my energy, and I got a nasty infection that left me with a scar. On the way home I had a layover Manila and went into a bar that I know there. They saw the bandage on my finger and asked if I was on antibiotics? I lied and said no. They said, good because if you are we can’t serve you. Good people that they were, I had two drinks and got back on the plane to California.

In Japan, Kate and I enjoyed the local beer and sake quite a lot, and we would sleep in to sleep off the grog. We ended our trip in Kyoto with a serious bender, a night out at coolest local sake and yakitori place where we kept pouring it in, and a stumble home that we didn’t quite remember in the morning.

At the new year we went out with neighbors. Neither of us wanted to drink much, we didn’t, and it felt good. We celebrated her birthday shortly afterwards with a weekend away with friends. At a big group dinner one night, I got way too deep into the wine. I woke up feeling physically terrible and remorseful for being in such a negative state in such a beautiful place with good friends. Soon after that we went to a friend’s 40th birthday party. I was in good spirits in my zebra stripe pants and Sasha Grey LOVE tee, and I went straight to the tequila bar and had four or five. Very tasty. I got pretty loose, and and I really felt it the next day. I realized that I had showed up, drank up, and then, feeling deadened and not much like trying to talk while drunk, split. I hadn’t gotten as much out of the occasion as I could have, and I was aware of it. Not for the first time, but it hit me again that I want to experience things fully and that adding alcohol doesn’t add to my experience.

The next day Kate mentioned that she had been thinking of taking a week off from alcohol. It seemed like a great idea. I still don’t know whether she was subtly leading us in that moment; I’ll have to ask her. Thank you Kate. At the end of that first week I felt so good that I decided to continue indefinitely. It began as an open-ended experiment, but clearly, I already had the strong sense that it was time to end my relationship with alcohol. I was hopeful—hopeful that I would feel better without it, and hopeful that I wouldn’t miss it too much. I knew that I would feel better, but I was afraid to give it up that old friend.

That was a year ago. I went from drinking 99% of the time to not drinking 99% of the time. In the past year, I’ve had just a few beers, no more than several (which includes seven, but not eight, so not many) glasses of wine, and two cocktails. I know it sounds like I am, but I’m not counting exactly—it’s just there isn’t much to count.

I feel so much better. I have a lot more energy. I sleep perfectly well, almost every night! I wake up clear-headed. I have more time to do things. I never have to worry about drinking and driving. I never have to worry about liking the idea of a party, but not the reality of the experience. Now I can just go to the party and enjoy myself—or skip it and know that I chose that with a clear mind not to isolate myself, not to avoid drinking, and not to drink alone.

I’ve already tried all the delicious wines and beers. It’s sometimes hard not to be enticed by the idea of the beautiful variety a wine list, but for the most part I just skip that part of the menu now. There’s lot of art to eat and drink that doesn’t contain alcohol.

I feel more determined. I feel like I passed an intelligence test. People are drinking less, especially younger people, and I think certainly that we’ve passed peak alcohol consumption in the United States. With the ongoing spread of greater health consciousness and self-awareness, more people are realizing that, like preservatives, plastic, smoking and sugar, alcohol is obsolete. I still have a nostalgic love for it, but it’s a thing of the past, of the 20th century.

For me, it wasn’t hard to stop drinking. I know it’s not easy for some, but that’s been my experience. I have been cultivating increased health in many ways over the past several years, and once I started to see clearly, it was easy to stop. I learned that most of the addictive nature of alcohol comes from the initial rush and the relief of escape from reality, and then the high going away, leaving me not just wanting more, but at a lowered emotional, physical and mental state that made me feel like I needed to do it again to relieve the ever-greater pain. Stopping stops this cycle. Reality is still there, and I still want to escape that sometimes, but once reality wasn’t being made _worse_ by alcohol, it felt like such an improvement that it has been pretty easy to stay in the cycle of positive feedback. I have did have a few drinks over the past year. It’s good to know what it tastes and feels like from the other side, and I’m happy that I don’t have to be totally militant about it. When I have had a drink I haven’t ever felt: wow, yeah, give me more. It’s more like: ok, I remember what that’s like, and I don’t want more of it.

I’m still depressed. I would say “although” only mildly, but it’s not ‘although’ for me. It’s still not how I want to be. Quitting alcohol has helped a lot. I’m not in a constant cycle of feeling bad–need relief–have a drink–feel worse, but I still have work to do to raise my baseline to where I’d like it to be.

Some books have helped a lot. Shortly after my decision to start an open-ended dry spell, I came across a copy of a book called This Naked Mind, by Annie Grace. TNM introduced me to some new ideas about addiction and alcohol, in particular that it’s perfectly OK just to decide not to drink, that we are in control, that we are at our best naked, without anything subtracting from our human-ness. How alcohol deadens the self and the intuition—one of the aspects of humanity that I hold most precious. Most importantly, TNM clued me into the close relationship between depression, anxiety and alcohol, and also “how much fun it is to disprove your false notions about alcohol,” as you learn how it really works: that what feels good about alcohol is actually just the first few minutes — after that, it’s chemical triggers telling you that you want more, because of those first few minutes. Most of all, she showed very clearly how “drinking becomes an illogical activity” once we know these truths. And once I arrived at that point, it became much more possible to consider just stopping, forever, because it is so damn bad for me. How that would be a great step towards greater freedom — my #1 personal core value. Thanks Annie.

From This Naked Mind I learned of Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, which helped me to understand a lot about depression itself. I agree with him that depression isn’t a “disease” that, somehow, 30% of Americans are born with. Certainly, 30% (sorry, I don’t have the exact figure) of Americans present with symptoms that collectively can and should be called depression. But why? It’s our culture that’s sick, not each individual person. The culture is sick, and the individual people are suffering. In my case, it was also my youth, not just the drugs but also quite literally the lost connections that I didn’t have with my peers and my parents that, together with the drugs, set me on that low road.

