My Glamorous Life: The True Story of My Thanksgiving

TRAVELED 1400 miles to end up in the same place.

Flew my daughter Ava from NYC Laguardia to Chicago Midway in the morning so she could spend Thanksgiving with her mom. To expedite boarding, Southwest Airlines does not assign seats, and there is only one class—Coach. The sooner you board, the better your chance of securing a decent seat; the more you pay for your ticket, the better your boarding position.

Additionally, line position depends on how quickly you check in online the day before your flight. Check in the first moment you can, and you’ll be first in line. Check in a minute later, and someone else may be in front of you. Hours later, you’re at the end of the line.

I love a pointless challenge. You can bet I’d set alarms to go off 24 hours before our flight so I could be the first to check in. And you know Ava and I were at the front of the line, so we could sit in the front row. I love an aisle seat, but I sat in the middle so Ava could sit by the window. It’s the little things that give you the chance to show someone how much you love them.

Southwest got us to Chicago 40 minutes early. Ava’s mom kindly met us at the gate, and off they went. I turned around to go home. My flight back to Laguardia was not scheduled to leave for another four and a half hours, but Southwest let me switch to an earlier flight with no penalty. There was just enough time to suck down some rice and beans at a fast food burrito stand in the airport’s food court—my first meal of the day—and dash to the gate in time for boarding. I flew back to New York on the same jet I’d flown in on, with the same crew, and sat in the same row: aisle seat this time.

Back home by 3:00, I fed the cats, watched “Jaws” on my iPad (somehow I’d never seen it), and fell asleep during the climactic fight to the death that ends the picture. Hours later, I woke up, confused, and made myself the traditional feast: leftover tofu on quinoa.

And that’s the true story of my Thanksgiving.

Follow me @zeldman. A version of this article appears on Medium.

A Lucky Fella

YESTERDAY I took a bath. Doesn’t sound like much, but it was quite a treat.

I’m staying in a hotel room in Chicago, and there’s a tub here.

I have a tub at home but can never use it, because Snow White, our infantile rescue cat, who wasn’t fully weaned as a kitten, is always sh*tting in our bathtub and p*ssing on our bathroom floor. She has a litter box, and I keep it clean, but that doesn’t matter to her.

Because she was not weaned, she goes through the motions of an adult cat without understanding what they mean—like a Catholic reciting Mass before Vatican II. For instance, after she p*sses on the floor, she bats sand from the litter box all over the floor as well. She knows that sand batting follows p*ssing. She just doesn’t know why. It’s clear to me that her mother tried to teach her how to use a litter box, but she was taken away before the lesson stuck.

To keep our tub at home somewhat clean, I plug it and keep it filled with water. Since cats don’t like water, Snow White refrains from jumping into the tub and sh*tting in it. But the tub is always filled with cold water, which grows dirty over time. You’d think I could drain the tub and bathe in it. But, no.

The tub is hard to plug. Most times, the plug doesn’t work. If I unplug the drain to run a fresh bath, the plug won’t re-plug … water drains silently from the tub, and, while I sleep my innocent sleep, Snow White hops back into the tub and fills it with sh*t. The aromatic, meaty sh*t of cats.

The only way to stop her is to keep the tub plugged and never ever use it. If I think about this, it’s such an overwrought metaphor for so many blocked things in my life, I could scream and never stop.

Instead, I take baths in hotels, when I can, and count myself a lucky fella.

My Glamorous Life: Crossing the Continent

The Edgewater Hotel, Seattle, Washington.

RAINY MORNING IN NYC. Put my kid, my ass, and my suitcase in an Uber. Dropped Ava at school, then crawled to JFK via every emergency-vehicle-blocked thoroughfare Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens had to offer. The roads were all rain and sirens and nobody getting anywhere.

From JFK, flew across the country to surprisingly sunny Seattle. Now ensconced at the Edgewater, the Robert Mitchum of hotels. Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, it sits at the end of a pier over Puget Sound, perpetually threatening to drown itself, but somehow never going through with it.

The rooms are small, but many face the water. Some boast crow’s-foot tubs and windows over the water. Others, smaller and tub-less, make up for it with a sliding glass door to a tiny patio above the water. Mine is the latter type, and my sliding door is flung wide. Gulls caw and ships pass as I rehearse my AEA presentation and catch up on work.

I brought a sketchbook with me (it was a gift from Ava), and gave Ava a sketchbook before I left. We will draw while we’re apart, and compare drawings when I return to NYC.

