Three Saturdays ago, my father had a heart attack. Last Saturday, we rushed our baby daughter to the emergency room. In-between, my wife had to undergo scary and uncomfortable medical tests.
Everybody is fine, even my dad (truth in advertising: aspirin really can save your life) but my once-brown goatee has gone shock-white.
Everybody is fine, so take a deep breath and savor the unusually high pollen count.
Something else took place in these same tense two weeks: I finished my book. Designing With Web Standards, 2nd Edition (DWWS 2e) left my hands last night and will reach shelves this summer.
When I agreed to write DWWS 2e, I mistook the job for a quick spruce-up. After all, what I’d said in the first edition about the benefits of standards-based design was still true: accessibility and semantics make your content easier to find and faster and cheaper to distribute. And the browser most people used when I wrote the first edition hadn’t changed in five years, so how tough a rewrite could I be facing? I figured I was looking at an updated screenshot or two, a changed URL, and maybe a couple of sticky notes.
About four months into the grueling (but also magically riveting) process, I realized that what I was doing was writing a book.
A lot of 2e will be familiar to the book’s fans, but a lot is new. And new is work. New is infinite wash-loads of work. Messy, exhausting. At some point in the infinite rinsing and lathering I was told the book had to be finished by last night. And so it has been.
I wouldn’t have made it alone. Erin and Ethan were right in there, carrying me.
I finished. I finished while grappling with sudden existential crises involving the people I love most. But then, my mother died while I was finishing my first book. Books kill.
This is me being cheerful after completing a rather strong second edition.
2e! 2e! My father and daughter and wife are well. My book is good. My song is sung.
In 1993, her brother, my uncle, took me to lunch. We hadn’t seen each other for a while. I was newly sober and raw as a razor burn, but pleased to be coherent and in his company. After some minutes of chit-chat, he leaned forward and said, “I think your mother has Alzheimer’s.”
People emerge from addiction like newborns. I got sober for this? was my immediate, shameful thought. And then:
“Yes,” That Voice Inside Me replied, “you were saved, in part, so you could be present for your mother in her illness.”
And was I present enough? Thirteen years on from my rebirth and my mother’s death sentence, six years on from her passing, I am as confused as any survivor who loves and cannot save.
It is a lousy disease. Especially when you know you’ve got it.
There’s realizing, by the strained smiles that greet you, that you must have said the same thing more than once.
There’s the stage where you’re upset but can’t say why, and people who love you are looking at you with pity, and their pity frightens you and hurts your pride.
You fabricate conflicts with old friends until they stop seeing you, so they will not be there to witness your decline.
Later there is running out of the house, pursued by ghosts.
Then forgetting your grown children’s names. And your husband’s.
Then comes a hideous second infancy.
Then you don’t eat.
At that point you must be placed in a facility. The transition from your home to a “home” is accompanied by the grief, guilt, mourning, rage, and regret of those still actively living. But you are not aware of it.
Or so I hope.
I do not live in the same city as my parents, so showing up involved air travel and schedule coordination — afflictions of the living.
Sometimes my mother came to my city.
The misery was like a layer cake.
There was the time I arrived at the unveiling of my dear aunt’s tombstone to find my mother and father already at the graveside. My mother was crying but did not seem to know for whom.
“Look,” said my father, pointing in my direction in hopes of cheering her up.
My mother looked right at me.
“I know that man,” she said.
A year later she could not talk.
Finally she was like someone in a near-coma. She could sit up. You could wheel her around. That was about it.
“Look, it’s spring,” you would tell her.
“Look, it’s fall, the leaves are changing,” you would tell her.
Near the very end, her hair turned white and she bloated after a lifetime of elegant thinness.
About a month before she died suddenly in her sleep I was visiting her in the Home. She had not spoken for a long time. She did not look you in the eye or notice if you were there. She had stopped eating the ice cream and other treats my father was always bringing her, which she used to eat like a baby from his hands.
Her stereo from home was in the room — another of my father’s ideas — and I popped in a CD she had owned and loved when it was an LP, Frank Sinatra’s “Wee Small Hours.” Not that it would do any good. But you keep trying.
There’s this haunting bluesy saxaphone riff on one of the tracks — a sad, brief volley of notes. Suddenly, as it played, my mother gripped my arm. Then she was gone again. Had it even happened?
Maybe one day I will see her and maybe she will be able to tell me.
She died before September 11th, 2001, and I remember thinking, Well, at least she did not have to see this.
It is a lousy disease, and one of the lousiest things about it is the way it displaces the memories one would prefer to hold onto. My mother was shrewd, smart, compassionate, hilarious, political, artistic, lively — and loved her family almost to a fault. Those are the things I want to remember, and do, when the damned disease isn’t obliterating all memories not related to death and decline.
I am blessed with a wife and daughter. My mother, who would have adored them, does not know them. My daughter resembles me as I resemble my mother. My daughter’s hands and feet are like my mother’s. Her face is like a bust of my mother my grandfather made. I never knew my grandfather although his photograph smiled opaquely at me from my mother’s piano. A painting of my mother adorns one wall of our apartment.
Will my daughter know my mother as anything besides a painting and a ghost? I think so. For there are things I will teach my daughter that only my mother’s son could teach.
A dollar short and two days late, happy birthday, Mom.
A few weeks back, Microsoft’s Robert Scoble invited me to join Bill Gates, Kelly Goto, Roger Black, Lynda Weinman and other luminaries at Mix 06, a Microsoft-hosted “72-hour conversation” that wraps today in Las Vegas. Purpose of event: to “mix the next web now.”
It was like receiving an invitation from the emperor.