Amy Dresner’s great My Fair Junkie helped me by seeing through her eyes how everything can be super fucked up and also hilarious and worth telling the story of. She also introduced to me the idea that “discipline creates stability; stability does not create discipline.” and that “having a routine helps create emotional steadiness.” She’s a great example of how nothing but the truth is really interesting—and the truth is usually pretty funny too.

Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp helped me see how much drinking took away from myself, “it’s special power of deflection,” how it felt like “insurance,” how we shared a “yearning for something, something outside the self that will provide relief and solace and well-being”—and how alcohol can seem very much like that, but just isn’t.

Some friends inspired me, those who I just happened to meet or talk to at the right moment. Thanks George, Ted, Geoff, Nick, Kit, Anni, Warren, uncle Bill. An acquaintance named Aspen shared this quotation some time ago, and it really stuck with me:

“I kept waiting for something bigger, something more profound, something that I could hitch myself to and be carried away once and for all to the heaven-on-earth that I deserved. I kept struggling for control, which was really a demand for everything I wanted―peace, happiness, love, perfection―all at once, right now, and for all time. I wanted life to be perfect, always. And when it wasn’t, which was most of the time, I got really anxious, and when I got anxious, I started thinking about how good it would feel to get high again. ” 
― William Moyers

Some other friends inspired me in quite a different way. I had a superiority complex, and it got me in trouble. I thought I was smarter than those friends of mine that got involved with harder drugs, and that I wasn’t in any danger of serious addiction. And yet that’s exactly what I did, and I didn’t find my way out of it until much later than many others that survived that early period when we were all together. I thought that I was different. It didn’t really occur to me that I needed to confront my state of mind, to be determined to change it. Many of my early peers saw that more clearly. Many of them left San Francisco, or made significant changes to distance themselves from the chaotic past that we shared. I also made many moves, searching for something else, and yet I still didn’t have the clarity to have much of an idea what I was looking for. Just: something else.

I thought I was different, and so I was looking for something outside of myself. I didn’t think that I had a problem, or that I had some psychological problems, but I was unaware of how those problems were compounded by alcohol. And I’m not saying that I should’ve known that I had a “alcohol problem “– I’m still very unsure of how much potency I’m willing to ascribe to a substance. I very much wanted and still tend to believe that we have full control over our own consciousness and our well-being. I’m not sure why I want to believe that so badly. And of course I am quite probably wrong. Regardless, I feel that by ascribing too much power to an outside agent, I divest myself of responsibility for my own behavior. And so that regardless of how much absolute power some _thing_ has, it does me well to understate that power, so as to spur myself to action, rather than relying on or lamenting the presence of something else. It’s my responsibility, and I’m not different, I’m not better. I should have paid more attention to how much of a mess I was making of myself, how much pain I was in.

Some people worry that if they stop drinking they’ll lose their community—or even just their hobby. That hasn’t been an issue for me. I’ve put a lot of energy in the past several years into cultivating community and connection. As Johann Hari sums up: “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it is connection.” That’s certainly part of what has enabled me to move forwards. It’s also been greatly satisfying to become part of the vibrant community of people who are writing about their experiences (Thanks Karolina), making great-tasting, high-quality NA craft beer and other alcohol-free drinks, creating NA choices at restaurants and alcohol-free bars, and furthering research and the conversation about depression, addiction, and connection.

I’m not against altering my mental state, but I certainly won’t do it any longer with something that robs my unique creative energy and drags me into a depressive spiral.

I’m so happy that I’ll never have another hangover.

I used to love shopping

Shopping was a big part of life for many years. I didn’t get it from my parents or my friends. My parents weren’t acquisitive. My dad would buy things for hobbies: sailing gear, climbing gear, cameras and lenses, a sextant, a motorcycle, a table saw, a planer, a router. My friends weren’t shoppers. I can’t think of anyone else who inspired or joined me in this early pursuit.

Looking back, it’s clear that it was a distraction, something to engage in, a substitute for connection. At the time, I just didn’t know what else to do. During the time that my mother and I lived on Church at 26th, I remember going up to 24th street all the time when I had nothing else to do. I would go to the magazine shop, the record store was no longer there, or maybe I’d lost interest. I had started getting interested in clothes. I would go to this funky little neighborhood clothing shop called Oceanfront Walkers. They sold tee shirts dyed in all sorts of colors, sort of a proto–American Apparel. I would spend many tens of minutes there, anxiously deciding whether I needed another soft cotton tee shirt in a slightly different garment-dyed color. These weren’t cool shirts, not band or show souvenirs, not really a unique or interesting style. I was into the colors. And that I could just walk in and buy them. They didn’t say anything — not the shirts, not the people in the shop.

You can’t just go buy a tee shirt of your favorite band. The good ones, the real ones are only sold at shows and concerts. If you just go buy one it’s kind of fake. And I wasn’t really willing to commit to support a band like that anyhow, aside from Van Halen of course — my first and only real concert tee from that era.

I think this habit must have started in those high-school years; I can’t remember doing it earlier. Not true! I used my paper route money to buy soda and candy (the porn mags, we stole all of those). And to play video games at the arcade in the Transbay bus terminal, and at Pier 39. But there wasn’t anything I was buying, collecting. I had slot cars and Tintin books, and I did want more of those, but I didn’t pursue those things. Even when I was at Lowell, in the first two years of high school, I didn’t buy things much. Shoes for skateboarding, drugs, some records, not much.

So it started with the tee shirts from 24th street. I got a motorcycle from my dad and that certainly increased my interest in shiny objects, as did climbing — all the ropes and bits pro had plenty of interest. I had gotten into porn in the same time period; I wonder if the plethora of images somehow encouraged me to to acquire things as well.

