How my grandfather came to America

Harry

While my great grandfather hid in a rain barrel, a Ukrainian villager raped my great grandmother. Some time later, my grandfather was born.

He looked Ukrainian—so much so that he could slip away to the village, pass as a Christian child, and overhear the neighbors scheduling their next attack on the Jews. Then he would scamper back to the shtetl and let his parents know it was time to hide in the woods again.

My father and brother inherited the Ukrainian rapist’s good looks, and I inherited his thirst.

I first learned about the Ukrainian rapist last year, in the context of one of my father’s breakfast table reminiscences. My father mentioned it as if it were one of the old family stories—like the stories about my father’s childhood, or my mother’s father’s death in an airplane crash, or my parents’ marriage. I’ve been hearing those stories since I tasted milk, but the rapist in the family tree was news.

 

Perhaps because the boy’s face reminded him that he had failed to protect his wife, my great grandfather made a daily exercise of beating my grandfather.

He beat him in Ukraine, he beat him in steerage on the passage to America, he beat him in the new land. He only stopped beating him when my grandfather, with my great grandfather’s written consent, enlisted in the US Army at age fifteen to go fight the Huns.

 

The US government arranged to have my underage grandfather’s soldier’s pay sent directly to my great grandfather in America.

My grandfather might have thought World War I would be softer than life with Poppa, but if so, he was mistaken. He emerged from trench warfare with a plate in his head, a metal disk in his knee, and certified paranoid schizophrenic as a result of exposure to mustard gas, a chemical agent the civilized nations were using on each other’s soldiers.

When he emerged from the hospitals, the US government gave my grandfather a disability pension, and this time the money went to him. Armed with those small funds, a mentally ill poor man’s talent for the grift, and his striking handsomeness, he won my grandmother and produced two children, one of whom was my father.

In deference to tradition, my grandfather beat my father every day. He extended the tradition by also beating my grandmother.

That stopped when my father, still wearing his Navy uniform, returned from World War II and threw my grandfather out.

 

In the decades that followed, my grandfather would sometimes appear out of nowhere, creating emotional havoc in my parents’ house until my father gently put him on a train back to New York.

My grandfather married seven women that we know about, but none of the marriages stuck.

He gravitated to the Bowery and probably died there.

 

We last heard of him in the 1970s when I was in high school. Late one night, the phone rang. I answered. A New York cop told me he had picked up a deranged homeless man claiming to be my father’s father. Could we come pick him up?

We didn’t live in New York; my parents were out of town; as a minor watching my younger brother in my parents’ absence, I couldn’t travel to New York to fetch my grandfather. So I told the policeman that my father’s sister—my grandfather’s daughter—lived in the New York area and gave him her telephone number. Then, very politely, I hung up.

I had a bad feeling, like I should have done more, but what?

We never heard another word about my grandfather.

 

Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor

Launched today (my birthday), Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a $49.99 extension for Adobe Dreamweaver. It includes two major interfaces:

  1. The Web Validator validates your HTML and CSS and verifies the proper use of microformats, including hCard and hCalendar, for single pages or entire websites.
  2. The Web Standards Advisor checks for subtleties of standards compliance in nine different areas—everything from structural use of headings to proper ID, class, and <div> element use. Nonstandard practices are flagged and reported in the Dreamweaver Results panel for quick code correction. A full report with more details and suggested fixes is also generated.

How did it get here?

Over coffee in New Orleans last year, WebAssist’s Joseph Lowery and I chatted about a fantasy product that could improve the markup of even the most experienced front-end coder. The benefits were obvious. After all, better markup means lighter, faster web pages whose content is easier for search engines (and thus people) to find.

The product would look over your shoulder and notice things.

  • If you were using a class when you might be better off using an ID (and vice-versa), the fantasy product would cough gently and tell you.
  • If you skipped a heading level—say, if you had h4s and h6s but no h5 on your site—it would discreetly whisper in your ear.
  • If, on an old site (or sadly, on a new one) you used class names that were visual instead of semantic (i.e. class=”big_yellow_box” instead of class=”additional_info”), it would quietly let you know about it.

To me, this was a fantasy product, because so many of these things seem to require human judgement. I didn’t think programmers could develop algorithms capable of simulating that level of judgement. Joseph Lowery took my doubt as a challenge.

A year of collaborative back-and-forth later, Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a working 1.0 product.

How good is it?

