Jen Robbins: web designer, vlogger (before that was a thing), and bestselling tech book author.
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.
Crash Course in Judaism
I’m Zeldman, I work on Team 51.
Yes! We make wonderful WordPress websites for interesting, deserving people and organizations, and *this* is my Crash Course in Judaism. Enjoy.
My mother and father are ethnically Jewish, my father was an atheist, and my mother was Canadian, so we celebrated Christmas.
We celebrated Christmas ’til I was six, and right before my sixth Christmas, my Nana came to visit. And she looked at the tree, and she looked at all the stuff, and she said, “These boys won’t know they’re Jewish.” So my parents were shamed and changed to Hanukah.
Now, Hanukah’s cool. Christmas is cool. We won’t get into saying which one’s cooler. We know.
But either one’s fine for a kid if you just keep going with it. Dropping Christmas at age six, I think that was the start of my Goth years, right there.
I felt so disappointed, so alienated. And, you know, before I turned six, like, I would go into Kindergarten and my friend would say, “Santa Claus brought me a rocket launcher and a grenade launcher and a Tommy gun and a machine gun and a Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp, what did Santa bring you?”
And I would say “Santa Claus brought me socks and a book.”
Because we weren’t materialists.
And then after age six, they would say, “Santa brought me a neutron bomb and an atomic bomb, and the Great Garloo, a monster that you can control by remote control, and a flame-shooting monster and a set of daggers, what did Santa bring you?”
And I would say, “We’re Jewish.”
The “fuck you” was implied.
And so … I didn’t get beat up as a Jew until I moved to Pittsburgh, but that was later, and I’m not going to get to that part of the story. But when I was living in New York areas and Connecticut, there were enough Jews that people were sort of laid-back about their hatred of Jews, and they would just be okay with it. They would even be okay with my saying “We’re Jewish,” and there was no retribution from that.
Anyway, I asked my Dad, “What’s God?” and he said:
“Okay, so before science, people thought there were a lot of gods, because they needed a supernatural explanation for everything.
“So if there was a fire, the fire god was angry.
“And if there was a flood, the water god was angry.
“If there was a snowstorm, the snow god was angry.
“And the Jews improved that by saying there’s only ONE God, and he’s *VERY* angry
“But there isn’t one.”
And then I said, “If there’s no God and we don’t go to Temple, why are we Jews?”
And my Dad said, “Hitler would’ve killed us.”
And that was my satisfaction with that.
Anyway, when I was twelve-and-a-half, my parents came to me, after no Jewish stuff for a long time, and they said, “Jeffrey, would you like to be Bar Mitzvahed?”
And I said, “What’s that?”
And they said, “You make a speech and then you get money.”
So I said “yes,” and, really, I’ve been doing it ever since. Thank you, Judaism!
My glamorous life: are you ready to math?
For the past two years, I’ve been publishing a daily work-and-life diary on Basecamp, sharing it with a few friends. This private writing work supplanted the daily public writing I used to do here. In an experiment, I’m publishing yesterday’s diary entry here today:
YESTERDAY, Ava and a few of her schoolmates participated in a giant, citywide Math Team competition. Hundreds of kids from public middle schools in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan took part in the big, noisy event, which was held in The Armory in Washington Heights from 10:00 AM to 1:30 PM.
I woke at 6:30 to be ready to roll, but made the mistake of drinking my espresso and Diet Coke eye-openers in bed, where exhaustion from two weeks’ nonstop work and travel soon knocked me out again. At 9:30, Ava woke, burst into my room, and woke me by shouting, “Let’s go!”
As we live off First Avenue at the East River, we were able to quickly Uber up the beautiful FDR Drive to 177th Street, arriving on time despite our late, last-minute start. Inside the giant arena, Ava found her team, and I joined hundreds of parents, siblings, and well-wishers up in the stands.
In our last-minute rush, I’d forgotten my glasses, so I couldn’t really see much, but, after all, what was there to see? Hundreds of teens quietly solving math problems while a traditional sports announcer tried to keep the audience hyped by belting out the kind of ra-ra hype you’d hear at a ball game or wrestling event.
Each team had a poster representing their school, and of course Ava designed her school’s poster, a demented two-sided cartoon satire somewhere between R. Crumb, South Park, and tagging. It reminded me of the kind of stuff I used to draw in eighth grade to amuse my hoodlum friend Mike G_____.
