The couple on the bench in front of the basketball courts looked approachable enough — more ready for a conversation than the shirtless men who hustled behind them under the net. The woman busied herself with a Mitch Albom book, while her partner sat back and observed the ocean through a pair of shades.
The eyewear proved to be the icebreaker. David Makela, who had entered the court area Monday lugging a sizeable camera, ambled up to the couple and complimented the shades, then asked for a favor: He had embarked on a project to interview a new person each day of 2014, and he was seeking his subject for day 181.
The couple consented, and Makela — who, clad in a gray O'Neill T-shirt and shorts, looked more like a beachcomber than an entrepreneur — began his standard list of questions: name, city of residence, a word they would use to summarize their lives. When he asked how the couple would go about changing one thing in the world, the woman mentioned spreading kindness.
"OK, so today, how can you do that?" asked Makela, who wore shades of his own under cropped blond hair. "What's one way that you could spread kindness today?"
"I could offer someone a meal," the woman said. "A smile. A seat."
"It really is that simple, right, when you think about it?" Makela said. "That's why I like that question. It's like, what are you going to do about this change? A lot of people think so globally. They want to change the world. They want to end poverty. OK, so what can you do today in your own backyard?"
He paused an instant to reflect, then added, "I love that. I can just offer a smile, be kind to someone."
The questionnaire nearly over, Makela jotted down their names — Dustin and Katrina Powell, who were on vacation in Laguna Beach from Arizona — and asked one last thing: If they could make their lives into a movie, what would the story and title be? Katrina suggested "Does It Get Any Better Than This?" while Dustin explained that their best times "are really about us just kind of being together."
Later that day, the picture that Makela snapped of the Powells appeared on the Vizual Living 365 blog, converted to a mock movie poster with "Katrina" and "Dustin" listed as actors at the top. To make it as professional as possible, the poster sported a PG-13 rating in the lower left corner and a list of credits — most of which bore Makela's name.
A new kind of network
They've started to recognize him, he knows. Almost every day, Makela walks with his camera around Laguna — often accompanied by his wife, who acts as a mediator when he approaches teenage girls.
A few of Makela's interviews are with business owners, to whom he gives a slightly different questionnaire. Those meetings sometimes take him out of Laguna, but regardless of where he meets his subjects, they wind up, mock posters and all, on the 365 blog.
Anessa from Santa Ana, who posed on day 170 with her head sticking out of the sand, is fresh out of the eighth grade and would like "people to be smarter." Barbara from Claremont, who did her interview on day 153 while celebrating her 75th birthday, summarized her life as "interesting" and wants to travel to Sicily within a year.
Makela, a Laguna resident who recently founded the digital consulting company Vizual Living, began the 365 project on Jan. 1. Part of his motivation has to do with networking — for a new business owner, connections help — but he has a humanistic goal as well. In short, he's looking to create a social network without a smartphone, even if he does post his finished product on Facebook, Instagram and the like.
"Even when I don't have a camera with me, I just love to go up and start having conversations with people, no matter where we're at," he said after finishing his interview for day 181. "I think people want to engage in conversation. We live in this world where we're so connected through social media, but really, I think that's a facade of connectivity."
Anyone who has seen the Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day" — a film that Makela loves — may spot a similarity between the Vizual Living owner and Murray's character, who gets stuck in a time warp and ends up obsessively learning about the small-town residents around him. Makela's theory is that not everyone may be a natural storyteller, but everyone has a story to tell. As of day 181, he said, he had been turned down for an interview only four or five times.
On day 183, he got lucky again when he entered the T-Shirt Company at Laguna Beach and invited co-owner Lauren Segal to be his subject. She remembered the Makelas from a year ago when they stopped by her store, and in her profile, she offered the title "A T-Shirt Shop with a Conscience" to indicate her support of small businesses.
"I think it's really ambitious," Segal said. "I can't believe they do one of these every day. And I think it's wonderful. They're supporting the community. They're supporting the local businesses."
'Thanks for changing my world'
In running an off-the-cuff interview series, Makela has inspiration enough. One of his models was "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," an online video series in which Jerry Seinfeld takes fellow celebrities for rides and then stops to eat with them, chatting all the while. And though it didn't predate Makela's project, the Laguna resident watched with interest when entrepreneur Chase Jarvis launched "UberLIVE," a similar series, at this year's South By Southwest festival.
Still, the concept for Vizual Living 365 didn't gel until Makela, accompanied by his son and brother, went on a walking tour of Spain last summer. For 28 days, the trio covered 500 or so miles on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route in the north part of the country. Makela made it a point to talk to a new person every day along the journey, and when he returned to Laguna, the urge hadn't subsided.
"I said, 'You know what? I don't need to go to Spain to meet somebody new every day,'" Makela said. "'Why don't I do that in my own backyard?'"
He acknowledges, though, that that backyard may be a limitation. When Makela stops people in one of Orange County's ritziest cities and asks them to describe their lives, words like "blessed," "awesome" and "beautiful" often recur. Relaxing on an oceanside bench after the interview with the Powells, he mused about the kinds of reactions he might get in a bleaker location: Santa Ana, maybe, or downtown Los Angeles.
Makela wouldn't rule out doing a blog project in those areas. For now, he's set his sights on a project for 2015: a series of interviews with business leaders around the world whom he considers influencers. He already has a list of a few hoped-for interview subjects — at the beach Monday, he mentioned author and marketer Seth Godin and Virgin Group magnate Richard Branson — and is mulling over a video format.
Of course, not every influencer is a millionaire chief executive. At the end of Makela's blog about the Powells, he reflected on the desire Dustin expressed to live in the present and capture meaningful moments. "You're on the right path Dustin," he wrote, paying only modest heed to punctuation. "Keep doing what you are doing and one year from now you'll have a treasure chest of memories and experiences!"
Then, he added: "And Katrina is changing the world today by being kind and offering smiles during our conversation. Thanks for changing my world today Katrina, I believe you will change many lives this next year by doing what you did today!"