I Have Witness. I Have Documented

I wait for the time machine that will transport me back. Sometimes it takes me to the day I committed to Experience Institute last summer (Ei). It has transported me to the first day of Meetup to start Ei. I have found myself in November, on a random rainy day in New York.  Now it will take me to my first day in Seattle, where I am starting my final term with Ei.

Each time a mass shooting rockets through the media, I travel back in time.

Some days I wake up and fear checking my phone. What if something happened last night? This time, however, I woke disgruntled about my current living situation. I was having trouble finding a temporary place to live in Seattle. Sunday morning I woke up in a frat house. While it had no affiliation, the house was full of University of Washington bros living in a space far worse than anything I experienced in college.

On this Sunday, I checked my phone without reservation, and immediately saw the headline:

Attack on Orlando Nightclub, 50 Dead.

The time machine kicked in. I was taken back to the feeling of that night, July 20th, 2012, when the Aurora theater shooting rocked my world. A gunman murdered my friend Jessi among others. It was a night that split apart the world around me.

Here’s the thing about a random murder. Your brain can’t make sense of it. How can someone’s life be taken at an elementary school, a midnight premiere or a nightclub? How can someone pull the trigger on strangers? Your brain can’t categorize it—this is loss without explanation. So the thoughts ricochet around your brain until you feel disconnected from the world.

The first time I traveled back to that feeling—the void—was six months after Aurora. I was getting ready to take a college final when reports of Sandy Hook hit my phone. For me, the media part is important. I remember staying up all night watching coverage of the theater shooting before I found out about Jessi. So the pain grows through increased media attention or when it occurs close to home.

It makes me sad to think that I can’t feel every gun death, but how could I? There are thousands a year.

I am rocked every time. I felt despair at the first reports of a shooting at Arapahoe High School that happened when I was near the school in winter of 2013. I felt the pain when a white terrorist shot up the church in Charleston the day I accepted Ei’s offer last summer. I felt the pain as people in my profession, a news reporter and her cameraman, were murdered on-air when I started Ei last fall. I even felt it with the coverage of the terrorist attacks in France in November. There was San Bernandino, Colorado Springs, and Kalamazoo.

So yes, I felt Orlando. I felt like we failed Jessi. We failed the 12 who died in Aurora. We failed the more than 10,000 people who are murdered by guns in this country every year, excluding the astronomical suicide rates.

As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We let the evil win again. We failed all of their memories by not stopping this attack.

I waited to turn off the coverage until President Obama gave his address. He delivered it with a kind of numbness everyone affected by gun violence can relate to. It comes when you feel unable to comprehend why more people don’t care enough about gun violence to stop it.

“This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or a house of worship or a movie theater or a nightclub,” President Obama said. “We have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. To actively do nothing is a decision as well.”

After his words, I turned off social media for the day. I knew the pain and hurt without reading about it. I knew the anger and futile arguments that would come. I didn’t want to see the hate spewed towards my friends who advocate for gun safety. I didn’t want to read the bigotry directed toward my Muslim and LGBT friends.

So I walked. I walked out of the frat house and down Greek Row to the University of Washington. I walked through parents arriving for graduation and down to the light rail. I rode it to Capitol Hill in Seattle.

I continued to walk. I walked to the Space Needle and Lake Washington and Pike Place Market. I noted the people smiling and playing. I listened to music and an audiobook and didn’t check the media.

Hours later, I took the light rail back to the University of Washington. As I walked through campus, I noticed all of the families posing for different pictures marking graduation day. Their joy was a refreshing reminder. I was so happy that they were taking the time to take these pictures. Even when the process was messy and unorganized, like so many families, I knew someday they would want to look back at these pictures.

I have documented my year in a lot of ways—in pictures and videos and conversations. I’ve documented my year in long walks and great books. I’ve documented this year as a quest to bring light to places that will never fully escape the darkness.

Each new city in my year comes with the same directive. Document the smiles. Witness the laughs. Prepare the time machine.