Looking forward to seeing friends I’ve not seen in months, and to putting on our first AEA show of the year!

A Saint Patrick’s Day to remember

WHEN my daughter Ava was much younger—about seven—I took her to Toys R Us in Times Square one Saturday that was also Saint Patrick’s Day. You couldn’t ask for a more chaotic location and crowd. After stocking up on a sufficient number of Barbie accessories (Ava was in a girly phase at the time), we headed out of the store and toward home.

It was a hot March that year. Unseasonably sweltering. The streets were unwalkable—thickly thronged with drunks and tourists—and there were no cabs to be seen. So we ended up hiring a bike rickshaw to take us home. I’d recently done the same thing in Austin, where the ride cost $10. The sign on the New York rickshaw also said $10. Unfortunately, it meant $10 per city block—as I discovered to my cost, and horror, upon trying to exit when we finally reached our destination.

But the ludicrous overcharge was worth it, because the trip created a memory.

Ava is half Irish Catholic and Bohemian on her mother’s side, half Ukranian and Russian Jewish on my side. At the time, she identified Irishness with her mother’s qualities, such as intelligence, warmth, and elegance. She did not know that Saint Patrick’s Day in major U.S. cities is mainly an excuse for high school and college students from out of town to come fall down drunk in the street.

As our rickshaw driver pedaled his way to the bank, we passed wave after wave of staggering, shouting, woohooing greenclad coeds, accompanied by slightly less inebriated predator dates. The women shrilled “hey” at us. They stumbled into the crosswalk. They vomited between parked cars and then made out with their companions.

Hammering down 38th Street in the shuddering rickshaw, Ava got up on her hind legs. “You’re a disgrace to the Irish!” she shouted.

A drunken collegiate, making eye contact with the child while not necessarily understanding her words, shouted, “Woo-hoo!” and belched.

I think of it every Saint Patrick’s Day in New York. The righteously indignant little girl, the sweating Asian immigrant bicyclist, and the sea of drunken adolescents out of Trenton and Staten.

Mainly I think whimsically of those words. “You’re a disgrace to the Irish!”

Do Not Go Gentle into that iTunes Store

AT HOME, sick with a cold and bored, my daughter buys a single packet of “My School Dance” in a freemium iTunes game. The manufacturer charges her (well, charges me) for ten packets. This same “accidental” 10x overcharge happens across three different games by the same manufacturer in the span of about an hour.

American Express notifies me of the spurious charges, but won’t let me dispute them until they are “posted.” I spend half an hour on the phone with a very nice gentleman at Amex learning this. Why would Amex notify customers about a charge days before they can do anything to resolve it? I don’t know. And I don’t ask the gentleman on the phone. His job is hard enough.

A few days pass. Amex “posts” the false charges and emails me with a link to resolve the problem on Amex’s “dispute a charge” web service.

Amex’s “dispute a charge” web service “encounters an error” when I try to use it to resolve the problem.

This happens every time I try. I try for three days.

So I call Amex, but I can’t resolve the problem because I don’t have the card in my wallet.

So I head to iTunes, where I should have gone in the first place, and click through two or three generations of iTunes “Report a Problem” interfaces: visually different generations of iTunes software, with different user paths, all still being served by Apple. Generations of iTunes software that, when they fail, link to other generations of iTunes software, which also fail.

I click and click my way through five years of iTunes interfaces.

Finally I find an iTunes page where I can manually “Report a problem” for each of the 27 false charges. (Three of the charges, remember, were legitimate. I’m willing to pay for the three items my daughter intended to buy. But not 30.)

If one software product overcharges your kid by a multiple of 10, that could be a software bug. When three products from the same manufacturer all do it, that’s not a bug, it’s a deliberate attempt to defraud families, by overcharging on purpose and hiding behind the opacity of iTunes’s purchase reporting. Simply put, the manufacturer is dishonest, and figures iTunes’s support section is impenetrable enough that you’ll eventually give up trying to get a refund.

But they didn’t count on my tenacity. I’m the Indiana Jones of this motherfucker. I have studied maps and bribed natives and found my way to the hidden iTunes refund page that actually, sometimes, works.

On this page, I inform Apple of the fraud 27 times, in 27 different boxes. Each time, after reporting, I click a blue button, which generally returns an error message that iTunes was unable to process my request. So I enter the data and click the button again. It’s only 27 boxes of shit. I’ve got all the time in the world.

