Dan Sinker/blog

Puzzles All the Way Down

When Punk Planet moved from its first small office to the cavernous warehouse space that would be the magazine's home 'til the end, there was a lot to do. There was building desks and walls and an enormous loft to store backissues on. There was hooking up utilities and wiring a network for our computers. And there was finding a dumpster.

And, of all the things, I still regularly think about finding that dumpster. It was something I'd never had to do before and it was a world I'd never really known existed. I'd never really considered that there were different companies that hauled away trash from commercial businesses or that, when you rented a space in them, it was up to you to unravel how it worked. And so I walked through the alleys of the industrial corridor along Ravenswood Avenue, writing down the names of the various dumpster companies and, eventually, solved the dumpster riddle my landlord had given me. I loved every minute of it.

When I think back on jobs I've had, the ones that I've stuck with have presented a never-ending series of puzzles. With Punk Planet, it started with "how do you make a magazine," but once that question was answered a new mystery would open up, constantly, forever. From dumpsters to managing people to creating books to, sadly, how to end the thing. Every day was a new puzzle to solve. Other work I've done—the lasting stuff, that is—is always a series of never-ending puzzles and learnings and unknown challenges. Without constantly not knowing what happens next, it's hard for me to stay engaged with a job. This was once explained to me so clearly by a friend who said "You're a builder, not a maintainer," and wow that is true. I build things. Once they're built there are no more puzzles for me to solve so, often, I lose interest.

Which is a big reason why Question Mark, Ohio—the sprawling story told across the internet that novelist Joe Meno and I launched last month—is so much fun for me. Not just because it is a series of puzzles and mysteries for you to engage with, but because the whole thing is so big, so wild, and so open that it's also a big puzzle for me. There's always something new to build, some new thing to hide, some technical challenge to overcome, some wrinkle in the story we need to sort out. Actually building this thing is a series of puzzles that I can't wait to solve every single day.

Without revealing any spoilers, we're not even quite a month into this project and I'm already maintaining a pile of websites, social media accounts, phone numbers, and email addresses, all of which contain parts of a larger whole. Some of these elements people have found, others have yet to be discovered, and still others are being held back until the timing is right, but each one represents some new wrinkle, some new puzzle, a stand-alone short story, or a whole new chapter in the tale of Question Mark, Ohio. And things in town haven't even taken a real turn for the worse yet! It's thrilling work, get in it.

It's also work, as I was explaining to someone the other day, that taps into every single skillset I've acquired since I started DIYing my way through life a few decades ago. Writing, design, art, web dev, social strategies, storytelling, community building, even product management: it's all a part of the work of Question Mark, Ohio. And it's all a part of me.

The other day I turned around a small website in about an hour and Joe remarked that he didn't understand how I did it so quickly. "Well, it took about an hour, plus thirty years," I replied.

When you've spent your life solving puzzles shaped like jobs, you have a hard time talking about what you do—or at least I do. Once, on a job interview at a tech company I told the story of figuring out how to rent a dumpster and the people looked at me like I was nuts (I got the job anyway; I was miserable). With Question Mark, Ohio I feel like for the first time in a very long time I can point and say "I do this" and I'm not leaving anything out.

Published May 11, 2023.

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