As a young person, my parents both worked at ESPRIT. One of the things my dad did was to launch the mail order catalog business there. I remember the first ESPRIT and Patagonia catalogs. They would provide hours of reading whenever a new one arrived. I recall now how these mirrored the layout of encyclopedic books from my childhood. We had one called “The Rules of the Game,” a search for which just turned up another book that we had: “According to Hoyle”, sort of a catalog of card game rules. I had another one about weapons. I loved these big books with their endless categories and images of so many different examples of things, just as I loved the hardware store, the art supply store, the chandlery. And now I can clearly see the similarity to porn, which is essentially a catalog of naked women.

In college I remember the J Crew catalog arriving regularly where I lived at the Cloyne co-op in Berkeley. It was more than a bit incongruous — I would buy things from the catalog, find they didn’t fit, send them back, or wear them, wondering if they fit me. I remember a particular pair of nubuck shoes that attracted my interest for some reason. When the arrived in the mail, they were just some boring shoes, and they didn’t even last well, the leather quickly becoming stained and discolored. The soles were a reddish rubber that wore unevenly. I didn’t love those shoes. I’m sure that I eventually threw them away. This was the same room at Cloyne where I repeatedly played “D.O.A.” from the B side of the Van Halen II at full volume, and where I opened the window in the middle of the night, so I could puke without having to get out of bed.

I continued to fetishize the J Crew, Banana Republic, and Patagonia catalogs in particular. Of course, the course catalog at Cal Berkeley was itself a thing of beauty, as were encyclopedias, dictionaries, and software manuals. Now, we know in general that categorization “is the process in which experiences and concepts are recognized and understood,” and that “categorization based on prototypes is the basis for human development”, so it’s no surprise that I latched on to this experience early on. Until now, I hadn’t quite grasped the connection from categorization to shopping.

Mail order captured the innate human interest in categorization and channeled it into a radically successful new form of consumerism. The mail order catalog business was the prototype for e-commerce. Make a list of everything you make, have for sale, or could buy — and you can choose anything! Set your best writers to describing in hypnotic detail the relationships and differences between every item. I was briefly obsessed with Patagonia “Gi Pants” (pronounced “Ghee”, not “Gee”). The description made them sound positively revolutionary, mainly because of the “gusseted crotch”, designed to allow a “full range of motion”. The copy for the original Gi pants invoked patagonian gauchos, and the pants had a tight calf (also, apparently, derived from riding pants), which reminded me of how we pegged our Ben’s.

See the connections between this line of shirts and these shoes. Compare four or five different shades of blue — all available. At the art store and the hardware store I would often find myself paralyzed with choice, unable to decide which color, which type of pencil, which screwdriver, I needed or wanted. This paralysis was frustrating but also captivating, a state of wonder, a trance of sorts, my mind overwhelmed by the variety of objects, drowning out my own messages and emotions.

In my twenties I would shop at Banana Republic on Grant Street. It’s a shame that that I felt that fit me. And it literally didn’t fit me; I was pudgy and the clothes were oversized, the shirts billowing around me, the pleated pants flowing awkwardly. Once I started working at HotWired and was living in North Beach, I would wander Grant Street and started to become aware of boutiques. I bought an expensive, also oversized brown leather coat from the German leather store there. I started traveling to New York frequently, getting my first taste of rapidly commercializing Soho — not quite a mall yet, but already having shifted focus from art to commerce. I would also often stay with Vasco and Kitty at their apartment in the East Village, and at other hotels around the city, gaining exposure to the endless catalog of goods that is the streetscape of any large city, especially New York City.

In my thirties I began traveling even more, including frequent trips around the U.S. and to Europe for AdMonsters conferences. Shopping became a core part of my plan for visiting a city, and of my experience. I wasn’t good at meeting people, but I knew how to find interesting things, well-arranged and beautiful objects, and such things are often found in interesting places. By interesting I mean literally, fascinating, mesmerizing, the corners of the city most rich in detail and life, the places right on the cusp of change. I came to know a lot of shopkeepers. A few designers, but mostly merchants. I felt a solidarity, with their commercial cares and shelved catalogs of wares. I was reassured by their recognition of me as an appreciator of their craft.

I began to regular certain brands that I thought of as my own. I bought many $189 shirts from a place called Seize sur Vingt. When I first came across this shop it was on a block of Elizabeth street in what was starting to be called Nolita. I would visit this block every time I went to New York. It felt like home, it was part of my itinerary, the fabric of the city that I knew and felt comfortable in. As I did in my teens, I would wander there without aim to look, choose and purchase.

Thinking about those days on Elizabeth street I recall clearly the sense of satisfaction, of victory even that I felt after a successful excursion. Visiting these places — and they were vibrant places full of color and creativity — exercised my judgement, my intuition, my social skills, selection and serendipity. In short, I was in shopping flow. Really, I was, and now I see that is part of why shopping can be so enjoyable, so addictive. It can even be a credible activity, if we remove the waste of needless purchases, and the dopamine spike and crash of the purchases themselves. I was searching for flow on Elizabeth Street, and I found it there too, coming to know the intricate details of what was on offer from emerging, creative designers, navigating my own interests and developing a sense of my own style, feeling out how much something interested me, whether it fit, whether it made sense in my life, whether it would help me be me.

My shirts were still too big, and now I know why. I was carrying too much fat, and my body was loose and blobby. I didn’t want to show the fat, but even moreso I didn’t want the fabric pulled anything like tight against my belly, my tits, my legs. Tight bodies appreciate tight fabrics. The grip of well-fitted clothing is only appreciated by taut muscles. Blousy fabrics mirror swaying flab. I was never even anything like really fat, but my body didn’t feel or look good, and certainly not in tight clothes.

I got good at shopping and I applied this skill to clothing, furniture, and places. Planning all of my AdMonsters conferences was essentially an exercise in shopping for the right city, the right hotel, a great restaurant. The success of the conference validated my choices and showed my mastery of those skills.

