San Francisco, California

Jack and the Magic Key

It’s 2007: I’m sat in the kitchen watching a family friend and her four year old son talk to my mom. Over the course of a few minutes I notice how this kid, Jack, is starting to get bored; his eyes roll into the back of his head and all of his limbs begin to fidget independently of the host as if he’s possessed by the spirit of boredom itself.

In a flash my mom notices this before her friend does. Her eyes dart around the room, looking for something, anything, to entertain Jack with. Coming up short, my mom grabs the closest thing that was on the table: a key. I think it unlocked one of the older cabinets we had lying around back then so it was very nondescript and boring; it didn’t have any patterns on it, or engravings, and it certainly wasn’t imbued with ancient magic of any kind.

But my mom gets down to Jack’s level and hijacks his attention with the key. She twirls it between her fingers and Jack’s eyes expand to the size of saucers.

My mom whispers in his ear.

“This key opens a door somewhere in our home,” her hand outstretched, sweeps across the air as if our house was a castle in the Scottish highlands, a scary and adventurous place that little Jack might get lost in. “And this very special key opens a very special door. So, Jack…” My mom pauses for emphasis “…you’re the only one that can help me find it.”

At this point all of Jack’s boredom had been converted into pure, unbridled excitement and his smile almost hopped off his round face in the rush of this new adventure. He spent the rest of the afternoon darting around the house trying the key on everything; on books and chairs, walls and fireplaces, and even his mother’s poor knee.


I didn’t realize this until I was an adult but when I was a young kid my family went bankrupt and my father’s successful business disappeared almost over night. Our small family, just my dad, my mom, my brother and me, lost everything. Our grandparents died and we’d been ostracized from cousins, sisters and distant brothers before I was born and so there was no-one to call for backup.

After my dad finally relented in telling us the details decades later I remembered that for years my brother and I had slept on the floor without a mattress. We didn’t have wallpaper. We had no toys or even a television until we were much older.

Whilst my dad was throwing himself into the maw of tax collectors and shady debt men, my mom was left dealing with two young children almost entirely alone. And so she learned quickly how to entertain us on a budget. Without any money to pay for toys my mom had to make the ordinary extraordinary. Our empty bedroom became a jungle, the couch a train, the stairway a place where Pokémon could be found and fought. And yes, even boring nondescript keys became potent with magic and prophesy.

That unbound excitement in boring things, that sort of curiosity in the world around us is what we so desperately need more of. We need excuses to play, to experiment, to dream during the daytime. And I think it was that key that my mother held in her hand that afternoon that made me want to be a writer and a designer. It’s what ultimately sparked my curiosity in typography, letters, and writing as well because I knew that I wanted to give others that feeling of infinite hope and that sense of wonder, too.

This is most certainly going to be a non-sequitur but for some reason all of this reminds me of Mary Reufle’s Madness, Rack and Honey where the poet describes what the perfect English Literature class in a highschool might look like. In the book, Mary writes:

My idea for a class is you just sit in the classroom and read aloud until everyone is smiling, and then you look around, and if someone is not smiling you ask them why, and then you keep reading—it may take many different books—until they start smiling, too.