I ran Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor on the four-year-old markup of this site’s current blog layout, and discovered embarrassing mistakes that don’t show up on validators. (I haven’t fixed those mistakes yet, by the way. For fun, or extra credit, see if you can figure out what they are.)

Then I ran the product on several new sites coded by some of the best CSS and markup people in the business, and found a surprising quantity of mistakes there, as well. Nobody’s perfect—not even the best coders.

Some of the errors the product found were mere errors of style, but were still worth correcting, if only to set a good example for those who view source on your sites. Other errors the product revealed could affect how easy it is for people to find a site’s content. Fixing such errors is a business necessity.

Some issues are purely judgement calls: is it okay to sometimes use <b> instead of <strong>? When is it perfectly fine to skip a heading level? To address those subtleties, there is a wiki where such topics are discussed, and “error” messages link to the relevant topics in the wiki, so you can click straight through to the online discussion.

Who is it for?

  • Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor will help beginning and intermediate coders write smarter, more compliant markup that makes site content easier to find.
  • It will help coders at any level (including expert) who use Dreamweaver as a primary web development tool, and who know about web standards but don’t spend all day thinking about them. Now you don’t have to—and you can still create leaner sites that work for more people, and whose content is easier to find.
  • Site owners might run the product on their site, to see how compliant it is and how findable their markup allows their content to be.

But what about many people reading this website, who write their XHTML and CSS by hand, and who rightfully consider themselves standardistas? That’s right. What about you?

You aren’t the primary customer, but you might find the product useful. I’m a hand-coder and always will be. I own Dreamweaver mainly because it comes with Adobe CS3 and CS4. Installing Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a no-brainer, and running it on my work (or that of people working for me) turns up enough surprises to more than justify the time and expense.

Plus, after you use it to clean up your own, small, embarrassing errors of markup, you can run it on your heroes’ websites and revel in their mere mortality.

Disclosing the obvious

Jeffrey Zeldman's Web Standards Advisor

Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a product. It is not a free product. At $49.99, it’s not terribly expensive, but it’s not free.

I have a small financial interest and a gigantic brand interest in it. If it’s a weak product, it reflects badly on me, my agency, my conference, my books, and possibly even the very category of web standards. I therefore have a huge stake in making sure it’s a good product—that it’s easy to use, meets real needs now, and evolves in response to customer feedback and the slow but steady evolution of standards. (XHTML 2? HTML 5? More microformats? Stay tuned.)

[tags]webstandards, advisor, dreamweaver, extension, markup, helper, assistant, webassist, zeldman[/tags]

An Event Apart redesigned

There’s a new aneventapart.com in town, featuring a 2009 schedule and a reformulated design. I designed the new site and Eric Meyer coded. (Validation freaks, only validator.nu is up to the task of recognizing the HTML 5 DOCTYPE used and validating against it; the validator.w3.org and htmlhelp.com validators can’t do this yet. Eric chose HTML 5 because it permits any element to be an HREF, and this empowered him to solve complex layout problems with simple, semantic markup. Eric, I know, will have loads more to say about this.)

Family branding concerns drove the previous design. Quite simply, the original An Event Apart site launched simultaneously with the 2005 redesign of A List Apart. Jason Santa Maria‘s stripped-down visual rethink was perfect for the magazine and is imitated, written about, and stolen outright to this day. It was a great design for our web magazine because it was created in response to the magazine’s content. It didn’t work as well for the conference because its design wasn’t driven by the kind of content a conference site publishes. But it was the right conference design for 2005 because the goal at that time was to create a strong brand uniting the long-running web design magazine with the new web design conference that sprang from it.

New goals for a new environment

In 2009, it’s less important to bolt the conference to the magazine by using the same layout for both: by now, most people who attend or have thought about attending An Event Apart know it is the A List Apart web design conference. What’s important in 2009 is to provide plenty of information about the show, since decisions about conference-going are being made in a financially (and psychologically) constricted environment. In 2005, it was enough to say “A List Apart has a conference.” Today more is needed. Today you need plenty of content to explain to the person who controls the purse strings just what you will learn and why a different conference wouldn’t be the same or “just as good.”

The redesign therefore began with a content strategy. The new design and new architecture fell out of that.

Action photos and high contrast

The other thing I went for—again, in conscious opposition to the beautifully understated previous design—was impact. I wanted this design to feel big and spacious (even on an iPhone’s screen) and to wow you with, for lack of a better word, a sense of eventfulness. And I think the big beautiful location images and the unafraid use of high contrast help achieve that.