My relationships also often involved a lot of shopping, most of all with Caitlin. I bought her things from early on, and perhaps more than anything else, we bought things together. Without quite exactly what we were doing, we would literally go shopping as an activity together, most often on Hayes Street here in San Francisco. We wanted to see what new things were in the shops: Nomads, Dish, Reliquary, Lava 9, Gimme Shoes, Rand + Statler and Modern Appealing Clothing, and I wanted to impress her with my skills, my taste, and my generosity.

After she and I split up, I started to find myself back on Grant Street in North Beach again. I had lived there in the 90’s, Hayes Valley had started to get too busy, and I had tired of most of what I found there. In these years I discovered Engineered Garments and bought custom shirts from Al’s Attire and pants at AB Fits. I came to know Al a bit — we had both gone to Lowell — and I had a crush on young Sarah who worked for him there. Similarly I became passing friends with Howard Gee at AB Fits and his creative sidekick, Samantha.

In those days I had already passed peak shopping, and whenever I bought something I was increasingly conscious of a strong feeling of remorse if I really didn’t need whatever I had purchased, which of course was most of the time. I realized that I was visiting Al and Sarah for company, and I stopped going into the store. I cleaned out my closet (it needs cleaning out again) and now when I feel the impulse to stop in at one of these shops, I usually just feel it and move on. I know that there’s nothing there for me, and that I don’t need any particular, additional thing. I wear one pair of jeans, mostly black tee shirts, and a few other things. I feel silly about all the time I spent shopping, and usually repelled by the idea of going into a shop just to have a look. My brain gets quickly overwhelmed by all the beautiful objects arrayed in creative categories, each so alluring. I recoil at the effort required to determine if each or any of them fit, fit into my life, belong as part of me. None do.

Like sugar, alcohol, advertising, oil, and guns, shopping is obsolete.

Fear, Flow and Freedom

Fear and flow are inseparable. Flow requires just the right amount of fear, and that fear guides us toward the door to flow. Flow in turn is the path to freedom — and so, to get more free, we must turn towards our fears.


Fear is a message that we often misinterpret — and it’s nothing to be afraid of. Most often it’s fear of the unknown, of randomness, our fear of fear itself. We become afraid that our fear might be a signal of serious risk, and the very idea makes us turn away. Fear is a finely tuned signal that we can learn to interpret. So, first of all, know that fear is just a message, give up being afraid of fear, and listen to what it’s telling you.

We should hear fear whispering “be very afraid” as “look right here. Instead of turning away from fear we should peer directly at its source. Like any other emotion, fear wants to win, and when we turn away we give fear the upper hand. If most of all we fear the unknown, then turning away from that which we feel fear of does nothing to resolve the fear. Furthermore, anxiety is exacerbated by avoidance — we strengthen the neural pathway laid down by turning away from the subject of our fear (or fear itself), and so we reinforce the tendency to turn away.

Our fear of risk has become overdeveloped. In the modern world, fear is rarely a signal of a major threat. The more we can come to be at home with some fear in the house, with some risk, the more we can navigate the world the freedom of creative flow.

“We’re hard-wired to enjoy risk [because] there we can still be both confident in our experience and confronting the chaos that helps us develop.” — Jordan Peterson

How much risk should we become comfortable with? We can find the answer by looking further at flow.


When we are in flow we are our most creative, most satisfied, and most human. To find flow we need nothing more or less than an achievable challenge. We need a touch of fear and a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. We need to approach — but not dive far beyond — the edge of our possible. Flow is blocked just as much by the terror of the impossible as it is by the sure thing.

My own shorthand for the right balance of achievable vs challenge, and therefore of ideal risk, is 83%. 83% of what? 83% of what might be achievable. Why 83%? First of all, if we aim for 100% of what just might be achievable, it’s more likely than not that we will fail, and quite likely that we will suffer for the attempt. Not that we shouldn’t suffer, but if we are aiming for flow, we want to have a reasonably good chance of success, with some challenge along the way. This guides me to aim for something like 80% of what just might be achievable — but then 80% just seems a little low. We want enough challenge so that each time we do succeed, we push a bit farther into the unknown. So: I like to shoot for 83% of maybe.

To come to know flow better and to push towards fear, we need to consider our preparation. We are all the captain of our own ship. Our experience will be dictated by what we have prepared ourselves for. To have a good possibility of achieving any goal, we need to be just ready enough to enjoy a reasonably good possibility of achieving our goal. We need to be as prepared as we can be without being over-prepared. We need our tools at hand, but we don’t want to trip over the tool belt. Being over-prepared uses up valuable time (before we’ve even started) and blocks the possibility of finding spontaneous, creative solutions that we would not be ‘forced’ to find had we prepared for every eventuality that we could imagine. Therein lies this paradoxical truth: we can’t imagine every eventuality, and so it’s impossible to be 100% prepared, and being 100% prepared boxes us into the set of possibilities created by the eventualities that we’ve imagined.

Being prepared is just one part of being ready — we have to leave space for creativity. Preparation is the workshop where the magic of innovation is made. Each requires the other. Here again, 83% is a handy guideline. I aim to be 83% prepared, and ‘save’ the 17% for creative solutions in the moment.

“This is the central illusion in life: that randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing — and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness.” — Nassim Taleb

If we prepare ourselves to be led, we will follow. Part of our own individual preparation should be to create the opportunity for the challenge that we need — and we can do this even without knowing exactly what that challenge may be! All that is required to create the opportunity is to set a goal. If you don’t know what your goal should be, pay attention to what you don’t want to do. Look closely at recurring messages, especially those that you shy away from, the things that you say “maybe next time”, “if only”, “I wish” about. A goal can be – and always is – a stepping stone. Set the first goal and let it lead you to the next. You don’t need to know where the path is leading, only to set goals that you will be sure of having achieved (or not).

Find a small fear and turn it into a target. Approaching fear is always a challenge. More than anything else, we are afraid of the unfamiliar, and if we rarely meet fear, we will be afraid of fear itself. Turn fear into a familiar friend and we can see where fear is pointing us more clearly. Then, knowing that you are ready enough, you can let the circumstances of the moment lead you. How to “face your fears”? Listen to your fear, use it to set a goal, prepare, and then be in the moment.