(Needless to say, _I_ was no mathlete, nor was Ava’s mom. I took photos and videos during the event and shared them with Carrie, so she could participate from Chicago; she and I joked about our misspent youths, and marveled at how our kid is turning out.)
After the competition, Ava and her pals and teacher joined me up top. Judging took a long time—hey, it was math!—so the event coordinators tried to amuse us by having Middle Schoolers breakdance. Ava and I left as the winners were being announced. (Her school didn’t win, but that’s fine.)
A leisurely ride down the FDR offered breathtaking views of parks and bridges in the Bronx and Queens, and eventually brought us home by 3:00. Where I made our first meal of the day: vegan black bean burritos for Ava; scrambled eggs, cottage cheese, and a sweet potato pancake for me. After our big late breakfast, we played Episode.
Then Ava went off to paint a Mother’s Day portrait of Carrie—and discovered that Maria, who cleans our apartment once a week, had thrown out her watercolor paintbrushes. (“Not her fault, she probably thought they were dirty,” said Ava.) No brushes, no painting—what to do?
Art supply stores in New York close at 6:00 PM on Saturday; we discovered that the brushes were missing at 5:30.
So we raced out of the house and made it to the nearest art store: DaVinci, on 2nd Avenue below 23rd Street. Sadly, the place is going out of business. Fortunately, they haven’t closed yet. We grabbed what we needed and came home.
Ava spent the rest of the night (until quite late) working on her Mom’s Mother’s Day portrait and chatting with friends via speakerphone. I listened to music and did what I could with the iPhone 7 photos I’d taken during the competition and the two long drives.
Healthcare in America
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a great doctor and good health insurance.
A boring generic healthcare company bought my longterm doctor’s group practice a few months ago. First thing they did was screw up the online patient portal, changing it from the poorly designed, barely usable mess I’d learned to navigate to a slightly more polished but somehow blander portal that instantly got hacked. In consequence, they seem to have hired an Internet security firm that advised them to make changes they apparently didn’t understand how to execute. Thus, sign-in was broken for two months. Doctors kept sending patient results to the site, but patients couldn’t access them, and nobody told the doctors. You’d try to explain the problem to a phone receptionist, but if it ever got to the doctor, it was likely phrased as “Another one complaining about the website.”
The site’s makers apparently weren’t informed of the problem for some time, and there was no way to find out who they were to contact them, since there was no contact information available until you signed in, which no one could. Healthcare in America, 2019.
Anyway, they seem to have fixed a couple of the nonfunctioning loops that would prompt you to create a new password and then not recognize that you had done so and prompt you to create a new password and then not recognize that you had done so and prompt you to create a new password and then not recognize that you had done so and…
So today I was able to create a password, almost get 2FA to work, and reorder medication I’d been doing without. Yay!
Designing usable websites is an undervalued art.
A narcissist’s prayer of Thanksgiving. (My Glamorous Life)
I’m about to have Thanksgiving at home with my daughter for the first time since her mom and I split ten years ago. Ours is a gender reversal of a typical divorce situation: usually it’s the mom who does the everyday caregiving, and the dad who gets holiday time with the kid(s).
I grew up in an isolated nuclear family. No relatives came for holidays. My dad, who was always off working or away on some mysterious other business, would be physically present for holidays, but his mind was elsewhere. Instead of holiday cooking smells, the house was notable for my dad’s loudly booming classical music.
My mom, who hated “women’s work,” would announce that she had done the very minimum—for instance, quickly boiling chicken instead of slowly baking turkey. “Done, enough, finished!” she’d exclaim, as if we were all rooting for her to get out of that sexist kitchen prison. And we were.
We ate like the animals in “The Fantastic Mr Fox.”
As soon as we could decently say we were finished, my younger brother bolted out of the house to hang out with his many friends, and I retired to my room to draw comics.
…Until I was about thirteen, when I took over the dishwashing so my mom wouldn’t have to bother with it. This wasn’t, as you might think, simply cheerful pitching in. No. I was trying to rescue my mom from her deep depression, and model what I thought was feminist behavior to my dad.
That my dad worked sixty-hour weeks to support us, and was every bit as imprisoned in a thankless role as my mom, somehow didn’t enter my calculations until I was much, much older.
