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Buster Benson

No advice column.

Help me with Big Checkin?
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I started thinking about how to best reflect on the year, and the decade, as I do every year. And every year I am dissatisfied with what's available. Reflection works best when it can build on reflections from the past, year over year, etc. We are changing, slowly, over time, in ways that none of us can really tell from up close.

I mentioned the idea a while ago, and have since started on this "Best of 2009" meme which has been making me feel pretty unsatisfied in the reflection department. I met with Carinna and Michael a couple weeks ago to start coming up with ideas on how to make yearly reflections more fun and more satisfying.

This is the first draft:

I'm leaving for Delaware tomorrow morning for a week, so this is as far as I got. It has 15 questions, varying from checkbox selection to adjective listing to inner-circle creating to goal contemplation. The answers are stored in ways that I think will make it easy to create aggregates amongst people, and also in ways that will make it possible to chart your own changes over time.

It's not yet possible to publish your results, but it will save your answers and I promise that results will be made available as soon as possible when I get back.

This is another long-term project. I want to launch something in January that will include charts and graphs and statistics and ways to post your Big Checkin to places people can see it, ways to make some parts private, etc. But while I'm gone (and won't be near a computer) it would help if some people felt interested enough in the idea to post their own thoughts and reflections, it will help me better able to figure out what's interesting and what's not.

So, yeah, there's no report at the end yet. But I'm bringing my sketchbook with me to start thinking about it. Any ideas you have as well on better ways to ask the questions, ways to visualize the answers, etc, would be awesome.


Best of 2009, #16 - 21) Tea, word, shop, car ride, person, and project
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Tea of the year. I can taste my favorite tea right now. What's yours?

I should have read all the prompts before agreeing to do this I think. What kind of person do these prompts lead us to try to be? Tea? I think it was that curiously strong tea that comes out of my French press. For sure.

Word or phrase. A word that encapsulates your year. "2009 was _____."

My word of the year, determined early on, was "frugality to the max!" I suppose that sort of sums it up for me... an attempt to reign in the unbalanced nature of my life from the previous year. Back to basics, build from the strongest part of the foundation, make a plan for a sustainable and balanced future while still thinking big and taking well-calculated risks.

Shop. Online or offline, where did you spend most of your mad money this year?

Lawyers, landlords, credit cards, and the IRS. I guess the offline shopping world wins again.

Car ride. What did you see? How did it smell? Did you eat anything as you drove there? Who were you with?

Another silly question. I don't have a car. But the scene from the window of a taxi is usually pretty exciting. I also enjoyed the bus ride to Vancouver this summer. My Zipcar errands were more about the destination, and our mini-roadtrip to Orcas was more about the people in the car.

New person. She came into your life and turned it upside down. He went out of his way to provide incredible customer service. Who is your unsung hero of 2009?

I'm very happy to report that my unsung hero of 2009 wasn't a customer service rep. That would be sad. I didn't so much get swept up by any new people this year as grow more solid relationships with the people I already know and love. Kellianne deserves special props for weathering our third year of higher highs and lower lows with me. I feel like I also got to know several of my friends a lot better this year too. You know who you are.

Project. What did you start this year that you're proud of?

Locavore, Enjoymentland, and project Baby Benson.

Kinds of people
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Male, Female, Hermaphrodite
Child, Adult, Young, Middle aged, Over the hill, Old
Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, Aunt, Uncle, Grandfather, Grandmother, Son, Daughter, Pet owner
Wife, Husband, Boyfriend, Girlfriend, Friend, Friend with benefits, Flirt
Gay, Straight, Bisexual, Lesbian, Monogamous, Open
Student, Employee, Boss, Entrepreneur, Unemployed
Ill, Healthy, Fit, Slovenly, Unhealthy, Sporty, Accident-prone, Lucky, Alert, Slow, Calm, Stressed, Focused, Distracted, Energetic, Lazy, Passive, Agressive,
Conservative, Liberal, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Activist
Religious, Spiritual, Agnostic, Atheist, Humanist, Lost soul, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim
Extrovert, Introvert, Intuitive, Sensing, Thinking, Feeling, Perceiving, Judging
Proud, Greedy, Lustful, Angry, Gluttonous, Jealous, Lazy, Sarcastic, Cynical, Cheating, Lying
Sincere, Polite, Trustworthy, Frugal, Industrious, Fair, Moderate, Clean, Chaste, Humble, Loyal

I'm looking for generic kinds of categories that people can put themselves in. Not either/ors, necessarily, but demographic kinds of things that are more about who you think you are than who you really are. Some serious, some silly, etc. Can you think of more categories? Help!