Reinforcing the high contrast and helping to paint an event-focused picture, wherever possible I used action shots of our amazing speakers holding forth from the stage, rather than the more typical friendly backyard amateur head shot used on every other conference site (including the previous version of ours). I wanted to create excitement about the presentations these brilliant people will be making, and live action stage photos seemed like the way to do that. After all, if I’m going to see Elvis Costello perform, I want to see a picture of him onstage with his guitar—not a friendly down-to-earth shot of him taking out the garbage or hugging his nephews.

So that’s a quick overview of the redesign. The store is now open for all four shows and the complete Seattle show schedule is available for your viewing pleasure. I hope to see some of you in 2009 at our intensely educational two-day conference for people who make websites.

[tags]aneventapart, design, redesign, relaunch, webdesign, conference, events, HTML5, ericmeyer, zeldman[/tags]

Understanding web design, live on video

Now available on streaming video, Jeffrey Zeldman: Understanding Web Design — is a good quality 42:40 capture of my October 25, 2008 presentation at Gain: AIGA Business and Design Conference.

Author and Happy Cog founder Jeffrey Zeldman answers the question: what does a web designer need most? Skills and knowledge of software, of course, but empathy—the ability to think about and empathize with your user—is by far the most important. Good useful education is hard to find, and within companies there is often no departmental standardization. Good graphic design is not the same as good user experience design, he explains. In fact, “good web design is invisible”—it feels simple and authentic because it’s about the character of the content, not the character of the designer.

In addition to the streaming video, a surprisingly accurate PDF transcription is available, along with a downloadable copy of my slides. (The typeface is Joshua Darden’s Jubilat.)

[tags]AIGA, GAIN, Gain:AIGA, Zeldman, design, presentation, video, webdesign[/tags]

Pick a Panel

The SXSW panel picker launched today. SXSW Interactive is probably the world’s biggest web shebang, and the panel picker is how the festival begins winnowing out which panels, out of the many submitted, will actually be presented to the public.

A few potential panels feature Happy Cog personnel:

From Freelance to Agency: Start Small, Stay Small

Jeffrey Zeldman

The web has always attracted mavericks and entrepreneurs, and a rocky economy makes the freelance life more desirable (or at least more inevitable) than ever. So what happens when your freelance business starts to grow? How big can you get without getting bad? How can freelancers and small teams compete with traditional agencies? Hip freelancers and cool agency heads will answer questions, compare experiences, and tell their stories.

Not the Same Old Story

Jason Santa Maria

If the web provides so many ways to connect with audiences, why are we all stuck telling the same story with our designs? Hear from a panel of storytelling experts on the importance of narrative and art direction online to break away from static and boring experiences.

Web Triage: Methodical Madness

Shaun Inman (featuring Ethan Marcotte & Dan Mall)

The web is always evolving—but not quite fast enough for dream-big designers and developers. Join our chief residents as they share their methods for developing groundbreaking techniques. They’ll also demonstrate how to identify your own unique strengths and apply them to technical- and design-related problems.

[tags]sxsw, panels, happycog, zeldman[/tags]

Lower East Side Lit

Monday, July 28, at 7:00 PM, in the company of my fellow field testers, I’ll be giving a reading at Coudal Partners’s Field Tested Books Live. Join us on the rooftop of the Delancey at 168 Delancey Street, New York, NY 10002 (map). Admission is free.

Scheduled readers:

  • Ben Greenman
  • Liz Danzico
  • Steven Heller
  • Ron Hogan
  • Matt Linderman
  • Randy Cohen
  • Randy J. Hunt
  • Debbie Millman
  • John Gruber
  • Jon Parker
  • Andy Ross
  • Jason Santa Maria
  • Maud Newton
  • Michael Surtees
  • Michael Bierut
  • Scott Korb
  • Mike Sacks
  • Pitchaya Sudbanthad
  • Jeffrey Zeldman

[tags]fieldtested, coudal, delancey, zeldman, live, readings[/tags]

What happened here

It’s been a month for milestones.

On May 31, my site turned 13 years old.

On June 7, making the previous milestone and all others possible, I had 15 years without a drink or drug.

On Saturday June 28, Carrie and I celebrated five years of marriage by hiring a babysitter, eating a meal, and bumming around the east village.

Between these landmarks came a flight to Pittsburgh and back-to-back train trips from New York to Washington DC, and Boston.

