I dreamed David Byrne had moved to a small town in Iowa. At first, I wondered why. But then I saw that he’d persuaded all the town folk to participate in a never-ending surreal parade:
Facing backwards, a white man dressed as Uncle Sam, complete with stilt-elongated legs, cheerfully pedaled a strange bicycle. A black woman in flashing platform sneakers walked gracefully on a musically undulating wall.
As I dollied up and back, I saw hundreds of these unpaid amateur performers, widely separated yet somehow acting in unison, performing purely for David Byrne’s pleasure—each in their own ecstatic trance.
Each townsperson had their own strangely perfect costume, invention, and task. The choreography extended for miles in all directions.
“In New York or Hollywood, this would cost millions,” I thought.
Not only had David Byrne charmed an entire town into performing these tightly choreographed rituals that only he understood, but he was also inventing new alphabets and designing typefaces to go with them. Of course.
This work was secret, and he performed it in a tiny darkroom, but somehow I either gained his confidence or sneaked up quietly behind him while his attention was focused on the large sheets on which he was creating his new visual language.
His typefaces were composed of oversized, organically curving black dots, and they were wonderful. I reached out my hand to touch them.
I DREAMED I was designing an identity system for the mad scientist Dr Moreau, who kept changing his ridiculously long theme line after I’d arranged the type. “No, no, no! I’m not saving life, I’m creating it!”
ALL I REMEMBER from my dream is flushing a red towel down the toilet. It was evidence of some crime. There was a moment of horror, midway through, when it seemed that the towel would get jammed in the pipe, requiring the services of a plumber—whom I would then have to kill, because he knew too much.
IN MY DREAM I was designing sublime new publishing and social platforms, incandescent with features no one had ever thought of, but everybody wanted.
One of my platforms generated pages that were like a strangely compelling cross between sophisticated magazine layouts and De Stijl paintings. Only, unlike De Stijl, with its kindergarten primary colors, my platform synthesized subtle color patterns that reminded you of sky and water. Anyone – a plumber, a fishmonger – could use the tool to immediately create pages that made love to your eyes. In the hands of a designer, the output was even richer. Nothing on the web had ever touched it.
Then the dream changed, and I was no longer the creator. I was a sap who’d been off sniffing my own armpits while the internet grew up without me. A woman I know was using the platform to create magazines about herself. These weren’t just web magazines, they were paper. And they weren’t just paper. In the middle of one of her magazines was a beautiful carpet sample. The platform had designed the carpet and woven it into the binding of the printed magazine. I marveled at her output and wished I had invented the platform that allowed her to do these things. Not only was I no longer the creator, I seemed to be the last sap on earth to even hear about all these dazzling new platforms.
Then I was wandering down an endless boardwalk, ocean on my right, a parade of dreary seaside apartment buildings on my left. Each building had its own fabulous content magazine. (“Here’s what’s happening at 2171 Oceanfront Walk.”) The magazines appeared on invisible kiosks which revealed themselves as you passed in front of each building. The content, created by landlords and realtors, was so indifferent as to be unreadable. But this did not matter a bit, because the pages so dazzled in their unholy beauty that you could not look away. Every fool in the world had a meaningless publication which nobody read, but which everyone oohed and ahed at as they passed. And I — I had nothing to do with any of it. I was merely a spectator, a chump on a tiresome promenade.
I DREAMED that my friend Jason Santa Maria took a job at a popular new startup that had exploded onto the world scene seemingly overnight. A fascinating visual interface was largely responsible for the popularity of the company’s new social software product. It was like a Hypercard stack that came toward you. A post full of exciting social significance just for you would appear in a self-contained deck with rounded corners. The next post would pop up on top of the first. The next, on top of that one. And so on. In my dream, people found this back-to-front pop-up effect thrilling for some reason.
Having imagined the interface, I next dreamed that I went to visit the startup. There were so many cubicles, so many shiny people running around, holding morning standups and singing a strange company song, that I could not locate my friend Jason’s desk. Someone grabbed me and told me the founder wanted to see me.
