Category Archives: experience

A plane crash in slow-mo

I WAS SOBER SIX MONTHS when my Uncle George took me to lunch and told me he believed his sister, my mother, had Alzheimers. She was 60. Via frequent short visits to Pittsburgh and more phone calls than we’d shared in decades, I helped my dad accept that he needed to take her to the doctor for tests. Then I helped him accept the results.

She declined over ten years. It was like a plane crash in slow motion.

At my Aunt Ruth’s funeral, my mother cried and cried, with no clue who she was crying for. When I joined my parents at the grave site, my mother turned excitedly to my father and pointed at me. “I know that man!” she said.

When she couldn’t talk any longer; after all the in-home nurses had quit; after the cousin who’d come to care for her committed credit card fraud while my mother wandered the house unwashed and raving; after that, I helped my dad accept that mom could no longer live at home.

Oh, and I stayed sober.

The final two years she spent in a facility. It was like visiting a statue. My dad would get her an ice cream and wheel her around the nursing home garden. She ate the ice cream. I’m not sure she saw the trees.

She had a little CD player in her room, and when we visited, we would put on music she liked – that is, music she had liked when she liked anything. Once, I swear I saw her shiver at the melancholy sax riff on a Frank Sinatra ballad. As if someone was there.

Then there was the day her hair turned white. I suppose it had probably turned gradually during the few weeks since I’d last seen her. My career was taking off and I couldn’t visit Pittsburgh as often. For that matter, maybe her hair had turned white a decade before, and the attendants at the nursing facility had just one day decided it wasn’t worth coloring her hair any more.

Alzheimer’s can only be proved via autopsy; it can’t be diagnosed with 100% certainty while the patient lives. My dad’s insurance company used that loophole to avoid covering a dime of the cost of the last ten year’s of my mother’s care.

After she died, after months had elapsed and my dad was still living among all her old things, my then-girlfriend and I volunteered to weed through my mother’s possessions, giving nearly everything to charity. In my mother’s desk drawer, we discovered a note she had written to herself at the onset of the disease, acknowledging that her mind was going. She feared the passage into darkness.

April 24th would have been my mother’s birthday. I think of her with some regularity. Sometimes I wish my mother could have lived to know my daughter, who is now seven. And sometimes I indulge the thought that somewhere, somehow, she does.

Accident

CAR JUST HIT ME as I was crossing street. Van carrying old people. Driver didn’t see me. Van struck my head. #


I punched door. Driver and passengers stared at me. Time slowed way down. I gestured for driver to pull over.#

Asked woman on street if I was bleeding. She said no. Told van driver to leave. He got out, walked over, insisted on seeing if I was ok. #

Black man, about 60. Told him I was good, merry Christmas. Shook his hand twice, nearly hugged him. Glad to be alive. #

Two hours later:

In ER with friend, getting checked after accident. #

No concussion, no spinal or brain injury, I’m very lucky. #


P.S. Having some back and arm pain today, nothing unexpected according to what the E.R. doc told me. Overwhelming feeling remains gratitude at being alive, although the feeling is more tempered now, not as giddy as it was immediately following the accident.

Cameron Diaz and Me

THE FIRST PART has long been known:

Saw Cameron Diaz on her way to the gym. I was wearing the shirt I’d slept in, walking my dog, holding a bag of shit.

Now, here’s the rest of the story:

My dog, a mangy old rescue Shih Tzu named Emile, had finished his business and was investigating a sidewalk gum wad. He loved sniffing filthy things on the street, and Midtown Manhattan was always happy to oblige. As was my routine, I monitored his activities closely, partly out of horrified fascination, and mainly to make sure he didn’t choke or poison himself.

Typically this activity required my full attention, or at least that part of my attention that wasn’t lost contemplating family and business anxieties, petty resentments, and the recollected snippets of imagery, music, and dialogue that pass for thought. But today, for some reason, I looked away as Emile tackled an apparently sumptuous abandoned cigarette filter. As if spellbound, my eyes crossed two streets to hone in on a couple that was briskly heading my way.

The man in the couple wore gym clothes, and seemed to be speaking quickly, with huge animated arm gestures. But it wasn’t the man who had made me look up from my dog’s debauchery.

