My initial visit to the cavernous, buzzing Exploratorium was in 1992. At that time, I could never have guessed that the place would provide me with the perfect training for finding my way back from a serious head injury.
When I first walked in, I was gobsmacked. Amid rainbows near the dark entrance was an area devoted to weather. Smoky plumes from a tornado undulated mysteriously. Earth’s celestial phenomena were hovering indoors, miniaturized, waiting to be manipulated. There were turbulent rings of fog, and real radar, where I observed nearby shipping traffic. There was even a kiosk in which I controlled the speed and direction of a spectacular aerial film of San Francisco.
Right near these exhibits was a magnificent workshop with a low wall separating it from the museum floor. You could literally lean over and talk with the people working inside. I had been planning to go to art school, but suddenly had an altered vision. Instead of static sculptures, I would make things that were like these exhibits: purposeful, engaging, and experiential. Yearning to be a part of it, I promptly sent in an unsolicited cover letter and resume.
The Exploratorium’s Workshop in the 1990s
A few years later, I got a summer job in the workshop. I was placed under the wing of Master Exhibit Developer Tom Tompkins. His striking resemblance to Santa Claus coordinated well with his habit of wearing shorts in all weather. Tom doled out technical and philosophical guidance like a wizard casting spells. He would introduce the milling machine like it was an old friend: “This is a thinking man’s machine,” he’d joke, pointing out the various handles, cranks, and levers. Unlike a drill press, this beast could spew metal chips like it was cutting cheese. It required preparation, a detailed drawing, and a calculator. When I failed to keep track of my zeroes, he patted me on the shoulder and said with a smile, “It’s lucky that they aren’t paying you very much.” Later, he’d remind me that learning almost always involves failure. “The key is to try not to make the same mistake twice.”
Tom Tompkins in 2016
Lesson One: Breaking a Problem Into Parts
My job that summer was to help teachers build exhibits for their classrooms. Shirley wanted help making a hand-cranked generator. I didn’t know what that was, but Tom helped me stall: “Get her to draw what she has in mind.”
He told me big problems could be broken down into parts. These parts probably had existing solutions, and I should go out to the museum floor to find them. The Exploratorium floor hosts an enormous wealth and diversity of ideas. While the teacher busied herself, he sent me out to find the Hand Cranked Generator exhibit. There was a handle where you could turn a ring of magnets near some coppery coils of wire to generate electricity.
We compared the exhibit to the drawing. Then I looked for parts for her to plan an assembly. Laying out the bicycle crank, magnets, and motors gave us some idea about how to connect them. We soon learned it needed a shaft and something to support it. When I found the wrong sized shaft collar, we shimmed it with tape. As it began to come together, things didn’t always go as planned. Tom liked to say “form follows fuck-up.” In the end, there were misplaced holes here and there, but she got it working.
Shirley’s 1996 Hand Cranked Generator
Fast forward to 2015. I was sitting next to a neurologist, looking at beautiful, heart wrenching 3D models of my brain on his computer. He pointed out two skull fractures and damage to multiple lobes, where my brain had bounced against my skull. I was completely unprepared for the news: brain damage. I thought I’d be back to work soon, but he told me to take two months off to start! He said to give the injury time. When I asked how much time, he couldn’t say. “Every person is different. Every injury is different,” he said. I found myself fumbling with prepared questions that no longer seemed to apply. I was crashing. It was impossible to remain calm, reasonable, and not brain-damaged.
Brain injuries can make you lose focus and forget things. I kept walking out of my house without a coat. One time, an hour after I left home, I was in a downtown restroom and found a giant smear of toothpaste on my face. Walking out the door without my jacket, I’d return only to discover that I didn’t have my keys or wallet. It was very frustrating. I was making the same mistake over and over.
Luckily, I learned about a support group for people living with brain injuries. Once a month, I met other people with similar problems. Some of them were forgetful like me, but were holding things together with lists and alarm-clock reminders. I picked up this “note on the door” tip from there. You can see how the word “jacket” is an afterthought, written sideways on the Post-it.
Getting back to work full-time was going to be a difficult problem, but solving that one part was huge for me. It propelled me forward and served as a reminder that solutions were out there if only I were to go looking.
Lesson Two: Letting Go
In the late 1990s, I got the opportunity to refurbish exhibits. “Back when I built this, we couldn’t afford to replace missing balls,” Tom said as showed me Bouncing Ball. To keep the ball from getting lost, Tom had sequestered it inside an elaborate mechanism. Users were supposed to pick it up with a magnet and drop it by pulling up on a handle. Since the ball was fully contained, it had a microphone and speakers hooked up so you could hear it. It was beautifully engineered, but hardly anyone could get it to work.
He encouraged me to take it apart and change it so that visitors could drop the ball by hand. Without the enclosure, the speakers were no longer needed. It became both simpler and more useful. As I removed the parts, I reflected on how I’d never seen anyone throw their creations out the window this way. When I remarked on it, he replied, “If you can’t stand to see your work in the debris box, this is the wrong job for you.” I soon saw that he was about outcomes, not artistic pride.
Learning to let go of design ideas was a good foundation for when I had to face the deficits I acquired with my brain injury. It could seem like an unending series of losses — shocking, negative discoveries. Over and over I’d be forced let go, take stock of the tools that I had left, and go about the business of rebuilding and regaining my capacity. One such loss was when I discovered that I had completely lost my sense of smell.