Margins #2: It’s Not Easy Being Green

XI.  It’s amazing to watch my friend Michelle sketch, but that’s not her only passion. Michelle is diving into food and community at Experience Institute this year. She’s currently working in Fargo with fellow classmate, Jake Jones, who follows his curiosity to make connections in nature (“like” his most recent posts on Instagram—he’s in a contest). I can’t wait to see how their dreams for the future will impact the world.

XII. I’m analyzing my dreams in a new way. From the great site Aeon, what if dreams are the brains attempts to create logical predictions out of our unpredictable lives? Perhaps, when patterns are not obvious, the brain flattens our knowledge and spits out 10-second, abstract predictions. Here’s an example: hearing that Zika might move the Olympics makes me have a dream that four-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin might recruit me to swim for Team U.S.A. when they move the Olympics to Colorado in August; keep dreaming Kessinger.

XIII. I vividly remember Muhammad Ali’s shaky hand lighting the torch during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. It was my first impression of Ali, who fought Parkinson’s for the second half of his life. While boxing has never been my sport, I do love boxing stories and the Thrilla in Manila ranks above them all. It helped that Ali was the one first telling us the story.

XIV. Even at the time of his death, Ali was a complicated American figure. Tributes that simply referred to him as a boxer seemed like snide remarks. He was one of the most defining American figures of the 20th century. Ali showed the world the great power of being true to your ideals. Of all the tributes, I really loved Paul McCartney’s and President Obama’s the most.

XV. President Obama’s approval rating is at its highest point since April 2013. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the current presidential race… I recently listened to a great audio documentary about how Obama created space to talk about race in 2008 because of Reverend Wright. The moment became a catalyst for then Senator Obama to explore his own complicated relationship with race in America through his “More Perfect Union” speech.

XVI. As we come to the close of this presidency, we’re still looking for that unity. I stumbled across a clip of Jon Stewart after the Eric Garner footage was released two years ago. Stewart said on the Daily Show, “We are definitely not living in a post-racial society. And I bet there are a lot of people out there wondering how much of a society we are living in at all.” The statement resonates even more today with the prominence in our social conscience of injustice and hate speech.

XVII. The anti-Semitic parentheses were revealed. A group of white supremacists created an internet plugin that automatically puts Jewish people’s names in parentheses—reminiscent of Nazi Germany tactics. Some Jewish people like (((Jon Weisman))) started self-identifying with the parentheses to stand up to the bigots. Weisman then quit Twitter. We must not forget that prejudice constantly lurks within the margins of society. It might not always show up on the local news or in a white guy’s Twitter feed, but it’s around us.

XVIII. Here’s a great opening line for a local news anchor: It’s not easy being green, again. Last month, ABC canceled their reboot of the Muppets. The show failed because they treated the Muppets like a bunch of soloists instead of an orchestra. Except for Kermit the Frog, the Muppets lack depth. Magic happens when the characters collide in new environments. ABC tried to force drama in the ranks instead of implementing scenes of chaos. Let the Muppets break a plot line in earnest and then Kermit can put the pieces back together.

XIX. Did you know that Kermit the Frog began as a news reporter on Sesame Street? He had a hard time interviewing Elmo and was also visited by a terrible door-to-door salesman, Grover. I’m hoping someone lets Kermit cover the election this year. Imagine Kermit asking Donald Trump if his toupee was an old friend of Kermit’s from the swamp. Let’s have Kermit moderate a debate.

XX. The first presidential debate is Monday, September 26. The election is Tuesday, November 8. I wrote this final section before the tragedy in Orlando. I am heartbroken for this country that I love.


Each week, Margins follows a narrative through the twists and turns of culture, media and society. The author, Derek Kessinger, is a writer, journalist and student at Experience Institute.

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Margins #1: Riddle Me This Batman

I.  “Derek you need to mention that you’re an artistic jock. That’s pretty rare, right?” Sami Ahmed asked with his unique charm. Sami, James Paek and I practiced pitching ourselves to companies as an exercise during our recent Experience Institute classes in Chicago. Is anyone going to hire me because of these interests? I don’t know. Why would anyone hire me for anything outside of my great hair? I changed my pitch to, I connect concepts from areas that include: music, sports, journalism and culture.