Best of 2009, #13) Change, #14) Rush, #15) Packaging
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What's the best change you made to the place you live?

We got it ready for selling. This included replacing (though we had no choice about it) the windows, replacing the washer/drier (cause they broke), replacing the garbage disposal and the faucet, replacing the microwave, re-painting the white walls, replacing all 39 kinds of different light bulbs. Replace replace replace. I actually like my place a lot better with all this new stuff, but at the same time I wish someone would be it already.

When did you get your best rush of the year?

I think probably hearing the baby's heartbeat through the doppler at the hospital and being reassured that he/she was okay even though Kellianne was afraid of potentially miscarrying. Yeah definitely that.

Did your headphones come in a sweet case? See a bottle of tea in another country that stood off the shelves?

Stupid question.

Best of 2009, #12) New food
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What new food are you in love with that you didn't even know existed earlier this year?

I started this year off strong on an Indian food cooking kick. I read a couple books, spent several weekends learning new dishes, and enjoyed some really tasty stuff. And then my kick ended, probably because the super quick early learning curve transitioned into the slower, steadier, not nearly as exciting long curve of true learning. I hit the dip and gave up. I suck.

I need to figure out how to attack that slow long curve of real learning. Kellianne tries to help by giving me tips, but her style of cooking is entirely different from what I need to learn at this point in the process. The intuitive cook can't just say, "put in however much is needed!" because I need to know: how much is however much? The beginner's dilemma.

Luckily, I don't think I'm a bad cook. Just a slow one. And an unmotivated one, most of the time.

Indian food wasn't discovered this year. That's tough... how many foods can be discovered at this point? I love eating so much that I feel like I've tried everything within arm's reach. I guess you could also say that I've grown very fond of a good Turkish or Egyptian lentil soup... that will help me survive winter I think.

Best of 2009, #11) Place
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The best place. A coffee shop? A pub? A retreat center? A cubicle? A nook?

No brainer: Bedlam Coffee! I had seen the sign a few days previous to my first official visit (I think I was drunk and then I promptly forgot about the fact that it existed until Kellianne and I saw it again on our walk home from dinner somewhere). But from that first visit, I recognized the place for what it is: a neighborhood shop run by creative neighborhood-loving guys. Warm, welcoming, always changing, delicious coffee and toast, etc.

They're involved in making our little corner of Belltown better. They support local businesses, they cover you when you don't have enough cash, they show art, they have free wifi, they're 2 blocks from my house, and more and more there always seems to be a few people that I know just hanging out or working from there.

Weird that I chose a coffee shop as my favorite place of 2009. If it were a bar, I'd choose Bathtub Gin, a few blocks away, of course. If it were a restaurant... hmm... probably Tavolata. I guess I'm really into my little 3 block radius this year, which isn't too surprising. Go Belltown!

Best of 2009, #10) Album
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What's rocking your world?

According to, I listened to Phoenix the most in the last 12 months. Yeah, who didn't. I love them. I guess they rocked my world. Here's my top 20 based on listening frequency:
  1. Phoenix
  2. Architecture in Helsinki
  3. Bon Iver
  4. R.E.M. (really?)
  5. Animal Collective
  6. Hot Chip
  7. Fleet Foxes
  8. Of Montreal
  9. TV on the Radio
  10. Metric
  11. Peter Bjorn and John
  12. Cloud Cult
  13. David Byrne and Brian Eno
  14. Air
  15. Radiohead
  16. St Vincent
  17. Freelance Whales
  18. Franz Ferdinand
  19. Stars
  20. Neko Case
Surprised to see Freelance Whales up there since we just saw them live last month. I guess we've been sort of obsessed with them. And Fanfarlo, which is down on number 31. Right now, they're definitely rocking me out. As for earlier in the year, I'd say Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, or Animal Collective.

I know, nothing too surprising. But this is all great music. And lest you think I'm a bit of a mainstream sell-out listener, I refer you to this silly rant by Dave Eggers from back in 2000.

And yeah, I'm really excited to see Phoenix live in January.

Best of 2009, #9) Challenge
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Something that really made you grow this year. That made you go to your edge and then some. What made it the best challenge of the year for you?


This had to have been the closing of McLeod Residence, and the settling of all the bills, leases, creditors, partners, hopes, visions, etc. Kellianne and I started the year having drained all of our money from 2 years of McLeod operations and of course our wedding and honeymoon. Maybe drained isn't the right word, since in reality we were about $100,000 in debt on credit cards and equity loans, not counting the $3,660/month lease (with 3 years remaining), the $10,000 in unpaid taxes, the equipment lease, etc, etc, etc. Needless to say, I was definitely feeling a bit stretched to the edge and worried about my future.