You may think “Web 2.0” and the “next web” are meaningful, industry-shaping concepts, or you may view them as marketing spin. You may trust that Microsoft wishes to be a citizen of the emerging state or suspect that it wants to be king. Whatever you hope or fear, and whatever value you place on such gabfests, to participate would surely be to learn. Plus you’d get to rub elbows with pirates and pundits from Tim O’Reilly and Marc Canter to Molly Holzschlag and some of the big brains behind eBay and Amazon.
Yet after at least two minutes of agonizing inner debate, I declined Microsoft’s invitation. Timing, which is also the secret of comedy, was the problem. Mix 06 followed SXSW too closely. As a business owner, I could afford to stay away from my agency for one week, but not for two.
Although a lot of designers, writers, and technologists seem to have been able to hopscotch from Austin to Vegas without so much as checking their office mailbox, I couldn’t.
Here in New York City there were jobs to finish and meetings to attend. There were clients to see and accountants and attorneys to see and pay. In Las Vegas they might be polishing up HTML 6 or figuring out how to make readers write all the content and pay for it, but back in my studio I had voice mails and RFPs and PDFs and Photoshop comps to sort through. (Just like you!)
Eric Meyer, one of the smartest people I have ever known, is at Mix 06 and has recorded some impressions, the most designer-relevant of which concern how much more CSS work Microsoft plans to do on IE7. (Answer: none.)
There is also a photo of Eric Meyer excessively enjoying free Internet Explorer stickers and bottled water.
Simon St Laurent, another of the smartest people I have ever known, has written a next web column on why the XML web, semantic web, and services web haven’t happened yet (and may never) while AJAX/”Web 2.0″ has, kind-of. Reading Simon’s column might almost be as good as attending Mix 06.
And Tim O’Reilly has blogged what he was planning to talk about while sharing a stage with Bill Gates. (And if I were sharing a stage with Bill Gates you can bet I’d blog it, too. After all, here I am doing nothing and getting a nice post out of it.)
There’s also a post and video of the actual conversation between Bill Gates and Tim O’Reilly, although, oddly, the video is not in QuickTime format.
Tim O’Reilly starts the conversation by telling Bill Gates how a Tim O’Reilly blog post launched Web 2.0 and led thousands of people to buy and sell stuff. That is as far as I got watching the video.
I guess if you are talking to Bill Gates you have to tell him who you are, even if you are Tim O’Reilly.
Well, anyway, I didn’t go to Mix 06, so I have lost untold thousands of pundit karma points. But this morning I read Hippos Go Berserk! to my kid. And even though we have read that book together at least 562 times, she found it fresh and exciting and new. And so did I.
Good stories stay new.
Fascinating and industry-changing revelations are likely emerging from Mix 06. I’m a bit sorry to miss the first utterances of them. But however brilliant such revelations may be, and however far their ripples spread, my web will not change. Whatever the pundits and pirates may say this week, my web is about content.
No matter what’s said at any conference, my web will continue to be about good writing and good design. Because that’s what I care about. And your web is your web because you care about what you care about. And whatever that is, there’s plenty of it to be found or made on this big web we share.
No matter how many new marketing phrases and acronyms emerge (some even with concepts attached), and no matter how much money some people make or lose betting on them (and the choice of Las Vegas as venue is telling), what I value does not change.
Jason Fried, the president of 37signals, had just finished speaking to an admirer.
“It’s always guys,” he said wistfully of his fan base. “Never women.”
Fried’s colleague, Jim Coudal, said, “Women come up to me all the time. They say, ‘oh my God, do you know Jason Fried? My brother LOVES him!’”
Baby A__ , designer Jason Santa Maria and I were leaving everyone’s favorite egg-and-bean breakfast joint. We paused while Baby A__ and I negotiated the fine points of stroller and sippie cup maintenance.
A guy with just a touch of yesterday’s ashtray about him, one arm draped over a parking meter, eyed Jason Santa Maria suspiciously.
“You a Jew?” he asked.
Somehow it didn’t sound friendly.
Jason, who is of Italian American descent, answered truthfully in the negative.
“Have a good day,” I said to the guy, pushing the stroller briskly out of his universe.
A bunch of us had been dawdling in a sunbaked courtyard and now I was alone and late for the green room. Still wearing jet-black sunglasses against the Austin glare outside, I rode the long escalator through the airconditioned cool. Up, up, up.
I was riding up. Others were riding down. My face was turned vaguely in the direction of the people coming down, but I wasn’t looking at them, and wouldn’t have recognized anyone through my dark glasses even if I had been paying attention to them.
Suddenly, one of the people coming down was in my face, leaning across the up-down barrier to confront me.
“Ya know me!” she shouted angrily. “I’m Mary!” [Not her real name.]
It took all of a cartoon moment. By the time I realized what had happened, Mary [not her real name] was twenty feet below me and about to turn onto a lower escalator.
I could see by her gestures that she was furiously complaining to a companion about my perceived rudeness in not embracing her with flowers and song, or at least with a hello, as our bodies passed in the vast anonymous convention center space. That I might not have seen her hadn’t occurred to her.
Off guard and off balance, I tried to rectify a social mistake I hadn’t made by calling down to her rapidly disappearing body.
“Hi, Mary!” [not her real name] I trilled down the escalator, girlishly waving a hand in her direction. My voice was chirpy and strange to me, my gesture artificial and nanocenturies too late.
So now there are two dolls in hell.
There’s the Mary doll [not her real name] that breathes dragon fire and roars, “Ya know me! I’m Mary!”
And there’s the Jeffrey doll, waving girlishly down the vastness of an endless escalator shaft.