II. Journalism is a passport into culture. The best journalists major in the minor. They find stories about Trader Joe’s Pirates and the scars of a Jim Crow South. Varied knowledge of movies, music and historical events creates intersection points between different aspects of culture. The best stories connect the margins of society to a mainstream audience.

III. “Every group has a mainstream: those qualities, behaviors, and values supported by the group. Other qualities and behaviors are put out of the center, to the periphery.” Fellow Experience Institute student Lan Ngyuen presented this idea to our class. In a day of peer-to-peer teaching that included chicken cutting and clown noses (I was wearing the clown nose), Lan’s lesson caused me to start thinking about the mainstream and the margins in groups. This power structure exists in every group – from Fortune 500 companies and improv softball teams to pop radio and Silicon Valley.

IV. All cultural shifts happen when the mainstream is influenced by the margins. White musicians and DJs brought rock to the airwaves in the late 1950’s, and the current superhero movie trend came out of the Comicon subculture. You see, even Batman’s relevance shifts between broad daylight and Dark Knight.

V. Before landing on the current title, I was going to call this weekly collection (newsletter), “Riddle Me This Batman” in honor of the Riddler. I loved 1960’s TV classic with Adam West as a kid and only found out later that it was meant to be a comedy. Adam West recently acknowledged how playing Batman affected his life. For West to build a career after the show, he was forced to give up the desire for serious roles.

VI. I have a six year-old friend who deals with her frustrations in life by shouting, “Seriously!” I’m seriously considering my own sanity as I continue to write. Between a novel project last fall and the 50 posts I wrote in 10 weeks for the DK Chronicle, I’m writing with more variety than ever before. The burden comes not from the words, but the act of sharing them with an audience. I’m writing this newsletter to challenge myself to think differently about how I share and engage with my writing. I want to take the grit from previous projects and continue to explore.

VII. What builds grit? The key is to trade novelty for nuance. If you want to be great at something, you need to focus on the details of the work and avoid chasing trends and entirely new experiences. Grit means adding to the puzzle instead of starting over. All this comes from the Freakanomics podcast. They recently wrapped up Self-Improvement Month if you need any advice.

VIII. I’m developing a rule for how I decide if strangers are worth listening to for advice. In my experience/research, the people who give the best advice:

  1.  Acknowledge other people’s contributions
  2. Admit what they don’t know
  3. Talk about elements of luck in their lives

On the contrary, people who feel invincible are setup to fall. No one is right all of the of the time when picking trends, noticing variables or starting a business.

IX. Did you know that 96% of companies fail in the first 10 years? Of the 30 companies on the DOW Jones Industrial Average, only 12 remain from 25 years ago. You’re welcome, kids trying to justify an art degree to your parents.

X. I went to an arts school in middle and high school where I trained as a classical singer. Our teachers encouraged creativity at every level—from songwriting as a science final to loose sentence structure (my grammar is still a work in progress). The teachers allowed us to sketch in our notebooks. The margins of my notebook were filled with sketches. In fact, sometimes I learned more in the margins than I did in the course work itself. I invite you to sketch in the margins.

Term 2: The Chicago Experience


I build a lot of walls. I build walls made of strong moral beliefs. I build walls between the best parts and the worst parts of me. I build singularly-focused walls when hard work is required. I build walls for personal comfort. I build walls to make the world seem easier to manage.

Most of my walls fell down around me by the end of my second term of Experience Institute (Ei). After several weeks of sifting through opportunities, I began an apprenticeship with Ei in Chicago—balancing a complicated role as a student and a staff member. The term included team collaborating, strategic planning, marketing and video editing.

Continue Reading on Exposure… 

We Don’t Say Goodbye Around Here

I imagine the worst day in a traveling circus is always closing night. Whatever friends were made must be left behind at that last show. The audience is ready to forget you. Maybe in a couple of weeks, someone will ask if they caught the circus while it was in town. Otherwise, it will all be forgotten except in the faces of the little ones when they look out at bright lights in the night and think about the high wire act.

