This story is a bit long, but I promise it will be worth it, because it contains the two most important principles every designer must know and take to heart if you intend to do great work anywhere, under almost any circumstances, over the long, long haul of your career.Sticking To It – fresh from JZ in Automattic.Design
The upstairs neighbors in my apartment building are having their flat renovated. Cue the daily floor sander (right over my head) and sledgehammer (apparently they have many walls to knock down). It’s loud enough to induce vomiting. It happens every weekday, and has been going on for at least two weeks.
The good news is the crew is lazy: they show up around 10:00 AM, pound away for two hours, then take a long quiet lunch break before pounding away again ’til about 3:00 PM, when they quit for the day.
The bad news is, the lazy crew are taking weeks to complete what might have realistically been a two-day job if undertaken by motivated, competent workers instead of fartwads intent on squeezing every blessed penny from their contract.
I start work before 6:00 AM each day because my cats wake me before 6:00, but mainly because it gives me at least a few hours per day when I can work without being subjected to a migraine-inducing symphony of pounding and scraping and banging and dragging and hammering.
The chiming of my iPhone woke me from an afternoon of profound sleep marked by a long, unsettling dream involving basements. I’d taken to bed out of equal parts respect for my own exhaustion and the desire to escape a particularly pungent headache. Both are symptoms of my endless post-COVID-19 “recovery” period. It’s a virus that hangs on like an unrequited lover, and a disease that can leave you weak and debilitated for months—or longer. But we don’t think about “longer” yet, as I’ve only been sick for three and a half months.
Before the afternoon sick bed, I’d been working quite happily and even productively, until—wham!—a wall of symptoms smacked me in the head, and I had no choice but to listen and obey. On my way to bed, I just managed to feed my COVID-sick child, who is bound to her bed all day every day except for the early afternoon brunch and early evening dinner.
After the afternoon sleep—after the phone ripped me from the sinister architecture and unworthy companions of my dream, and while my heart was still pounding from a shocking sudden change of realities—I hurriedly tugged on gloves and a paper face mask, shoved my feet into still-tied shoes, threw open the door and hurried down the hall to the elevator bank, to meet a rolling hotel cart filled with newly delivered groceries that was on its way up to me.
(Bledar, the doorman on duty in my apartment building, had kindly accepted a Fresh Direct delivery on my behalf, stacked the bags on the building’s hotel cart, phoned me, waited 60 seconds ((to give me time to mask up and scramble down the hall)), and then rolled the cart into an elevator into which he’d punched my floor number. This is how we do it in this building.)
I rolled the packages to my door, packed them into the apartment, sent the cart downstairs again, unmasked, fed Snow White her afternoon meal, washed my hands, and put the groceries away. Then I had to sit down. What time is it? What day is it? When will I be well again? When will my child be well?
Photo by Malik Shibly on Unsplash
I WHEEZED like a busted accordion after carrying a bag of empty bottles down the hall to the recycling room in my apartment building—a journey of no more than 20 paces in each direction. I breathe normally as long as I don’t expend more physical energy than it takes to sit still in bed.
I first noticed I was sick on February 20, and figured it was a cold. When I hadn’t improved after three weeks, I consulted a physician, who informed me I had COVID-19. A week later, he told me I had pneumonia as well. If you’re doing the math, I’ve been sick for three months. I still am. My daughter and her mother have it too.
We took every precaution, and still do. We’re zealots about following the doctor’s (and our kid’s pediatrician’s) advice, along with the instructions of the CDC and state and local authorities. We read all five hundred daily news articles about the disease. We rest, hydrate, quarantine, and wash our hands slightly less obsessively than Lady Macbeth.
Mainly we sleep.
Oh, how we sleep. I just now woke up from three hours of narcosis-tinged, nightmare-filled, exhausted napping, and can’t wait to hit the pillow again for more.
On weekdays, from 8:00 AM ‘til noon, I make myself get out of bed, sit at my desk, and work at my job. It’s a great job and I’m privileged to work remotely for a company I believe in. I wish I could do more, but by 12:00 I’m ready to pass out.
