The Lesson

Fresh from sleep, in the first few minutes of wakefulness before my brain comes fully back online, I run a few simple scripts to help me start my day. I complete these familiar routines like I’m a robot programmed only for these tasks. Exit bed. Navigate to kitchen. Boil water. Make tea. Only when the tea is brewing and I’m seated in front of the computer am I capable of conscious thought.

On this morning, like every other morning, I grab the teakettle and turn the cold water on full blast to fill the pot.

Except this morning, not like every other morning, the spout of the faucet breaks off, clattering into the sink. Behind it, a geyser of water explodes, transforming my tiny kitchen into a decorative fountain. The icy water shoots directly at my face, blinding me for a moment and making it difficult to breathe.

Don’t panic, I think.

Scenes of past plumbing disasters flash before my eyes. They all seem to feature a stranger’s torso inside my cupboard, exploring the mysteries of the pipes below, ass hanging out.

To the shut-off valve!

I fall to my knees and frantically begin removing the items densely packed in storage below the sink, cold water falling on my head and shoulders like rain. The laundry soap. The garbage bags. The dust pan and rags and furniture polish. The hammers, and even an electric drill. All of these land in the growing puddle of water on the kitchen floor, so I can reach the handle all the way in the back of the cabinet.

It won’t turn.

I struggle with this balky knob so stiff and sticky from disuse. Nothing.

I stand up, and the freezing water smacks me in the face again. For an eternity of a few seconds, I’m paralyzed. Paralyzed by shock. Paralyzed with indecision. Gasping for breath and shivering from cold, I stand there, too stupid to move.

Should I go take a hot shower and hope that the problem will fix itself? Would crying help? Maybe I should call someone. But who would come over here so early in the morning?

I reach for the house phone to call the doorman. The water continues to blast me in the face. I try to staunch the flow of water from the broken faucet by holding the teakettle over it. With the kettle in one hand and the phone in the other, I try to hold back the water and dial the phone at the same time, a comedy routine I picked up from watching old I Love Lucy episodes.

This attempt to solve my problem fails miserably. I can’t turn to the doorman for help. I have to rely on myself, my wits, and my adrenaline-fueled strength. I have got to shut this water off.

On my knees again in the inch-deep puddle, I engage in a fierce battle of woman versus knob. I wrap the sodden dishtowel around the handle and try to bend the knob to my will. Nothing. I put on the dishwashing gloves, hoping their rubbery surface will help me gain more leverage. Nothing. Finally, with both the gloves on and the dishtowel wrapped around my hand, I turn with all my might, and at last I feel the knob start to give.

The absence of water is like silence. I pause for a moment to catch my breath then call down to the front desk.

When you live in a large Manhattan apartment tower and you call the building staff to tell them there’s a flood in your apartment, someone instantly materializes at your door.

Haki, the super, surveyed the scene wearily, a man all too familiar with the titanic power of a plumbing disaster to pull one from the depths of sleep. He stepped into the kitchen while I dashed to my closet to grab a sweater to pull on over my soaking wet T-shirt.

When I returned, he was in the hallway, stooped to pat my dog on the head. He stood up and explained, “Okay, Luis will be up in a few minutes to clean this up. Miguel will be up later to fix the faucet.” He paused for a beat. “And I turned the water off.”

I’d spent the whole morning spluttering water out my mouth and nose, and now the words spluttered out the same way. “No that’s what I did see I turned the water off I found the knob under the sink it wouldn’t turn that’s why it took so long I turned the water off I did that already that’s what I did.”

He stared at me, his face blank. “No. You needed to turn the water off on the faucet,” pantomiming the familiar turn of the wrist.

Right. The faucet handle. Why didn’t I think of that?

A moment’s shock and confusion, and a routine ingrained in my muscle memory disappeared. A task so comfortable, I’d performed it thousands of times, and yet I forgot how to do it just when it mattered most. Instead, I cycled through unfamiliar strategies, desperate gambits, a dozen bad decisions.

Designers dream of solutions to these problems, a magic wand that turns confusion into engagement and delight. But an instruction manual for my sink, even one filled with witticisms and clever turns of phrase, would have evoked hoots of derision, and pop-up boxes offering warnings or advice would have prompted wild-haired screeching.

Who am I designing for? The rational, composed, perfectly-in-control savant? The expert automaton, programmed to complete each task flawlessly? Or the messy, error-prone, distracted human? Remembering my own catastrophes, disasters, and bone-headed moves helps me be more sensitive to the fact that they happen for everyone—even the people who use the products I design.

Originally published in The Manual.


I’m a winner!