I’ll have to roll my suitcase down the street to catch a bus. I almost can’t pack because of the hatred of that moment tomorrow. The suitcase will be obscenely heavy for having almost none of my life in it.

Of all the personal items we keep, the suitcase is the least romantic. If you ever see someone trying to make a suitcase nostalgic, you can bet they dressed it up. It’s never a suitcase you’d get off a carousel at O’Hare. It’s a backpack or an exotic canvas bag that is completely impractical. It’s a giant chest that you carried on your back through Europe and now sits at the end of the bed holding all of your quilts.

I just have a key to drop off and I will wave to a couple of friends. We don’t say goodbye around here. We try not to feel much in these in between moments. Things will settle again because who could live like this for too long?

Someday, I want you to feel a goodbye. I want you to understand the emotion when you look in her eyes as she sets sail and contemplate the odds you will run into each other again. I want this to be tough for you because emotions will be the string that brings you back together, that leads to a grand hello.

Is it worth remembering after the truck pulls away? Should we always forget the baggage of our past? What about the suitcases tossed under the stairs with broken zippers and tags that say Milwaukee? Although, you’re sure no one has ever flown from Milwaukee. What can these reminders give you? Pictures fade, even in a digital age, and forgetting is better than this feeling.

To talk now of things that might have been seems like the worst solution. Let’s talk about things that never were. Let’s create our alternative futures. Let’s add a spark.

Let’s find joy now. After the show, the tent must be packed and the elephants must fall in line. The clown shoes must fit in my suitcase. Although not in a tidy way because we’re not going to be sentimental.

I Write This for Them, For Her, and For You.





After we’re knocked out of our place in time
It drags forward when we reset the rotation.
It offers sympathies only in the changing wind.

I write this for them, for her, and for you.

A strict clock’s ticking away another night’s sleep;
I’m looking for more in fractured light,
Than settled memories of whispering caves.

I write this for them, for her, and for you.

We shouldn’t have to stare down fate.
The canvas in front of the screen
Was all the luck we have in tortured moments.

I write this for them, for her, and for you.

I pledge to fight past the objections ahead.
I vow to take on fear and doubt and scrutiny,
Straying from broken branches, I failed to repair.

I write this for them, for her, and for you.

The verdicts of wisdom, office and wealth
Leak inaccurate histories and false narratives
As prophets without scripture or seeds of truth.

I write this for them, for her, and for you.

I hope to heal a small wound with my song.
I offer gratitude to torch bearer ahead
Start writing now; if I cannot find the light, you will.

I write this for them, for her, and for you.

Between Rock and a Home Base

If he were back in his hometown of Springhill, Alexander would know where he belonged. Surrounded by friends, he would be running the family restaurant by now, setting up his guitar in the back storage room on Friday’s and playing his music at the local festival.

On the road, he felt lost. His adoring fans told him he was changing the industry. To them he sounded fresh and edgy, although secretly Alexander still thought he was rough-cut and figuring himself out.

He thought a lot about the big picture. Alexander talked about it at his show in between numbers. Apart from his rough-voiced ballads and guitar solos, Alexander was best known for wearing a blue boxing robe that he would take off when he felt like he landed a knockout punch with his performance. It drove the crowd wild.

Alexander felt isolated off the stage. He was the leader of Alexander’s Drag Time Band, but his band mates were distant. Whenever he went out, he felt compelled to hold court and validate his existence to strangers.

Alexander wanted to be remembered for his brilliant ideas—a savior to the music industry. People would write books about him, and maybe he would have his own line of maple syrup. One day Springhill High School would rename itself after him. He was going to be someone in the world—even if he became someone in solitude.

After an 18-month tour, he retuned to Springhill. He felt riled up coming home from a tour. When he was home, all he thought about was going back out there, but when he was out there, he thought about when he the tours would end. He knew that sounded cliché, but that’s how he thought. Then he worried if he was a cliché.