At least a head taller than her companion, wearing skimpy gym clothes, the woman appeared athletic and radiant, even from this distance—too far away to see faces. Instead of moving on to discourage Emile from his sidewalk shenanigans, I stood rooted to the spot, waiting as the couple came closer and closer. A fancy gym was nearby, I knew—not from going there myself, but because a friend did, and it was a magnet for activity on this block.

As the couple came closer, the woman lost none of her allure, and I became self-conscious about staring. Not because I felt fat, old, dirty, and tired—a middle-aged man holding a bag of shit, walking an ailing Shih Tzu with a penchant for street turds and candy wrappers—but because it’s rude to stare. It’s rude to stare at the unfortunate: their hand-me-downs, their hopeless haunted eyes. It’s also rude to stare at the genetically blessed, the gorgeous, the toned, the fertile, famous, and wealthy. I still had not recognized Cameron Diaz, but she radiated fabulousness.

So I did what any eldest son raised by my late mother would do: as the couple came closer and closer, I focused my attention on the man. So as not to make the lady uncomfortable, you see. (From this fragment of mental DNA, you should be able to reconstruct me completely.)

So here they were, now on my block, now halfway up the block to me, now almost within arm’s reach.

And there I was, with my dog and my shit bag and my eyes firmly trained on the male half of the couple.

Who was either a gym buddy or personal trainer but definitely not a boyfriend, I gathered from their body language with respect to each other, and especially from his smiling quick speech and big sweeping arm gestures, which vibed “consultant meeting an important client” and perhaps Italian-American and maybe also gay. If I was right about that last bit, my staring at him for the past five minutes didn’t worry me, but it might be freaking him out. At any rate, that was my cover story to myself for what I did next.

For the couple was now an arm’s length away, about to pass out of my sight forever. And while I had been working hard to respect the lady by not telegraphing waves of hopeless lust, if I didn’t steal one more glance right now, I would never see her again, never even know what she really looked like up close.

My eyes slid toward her of their own accord, and as they landed, I saw that her smiling, knowing, superior but also playfully flirtatious eyes were locked on mine. She had been watching me studiously avoid looking at her, waiting for the inevitable collapse of my will, the moment when I could no longer resist. “Busted,” her eyes said. “You didn’t fool me for one minute. Yes, it’s me. Nice meeting you. Bye.”

And then, with a taunting but also pleasing smirk, she was gone. And two things hit me:

  1. That was Cameron Diaz.
  2. And she can read minds.

Our Jobs In Cyberspace: Craft Vocabulary vs. Storytelling

AFTER ALL THESE YEARS designing websites and applications, I still don’t think in words like “affordance.” And when my colleagues use a word like that, my mental process still clatters to a halt while I seek its meaning in a dusty corner of my brain. (When someone says “affordance,” there’s always a blank where thought stops, and then I see a mental image of a finger pushing a button or stroking a surface. Somehow that one image stands in for everything I know about what “affordance” means, and I’m able to jump back into the discussion and catch up with everyone else.)

Should you ask B.B. King if the lick he just played was in Lydian Mode, he could probably answer you after stopping to think about it. But after all these years playing blues guitar, B.B. King doesn’t say to himself, “I’m going to switch to a Lydian scale here,” he just plays blues. Scales and vocabulary are necessary when we are learning the craft behind our art. But the longer we practice, the more intuitive our work becomes. And as it becomes more intuitive, it disconnects further and further from language and constructs.

This is why young practitioners often argue passionately about theory while older practitioners tell stories and draw pictures.

Of course any practitioner, green or experienced, can create a word to describe the work we are inventing together, just as anyone, young or old, can have the next great idea. And it is most often the young who come up with exciting new ideas in UX and design and on the internet—possibly because they are still exploring theories and trying on identities, while those who work more intuitively may shut themselves off from the noise of new ideas, the better to perfect a long-term vision.

But the nice thing about the experience arc I’m proposing is that it allows younger practitioners to use words like “affordance” when working together to create a website or application (and soon we will stop distinguishing between those two things), while the older, storyteller practitioners use simpler, down-to-earth language to sell the work to clients, investors, or users.