If you suddenly lost your sense of smell, how long would it take you to notice it? It took me a good couple of weeks. I had begun to take walks soon after my accident. It’s my habit to run a hand over San Francisco’s abundant lavender and rosemary shrubs, taking in a deep inhale. Their resinous odors abound in San Francisco, and it’s a pleasure to release their scent, like an explosion in my face. On the way home one morning, I brushed my arm along and folded my hand around wheat-like stalks of fuzzy purple flower buds. I pulled gently and inhaled, expecting to find that tangy and penetrating lavender-oil scent suffusing in my nostrils. It was totally missing.
I stood there sniffing, aghast — with a pit in my stomach. Immediately, I sought another bush hoping the other had been faulty. There was only a let down, like the moment of an unexpected break up, when you suddenly realize this is it. Returning home, I was weighed down with a sense of deep and regrettable loss.
I told my colleague Paul about it, and he responded, “Cool!”, like it was a superpower, because he knew that there was a lot I could notice about taste perception. “Too soon!” I cried. But deep down, I knew he was right. I was soon marveling at the differences and subtle powers my deficit gave me, like riding in smelly train-station elevators, and noticing that without smell, an apple and an onion taste about the same.
While bumping into deficits never ceases to surprise me, the sense of loss has slowly grown milder. I never know if getting my abilities back will be arduous or effortless, but my faith in the rebuilding process has grown.
When I discovered I couldn’t conjure animal shapes out of clouds, I wept. I practiced, but it gave me headaches. A few months later, they spontaneously returned, in the form of ducks, while I was walking on the waterfront on my way to work. I had been reading a book of short stories with ducks pictured on the cover. Perhaps that association helped me reconnect.
A year into my recovery, I met up with a colleague at the Science Museum of Minnesota. I was feeling pretty good as he showed me around the new math exhibits. We’ve enjoyed playing together with math exhibits for many years, exploiting their capabilities and critiquing each element of their designs. While standing with him in front of an exhibit about volume, I suddenly realized that I was drawing a blank. I didn’t get the exhibit at all. It was an awful realization, but I was more reflective this time. Though it was painful to admit, I found myself sharing my discovery. I was confident that with effort, I could reclaim my understanding. Perhaps in admitting it, I made it easier to get on with getting it back.
Confusing math exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota
There are probably infinite tiny deficits lurking in there, but I no longer fear them. Just recently I was riding my bike and saw someone riding no-handed. I copied him and abruptly ascertained that I somehow forgot to do what I used to do quite naturally. I hardly skipped a beat before trying to get the ability back. By the time I arrived at work, I was tentatively but successfully balancing without my hands.
Lesson Three: Let Evidence be the Guide
Around the year 2000, I began to develop my own ideas for exhibits. My first one was 3D Shapes, an exhibit where you stick polygons together to make whatever you want. The first prototype was made of hand-cut illustration board. I attached the Velcro with staples. At the Exploratorium, that’s good enough for visitor testing, but it would take a lot more work to get it right.
First 3D Shapes Prototype
The Exploratorium had just started embedding professional researchers on exhibit teams. Their job was to learn about how visitors engage with exhibits. They would watch and listen to interactions and conduct interviews, and analyze the data they collected.
During the long process of making 3D shapes, they recorded countless hours of video tape, coding actions and conversations. This could be frustrating. Over many months, I had to create a number of different sets of shapes in order to get the visitor behavior I had hoped for.
My first shapes were too small, and would get lost on the floor. I employed an industrial sewing machine to mitigate pointy staples. Velcro hook and loop were hard for visitors to differentiate, and the loop got fuzzy. I sourced different colors and military-spec hook that could withstand twice the number of fastenings. I painted the shapes colors so that visitors who couldn’t name a hexagon could call it yellow.
When I could finally look at our researchers’ data, and review videotapes with long holding times and deep engagement, I knew it was worth all the rounds of evaluation that looked at shape, size, color, graphic strategies, and more. It took a ton of time, and several rounds of evaluation, to get the exhibit right.
Sample page of an evaluation report
As my recovery progressed, I began to see an occupational therapist named Annemarie. Small in stature and large in presence, I found her direct, understanding, and firm. One day, before she gave me a timed-sorting exercise, like matching words and alphabetizing or something, she asked how I thought I would do. Being a fan of puzzles and word games, I said pretty well.
It had looked like child’s play, but I found myself sweating and losing track of the instructions. After ten minutes of torturous effort, she showed me the results. I was beaten down, tired, and ready to surrender to her program. She made me do homework every day and asked me to change my habits. I gradually learned to embrace even the pesky mindfulness exercises, because she had proven to me in her office that it could rapidly improve my recall.
It’s somewhat terrifying having someone analyze your cognition, especially if the resulting news is bad. It is a reckoning, though, and it’s a call to action. Who wouldn’t go through acknowledging a little failure to make their brain, the foundation of their existence and identity, function better?
One page of absentmindedness logs in my massive homework binder
breaking down problems into parts, learning from other people’s solutions, looking at evidence, letting go of failed ideas, and pressing on until something delightful emerges. My travels back from my brain injury forced me to notice deficits, get help, and apply the lessons of an exhibit developer to reclaim my former function.
Sometimes it was a scary and maddening process, but I knew that if I wanted to recover, I would have to believe that I could learn if I didn’t give up. I would have to experience discomfort, listen to evidence, and lose a chunk of my ego. It’s been fun to think of my mind/brain as a kind of meta-exhibit. My biggest-ever project was not to create an exhibit, but to recreate an exhibit developer.