When I was about 8 years old I won $100 worth of candy from a giveaway at my local grocery store. It didn’t come as a complete surprise, as my friend Rachel and I had stuffed the ballot box while my mother shopped for groceries. My excitement at winning $100 worth of candy was somewhat tempered when my mother insisted on using some of the money to purchase chocolate for baking (bor-ing!) What’s worse, whatever candy I was allowed to select I didn’t get to eat all at once—this dreamed-for sugar orgy still looms large in my imagination—but instead was stored in the freezer and doled out to me in more appropriate servings. Still, this candy bonanza has long since provided the high-water mark for Things I Have Won. Short of winning the lottery, I wasn’t sure what might surpass it.

Until I won a case of heirloom artichokes from Ocean Mist Farms and @artichokerecipe! My childish love of candy has abated somewhat over the years, but I might say it has been replaced with a near-obsession with artichokes. I love them—graceful petals, prickly exterior, sensuous heart. They take some work, and it’s worth it.

Artichokes from Ocean Mist Farms

In honor of this momentous occasion, I’d like to share my three favorite artichoke preparations.


Seriously, just steam and eat the thing. It’s delicious. I cut the stem to just below the first leaf, and cut the top off. Stand it upside down in a steamer for 20 minutes or so (until a leaf pulls out easily.) I prefer it with a simple olive oil and lime vinaigrette, but it’s also good with aioli (add some roasted garlic to the foolproof Serious Eats 2-Minute Mayonnaise.)


This is my go-to fancy preparation, and is the first thing I’m going to try with my heirloom chokes. I follow this braised artichokes recipe from Mark Bittman, sometimes substituting lime for the lemon. The trick with this recipe is making sure to remove enough of the tough outer leaves. I take off what seems like too much, then remove another layer. The sauce over these artichokes is divine.


Baby artichokes are my absolute very favorite food in the entire world. So tiny! So adorable! When they are available in stores I buy them in vast quantities. Lest you think I’m cruelly preventing these baby chokes from reaching their prime—the veal of vegetables—“baby” artichokes are a fully mature, smaller choke picked from the lower part of the plant, according to Ocean Mist Farms.

Baby chokes are delicious braised; I serve them and the tasty sauce over angel hair pasta with scallops or shrimp. But roasted baby artichokes are, perhaps, my most very favorite preparation of my very favorite food. They couldn’t be simpler. I cut them in half, toss them with some oil and salt & pepper, and roast them around 400 for 20 minutes or so, until they are nicely browned and crispy. They’re great in a salad or simply eaten out of a bowl drizzled with vinaigrette.

Finally, let me share my favorite joke from the age when I was stuffing the box to win a candy drawing. I am not kidding, this really was my favorite joke as a kid:

Tired of being broke and stuck in an unhappy marriage, a young husband decided to solve both problems by taking out a large insurance policy on his wife and arranging to have her killed.

A “friend of a friend” put him in touch with a nefarious underworld figure, who went by the name of “Artie.” Artie explained to the husband that his going price for snuffing out a spouse was $5,000. The husband said he was willing to pay that amount, but that he wouldn’t have any cash on hand until he could collect his wife’s insurance money.

Artie insisted on being paid in part up front. The man opened up his wallet and displayed the single dollar bill that rested inside. Artie sighed, rolled his eyes, and reluctantly agreed to accept the dollar as down payment for the dirty deed.

A few days later, Artie followed the man’s wife to the local Safeway grocery store. There, he surprised her in the produce department and proceeded to strangle her with his gloved hands. As the poor unsuspecting woman drew her last breath and slumped to the floor, the manager of the produce department stumbled unexpectedly onto the scene. Unwilling to leave any witnesses behind, Artie had no choice but to strangle the produce manager as well.

Unknown to Artie, the entire proceeding was captured by hidden cameras and observed by the store’s security guard, who immediately called the police. Artie was caught and arrested before he could leave the store.

Under intense questioning at the police station, Artie revealed the sordid plan, including his financial arrangements with the hapless husband.

And that is why, the next day in the newspaper, the headline declared: “Artie chokes two for a dollar at Safeway.”


App Dot Net

The very nice people at App.net gave me a bunch of free invites to hand out like candy. You can sign up here.

I’d love to see more discussion happening on App.net. 256 characters gives you a bit more room to make a point. It feels more intimate and focused than some other platforms that shall remain nameless. But, unfortunately, there’s not quite a critical mass of people on there now, which is why you should sign up and get the ball rolling by saying hello to me, I’m @karenmcgrane.

If you want more information about App.net, check out their blog or this podcast on The New Disruptors or I guess you could look at their Twitter feed.