Instead, I bid good day to my colleagues and wake my daughter, who’s too sick to remotely attend her closed school, and who sleeps straight through daddy’s work day. I make us both brunch and we consume it on the couch. While eating, wrapped in blankets, we watch 20 minutes of video and then go back to sleep.
Ava sleeps in her loft bed with our 11-year-old cat Snow White. If we are late for our afternoon sleep, Snow White climbs up to the loft bed alone, and stares down the hall at Ava until she gets the message.
I bed down with an iPad. Thanks to the Criterion Channel, I’ve slept through several dozen masterpieces of world cinema.
On Thursday of last week, wanting to test the upper limits of my recovery, I experimentally pushed myself to put in an extra hour of work by attending a phone meeting for my conference business, but the experiment failed: I fell asleep midway through the call.
Fortunately my colleagues didn’t need me—they’ve been soldiering on without me since mid-March. I was muted and they likely didn’t even realize I’d fallen asleep. I should be embarrassed to confess to having fallen asleep during a meeting, but hey, it wasn’t my doing: it was COVID-19 and pneumonia’s idea.
This is our normal, now.
This is what recovery looks like for my family: an endless sleeping sickness.
Every weekday I wake up energetic, convinced that I’m definitely getting better. Even with all the sleeping, I really am confident that I’m recovering. But how do I quantify that?
People who care ask how I’m doing. It’s hard tell them. They want to hear I’m getting better. I try not to disappoint them. But I don’t lie. Things are about the same. And about the same. And about the same. Yes, I am getting better. No, nothing has really changed.
Our fevers are long gone. We are not contagious. We wheeze and are exhausted.
That’s what recovery looks like on weekdays. On weekends, I sleep all day.
Penne? Or big penne?
Unlike healthy people, I don’t resent my quarantine. I’m grateful to have shelter. I know that shelter, like health and financial security, can be taken away at any time. If we didn’t all know that before, surely we know it now. But I don’t think about it.
I think about bed, and sleeping, and what kind of pasta to make for dinner, and whether 20 more minutes of awake time is worth the heartburn and jitters two more espressos will gift me.
I don’t worry about the wheezing, or whether I’ll ever see the inside of a gym again, or the long term ramifications of school closings and sickness on my daughter’s higher educational prospects. I don’t even think about November. We are alive. It’s a good day.
May 9. Snowing in New York. Wearing face masks, two men stand on a balcony of the Chinese Mission to the UN, photographing the snowfall with their phones. I try to photograph them and the snow, but they are already leaving the balcony, and my phone autofocuses on the window screen.
Surviving COVID-19. It’s the world’s shittiest vacation.
I’m still sick. I still sleep all afternoon. I still can’t sit upright for more than four hours, or carry a package from the lobby to my apartment, without becoming exhausted. But I haven’t had fever in more than a month. The constant aches and pains are gone. Tired or not, and congested or not, I get plenty of oxygen in my bloodstream every day.
What’s left of the disease is exhaustion and flu symptoms: cough, congestion, sneezing. The flu symptoms aren’t hard to bear because I’ve had seasonal allergies and colds that last two weeks or longer all my life. Okay, with COVID-19, the symptoms are more pronounced, more persistent, and they’ve lasted eight weeks without letting up. But they’re not foreign and they don’t scare me. They’re like a bad old friend—or an old enemy you no longer hate. Sure, you have to fight them, but you no longer fear them. They’re familiar, maybe even familial.
The exhaustion is debilitating but not depressing—I’ve learned to rest as soon as I feel it. (I’ve learned what happens if I don’t rest.)
To rest as soon as I feel badly takes letting go of many responsibilities. There’s comfort in that. After four decades of workaholic toil (long hours seven days a week, on multiple jobs and projects), it’s strangely delicious to let go, to calmly and without shame let others save the world today.