We need both kinds of practitioners—theorists and those for whom everything has become intuitive second nature—just as we need both kinds of communication (craft vocabulary and storytelling) to do Our Jobs in Cyberspace.™ Don’t you think?

Where are you on this arc? Are you the kind of designer who gets fired up from reading a new theory? Or do you sketch and stumble in the dark, guided only by some Tinker Bell twinge in the belly that tells you no, no, no, no, hmm, maybe?

Migrating from a conventional Facebook account to a public figure (“fan”) page – a report from the trenches

BECAUSE FACEBOOK LIMITS USERS to 5,000 contacts, I had to migrate from a conventional user account to what used to be called a “fan” page and is now called an “Artist, Band or Public Figure” page. (Page, not account, notice.)

There’s a page on Facebook called “Create a Page” that is supposed to seamlessly migrate from a conventional user account to a public figure (aka “fan”) page.

The page says it will only migrate your connections—it will lose all your content, photos, apps, and so on—and Facebook means it. After migrating, all my stuff is gone. Years of photos, wall posts, blog posts, tweets, you name it. Even the “help” page link is gone once you’ve migrated, so you can’t refer to any help documentation to find out where all your stuff went and if any of it can be saved.

Custom URL breaks on migration

Because of an idiocy in the database, you can’t keep your existing custom URL, since, when you request it, Facebook tells you it is “taken.” My Facebook page was “jzeldman,” but that URL is “taken” by a fellow named “Jeffrey Zeldman,” so I can’t use it on my Jeffrey Zeldman page. So I had to change to a new URL (“JeffreyZeldman”) and now all my admin links (for instance at facebook.com/happycog) are broken, as they point to the old user page instead of the new fan page. At the very least, Facebook should seamlessly redirect from facebook.com/jzeldman (my old URL) to facebook.com/JeffreyZeldman (the new one), but it does not.

So all my other social media sites that point to the old Facebook account need to be updated by hand, and any third-party links will now be broken because Facebook doesn’t let you keep your custom URL during a migration.

Third-party apps disappear completely

Likewise, none of the third-party functionality (Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, RSS, and so on) has migrated from the user page to the fan page, and there is no information explaining how to reconnect these apps.

No reasonable app like the ones I’ve mentioned appears in the “apps” section of the sidebar on my new page. When I look for additional apps, I get treated to a bloated browse of crappy apps nobody on earth uses, whose creators probably made deals with Facebook in hopes that newbies would be persuaded to hook up these contraptions. You can find “PhotoMyButt” but not Flickr.

I, however, use Flickr.

So, since I can’t find it in the big dull browse, I resort to Facebook’s Apps’ “Search” box. Typing Flickr in that box is exciting. Instead of being taken to the Flickr apps on Facebook, I’m treated to endless redirects courtesy of a broken PHP script that loops infinitely forever suffering like Christ on the cross world without end amen while never actually resolving. Each new partial page that loads for an instant before being replaced by the next is undesigned and unbranded and contains only the sentence fragment, “Please stand by, redirecting…”

The devil will see you now.

So much for content

My photos are gone. My existing writing is gone. Facebook does seem to be migrating human beings who were “friends” on my old page, but nothing else works.

Oh my God, I can’t Admin my own page

I can’t Admin my new Facebook page because the “Admin” is “jzeldman” (me at the old account, which Facebook deleted). Perhaps this is why it’s impossible to post content, no apps work, etc. Nice.

Kids, don’t try this at home

All these bugs are probably known to Facebook, and there are probably nice people at Facebook whose job is to execute known secret internal workarounds when helping an actual “celebrity” migrate his or her page. I’m just guessing of course, but it stands to reason that Ashton K or Lady Gaga, if they want a Facebook page, probably don’t have to deal with all this frustrating brokenness. They have people for that.

But I don’t. I’m a web guy. And web stuff should just work.

Like and Friend are broken in Facebook.