The page tells me that only two refunds went through. Every other request ends with an error message saying iTunes could not process my request, and encouraging me to try again later.

Instead, I leave the page open, and, about ten minutes later, I manually reload it. When I do so, the display updates—I guess this generation of iTunes software preceded “Ajax”—and I learn that most of my refunds have gone through.

So the software actually works about 33% of the time, even though it indicates that it only works 5% of the time. Remember that wait-ten-minutes-then-randomly-reload-to-see-if-anything-changed trick. It’s the sign of excellently designed consumer software.

I’ve put over two hours of my time into this. Going on billable hours, I’ve probably lost money, even if I get all my overcharges refunded. But there’s a principle here. Several principles, actually. Tricking kids is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Building a beautiful front-end but neglecting customer service is wrong. Mainly, I’ve just had enough of 2016’s bullshit.

Fuck you, 2016.


Also published in Medium.

From climate change to Swedish hip hop

Peyo AlmqvistI SPENT yesterday with my Swedish friend Pär (“Peyo”) Almqvist, who returned from LA Sunday morning and headed home to Sweden Sunday night. We met in Stockholm in 1999, when Peyo was 19, and have been close ever since. In 2000, Peyo wrote “Fragments of Time” for A List Apart. Reading it, you can see how thoughtful he is as a creative person.

A few years ago, Peyo cofounded OMC Power, a start-up that brought affordable solar power to rural villages in India—profoundly poor villages where, until that time, folks had relied on dirty gasoline-powered generators to get what little electricity they could.

National Geographic TV covered OMC’s work just this week in their special, “Years of Living Dangerously;” in the video clip on their site, you can watch David Letterman interview one of Peyo’s co-founders about what they’ve accomplished so far, and why it matters.

Letterman went to India to cover the threat of climate change and what’s being done to fight it. OMC Power is providing clean energy and a model for India to electrify itself without adding to the pollution that contributes to climate change. OMC started in India because folks in India needed the power and therefore welcomed them; and also because, by working with small rural villages, they encountered less violent opposition from the oil companies than they would have if they had attempted the experiment in Europe or North America. When the power grid fails in the west, folks in India will still have power—an irony of developed nations’ dependence on dirty fossil fuels.

In a time when so many of us feel helpless about climate change, and others, at the behest of corporate masters, cynically deny that it exists, it is good to know people who are making a difference and earning a living in doing so.

While Peyo remains an advisor to OMC Power, he has since co-founded a music startup, which I can’t talk about yet, but which I believe will meet real a need in music and may even change how some music gets made. (Like me, Peyo has a musical background, although, unlike me, as a producer and composer he has had hits in Sweden.)

It was his new music start-up music business that brought Peyo to New York and LA during the past week. I missed the chance to spend the week with him as I was in San Francisco doing the final AEA conference of 2016. It was great to spend a day together in New York, talking about our families, our businesses, and the world.

Also published in Medium.

 

News of the World

OUR UBER DRIVER must be hard of hearing, because he plays his right-wing talk radio morning show LOUD. It’s not your erudite, intellectual morning show. It’s hosted by Morning Zoo-type personalities: braying, hyper-testicular fellows, as subtle as a Cuban tie.

To illustrate some local New York story about a Hassidic synagogue, they play a nerve-shattering recording of an air raid siren. They talk over each other, like men do when they’re excited, and segue seamlessly into sponsor messages about homes for the aged, and medical recovery facilities for seniors. Then right back to the entertainment portion of the program: the two men, cross-talking in stereophonic sound, sharing revealing fragments of the public and personal between sound effect blasts and explosions of machine-gun laughter.

If you had just one minute to live, you’d want to hear this, because it would make your final earthly moments last longer. Okay, to be fair, I’d toss a coin to decide between this and root canal. My fellow passenger farts silently, which I consider a reasonable response. Soon. Soon I will get out of this car.

We learn that both show hosts live in Long Island. The super-aggressive one tells a story about taking his daughter to soccer practice and then taking his son to soccer practice while his wife borrows the car, but we never hear the denouement, because the dominant guy, who is even more aggressive, keeps interrupting.

The news continues. An unfinished story about taking the subway to eat at a famous pizza parlor in Brooklyn. Something about the Muslim call to prayer. It seems the secret service doesn’t want to protect Hillary Clinton because she is such a nasty woman. The polls are looking up for Donald Trump.