THE FOUNDER was an ordinary looking white guy in his late twenties. I was surprised that he wore beige chinos with a permapress crease. With all the TV and newspaper hubub around his product, I guess I’d expected a more stylish and charismatic presence.
The founder told me he was concerned because his mother, apparently a cofounder or at least an officer of the company, was of the belief that I had contempt for their product and disliked her personally. I assured him that I liked the product. Further, I had never met his mother, never read or heard a word about her, and felt only goodwill toward her, as I bear toward all people in the abstract. I don’t hate people I don’t know.
“It would be cool if you told mom that yourself,” he said. And suddenly two assistants were whisking me off to speak to her directly.
THE AUDITORIUM-SIZED waiting room outside the founder’s mother’s office was filled with at least a thousand people who had come to talk to her before me. They seemed to have been waiting for hours. There was an air of boredom and rapidly thinning patience, mixed with excitement and the kind of carnival atmosphere that surrounds things that blow up suddenly in the press. It felt like the jury selection room for a celebrity murder case. Only much, much bigger.
The two assistants escorted me to the very front of the auditorium, to an empty row of seats abutting the door to the founder’s mother’s private office. “Special treatment,” I thought. I was thrilled to be cutting to the front of the line, apparently as a result of the founder’s directive to his assistants. The front row chairs were reversed, facing back to the rest of the auditorium, so I was put in the somewhat uneasy position of staring out at the mass of people who had been waiting to see the founder’s mother since long before I arrived.
After a while, Ian Jacobs of the W3C was brought to the front of the room and seated near me.
We waited as other people were shown into the founder’s mother’s presence.
AFTER FIVE or six hours of drowsy waiting, I realized that the room was set up to mirror the software’s interface: people from the very back of the auditorium were first in line, and were shown into the founder’s mother’s presence first. Gradually, the hall of applicants emptied from the back to the front. Those of us in the very front of the line were actually the last people of all who would be admitted to the holy presence. It was a smart marketing touch that apparently permeated the company: everything real people did in the building in some way echoed the characteristics of the software interface — from the end of the line coming first, to the way the rounded conference tables echoed the shapes of individual news posts in the software’s back-to-front news deck.
What a smart company, I thought. And what a good joke on me, as I continued to sit there forever, waiting to see someone I’d never met, who held a baseless grudge against me, which it would one day be my task to talk her out of.
I dreamed that my friend R__ turned into a giant, invisible duck.
His only hope lay with a mystical lady doctor.
While she worked on a magical cure, he stayed hidden in a small safe house. A matched group of wooden advertising collectibles from the 1930s—curly-haired girls and kittens with bows in their fur—decorated the front parlor. The figurines had once been bright red, but the red had faded to pink over the decades, and the paint was peeling.
The giant, invisible duck waited and waited for the mystical lady doctor to effect a cure.
One day, the invisible duck left the safe house and found himself waddling toward a grand part of town that seemed oddly familiar.
His mind was going, becoming a duck-brain.
As he waddled, he thought, I put my foot here, I put my foot there, I put my foot here, I put my foot there.
Meanwhile, not far from where the duck found himself heading, the mystical lady doctor was inside one of R___’s beautiful houses, exploring the place with the pleased attitude of a potential inheritor.
Her male assistant was with her. He wore Operating Room scrubs and an expression of gravest concern.
“What are we doing here?” said the assistant. “We shouldn’t be here, this is R__’s house. We should be back in the lab, working on that cure.”
“Oh, there is no cure,” said the mystical lady doctor. “He’s going to stay a duck. Eventually he’ll become visible, and he’ll forget that he was a man.”
“What? How long have you known this?”
“I’ve always known it,” said the doctor, examining the china.
“Then why are we taking his money? Why are we leading him on?”
“We’re not leading him on,” she said. “We’re giving him hope.”