I’m immensely grateful to my colleagues who are covering for me, but I don’t feel even one bit guilty about letting them do it. I’d do the same for them, and may have to before this ends. After decades of feeling responsible for everyone and everything around me, decades of feeling lost and guilty if I take a day off, I’m finding joy in my temporary freedom.
These are dark times and they are only beginning. We must all learn to love ourselves and other people all over again. We must find the compassion that decades of cable news cycles burned out of us. Find meaning in helping, and joy where we can.
One of my first professional jobs was at a tiny startup ad agency in Washington, DC. The owner was new to the business and made the mistake of hiring a college buddy as his creative director. This guy was not up to the job. He was not the slightest bit curious about our clients’ businesses, or what mattered to their customers. His day was one long lunch hour bookended by naps. He thought we couldn’t hear him snoring through the closed door of his office.
Once a day, he would call a “creative meeting” to discuss whichever project would soon fall due. He would not bring sketches, or notes, or a creative brief to these meetings. Instead, he would “lead a creative brainstorm,” which meant we had to listen to him spout whatever shallow, idiotic idea proposed itself to his limited mind at that moment. We were then supposed to leave the room and execute his so-called “concept.” It didn’t matter if the idea was derivative of someone else’s widely known better ad, or if it was superficially cute but meaningless, or wrong in tone, or more likely to hurt than help the client’s business. He had spoken, and that was that.
Needless to say, after a few weeks—and even though they were old friends—the agency owner realized he had to fire this creative director. After all, it was widely agreed, a quarter-page newspaper ad for a local Ford dealership was far too important to entrust to the whims of an imbecile.
Corona Virus Week 6. Recovering, bit by bit. Still get winded carrying a light package more than a dozen steps. I can sit up in the morning, make breakfast, and listen to music for several hours. Am exhausted and useless by 1:00 PM—but it’s an improvement over the 24/7 exhaustion of the previous weeks. Tomorrow I will try working for a few hours. Fingers crossed.
My daughter and her mom have the virus, too, and they’re in the throes of it. Fortunately, they’re only miserable, not in danger. And I’m just recovered enough to help them, now, as they helped me when I was flat on my back, day after day, in sweaty sheets.
Other people I love are also sick with the virus, but that’s their story to tell (or not tell), not mine. If I could, I’d ask you to keep them in your thoughts.
This thing is no joke. If you’re sick, I pray that you recover. If well, please do everything you can to stay that way.
I’ve had Coronavirus for five weeks. My daughter has it, now, too. Her mom’s had it for weeks, but only recently recognized it for what it is. It sneaks up on you, disguised as a persistent headache, a seasonal allergy, some other unpleasant but harmless annoyance—until you can’t stand at the sink washing dishes for five minutes without immediately needing to lie down and catch your breath. Then you know.
It’s not just here in New York. A dear family member who lives far away (and who also has an underlying health condition) has come down with it. I think of them with hope, terror, denial, panic. We ping each other. You still there?
Some things are getting better.
For four weeks I could not get a grocery delivery slot from Fresh Direct, no matter what time of day or night I tried. This week I finally secured one. Four weeks ago I could not get Tylenol for love of money. This week I was finally able to order some—and it arrived today.
The grocery delivery slot means more workers are available, fewer are out sick. The arrival of the Tylenol (actually a generic Acetaminophen—you still can’t get branded Tylenol) suggests that supply chains and delivery chains may be doing a little better than they were during the first four weeks of the crisis. (By which I mean the first four weeks of March, even though the crisis was actually upon us in January—but we civilians didn’t know it.)
It’s a rotten disease.
This morning I woke at 5:00 AM. Ingested two espressos and a bowl of cereal and immediately went back to sleep. My daughter woke me at 11:00. She was sick but sort of hungry, so I got up and threw together a breakfast. We watched TV. I worked for an hour while she slept. Then I went back to sleep. That one hour of work took everything out of me.
It’s a rotten disease. You’re well enough not to need hospitalization, but too weak to do anything useful.
At 6:30 PM the kid woke me again. She was weak and exhausted and craving a sweet.
