During his time in the military, a man I know served in Psychological Operations, or as it is better known, PSYOPS. Psychological Operations are designed to attack the enemy’s morale, undermining confidence and introducing fear.
Stationed at South Korea’s border with the North, my friend’s job was to create soundscapes. By mixing sound effects loops, he created the audio illusion of an apparently endless procession of armored vehicles. To the North Koreans, who could not see what was on the other side, it sounded like an immense army was mobilizing at their border.
My wife recalled this story during a dinner last night at an elegant restaurant. At least, it was elegant until we showed up. Our two-year-old daughter had missed her nap and was conducting a series of terror attacks on the linen, cutlery, and staff.
In an effort to save the restaurant from destruction and our family from shame, we tried bribing, coddling, and various distractions. When nothing else worked, we resorted to an escalating series of empty threats. Eventually, if only for a moment, we prevailed.
Gently removing sauce from her delicate blouse, my clever wife observed that parenting is like PSYOPS. You want them to think you have the tanks.
Rose 4:30 am. Wife and Kid in car service 5:30 am—off to airport, then Michigan. The Kid, not yet two, gets airplanes. On Fire Island, during a vacation which ended weeks ago but seems to have taken place in a separate century, she flew a toy airplane “to Jamaica” for several afternoons running. Not only that, she pointed out the real airplanes and helicopters occasionally flying over the island, and distinguished correctly between the two types of airborne vehicle.
Before this same vacation was halfway over, a mini-tornado touched down in nearby Queens, New York, initiating a week of hard rain. To find out if we needed to evacuate the island, we turned on the beach cottage’s small TV and watched the local news broadcasts, which were only slightly less operatic than The Sopranos. Panting TV journalists interrupted their Katrina-like reportage of the weather event to hype airline terror threats that turned out to be pranks or mistakes. When the TV showed three airplanes in a row as part of its “terror in the skies” coverage, The Kid pointed, clapped, and cried, “Airplane! Airplane!”
And when The Wife was called to her ancestral home last week, The Kid, not yet two, understood that Mommy was taking an airplane to give Grandma an all-better kiss.
Now they are both flying to the ancestral home to see Grandma. As I write this, they must be nearing their landing place. But I am not with them. I go to Seattle.
My grandfather, for whom I was named, died in a plane crash when my mother was eleven. The incident colored every moment of her life. I grew up afraid of flying in consequence—convinced I would die like my namesake. I don’t know when I stopped being afraid. I do a lot of flying, and my main worry, when traveling solo, is to be sure I’ve packed a book I love. (When traveling with The Kid, my anxieties revolve around liquids, snacks, diapers, and naps.)
I do a lot of flying, but not nearly as much as I could. I could speak in a different place every week if I said yes. These days I am careful about yes. Not because I fear, but because I love.
“The peaceful vigil at Union Square has turned into a carnival of sorts.” 23 September 2001
These mini-essays are not art. They are not reportage, either (but what is?), and may not even be accurate. We were all a bit dazed—although not so dulled as now. The shock and sorrow were fresh. The events of September 11th had not yet been branded, nor turned into tools of partisan rancor, nor made into a mini-series, nor used to justify atrocity.
Two weekends ago, my office phone line and an unknown number of other phone lines in my area went dead. I was in Chicago so it didn’t bother me. By Monday night, Verizon had apparently fixed the problem, and phone service was restored for me and my neighbors.
Come the following Sabbath, Verizon rested again.
If you called my office Saturday morning, you would have gotten a busy signal. If you tried Saturday afternoon, also a busy signal. The same on Saturday night.
Things got interesting on Sunday, if you consider no change interesting.
By Monday morning, the phone line was still dead. Noon brought no sudden restoration of telephony. 2:00? A disappointment, quite frankly. As the sun sets on a New York Monday, the absence of phone service attains a mystical sheen. Call me now. Busy signal. Dial again. Busy signal. Busy, busy, busy signal.
I tried using Verizon’s website to find out how to report the problem but it was like searching the moon for goats.
So I went downstairs to the Verizon pay phone, jotted down the “repair” number listed beside its little coin slot, and dialed it on my mobile.
See, if a pay phone goes down, that’s a problem.
That pay phone repair number was honey. After a mere six minutes of voice menu negotiation, I received my prognosis from the computer voice emulator that provides Verizon’s customers with quality service.
Thus spake Verizon:
“At present there is an outage in your area. Verizon is committed to restoring your phone service by … 8:00 … P.M. … on … Wednesday … June … 14th.”
“Committed to restoring” is the sweet part.
As far as I can tell, the problem involves phone lines, so you can see why it would take one of America’s largest phone companies five days to tackle a brain teaser like that.
Fortunately I only use my telephone to run my business, contact my family, and report medical emergencies. So the next few days should be just fine.
Eight hours after leaving Laguardia Airport, I must go back.
I’ve got the underwear and striped shirts of a Mr Mbutu Alibekoglu (not his real name) from Fort Wayne Indiana (not his real location) in a suitcase that looked just like ours when I grabbed it off the American Airlines luggage carousel at Laguardia late last night.
I’ll return Mr Alibekoglu’s suitcase; hopefully ours will still be there. American Airlines Lost Luggage couldn’t tell me, mainly because they never answer their phone.
In other news, my office phone was out all weekend, but Verizon seems to be fixing the problem remotely this morning. Already, the phone works again in a buzzy, clicky, clacky, poppy way.
Not that I’ll need an office phone where I’m going.
I’m going to Laguardia, lugging a stranger’s suitcase I picked up by mistake at the end of a weary day. It’s the kind of error you make when tired and travelling with a toddler. You beat yourself up for it, blowing the whole thing out of proportion. But it’s a mistake, not a moral failing; a three-hour chore, not a descent into hell.
Mr Mbutu Alibekoglu’s suitcase contains underwear and socks, not anthrax and grenade launchers. The FBI won’t pounce on you and whisk you to Gitmo when you drag his suitcase into the airport.
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.