Once we have prepared and set a goal, we are free to flow into and through our experience. Flow is the feeling of not trying, of not deciding — flow is using your preparation, your skills, your body as they naturally come together in the moment as you move towards your goal. Flow is moving, acting, being intuitively — and therefore being in flow trains our intuition. Like any other skill, intuition improves with use, and being in flow is the best way to build the intuitive muscle.

Intuition is the wellspring of creativity, and creativity is both the expression of freedom and what is required most of all to become free. Thus in turning towards our fears and preparing ourselves to be in flow, we train our intuition, opening the door to greater creativity and to freedom.

Conferences are not the kind of three-way you’ve been hoping for

Like a magazine, a conference is typically a three-way relationship between content, participants, and advertisers, with the producer/organizer in the middle of the triangle.

I’ll add a diagram here shortly — it will look like a triangle 🙂

As the producer, you might choose to have no sponsors (or, on the other hand, not charge your attendees anything), but most conferences derive revenue from both attendees and sponsors, and so if you’re like most, you serve two masters. With both attendees and sponsors, you have two sets of customers, with totally different, and in some ways conflicting goals.

Don’t have any sponsors or advertising

Having two types of customers at odds with — and yet dependent on one another — makes your life very complicated. My first piece of advice is therefore: don’t have any sponsors at all! How? Easy: just make your attendees pay the full, fair price, without any subsidy from sponsors.

Easier said than done, but not impossible. Some speciality magazines have little or no advertising, and while the issue price is high, there’s no advertising to distract the reader. Many podcasts are going with a no-sponsors model as well (although most have sponsors/advertising). There are plenty of conferences without sponsors as well. The advantage is that without advertisers, the business is far less complicated. And I mean WAY LESS COMPLICATED. Those sponsor dollars may seem like easy money; not at all. To earn and sell sponsorship, you need to

  1. define what your sponsorship products are, and how they are to be priced — and doing this takes time and energy away from your primary product, which is serving your audience.
  2. employ marketing and sales staff to find sponsors and sell sponsorships — which inherently detracts from serving your audience.
  3. do all the legal, accounting and other work to contact, keep track of, and collect on sponsorship deals — all of which inherently detracts from serving your audience.
  4. and of course, you have to actually fulfill your obligations to sponsors — which necessarily detracts from serving your audience, often quite directly, by devoting precious time and physical space to sponsors.

Most conference producers overestimate sponsorship revenue and underestimate the costs of selling sponsorships and servicing sponsors. For these reasons, most producers would be better off to simply not sell sponsorships at all. So — if you are considering selling sponsorship — be sure to consider the alternative to selling sponsorship: raise your prices. 

The full and fair price

You can have a very successful conference business without any sponsors or advertisers, if you can successfully get participants to pay the full and fair price (FFP). What is the FFP? Simply: the FFP is what you would need to charge each participant to make back your costs, plus enough margin so that you end up with a 20% net profit. (I won’t go into the details here, but 20% is an excellent general target for net profitability; if you’re making any less than this, you’re not likely to be in business — or want to be in business — for very long).

Keep in mind that you’re not going to end up with a 20% net profit by simply adding 20% to your own per-person cost (PPC). Using one of my own three-day conferences as an example, let’s say that our cost of hosting each participant is about $1800/person. This is the cost of producing the individual conference (COGS) + a proportional share of our ongoing overhead (SG&A), divided by the number of participants. The FFP would therefore have been in the range of $1800+20%+X, where X is enough to cover not just taxes but also the fact that of course some events were less successful, etc. Realistically our FFP would have to have been something like double our PPC, i.e. about $3500.

So, if we were able to get participants to pay $3500 per person, we could have offered the conference without sponsorship. And we tried, but in our case it just didn’t work. The audience that we were serving was relatively cost-sensitive mid-level staff, not senior management, and they just couldn’t stomach the FFP.

In this situation, you have two further choices: 1) don’t offer the product, or 2) find a way to subsidize the price for participants. For conferences, #2 usually leads directly to sponsorship — although there are other lines of business that can bring in revenue (membership, research, sponsored content, consulting, training, job boards/recruiting, etc). Leaving those aside for now, let’s talk about sponsorship.

How to keep everyone from hating you

Again using my own business as an example, we set our full price registration at about the PPC: $1800. After taking into account free passes, discounts and the like, our average registration revenue was about $1000/person. Given that we needed something like $3500/pp to make a real business, that leaves $2500/pp to make up. This is real money: for a 100-person conference, the revenue gap is $250,000. That also shows pretty clearly that our revenue was skewed heavily towards sponsors: in that example of a 100 person conference, we would have collected $100K from participants and $250K from sponsors.

Given that the reason that any conference exists is to serve the audience, the fact that most conferences end up making most of their money from sponsors is a real problem. It’s way too easy to play fast and loose with what you’re offering to sponsors, and end up with everyone up to their eyeballs in advertising, which will suck real bad. Everyone will hate you, go home and tell everyone how much your conference sucked, and (hopefully) not come back. Bad conferences don’t deserve to exist!

That said, it’s not impossible to do sponsorship well, just difficult. I’ll leave the details of how to do sponsorship well for another post; for now, just remember that advertising is a terrible way to fund anything good and real, and that how you earn the right to be in business is how you serve your audience, not your sponsors. Don’t fall into the trap of finding more ways to sell your customers’ time, burying sponsor pitches in the agenda as “content”, and plastering logos on everything. Sooner or later, you will pollute the well, and once the water is tainted, it’s very difficult to lose that taste. More likely, someone else will find a way to sell clean water to your audience.

Matchmaking is the killer app for conferences

Why is there no Tinder for conferences?

I’ve been in the conference business for more than 15 years, and in addition to all ways that conferences can be improved so that they don’t suck so much, there is a huge opportunity to improve on the conference experience that most conference producers aren’t fucking up — because they’re not doing at all.