I got out of bed, threw on mask and gloves, and ventured out of my apartment for the first time in about a week. Picked up Oreos for the kid at the little deli across the street.
Then I visited my postal mailbox for the first time in over a week. It was flooded with junk. Nothing stops junk mail. Not signing “do not deliver” lists and opt-out lists (but of course junk mailers ignore those). And apparently not even Coronavirus can stem the junk-mail tide. The mechanisms of our dysfunction outlive us. Somewhere, surely, there’s a postal worker who contracted a fatal case of the virus while delivering junk mail to a dead woman.
Forgive me, I came hoping to spread cheer. Oh, well.
I’m grateful. Most people who die of this thing die right away. We lucky ones who survive just feel rotten for weeks. Rotten beats dead. The longer my kid feels sick, the safer I’ll feel about about her prognosis.
Rotten beats dead, but it’s still rotten. I wish those for whom this whole thing is an abstraction could see what I see and feel what I feel. The tragic unthinkable horror in the newspaper is the tip of this iceberg. Recovery is going to be long and hard and sad. The world we return to will be different.
Finishing Week 4 with Coronavirus, heading into Week 5. I’m home—haven’t needed to go to the hospital, thank God—and my fever petered out last week. So all that’s left are cold and cough symptoms and a totally debilitating complete lack of energy. Oh, and lower back pain: a bad cough threw one side of my back out, and lying in bed 18 hours a day somehow hasn’t unkinked it. Go figure.
I’m recovering. Slowly and unmeasurably but pretty definitely. Sitting at a desk to type these thoughts is something I can do today. Last week, not so much.
So lucky. My daughter is with me and, for the first time in over ten years, I have family in the building. We have enough food. Sure, it’s mostly lentils and pasta, but I know at least two delicious ways of serving those staples. And despite low energy, I still cook. It’s what I do now: sleep and cook.
The doctor who diagnosed me couldn’t test me.
There aren’t enough tests, but you read the papers, you know that. But my symptoms told the tale. I don’t know if he reported me as a case. So much data that could save lives isn’t being recorded because, well, you know why.
I reported myself to my company and our team (who are incredibly, brilliantly supportive), and to the MFA program where I teach one day a week, and, of course, to my wonderfully stalwart conference team. So many cases will not be diagnosed or reported. So many will spread the disease without knowing. So many will die and we (as a people) won’t be sure what took them.
I live in a hospital zone in Manhattan.
There have been morgue trucks on my block for weeks. I don’t look out that window much.
I’m lucky. I’m insured. I live in a safe neighborhood. And…
Not everybody thinks so, and it’s not a club I’m particularly proud to belong to anyway, but it’s still conferred massive privileges on me all my life. Some of which I recognized as a child. Some of which I’m still blind to. The point is, the people the virus is hurting the most are not white. Which is one reason the white people in charge have been slow to take it seriously.
But I get to stay home. I’ll get to work remotely, when I’m well enough to start working again. Privilege and dumb luck. Life and death.
I’m undeservedly fortunate and I’m thankful. To my colleagues, doing my work while I rest. To the medical professionals who live in this building and work in the hospitals around the corner. To the workers who toil in this building and haven’t the luxury to shelter in place. And to you who’ve been texting and emailing and DMing well wishes. Thank you. It helps.
Stay safe, stay strong, and be kind.
Dino works six days a week as a porter in my apartment building, cleaning walls and floors, removing trash, distributing recyclables. He’s one of those essential workers who are suddenly on the front lines. We’ve always been friendly.
I’ve been hibernating in my apartment for days, because it’s what we’re all supposed to do, and also because I have
a bad cold Coronavirus. Today, when I ventured out of my apartment for 30 seconds to toss a trash bag down the chute, Dino was hard at work decontaminating the hallway. For the first time that I know of, he was wearing a respiratory face mask. I stood about twelve feet from him, smiled and waved, embarrassed to be in sleepwear in the middle of the day but glad to see a friendly pair of eyes.