And she began quietly counting the spoons.
A few blocks away, the throng of pedestrians had come to a standstill, awed by the rich neighborhood’s architecture. Here tall apartment buildings rose nearly to the sun. They were made of red brick and the giant Roman arches at their bases were carefully matched, creating the effect of a planned environment.
A standing crowd was bad news for a giant, invisible duck, so R__ left the mobbed crossroads and waddled down a small side street that soon became a garden path. There was something familiar about the path, something he ought to remember, but his man-mind was fading. I put my foot here, I put my foot there, I put my foot here, I put my foot there.
Suddenly, around the corner of a large, beautiful house, two human beings appeared and bumped into him.
Everyone, including the duck, screamed in terror and surprise.
The duck recovered first.
“Doctor,” he said, “it’s me, R__. What are you doing here?”
“Oh, you gave me such a start! It’s dangerous for you to be out of the safe house. Come back with me.”
“But, where are we? What are you doing here?”
“Nowhere, nothing, come.”
The duck looked at the assistant, whose face was a mask of poorly concealed guilt. And suddenly he knew where he was.
“This is his house,” the duck said. “My house,” he corrected himself. “This is my house.”
“Your house? Of course it’s your house. We were watering the plants and checking your mail,” the doctor said, recovering. “We’ve been paying your bills, so when you resume your human life, you won’t have angry creditors at the door.” And she smiled with brilliant kindness.
Her words made the duck feel warm and safe, but then he looked again at the assistant, and suddenly he knew everything.
“You’ve been lying to me,” the duck said. “You’re not even trying to help me. You want my property! I won’t stand for this.”
We call ourselves web designers, but sometimes we are more than that. Sometimes we get to participate, in however small a way, in something much larger and more important than ourselves.
Started in 1990 by four members of ACT UP, Housing Works helps people who are homeless and have HIV or AIDS. Housing Works not only saves lives, it restores dignity, purpose, and hope to those whom society has cast aside. Happy Cog is honored and humbled to have worked with this amazing organization and to announce the relaunch of the Housing Works website, redesigned by Happy Cog.
Our thanks to Housing Works’s Christopher Sealey and his team—we bow endlessly in your direction, sir. And my thanks and commendation to the amazing people at Happy Cog who did the work:
I’m still having medical problems, and at 4:00 AM I awoke in pain.
The nightmare that woke me concerned a town called Gale, Kansas.
It was a town for young murderesses and their parents.
If your child had killed another child, your family would be relocated to Gale, to start a new life under an assumed name.
There were no Holiday Inns in Gale. Tourism was not merely discouraged, it was disallowed. A visitor stopping at the town’s filling station would be subtly encouraged to drive on.
Of course, nobody from the outside world knew the secret of Gale. Nobody knew but the parents and children who lived there.
I remember thinking “murderess” was unnecessarily sex-specific and overly harsh. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe your kid hadn’t meant to push that other kid. Maybe she’d meant to push but not to kill. Maybe she had no idea what kill even meant.
Hopefully you had more than one kid. That way nobody would be sure which was the murderer.
The parents of the town accepted each other and each other’s families because everyone shared the same tragedy. But there was never trust.
The town had a library, but no newspaper collection. Internet use was monitored to prevent the curious from learning specifics about each other’s crimes.
As they grew up, the children were encouraged to date each other, to marry, to stay in the town.
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.
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.
Early this morning, in my last deep sleep, I was tormented by a nightmare concerning our three-year-old. In my dream, she was chasing some happy bauble. Call it a big floating bubble filled with sunshine. The bubble blew out of the park. She ran after it. I ran after her.
The bubble floated above a big street filled with speeding cars. I called her name and shouted stop, but she did not hear me or would not listen. Giggling and burbling, all young enthusiasm for the chase, she ran into the street of speeding cars. I ran into it after her.
The pursuit continued, block after block. The oblivious bubble. The excited child, dashing into street after street of speeding cars. Me behind, never able to catch up, never able to protect her, never able to make her stop.