And that both my parents, if they were somehow made differently, could have enjoyed working and doing for their family, was also something I didn’t understand. I didn’t know that doing for those you love could be joyful until I grew up and fell in love. And even then, I didn’t totally understand until I became a father.
From my still-bewildered perspective, I had a wonderful marriage with my daughter’s mom until everything suddenly fell apart. It was like plunging into an alternate universe. And felt like falling down an endless well. My love for my daughter, and her need for me to be here—stable and strong—is all that saved me, I know.
During the next ten tumultuous years, one thing was constant: I spent most holidays alone.
Given how little most of them had meant to me growing up, this was less of a problem for me when I just hung out at home, than when I tried to do better by joining other people at their festivities. There is one exception—a gentleman in Chicago whose family makes me feel like one of them, with whom I have passed a joyful Thanksgiving, and where I am always welcome.
But other times, when kind friends and acquaintances opened their homes to me, and I took a subway into another borough, say, to spend the holiday with their friends, whom I did not know, the warm laughing flesh surrounding me actually made me feel my divorced aloneness and temporary childlessness much more profoundly. I really did better just slurping down Ramen alone at home, as sad as that surely sounds to you.
For I had spent many hours as a child alone in my room, drawing, and they were good hours. As a young adult, I spent many hours alone writing unpublished fiction and producing music with no commercial potential that went nowhere except my own headphones. The point being, I don’t mind alone. Alone is familiar. I’m happy parenting. I’ve been happy when I’ve been in love. And I’m also quite happy alone. It’s only the contrast of missing someone that makes it bad.
But this Thanksgiving, I’ll be with my daughter. A 14-year-old vegan.
So yesterday, in a low-key way, because doing things up in a big way is not our style, I showed her a dozen or so vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes I’d been saving for probably five or six years, and we picked four of them to make together on the big day. Four simple vegetarian recipes. Not much work or time required. Like momma used to make, only meatless. Things we can make together, because the kitchen belongs to everyone.
Somehow this story, which was supposed to be one sentence—Yesterday my daughter and I planned our small Thanksgiving dinner together—has turned into yet another episode of All About Me. But the day itself will be about us.
To those who celebrate, whether alone or together, at home or far from it, Happy Thanksgiving.
For Jim Coudal.
My Glamorous Life: On Returning
Landed 10:00 PM JFK, picked up baggage after Delta sent everyone to the wrong carousel and an exhausted airport worker before giving up told maybe five passengers about the correct carousel, and those passengers told nobody else because people are selfish, but I am hyper-vigilant about luggage—being anxious and having had some bad experiences—so I spider-heard the airport worker’s whisper from 10,000 feet away, made sure to tell everyone around me that the carousel had changed, and ran to get my bag.
More drama at the cab stand. A pirate in a three-piece suit tried to steer me into his air conditioned sedan, claiming he worked for Uber (but then why would he be standing around instead of cruising and waiting for a signal?). The cab drivers then called him a crook and told him to fuck himself and he directed them likewise and it looked like a hot night fistfight at JFK was going to break out like the rash I felt growing on my sweaty back, but then I made a decision and got into a hot cab with duct-tape-patched seats and the driver sat down to drive, and the dispatcher, who hated all of us, after a great show of delay and neglect, eventually reluctantly gave the cab driver permission to drive me, and we drove for 30 sweaty minutes with the windows open, blowing humid NYC air into our faces, and then before midnight I was home, sweet, home. I ?? NY.
Lucky, he said. (My Glamorous Life.)
IN MARCH of this year, I had the honor to serve as a Juror in a civil case in the New York court system. In the months since I served, the city and state have been trying to honor me over and over again. And so, on a hectic Friday where I should have been at my desk, working, I found myself heading to the New York State Supreme Court.
The rule is, after you serve, you’re excused from serving again for six years. Yet a month after my service, I received a second summons. I responded logically, by returning the summons with a copy of my proof of service and a cordial explanatory letter. A few weeks later, I received a third summons stating in red capital letters that I was now in violation and absolutely had to present myself at 60 Centre Street or suffer the consequences.
I was too busy to go, and, after all, I had served. Then this morning, a free U.S. postal digital service I subscribe to (which emails you scans of postal mail you are about to receive) showed that I was about to get yet another summons. So I hustled to the bottom of Manhattan Island to throw myself on the mercy of the court … clerk.