Dino asked if I had a respiratory mask. I told him no—the stores have been sold out for months—but not to worry about me. He said he had an extra. I was, like, you need it more. He insisted. Won’t you take? For when you go shopping?
Finally I stopped being polite and guilty and class-conscious and embarrassed and allowed him to give me the mask. Finally we stopped being two players in an economic system and were just two souls in New York trying to survive the day and the next few months.
It has been eight hours since Dino’s act of kindness, and I’m still thinking about it, still thinking how I can pay it forward to someone who needs my help.
At 4:00 PM, I went to bed to rest up from my head cold, and promptly fell asleep.
When I awoke, the clock said 7:15. Oh, no!
I banged on my daughter’s door. “You’re going to be late to school!” I shouted.
She cackled with laughter.“It’s 7:15 AT NIGHT,” she explained.
Yesterday was the nth annual Blue Beanie Day. (I’ve lost track of what year the standardista holiday started.) I was awake at 1:00 AM on Friday night/Saturday morning, so I tweeted “Happy #BlueBeanieDay,” then slept. No blog post, no prelude—just a past-midnight tweet, over and out.
Saturday, once or twice, I checked Twitter and retweeted most of the Blue Beanie Day tweets I found.
Most, because I omitted a soft-porn one that seemed to be capitalizing on the hashtag to advertise its Instagram feed (which, to judge by the tweet, consists of reposts of old Suicide Girls pictorials). So maybe the hashtag trended briefly for that person. One measure of social media success on Twitter is when someone who doesn’t understand or care about your hashtag uses it to draw attention to a tweet that has nothing to do with your cause—which tells you a lot about Twitter, and social media, and where we are as a culture. But I digress.
That shrinking feeling
Generally, each year, Blue Beanie Day gets smaller, possibly in part because I’m too busy to promote it beforehand (or during, or after). And because it immediately follows U.S. Thanksgiving, so gets broadcast when many U.S. web folks are offline and in food comas.
Blue Beanie Day also gets smaller each year because web design as a practice and as a discipline keeps shrinking … even though frontend UX, or whatever we’re calling it this week, clearly continues to grow.
Mainly, though, Blue Beanie Day is receding from view because our industry as a whole thinks less and less about accessibility (not that we ever had an A game on the subject), and talks less and less about progressive enhancement, preferring to chase the ephemeral goal posts of over-engineered solutions to non-problems.
If web design were automotive design, we’d be past the invention of mass production and on to designing self-obsoleting tail fins. But I digress, and I regret the negative spin this mini-memoir is taking.
Because, really, I’m happy and grateful.
Blue Beanie Day matters
In spite of our industry’s (I hope temporary) focus on complexity for its own sake, there are still a lot of you who do this work in the service of people we used to call “end-users,” and who will care about web standards and inclusive, accessible design for as long as you’re here to practice it.
To you, the true believers, whether you knew about/celebrated Blue Beanie Day or not, I give thanks.
Thanks for showing up every day to try to make the web a little better. Thanks for your optimism, especially when it gets harder to stay positive. You make an inclusive web possible.
Thanks for keeping Blue Beanie Day alive, not just on your head, but in your heart.
Posted here for posterity:
Design kickoff meetings are like first dates that prepare you for an exciting relationship with a person who doesn’t exist.
Today my daughter Ava and I had brunch with my old friend Jen Robbins at P.S. Kitchen, a vegan restaurant in the Theater District/Hell’s Kitchen. Jen was present for, and actively participated in, the very beginnings of the creative and blogging web, and her famous book, now in its umpteenth edition, is still the best introduction to web design I know—probably the best that will ever be written.
One of Jen’s early sites, “Cooking With Rock Stars,” consisted of short video interviews she made with the likes of Jack Black, Rufus Wainwright, and others. Her show predated YouTube by five to ten years and podcasts by fifteen. It was way ahead of its time while also being a great reminder of what the web, in its infancy, was like. The rock star interviews are also fun and fascinating and deserve to be seen again.