I CANNOT LIKE Happy Cog’s new Facebook page, due to Facebook’s unexplained and arbitrary limitation on how many things a user is allowed to Like. In Facebook’s world, it seems I Like too many things, and that’s bad—even though a chief value of Facebook to advertisers is as a platform where users connect to brands by “Liking” them and encouraging their friends to Like them. Breaking the user/Like connection arbitrarily not only frustrates the user, it also runs counter to Facebook’s business model. Moreover, the vaguely worded error message is a lie. No matter how many things I remove from my pile of Likes, I still cannot Like anything new.

So the real problem may be that I have too many “friends” (i.e. colleagues, business contacts, actual friends, and family). I’m allowed 5000 and I have 5000. If you have 5000 friends, you can’t add more friends, because God forbid you help Facebook grow its network beyond an arbitrary cutoff point. Moreover, if you have 5000 friends, you apparently aren’t allowed to Like anything. You have to choose: friends or brands. Like anyone, I choose friends. As a result, I lose value to Facebook’s advertisers, whose products I can no longer Like. This inability to simultaneously Like people and things maps to nothing in the real world and makes no business sense, but here we are.

So Happy Cog has a Facebook page, and I founded Happy Cog, but I cannot like Happy Cog’s Facebook page. Even if I remove everything else I Like from my list of Facebook likes, I will still not be able to Like Happy Cog’s Facebook page, unless I start removing contacts, which I’m unwilling to do for obvious reasons.

If Facebook were an eager young startup, they would quickly fix this problem, which runs counter to all their business interests and is not based on any real system constraints. But, as we all know, Facebook is an insanely successful company, so they have no incentive to fix the things that are broken in their user experience.

I like Facebook. I don’t mind the brain-dead broken parts of Facebook; all web apps have broken, brain-dead parts. That’s what testing and user feedback are for: to find fix broken, brain-dead stuff. I hate, hate, hate thinking Facebook will never fix what is broken and brain-dead in its site used by half a billion people. Say “Amen,” somebody.

Pixy Stix | Jason Santa Maria

I wrote a true story of  love, obsession, heartbreak, and candy and my friend Jason Santa Maria art directed it. I’m proud of this tiny, fast-reading story, which is like condensed essence of me (and all these years later, nothing has really changed) and I love what Jason’s done with the page. Please enjoy Pixy Stix, the October 19th Candygram.

Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan

A half-century ago, Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods.

“There was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real.”

Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan, a photo essay by Mohammad Qayoumi


Icon: For Love of Barbie

When I was twenty, Barbie was a symbol of oppression with obvious food issues. No way would a future child of mine identify with that.

When I was twenty, “princess” was another word for “child of oppressor.” Monarchs went with pogroms and capitalists.

If I ever had a daughter, she would be one of the people. Or a leader of the people. Or an anarchist. Or most probably an artist. Art was problematic because it also went with corporate capitalism (when not going steady with poverty) but at least the few artists who made money disdained it, if only publicly.

Twenty wasn’t easy.


When I was twenty, when I considered bringing a child into this world of wrong, I pictured her enjoying organic produce and healthy ethnic cuisines.

Decades and chameleon lives later, I was married and we were expecting.

After our daughter was born, I suggested raising her vegetarian. It seemed wrong to feed an angel on the blood and limbs of slaughtered animals. Her mother said she’d go along with the vegetarian angle as long as I did the research and committed to preparing fresh, nutritionally balanced meals that supplied every nutrient our child would need.

So she eats meat.

Mostly she eats french fries.

She sometimes eats at McDonald’s. Also she eats candy and plays with Barbies. She says she is Barbie’s biggest fan. Soon after learning to say Dada and Mama, she asked if she was a princess. We said yes.


What used to be my elegant teakwood dining table is now the staging area for a Barbie apartment. The Barbie pool, Barbie camping van, and Barbie salon that comprise the “apartment” barely leave room for the Barbies, Stacies, and Kellys who make use of these facilities.

The princess turns six in September. She’s working on the party guest list and we’ve already decided on her birthday present: a Barbie house.

Barbie is now fifty. But fifty is the new 49. There’s a reason she’s stuck around all these decades. Turns out it has nothing to do with theory and everything to do with girls.


P.S. Hint to my people: when you go to barbie.com, enable Flash.