In my experience, the biggest value in most conference experiences is meeting someone that I should meet that I didn’t already know that I should meet. As great as it is to exchange ideas with people that I already know, adding someone new to my network adds value for me not only in the present but into the infinite future.

Who am I going to meet, and how?

I can’t count the number of times that I began my experience at a conference thinking: who am I going to meet, and how? Sometimes I’ve been pleasantly surprised to meet someone interesting, sometimes not. It’s always hugely gratifying when it does happen, and disappointing when it doesn’t.

Some conference organizers make some effort to match people up, perhaps seating newcomers with veterans or small companies with larger ones, or assigning a ‘buddy’ or navigator. These are all fair techniques, but they require a lot of manual labor and don’t accomplish what could and should be done.

Imagine if there was a system that collected a few facts about each participant and made suggested matches, scored by experience, interests, geography, and activity (and/or whatever else). Imagine if this system was integrated into the conference registration process and, upon arrival, the conference app presented you with a list of people that you should consider meeting. Of course, you could also be alerted to the presence of people that you already know, but most interesting would be the people that you don’t already know you should know. The app could even suggest places and times to meet up, and show you what you have in common. If you’re both into craft beer, dev ops, adventure travel, @EO or #FI, you’d have a place to start a real conversation. I’m not discounting the fact that many great conversations happen by way of serendipity, but as facilitators, conveners, organizers, producers, we can do better than only these random meetings.

Why don’t more organizers and producers make the effort to do some sort of matchmaking? Most are overwhelmed and underpaid. Most conferences don’t make enough to pay for the time required to match people up. Or, the producers have lost track of their why — which is to serve the community. The opportunity they are missing out on in huge though. Good enough isn’t good enough. The conference organizer creates value and earns the right to make money by serving the network. The value in any network is in the number of connections in the network. If the organizer increases the number of connections in the network, the conference is worth more to everyone: participants, sponsors, and as a business.

Matchmaking is the killer app for conferences.

As it turns out, event matchmaking systems do exist, and I am an investor in what I believe is the leading platform. It’s called Grip. You should check it out — and whether or not you use a software solution, if you’re a conference organizer, take the time to match up your attendees — they will love you for it.

Most conferences suck

Let’s face it, most conferences suck.

Major suckage. Soul-sucking, bumming-out, identity-smashing, time-wasting, wandering, wondering why you spent the money, WTF-ing, straight up sucking.

Am I just super critical? I don’t think so. Conferences are a bit of a paradox: there’s one for everything (even conferences!), and people love the idea of connecting with like-minded people, but the actual experience rarely measures up.


Money is the short answer — but it leads back to why.

Conference organizers often lose sight of the real reason that they are producing the conference, and forget that addressing the real reason is the best way to make money, instead of just trying to make money. What’s the real reason? As with most other businesses, most conferences are started by someone who had a need themselves, who wanted to meet like-minded people, and who couldn’t find the right place to do it — and so they started a conference. (If the real reason is just to make money it’s guaranteed to suck).

What I mean is that the real reason is to serve people like you — people who want to connect with like-minded peers. The product of a conference is this service to a community. To repeat:

The product of a conference is to serve a community.

So why do so many conferences suck? There are a lot of moving parts to a conference. It’s not an easy business, and it’s not a business that most people are familiar with. It’s complicated, and the product isn’t a thing, it’s an experience. Still, it all comes back to the fact that in whatever ways the conference is not serving the community, the conference will suck. If the conference is serving the organizer or the sponsors first, the conference will suck. That may sound simple (it is!) but there are a lot of different ways this suckage can play out. Here are just a few examples:

Crappy venue

Why would anyone want to get on a plane to go sit in a dark basement? Nobody does! Why does this happen so often? Because the producer can’t afford a better venue. Why? Because the producer isn’t charging enough for the conference. Why? Because they think you won’t pay what it actually costs. Why? Because often they’re right! A great conference is not cheap. YGWYPF — if you want free, you’ll get what free gets you. If you complain about the cost and ask for discounts, don’t expect a pleasant setting. If you and your peers are not willing to pay a reasonable price to be part of the conference you think you want to be part of, then the conference probably shouldn’t exist.

Crappy content

I hate that word. What do you mean by “content”? You mean the words the people on stage are saying? If the people on stage aren’t your peers, that’s problem #1. If the people on stage are trying to sell you something, that’s problem #2. If the people on stage are uninformed, inexperienced, uninteresting, incoherent or worse, that’s problem #3. All of these come down to the role of the producer in creating a great agenda. Producers must be wise about speakers. People say they want great speakers, and name-brand speakers can seem to generate interest in a conference, but charismatic speakers do not make a great conference. Charismatic speakers make edutainment, and the value of edutainment usually goes to zero just about as the lights come up. Real value comes from real connections and real conversations.

Room full of zeroes and strangers

Who is in the room? Why are you there? First of all, you are there to meet your peers. Are you there to meet consultants, wanderers, pundits, lobbyists, junior staffers, and vendors? Do you find yourself spending 5-10 minutes making small talk with everyone you meet, only to find that what they do is only marginally relevant to your interests? What if everyone in the room was hand-picked to be certain that they all share a solid common ground? What if you were kindly introduced to several people that you should meet but that you didn’t know that you should meet? Your time is precious, and every conversation you have should be worthwhile.

Up to your eyeballs in advertising

Advertising is a terrible way to fund anything good and real. If the conference is about tomatoes, people who care about tomatoes are the customers, not people who want to sell stuff to people who care about tomatoes. The product is the conference, not the people who care about tomatoes. If the people who care about tomatoes don’t want to pay the actual, real cost of TomatoCon — and they almost certainly won’t want to — there are a few alternatives. 1) Be honest, charge them the real price, if they won’t pay, there’s no reason to have the conference. 2) Charge them what they say they will pay, and go out of business. 3) Introduce some sponsorship into the business model.