The area above Madison Square Park in Manhattan is in a condo- building frenzy. Of course all of Manhattan (and Brooklyn and Queens) is in a condo-building frenzy. But above Madison Square Park there is a particularly feverish keenness to the activity, as the glamor of the Flatiron District moves north to a zone that was formerly best known for its gaudy wig and cheap lingerie wholesalers.
The richie rich are buying, and who can blame them? Proximity to Madison Square Park and the chic shops south of 23rd Street makes for an elegance that is almost Parisian—or at least suggests the possibility of such a way of life.
Huge signs affixed to newly rising high-rises and condo converted prewar office buildings trumpet the glory of living here. But there are other signs, as well.
Barely noticed in the builders’ gold rush, the poorest poor, pushed off the benches of Madison Square Park, take shelter in the very construction sites that signify their doom. When this building is finished, the rich will sleep here. ‘Til then, it’s the poor who do so. And what do they dream?
“It’s becoming a bedroom community for people who work on Wall Street,” the Wife says of our beloved Manhattan. While the housing market everywhere else incurs gangrene, prices here are sky-high and climbing. A new condo goes up every three seconds and an angel does not get his wings.
When I moved to New York City in 1988, it was possible to find a rent-stabilized apartment in the East Village, Kips Bay, and plenty of other places—to live an artist’s life, or a drunkard’s, while securing a semblance of middle class security and stability. People moved here to pursue music careers, acting careers, writing careers, anything that didn’t pay. Some even painted. They could live here indefinitely while the market ignored their talent.
Today the city is cleaner and safer, but a small one-bedroom in an indifferent neighborhood costs over a million dollars. It’s not just the poor and the old who are getting priced out. Not just the working class. Not even just the middle class. New York is still a melting pot, but its ingredients are changing as the city squeezes out all but the richest rich.
Brooklyn is where many families have moved and many creative people with or without families are moving, but Brooklyn’s prices are no better. You get a little more space for the same obscene truckload of cash, and you pay for it in subway mileage.
Any reasonable person who does not already own a place and is not fabulously wealthy would catch the first bus out of town and not look back. But if Osama bin Laden could not chase us off this island, neither will the lesser abomination of insanely high and continuously escalating housing prices.
Throwing our first stake in the ground, we have enrolled our daughter in a fine preschool. And when the newly-out-of-rent-stabilization but still-below-market rental lease I have ridden since 1990 finally ends next year, we intend to buy. Don’t ask me how we’ll do it. I only know that we will.
Which brings me to God and the knocking sound.
I awoke this morning to a quiet, insistent, knocking, high-pitched and hollowly wooden—as if a tiny woodpecker were signaling from the back of our bedroom’s bookshelves.
(I actually awoke to our little dog’s barking, something he never does. He also peed twice on the floor, something else he never does. And threw up all over our gorgeous white Flokati rug. But that isn’t part of the God story.)
When a person who has not been particularly spiritual enters a spiritual program, odd things begin happening. Atheists call these things coincidences. For instance, an addict in a big city fearfully attends his first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Chairing the meeting is the guy with whom he first bought dope. Programs like NA and AA are rife with such incidents.
The Wife is in a very different sort of program, but it is spiritual, and it concerns really living your life. Yesterday in that program, she and a friend focused on the notion of our owning a home, even though it seems impossible here. Before bed last night, she said we could start the process of finding a home by taking an action as simple as reading Home Buying For Dummies.
So this morning, there is this knocking sound. It’s not coming from the bureau. It’s not coming from the desk. It’s not electrical. There’s no big truck out on the street causing the windowpanes to rattle. The sound is insistent. We cannot localize its source or account for it logically.
Doors cover part of a bookshelf. Searching for the source of the sound, the Wife opens the doors. Out falls a book: Home Buying For Dummies.
And as she picks up the book, we both notice that the sound has stopped.