In the last-named burg we put on a two-day design conference for people who make websites.

At home during this same period, our daughter outgrew last month’s clothes, began swimming, got a big-girl bed, attended and graduated summer camp, stopped being even slightly afraid of school, hung out with her grandma, and advanced so much intellectually and emotionally that it would qualify as science fiction if it weren’t the lived experience of ’most everyone who has kids.

Between all that came the usual tumult of client meetings, client projects, and potential new business, giddily intermingled with the publication of two A List Apart issues. Make that three issues as of tomorrow.

Been busy.

If I had to pick an image to symbolize the month, it would be me on a rerouted slow Amtrak train from Boston to New York, using an iPhone and one finger to peck out a strategic response to an 80 page RFP.

That would have been the image, but now there’s a new one. For now there’s today.

On the calendar it is Happy Cog New York’s moving day. Today I pack up what for 18 years was either my apartment or Happy Cog’s New York City headquarters (and was most often both).

I hit bottom in this place. Ended a short-lived, tragically wrong first marriage. Rebuilt my life one cell at a time. Found self. Found love. Became a web designer. Found the love of my life. Married well, had a magical child. Wrote two books. Made money and lost it a couple of times over. Founded a magazine. Co-founded a movement. Worked for others. Freelanced. Founded an agency. Grew it.

It all happened here.

This gently declining space that has been nothing but an office since December and will soon be nothing at all to me, this place I will empty and vacate in the next few hours, has seen everything from drug withdrawal to the first stirrings of childbirth. Happiness, anguish, farting and honeymoons. Everything. Everything but death.

Even after our family moved, the place was never empty. The heiress to an American fine art legacy came here, to this dump, to talk about a potential project. Two gentlemen who make an extraordinary food product came here many times to discuss how their website redesign was going.

When I wasn’t meeting someone for lunch, I went downstairs to this wonderful little place to take away a small soup and a sandwich, which I ate at my desk while reading nytimes.com. Helming the take-away lunch place are three Indian women who are just the sweetest, nicest people ever. The new studio is just far enough away that I will rarely see these ladies any more. I will miss them.

I will miss Josef, the super here, with his big black brush mustache and gruff, gently-East-European-accented voice. He will miss me, too. He just told me so, while we were arranging for the freight elevator. We were kind to him after his heart attack and he has been kind to us since he arrived—the last in a long series of supers caught between an aging building and a rental agent that prefers not to invest in keeping the place up. The doormen and porters, here, too, some of whom I’ve known for nearly twenty years, my God. Can’t think about that.

I will miss being able to hit the gym whenever I feel like it and shower right in my workplace.

And that is all.

This is the death of something but it is the birth of something more. We take everything with us, all our experiences (until age robs us of them one by one, and even then, they are somewhere—during the worst of my mother’s Alzheimer’s, she reacted, however subtly, to Sinatra). We take everything with us. The stink and glory of this place will stay on me even when we are set up in our slick new space. It will be with me long after the landlord’s collection letters have stopped. This place, what happened here, will live until my head cracks like a coconut, and then some.

And now I pre-pack. Adieu, adieu.

[tags]happycog, moves, moving, newyork, NYC, design, webdesign, alistapart, wedding, anniversary, zeldman, zeldman.com, 5years, 13years, 15years[/tags]

Hope is the daughter of dawn

Awake at 4:30 AM at the end of a four-day heat wave. Sweating, but not from the weather. Running a business during a recession gets you out of bed with the chickens.

I have always moved counter to my time. I started Happy Cog as the dot-com boom went bust. We bought our first home in December 2007, as the U.S. mortgage crisis flared to full incandescence. And as the U.S. falls into economic narcolepsy, Happy Cog New York and Happy Cog Philadelphia are moving to newer, bigger, better, more beautiful, more perfectly located, and more expensive offices.

By daylight I hustle and count my blessings. We retire early, tired and contented. But at the first pale light of dawn, I’m awake and wired and already on the mental treadmill.

This morning as I lay there fretting over design and personnel questions, I heard our daughter cry out. I was at her side a moment later. She was dreaming; dreaming about bath time. Talking in her sleep, she gave voice to her nightmare:

“No, Mama, no hair wash. Let me skip it, Mama.”

I put my hand on her shoulder and told her she could skip the hair wash, and she instantly subsided to calm sleep.

[tags]glamorous, myglamorouslife, recession, work, sleeplessness[/tags]