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Transom » Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris

January 7th, 2014

Getting Stuck – at New York’s Lincoln Center fountain, with an approximate timeline of my life.
Editor’s Note: First I’ll quote an email from my 16-year-old daughter, Hope: “Okay so I just read that whole thing- twice. And it made me cry a little bit- twice. Well played, Jonathan Harris, well played. Everything he does is so perfectly unusual and against the norm. It’s like, I think I have this view of the world and then in walks JH with his mind and ideas and I’m like, ‘oh, shit, now I have to fit that new astonishing piece of information into my now turned-upside-down worldview.’ Once again he’s made my life better by ruining it.”

She’s referring to Jonathan’s new Transom Manifesto, “Navigating Stuckness,” an autobiographical journey with teachable moments, following Jonathan’s path as a diarist, painter, storyteller, data artist, web visionary, and who knows what next? That’s the question. You’ll find ponderable lessons for all of us who are ever stuck, accompanied by wonderful original illustrations. Jay A

Navigating Stuckness

Getting Stuck

A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with my mom in Manhattan. She was telling me her plans for this year’s Christmas card. “This year,” she said, “instead of writing my usual newsy card, I think I’ll just say, ‘Amanda’s about to have a baby, and Jonathan moved from California back to New York.’”
“Sounds good to me,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “it seems like you used to do so much in a year, and I always wanted to include all your news. But this year, it just seems like you haven’t been doing very much, so I figured a shorter note was in order.”
I squirmed in my chair and readjusted my napkin. My mom — maybe like all moms — has a special way of saying just the thing that’ll hit your most vulnerable spot. She’s right — this year, I haven’t been doing very much. I’ve spent a lot of time wandering into churches, reading old journals, watching YouTube videos, and staring out of windows, but very little time making any work. I’ve been feeling really stuck, unsure about what to do next, and struggling with a lot of self-doubt and confusion.
After dinner, I walked across the street to the Lincoln Center fountain, and I sat on the granite slab next to the water. The night was dark and cold. Operagoers in tuxedos rushed to get taxis. I could feel the black stone below my body. I looked at the city sky but I couldn’t see stars. I turned my head to look at the water. The columns of water were moving up and down in some kind of pattern, but I couldn’t tell what it was. Sometimes the columns of water were tall, and moving up and down within their tallness. Other times, the columns of water were low, and moving up and down within their lowness. The columns of water were never not moving.
I thought about stuckness, and about where I lost the flow. I remembered other times in my life I’d been stuck, and how the stuckness always eventually passed. I thought how life is a lot like that fountain, with its columns of water moving up and down, and how the low points are actually thrilling because the high points are about to come back, and how the high points are actually terrifying, because the low points always come next.
I thought of my life as a series of chapters, and I realized that each time I’d been majorly stuck, it meant that a life chapter was ending, and that a new one needed to start — like the stuckness was always a signal indicating imminent change. My life has had a bunch of different chapters, each one beginning with the fresh-faced idealism of a new approach to living, and each one ending with a period of stuckness and a moment of crisis. I’d like to tell you about those chapters, in case they contain something useful for you.
I should say up front that I’m lucky to make a living mainly by giving talks about my work at conferences, companies, and universities, which affords me a lot of time each year to make new work (and to obsess endlessly about what that work should be). In Zen philosophy, they say that anything pushed to its extreme becomes its opposite. Sometimes I wonder whether too much freedom produces a weird kind of psychological paralysis, which is almost like prison. Still, obviously I’m grateful to be grappling with too much freedom instead of too little.

Chapter 1: Paint (1995-2003)

Paint – a foggy field in Deerfield, Massachusetts, with pages from my travel journals.
In high school, I was a total romantic. I had a field easel, and I’d stand around in meadows doing oil paintings while wearing a little beret. In college, inspired by the travel journals of Peter Beard, I kept elaborate sketchbooks filled with dead insects, pasted plants, ticket stubs, watercolor paintings, photographs, and writing. I made these books by hand and kept them for several years. At the same time, I was studying computer science in the early days of the Internet, and I felt a growing rift between the sober art of painting and the dizzying potential of the web. I couldn’t find a way to bridge these two worlds, and I started to feel torn — partly pulled into the future, and partly stuck in the past. I’d graduated from Princeton but was still living in town, doing odd jobs and generally feeling bad about myself and unsure about what to do next. I took a trip to Central America and ended up getting robbed by five guys who put a gun to my head, beat me up pretty badly, and stole my bag, which contained a sketchbook with nine months of work. It was one of those odd moments in life that’s really traumatic, but which ends up being a doorway into something new. After the robbery, I gave up painting, stopped keeping sketchbooks, and resolved to use computer code as my new artistic medium. I wanted to make things that guys with guns couldn’t steal. Around this time, I received a one-year fellowship at Fabrica, a communications research center in northern Italy. I moved to Italy, and I started writing code.

About Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris currently lives in Brooklyn, where he splits his time between programming and painting. All the projects mentioned in his essay are viewable at

Jonathan Harris. Photo by Bianca Giaever


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