For her own amusement Alexander’s high school girlfriend, Cassie, kept up with him. She worked at a law office that was gaining credibility. She loved her team and built a life Springhill. She invited Alexander out with them one day after work. He wore a disguise, as he always did in public—although, in Springhill, they mostly left him alone.

The law team talked about the day in minute detail. Alexander could not believe how little happened in their stories. He was dying to tell a story about his recent experience on a late night show or when some famous person came backstage to congratulate him. He tried not to do that. Cassie told him that he sounded pretentious whenever he did

He wanted to have day-to-day moments that were worth capturing. He wanted to feel like his days weren’t a waste in between performances. He worried for so long about the monotony of normal and now he realized that it was the thing that was out of grasp. Not the fame or the fortune, but for daily moments of peace.

He felt isolated in Springhill. He left Cassie and the bar and walked to the family restaurant. His Mom would make dinner before he went home to start writing songs for his next album and tour. Home was hidden between guitar strings. Soon he could put on his blue robe and become someone aspiring to have a line of maple syrups.

Joe Sakic, the Captain by Example

There’s one important lesson that I learned from years of watching ice hockey. Well, not all ice hockey—specifically from observation of my favorite player. In all the hours I’ve watched sports , Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche is the only player that captivated my attention—every shift—for over a decade.

Other players like Peter Forsberg possessed more talent, but Joe Sakic was more than just a hockey player. He was a figure in the hockey world who understood something that eludes many people in business and politics. When you lead by example, you will stand out.

Other players received airtime by talking a lot, exuding confidence and jumping into the middle of tussles. However, when you lead by example, the attention of the fans and the respect of the community find you. Joe Sakic did that, winning MVP awards at every level and scoring more playoff overtime goals (8) than any player in the history of the game.

If you Google “Joe Sakic quotes”, you won’t come up with much. If you Google “Joe Sakic Leadership”, you’ll find some articles. If you Google, “Quoteless Joe Sakic”, you’ll find the secret to such success.

I was reminded of Sakic’s brilliance at the end February. Stuck in another frustrating period of this year, I was home to see Sakic return to the ice.

I was at Sakic’s last game in the NHL in the closing months of 2008. I don’t remember him leaving the ice with an injury, but his absence was noticeable after several minutes. It set off a string of injuries that forced his retirement after the brief prospect of a comeback late in the season. I was never able to say goodbye to Sakic until he returned for an alumni game in my second home for years, Coors Field.

How memorable it was to be able to see Joe Sakic in the stadium where I squeezed 50,000 lemons over the summers at Colorado Rockies games. Despite lingering injuries, Sakic played with class against his old rivals, the Detroit Red Wings. When ‘number 19” was on the ice, I was a mesmerized 5-year-old again, and this time, I understood his significance.

Few people have such heroes to look up to. I remember crying the year I thought Joe Sakic was leaving for the New York Rangers. I was all set to become a Rangers fan for the rest of my life, but Sakic stayed and finished his time in Colorado. He won the Stanley Cup again and flooded my memory with great moments. I always rooted for Canada over the U.S. when Sakic was playing—he won the Olympic MVP in 2002.

Leading by example is something I work on a lot. I try to help people find solutions instead of telling them how to do things. I consistently work at a high level because that’s what a leader by example should do. The key, I realize now, is that the attention doesn’t have to fall on you because you’re doing great work. You do great work because that’s your discipline and let people make their own judgments. Eventually, hard work shows up on the stats line, and if it doesn’t, at least you left everything on the ice.

When Do I Become a Poet?

When do I become a poet?

The stamp hit the metal with a pop that rang out every few seconds. It took a few minutes, but then Joy got the hang of it. Joy created a beat, hitting the ink pad, placing the paper accurately and moving the press so the design became defined. Then she would reload the stamp with ink as she moved the postcard to the finished pile. The process took about five seconds.