Most people don’t want to pay the full cost of a conference, probably because they fail to understand the complexity of the product, and the value that the producer is creating by doing the work that the producer does. This hidden value is the gap between what people think the price should be and what the cost actually is. Most conference producers find that they have to sell at least some, and often quite a lot of sponsorship to make a viable business. The key to not sucking is in the how. It’s easy to fall into selling your customers’ time, burying sponsor pitches in the agenda as “content”, and plastering advertising over everything, including even the name badges. It is possible to do sponsorship well, but the only way not to suck is to serve the community first.

Chicken dinners and cheap wine

How often do you eat chicken and mashed potatoes? Do you buy your wine from the bottom shelf? Do you have dessert with lunch? Every day? Are you insane? Feed people better than you would feed yourself. Food is not an afterthought.

Sitting on your ass all day

Nobody feels good sitting around all day, especially in the dark, especially with a bunch of strangers, especially after a ton of coffee and dessert for lunch. Physical activity is key to our well being. People! Get up and get outside! If you want your conference to not suck, you need to incorporate real physical activity into the agenda. Not a booze cruise. Not a zip-line ride. A walk, a run, a hike, a bicycle ride, some rock climbing, surfing — you name it, as long as it’s actual physical activity. The simpler the better. No team building is necessary. You don’t need guides or helmets. People will love you for it.

A conference is a unique combination of media and hospitality.

Like a magazine, a conference is a three-way relationship between content, participants, and sponsors, with the producer/publisher/organizer in the middle of the triangle. Like a hotel, restaurant, club and an event, a conference is an exercise in experience design. Sometimes I call conferences live media.

Conferences aren’t boring, they’re an amazing opportunity to connect with other people, to form and be part of communities, to interact, learn and grow. The problem is that most conferences suck. If you can get your head around some what I’ve mentioned above, your conference could suck less — it could even be totally awesome!

If you have the feeling that your conference could be better, read on for some further thoughts, and get in touch if you’d like to talk about how to make your conference awesome!

Interview with world champion kitefoil racer Daniela Moroz

Daniela Moroz is the phenomenon of the San Francisco kite scene — a passionate kitefoil racer and competitive swimmer, Daniela is a three-peat Hydrofoil Kiteboarding world champion, two-time Kiteboarding World Pro Tour champion and European champion and was named US Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year in 2017 — all before her 18th birthday and while a full-time high school student!

Bowen interviewed Daniela shortly after her second Hydrofoil Kiteboarding world title in 2017, which made for a dynamic conversation about the athletic mindset, training, discipline, how skills from one sport help with another, physicality, flow, working directly with the unpredictable, owning your own story as a female athlete, the powerful beauty of outdoor sports, and her personal motto, “I’ve got this”. 


Kitesurfing Adventure Skills in Brazil, Dec 1-8 2018

I first visited Brazil on a kitesurfing trip in 2008, and I’ve been doing kite trips there with with SurfinSemFim since 2015. Over these last few years I’ve traveled the entire northern coast of Brazil by kite, from Natal to Sāo Luís, and I’m now designing and leading custom trips in some of my most favorite places along the way.

For 2018 I’m introducing two very unique itineraries: a slower, friends & family-oriented trip and a kitesurfing adventure skills and leadership development trip (details below).


These are both in addition to the full calendar of short-, medium- and long-distance kitesurfing trips that SurfinSemFim offers throughout the year, and all SurfinSemFim trips including my own will introduce you to the joy of travel by kite in Brazil, and to the global SurfinSemFim Tribe, a community of like-minded lovers of the life outside.

Your feedback is very important to me, so please don’t hesitate to indicate your interest!

AdventureSemFim: Dec 1-8

As good as it feels to be good at something, it feels even better to get good at something. On top of that is the joy and satisfaction that we get from sharing our experiences with others through skilled leadership.

Ready to level up?

This trip is designed for those of you who want to go beyond participating as a client and learn kitesurfing adventure travel and on-the-water leadership, in the context of a long distance kitesurfing trip. If you are ready to level up, AdventureSemFim will give you the skills you need to plan and guide your own adventure kiting trips, opening a window to a new world of kitesurfing adventure.

Bowen guiding on the water with SurfinSemFim

We’ll meet on Saturday December 1 in Barra Grande, which is several hours by car from the airport in Fortaleza (FOR), and much closer to the small airport in Parnaiba (PHB). I will be coming directly from the end of my slower, friends & family-oriented trip — combine the two to get the best of both worlds!

On Dec 2 we’ll leave Barra Grande and spend the next few days making our way towards and through the spectacular Parnaiba river delta. We’ll spend two nights there in the heart of the delta at Ilha dos Poldros, before continuing on to Tutoia and then finally to Atins. We’ll have time the final day for a side trip to the otherworldly Lençóis Maranhenses before ending our time together. Most people fly out of Sāo Luís when ending trips in Atins.

The itinerary is designed to include a combination of moderate and challenging days on the water, as well as plenty of time for leadership training, workshops and group discussion. This trip is not intended to be vacation — the schedule will be rigorous and days will start early and end late. That said, the satisfaction and accomplishment that you will enjoy upon completion will more than compensate for the hard work that you’ll be putting in along the way.

Some of the skills that we will focus on will include:

  • Long distance kitesurfing
  • Leadership, on and off the water 
  • Gear selection and packing — see my article on packing like a guide
  • Supported / unsupported travel by kite
  • Route finding / navigation 
  • Rescue and emergency skills
  • Harnessing Flow as a leader and as part of the life outside

SurfinSemFim group – photo Bruna Arcangelo Toledo

Along with leadership skills, this itinerary gives you exposure to a hugely varied landscape — from dunes and lagoons to the mangroves and rivers of the Parnaiba delta to the idyllic village of Atins and the incredible Lençois Maranhenses.