At 60 Centre Street, I went through Security, walked down a hall, and within a few minutes was speaking with a very nice, overworked, underpaid, exhausted clerk, who, in spite of those things, treated me with courtesy, compassion, and respect, and took the time to help me understand what had happened.
Turns out New York can’t deal with my having a first and middle name. Specifically, the fact that my parents named me Lewis but called me Jeffrey (long story) apparently broke all the computers in the New York courts. The court thought that Lewis Zeldman, Lewis Jeffrey Zeldman, L. Jeffrey Zeldman, and Jeffrey Zeldman were four different people, each of whom was required to do jury duty.
This kindly clerk sorted it all for me in under ten minutes. As we were finishing, I asked her what to do about the summons that was still headed my way (per the US Postal Service). She didn’t know the post office offered that service, so we talked about that first. Then she punched her computer keys for a while, and told me nothing from the State or City courts was on its way to me. If yet another bogus summons was en route to my mailbox, it must be from the Federal Courts. “Since you’re down here already,” she advised me to cross the street and talk to her counterpart in the Federal Court system, whom she believed would do me the same solid service she had just performed for me.
So I did.
No country for old men
In contrast to the sleepy but fairly friendly backwater from which I’d just emerged, the Federal Courthouse was a fluorescent nightmare of angrily wisecracking security guards who behaved as if any first-time visitor unfamiliar with their unique security procedures was mentally defective, and who loudly commented on my shortcomings in my hearing. (“He thinks I’m his Mommy and I’m supposed to watch his stuff for him,” one guard complained after I laid my hoody on a counter because I thought that’s what she had just told me to do.)
They made me hand in my phone and yelled at me again for leaving my hoody on a counter and told me to go to a room number that didn’t exist.
I felt like I was in a different country. One court was New York. The other was Federal America. The air was ripe with sullen triumph.
Eventually I found a clerk who could and would help me. But when I tried to explain my problem, he gave me that same withering “you pathetic mental case” look and cut me off at every other word. The situation was a bit complicated. I wasn’t trying to over-explain, only to tell him what he needed to know to understand my problem.
I present to audiences and clients and I’ve written a couple of books. I’m usually pretty good at leaving out extraneous details and communicating quickly and clearly. But here, I was tongue-tied.
No, I said, I hadn’t actually received the federal court summons yet, but I’d been told by the state clerk that the summons I’d seen in my mail program must be federal, and, if it was, it was because the state system had inadvertently created duplicate accounts for me as a result of their difficulty with my name. The system from the post office that lets you preview your mail before you arrive. The New York Supreme Court across the street. Jury Service.
I stammered. I couldn’t get the story out. I couldn’t get my words out. I began to believe that maybe I was crazy. I felt myself sweating. The clerk’s eyes narrowed. He shook his head meaningfully at my every word.
“The New York State—“
“I know. But I received a—“
“We’re a different system.”
“I understand that. But—“
Eventually, after sufficiently chastising me and telling me he couldn’t do anything for me, the clerk allowed me to go back to the formerly angry man to whom, minutes before, I’d surrendered my phone.
“Out so soon?”
“Lucky,” he said.
Grateful X 2
NONE of us knows what today will bring. And for many of us, these are fearful times. So I wanted to take a breath, pause a moment, and share two small gifts I received this morning at the start of my workday:
You know, for kids
First, Rob Ford wrote to my daughter and me to tell us that Macaw Books will be at Frankfurt Book Fair next week to promote The Little Trailblazers, a children’s book of illustrated stories to which we contributed.
It’s been more than two years since a younger Ava and I co-wrote a rhyming story for this collection of tales written by “Internet pioneers” and illuminated by brilliant illustrators from around the world—50 contributors from over 25 countries, 50/50 female/male ratio.
When the book’s original publisher withdrew their support due to its lack of mass commercial potential, Rob could easily have given up. Instead, for over two years, he fought to find the right publisher and charity organization to align with the project.
Today word came that The Little Trailblazers will be in aid of Unicef’s work for children. I can’t think of a better fit. Rob’s vision and perseverance have been something to behold, and I am grateful to have had the chance to collaborate with my kid on what will be her first published story.
Art & copy
Next, Dougal MacPherson presented a trio of narratively related illustrations for an important upcoming A List Apart series directed by Aaron Gustafson. I’m thrilled that Aaron conceived the series, found the authors, chose ALA to publish it, and is shepherding the entire project. I can’t wait for you to read it.