Every five or six stamps Joy sighed heavily before recommitting to stamping a few more postcards. This was all helping an artist friend. This design, abstract as it was, was hanging in a museum. The friend was paying Joy 10 cents for every stamp she completed so she could make about a dollar a minute if she stayed focused. This was a small satisfaction. Still, Joy lost herself in the process.

Joy stared at a postcard for a long moment trying to see what was so great about this design. Sure, the ink seemed to move in curves off the page, but Joy knew she could have created the same thing. However, her friend was the artist, and Joy was the friend who had to stamp the postcards so that they looked more authentic. If only they didn’t keep running out of postcards. Most people weren’t mailing these things—they were framing them.

Joy, the stamp girl, she thought between beats of the rhythm of stamping. When did she get to be Joy the poet?

Of course, no one saw her poetry. When she managed the courage to send her poetry somewhere it never amounted to anything. She didn’t dare show her friends who were just as creative and driven as this artist. Her words never flowed off the pages in curvy lines—they just sat there mocking her.

Joy had one other friend trying to be a poet. Every Tuesday they met at a coffee shop and talked about how neither one was a poet. They never showed each other any work. If they talked about actual poetry pieces at all, it was just to mock the fame of some other poet.

Joy despised any praise she saw for contemporary poets. In her mind, these poets did nothing but use short sentences with big words. It was all art without substance, created by accident.  She recently read a line of poetry she really liked, but when she looked up the author, he admitted that he put no intention in his poetry—he sat around and wrote things down quickly in an elevated state under the influence and when he woke up the next morning, he had a poem. Art without intention, in Joy’s mind, was child’s play.


The postcard in front of her bled together with Joy’s suddenly furious action. The ink streaking like blood and pooling on the page. She thought she could almost make out a jester’s face mocking her.

She got an idea and suddenly took her next postcard and began to write furiously.

The Jester’s smile mapped out from years of critique.

She liked it. This was going to leave a mark on the world—a stamp where she would lay claim on the culture. People would stand up at poetry readings in 200 years and begin:

The Jester’s smile mapped out from years of critique.

She knew it was the kind of line that they would debate on CNN with a breaking news banner. Joy had cracked the cultural code with this line. Fame and riches would come, and it took her only a few seconds.

She stared at the line for a few moments. Her smile slipped. She readied her ink on the stamp and pressed hard over her lines of poetry, it disappeared with only a couple letters peeking out.

Joy sighed. It was Tuesday. She had a question.

When do I become a poet?

Newsletter: The Email Debt Forgiveness Day Newsletter

Email Debt Forgiveness Day (April 30th) is a holiday made for this newsletter. We all know that this newsletter has been as sporadic as a Colorado Rockies’ winning streak.

Events that happen with more regularity than this newsletter: Taylor Swift music videos, superhero movies, Tom Brady suspensions and me changing apartments.

Today, that doesn’t matter, because it’s EMAIL DEBT FORGIVENESS DAY.

All the details are here.

And if you’re not listening to the podcast, Reply All, PJ and Alex are the friends you always wished you had in half-hour increments. They tell interesting stories about the internet and work for Gimlet media, my dream company.

I even get a merit badge for this… No joke, listen to the episode, which includes a great love story and some heartbreaking emails.

Term 2

The highlights of the term have existed outside of my main work, video editing and copywriting. I’ve enjoyed conversations and brainstorming sessions with Victor, Eli, Aaron and the Ei team about the direction of different aspects of the organization. It’s also been great to be involved in interviews for next year’s Ei class.

Here’s my latest post about my year.

I’m still working out third term, but it’s hard to believe that I’m two-thirds of the way through this year.

The DK Chronicle

Since Leap Day, I have written a lot. I have posted on my website every weekday since the start of a project called DK Chronicle. The inspiration came from the Leap Kit and it’s pushed me to share personal pieces that make me uncomfortable.

The project will end on Friday, May 6th with my 50th post. I will have a final project to share at some point. This is not the end of me sharing my work, but the beginning. This is an area where I’m in my element and want to continue to create projects that interest me. I hope that my work will increase in scope and influence.

 Thanks for all of your support!