The AdventureSemFim trip will include include 8 days and 7 nights, traveling entirely on the water — a true kitesurfing journey, departing and arriving directly from beautiful small hotels along the way. The cost for the trip will be $2800 including accommodation, meals, guides, support vehicles, and training (but not including airfare or airport transfers).

Incredible Ilha dos Poldros in the Parnaiba delta

We’ll cover distances of up to 70+km on the water on some days of this trip. This multi-day, long distance journey is suitable for experienced kitesurfers with previous long distance experience and in good physical condition, with equipment in excellent condition.

Equipment: this trip is suitable for twin tip and surfboard riders. We realize that you may also love to ride a foil board, but this is not a foil trip. Feel free to bring your foil to Brazil to use before and after this trip though!

More info

Click the link below to hear Bowen’s interview on the Tantrum kitesurf podcast discussing Kitesurfing Adventure Skills:

Bowen on the Tantrum kitesurf podcast

Also have a look at the detailed spot guide to Brazil that Crystal Veness wrote up based on her recent trip with SurfinSemFim.

Ready to level up? Yes you are!

There’s a Facebook event here where I’ll be posting updates https://www.facebook.com/events/566357957098471/ – and/or use the form below to subscribe.


You can also go directly to the SurfinSemFim site to book this trip.

Here is the full-length documentary film that we shot in 2016 and released in 2017. Enjoy the vibe and I hope to see you in Brazil!


Discover Wind Land in Brazil: Nov 25-29, 2018

I first visited Brazil on a kitesurfing trip in 2008, and I’ve been doing kite trips there with with SurfinSemFim since 2015. Over these last few years I’ve traveled the entire northern coast of Brazil by kite, from Natal to Sāo Luís, and I’m now designing and leading custom trips in some of my most favorite places along the way.

In 2018 I’ll be leading two unique itineraries: a slower, friends & family-oriented trip (details below) and a kitesurfing adventure skills and leadership development trip.


These are both in addition to the full calendar of short-, medium- and long-distance kitesurfing trips that SurfinSemFim offers throughout the year, and all SurfinSemFim trips including my own will introduce you to the joy of travel by kite in Brazil, and to the global SurfinSemFim Tribe, a community of like-minded lovers of the life outside.

This is the first announcement of these trips. Your feedback is very important to me, so please don’t hesitate to indicate your interest!

Preá to Camocim: Nov 25-29

Inspired by the uniquely beautiful environment of northern Brazil, the spirit of discovery at the natural pace of sailing, and a desire for experience above all, this will be a meditation on the joy of travel by kite and life by the sea.

SurfinSemFim group – photo Bruna Arcangelo Toledo

There are direct flights from Miami to Fortaleza on Friday the 23rd and a quick connection on Saturday the 24th. I recommend coming in a day or two early if possible to relax and warm up with some local kiting and a visit to the legendary town of Jericoacoara.

We’ll meet on Sunday November 25 at the beautiful and unique Rancho do Peixe in Preá. After dinner and a first night there, we’ll start our downwind journey the next day down the beach in Preá and then around the legendary Pedra Furada to land at the dune in Jericoacoara.

In Jeri we’ll stay at Vila Kalango, another beautiful locally-designed small hotel perfectly suited for a group of kiters traveling down the coast. On day 3 we’ll sail on from Jeri to Tatajuba, and then from Tatajuba to Camocim on day 4. Along the way we’ll have plenty of time to ride waves and practice downwind kite skills, as well as hit the flat water lagoons. From Camocim we can arrange for you to return back to Rancho do Peixe, move onwards to continue your trip, or transfer back to the airport for departure. Another option would be to join me as I continue onwards to Barra Grande for the Kitesurfing Adventure Skills  trip that I’ll be leading Dec 1-8.

This trip is designed to provide for plenty of kiting including some moderate downwinders as well as time to relax and enjoy the environment and each others’ company. We will begin each day with a warmup and briefing session and end the day with a delicious, healthy dinner prepared from local ingredients.

The itinerary includes include 5 days and 4 nights, traveling entirely on the water — a true kitesurfing journey, departing and arriving directly from beautiful small hotels along the way. The cost for the trip will be $1200 including accommodation, meals, guides, support vehicles, coaching (not including airfare or airport transfers).

The focus of this trip is unhurried experience rather than distance. The itinerary gives you exposure to a widely varied landscape — from dunes and lagoons to fishing villages, rivers and palm-ringed oases.

Extensions: If time permits, I recommend extending your trip for a few days at the end to continue down the coast to the west. You could go to Barra Grande and kite there for a few days, continue (as I will) from this trip to my kitesurfing adventure skills trip, or go a bit farther to the idyllic village of Atins and the Lençóis Maranhenses. These places are hard to get to, truly off the beaten path, and very worth spending some extra time in!

Equipment: the downwind portions of this trip are suitable for twin tip and surfboard riders. If you also ride a foil board, feel free to bring it to use on the in-between days.

What about Thanksgiving? I realize that some of you may be thinking of traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday. This year SurfinSemFim and Rancho do Peixe are hosting a global kitesurfing competition the week of Thanksgiving, and so we can’t do group trips that week. If you are interested in coming in early for the event, please indicate that in your inquiry — space will fill up fast!

I’ve written a special FAQ that should answer many of the questions that you might have about visiting Brazil.  Please check out the FAQ and then don’t hesitate to contact us  to indicate your interest and with any further questions.

Bowen guiding on the water with SurfinSemFim

Want to kite with us in Brazil this year?

There’s a Facebook event here where I’ll be posting updates https://www.facebook.com/events/185801288931762/ – and/or use the form below to subscribe.


You can also go directly to the SurfinSemFim site to book this trip.

You might want to listen to Bowen’s interview on the Tantrum kitesurf podcast discussing Kitesurfing Adventure Skills and have a look at the detailed spot guide to Brazil that Crystal Veness wrote up based on her recent trip with SurfinSemFim.

Here is the full-length documentary film that we shot in 2016 and released in 2017. Enjoy the vibe and I hope to see you in Brazil!