And, although I should be used to it by now, I’m still gratefully astonished by Dougal’s ability to take complex, technical topics, find their common truth, and create a unifying visual narrative tying them together for A List Apart’s readers. Oh, and he draws great, too.
There is much that can go wrong in our lives, most of it beyond our control. Sometimes how the afternoon sunlight looks as it warms the tops of trees is what you get that day to remind you that life is a gift. Or, hey, don’t knock a good sandwich.
But sometimes—especially if your line of work can at least partly be described as “creative”—sometimes you are reminded just how incredibly lucky you are to know and work with passionate, talented people. And that is fuel, not only for continued effort, but for gratitude.
Woke 5:00 AM New York. Fed cats, crossed town to Penn Station.
Uber software was misbehaving, so instead of Penn Station New York, it booked me in Penn Station Dallas, Texas—a three-day ride costing tens of thousands of dollars. The driver and I had a good laugh over it.
Amtrak Acela First Class Lounge, a dingy little smut box in a catpiss corner of Penn Station, was dark. It does not open till 7:00, and, by God, the attendant sat there in the dark, with her door locked, until 7:00 AM on the dot.
?Acela Express has two classes: Business and First. First comes with meals, early seating, and (experimentally, on some trips) selectable assigned seating. For some reason, First cost only $5 more than Business on this trip, so I sprang for it, and was rewarded with a Greek omelet, endlessly flowing beverages, and a nearly empty train car staffed by two highly professional waiters. One was tall and lean; the other, short and round. I mention this only because it was highly cinematic.
The man seated across from me had a kind smile and a deep need for coffee. From his mildness, I inferred he was an alcoholic on a business trip.
I spent the rest of the ride with Guillermo del Toro. What did we do before the iPad? Oh, that’s right—read books.
Cab from Boston South Station to waterfront hotel: $9. The driver let me hoist my impossibly heavy bag into the trunk myself, and tug it back out again on arrival at the hotel. “Okay,” he said, scowling, as I gently lowered the hood of his trunk. I don’t think he approved of my beard. Or maybe he blamed me for the African Diaspora. My people didn’t do it. We were hiding in barrels.
My hotel room was ready when I arrived, and even included a clean little kitchen area, which I sprinkled with little bags of nuts and dried fruit I’d brought with me.
My friends and team mates Marci & Toby, without whom the conference and our company would not function, have been in the hotel for days setting up next week’s event, so I spent a lovely hour catching up with them. Marci, who’d just undergone her sixth surgery on the same shoulder, had her arm in a sling, so I asked permission before carefully hugging her.
Rehearsed my presentation. Took a nap. I seem to have entered a phase of life where naps are a daily thing. Bingo’s next, I suppose.
Left hotel on foot to go meet a guy for dinner. I don’t really know the guy, but we’re both designers, and meeting other people who do what we do is part of what we do.
Last time I was in Boston’s Seaport area was shortly after 9/11, when there was nothing here but the World Trade Center. I’m in Boston every year but I don’t know this terrain. Between Foursquare, Apple Maps, Google Maps, and operator error, I somehow spent 20 minutes walking in circles before I finally broke down and asked a cop how to get to the place where I was meeting the guy.
Called the guy to tell him I was running late and got his voicemail.
Got to the place. The dark-eyed hostess awakened thoughts I can’t write about in our present cultural moment as I followed her in search of the guy I was supposed to meet. The hostess asked me what the guy looked like and I told her I didn’t know. So she interrupted a septuagenarian couple’s dinner to ask if the husband, digging into his lobster, was the guy I was supposed to meet. “No, the man I’m meeting is a guy by himself in his thirties,” I offered, pleasing neither the hostess nor the lobster fan. We returned to the hosting stand, where the other hostess looked at a screen and said my guy had never shown up.
So I walked out in the light rain, left another voicemail for the guy, and worked my way back to the hotel.
Called my daughter to wish her goodnight—she laughed when I told her I hadn’t expected Boston to be cold. Cracked open a room service hummus and a bag of dried banana chips. Business travel, baby. It’s the life.
Over the decades I’ve used computers, my drawing skill has all but vanished—along with my ability to do calligraphy or even write legibly. Which is why I’ve started forcing myself to sketch again every day. Practice is the best form of hope.