It's probably the most worried I've ever been about anything. I don't know how to explain it sufficiently. It was like being in a huge pit, while sinking quickly at the same time. Nobody could help me because I had gotten myself into it, and nobody really has $100,000 lying around to help. Plus the economy had just tanked and leasing out our space to someone else seemed impossible. Plus we had some ideas about re-opening in a new space or doing the work required at our current space but nobody could really commit to it and in the meantime I was having to account for the rent that was due. Then overdue.

To Kellianne and all my friends who put up with the crazed look in my eyes and listened to me voice my fears, or helped me maintain somewhat regular interactions with people while the whole thing unfolded in its own weird time, THANK YOU.

My strategy was to simply take it a day at a time. Let bills go unpaid, try to negotiate with people who could help, get enough sleep, try to stay calm, think about options, stay optimistic, look for opportunities that come up, etc. The world would not fall apart, I hoped. I hoped that by remaining as calm as possible (sometimes not very calm at all) and making the right decisions at any given time, that things would slowly improve.

And they did. I hired a lawyer and got out of the lease with a reasonable buyout. I negotiated with the IRS and with creditors bringing down the amount owed. I let some things go to creditors if they refused to negotiate and depending on the amount and how much they cared, some of them eventually came around and others didn't. I didn't take my own debt personally, and just saw it as a number that needed to be changed slowly over time.

Kellianne and I cut our monthly spending by about 40% over the next few months, and keep trying to get it down to 50% but it just hasn't happened yet.

Luckily, also around that time I also came up with this idea for an iPhone app. And, with its success, I've been able to pay back almost half of the total debt accrued with McLeod. The remaining debt has been moved to low interest loans and is somewhat manageable, assuming I can continue to make money with other work-like things.

This challenge taught me that money is money, it comes and goes, but it doesn't define me or my ability to live a decent life. It's just a thing with no flavor. Of course, we could always use more of that flavorless goo.

Best of 2009, #8) Moment of peace
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Moment of peace. An hour or a day or a week of solitude. What was the quality of your breath? The state of your mind? How did you get there?

I'm all about this. Setting up my own office space above Vain was a BIG step in this direction. Having a place to work in solitude has done amazing things to my productivity and sense of motivation.

My routine is simple. In to work by 10am. It's not incredibly early, but it syncs with Kellianne's schedule mostly. From work, I have a private wiki on in which I try write ~750 words every morning (the equivalent of 3 typed pages). I got this idea a few years ago from The Artist's Way (pretty much the only idea from that book that I think is worth keeping) and because I'm the kind of person that can only really think when I'm writing, these daily pages are a great way of cleaning out my subconscious, getting things down, and figuring them out. The 750 words can be about anything, I try to focus on anything that's an "open loop" in my brain (something that hasn't been resolved and keeps turning up in thoughts). A brain dump. The first 3 seconds of running water from a faucet that hasn't run in a while.

That's my moment of peace at work.

Running and yoga are my moments of peace outside of work, and I think they work similarly. Rather than getting the gunk out of my brain they get the gunk out of my body. All that nervous energy that builds up over time.

Best of 2009, #7) Blog
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That gem of a blog you can't believe you didn't know about until this year.

A sort of disappointing year in blogs, wasn't it? I've moved away from being obsessed with particular people to being obsessed with certain blog topics. Like blogs on cognitive behavioral psychology. Or blogs by authors of books I like to read. Or blogs about pregnancy or parenting. Or blogs about funny things. Or whatever people on Twitter are linking to. Nothing worth linking to, really.

Without explicitly opting in, I suppose I'm on that same "real-time web" train that everyone else is on. The evolution from blogroll to whatever-makes-it-past-my-bored-attention's-defenses bottom-up approach is a survival tactic more than anything else. I can't read everything. I'm like an agent that gets 3.8 million transcripts a day, forced to reject without reading all but a dozen, which either got forwarded by multiple people, or that a trusted friend walked in the door for me particularly.

I suppose neurons had a similar battle when they started organizing into a brain. Listen only for electrical impulses from a few select neurons, or let impulses come in from hundreds if not thousands of different neighboring and variously-trusted sources, and deal with the overall trend.

Is the Twitter stream a blog? Is Google Reader a blog? Is the Facebook newsfeed a blog? Cause that's what I'm reading more than anything else in 2009. Information overload to the max.


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