Ten Years Ago on the Web

2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugsworrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.

I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.

Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)

Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.

Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.

I was reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, a delightfully written text that anticipated and suggested design rules and thinking for our present Internet of Things. It’s a fine book, and one I helped Adam bring to a good publisher. (Clearly, I was itching to break into publishing myself, which I would do with two partners a year or two afterwards.)

In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.


As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts onetwothree, or four, have a look back.

 

 

Sometimes a cigar is a penis

Beach photo

MANY NIGHTS I have these dreams where I lose my daughter while traveling. We’re about to board a flight, and suddenly she has vanished. In other parts of these same dreams, still traveling, I’m doing something amazing—like hiking the Alps—when I realize I’ve forgotten to check in on my app. Although the two distresses are in no way equivalent in life, in the dream sudden heart-stopping panic attends them both. It’s as if my unconscious is warning me I place too high a value on my illusory digital life.

There’s also baggage in these dreams. Literal baggage. As in, before boarding the flight with my daughter, I need to pack all our household possessions, so they can fly with us to a new home. In reality, we live in a two-bedroom apartment. In the dreams, the possessions fill a huge, rambling house. They are mostly dirty and broken: a cracked hobbyhorse, a single-octave air-powered toy organ with chord buttons. Halfway through wrapping these smashed globes, armless dolls, and hand-me-down suitcases that cannot be closed, I wonder why I must drag all this baggage with us.

In my 20s, I had a different recurring dream. In that one, I was at the beach with my father the moment before an immense tidal wave came crashing down, annihilating all life. I would see us from an overhead omniscient point of view—all of us beachgoers gazing up wordlessly at the power that was about to smash us out of the universe. Then, from my own point of view, I would gaze for an endless moment at the peaking wave, which seemed to hang suspended for a miniature eternity. Unable to bear my terror, I would turn to my father and bury my face in his chest. The last thing I experienced in the dream was my father’s hand cradling the back of my head.

I had that dream over and over. At the time, it seemed to me an omen of imminent tragedy. Now I think it was simply the disguised expression of a wish to know my father’s love and feel close to him.

My father is of that generation that doesn’t hug and doesn’t easily share its feelings. Today he is finally old enough, and sentimental enough, to say, “Ditto, kid,” when I tell him I love him at the end of our phone calls. We speak more now than we did all the years I was growing up. Night school, and two jobs, and other things kept him away far more than he was home.

Now in life I am a father, living alone with my daughter, two cats, and four hamsters, in an apartment that, on good days, looks like a dozen children must live there. On bad days, it looks like the Gestapo came through. Come to think of it, at age twelve I had recurring dreams about hiding from the Gestapo.

There’s the surface world, where we worry about work and bills and if our kid is getting enough nutrition. And why some people we like don’t like us. And why some people we were kind to hurt us. And whether we are kind enough. But mainly about work and bills and food.

And then there is the dream world, where our true fears stand naked, telling us who we are, and what we value.


Also published in “Let Me Repost That For You” on Medium.

Abandon Hope!

THE FILTHIEST men’s room in New York is on the 8th floor of 291 Broadway. You would think the men’s room at Penn Station or the bus terminal would beat any other for filth and stench but you’d be wrong. 291 Broadway’s is worse. There are five years of crushed insects on the walls. They never get scraped or cleaned away. There is stranger’s urine in every porcelain receptacle in the place. Weeks of it. It never gets flushed. You can try flushing it, sure, but it never goes down. Men urinate fresh streams atop gallons of other men’s stale urine in perpetuity ad infinitum. It sickens the soul. Chills the blood. Is enough to make the pope doubt God’s existence.

This bathroom is not in a slum. It is not in a poor third world favela. This bathroom is in a fancy NYC skyscraper, a stone’s throw from the historic Woolworth Building. I visit this bathroom once a week from the waiting room of a fancy office where, this being New York, I drop $250 per session. This is a court appointed specialist so I can’t choose another—say, one in a building with a clean and functioning restroom. This specialist deals with serious human misery. The kind that comes when families are torn apart. She does a good job of helping people. I doubt she has visited the men’s room here. If she had been to it, even once, even just for a moment, I doubt she could find the will to carry on in her good works. There are many filthy places in New York. Places that breed addiction, crime, and despair. Places no sane person would willingly go. Cesspools of the human spirit. Places where hope dies and light is extinguished. They are all better than the men’s room on the eighth floor at 291 Broadway.