Tale of a Temporary Telecommuter

Reflections on the pros and cons of working from home

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to work for a company whose workforce is distributed. That is, a company whose employees work from home (or other office space) and use the internet to do their work and communicate with their colleagues.

Most of the time, the company I work for is staffed by on-site workers. But a recent construction project at our main campus forced a large number of us to work from remote locations. Thus, I enjoyed a rare opportunity to experience the life of a telecommuter for two weeks.

There were a lot of things that I loved about telecommuting. There were a few unexpected drawbacks as well. Overall, it’s an experience that I would love to repeat, and get to know better.

The Pros

  1. I saved time and money by not driving round-trip to the mother ship. My commute normally takes about a half an hour, so I saved an hour per day. That adds up to 260 hours per year. That’s the equivalent of 6 1/2 work weeks, or vacation weeks, depending on how you look at it. Also, it meant one less car on the road causing traffic and polluting the air.
  2. Better mental health. I slept an hour later on the days that I telecommuted. This, combined with the fact that I didn’t experience the stress of the morning commute, meant that I was happier and gave my freshest mental energy to my work.
  3. Better physical health. The natural light in my home office was a nice alternative to the fluorescent fixtures that illuminate the cubicle farm. I worked with my windows open, so I breathed a lot of fresh air. I was not tempted by the array of fattening snacks that well-meaning coworkers frequently leave out in common spaces. I did not breathe photocopier fumes, nor was I subjected to my coworkers’ colognes and fast-food smells.
  4. Silence. I loved that there were no distractions caused by people or machines. No beeping sounds, ringtones, email sounds, or text message sounds. No printer or shredder sounds. No incessant mouse clicks or clackity keyboard sounds. No fantasy football discussions or impromptu meetings taking place just outside my cubicle walls. I imagine that telecommuting employees with children, pets, or stay-at-home partners run the risk of being equally distracted by those influences. But I was completely alone, and I loved it. At one point my back yard was visited by a rafter of wild turkeys, but this provided a welcome afternoon break.
  5. The flow of work felt more natural. It seemed that my efforts were more task-based than time-based. The usual flow is: rush to get to work, work two hours, take a break, work two hours, eat lunch, work two hours, take a walk, work two hours, spend half an hour driving home. Repeat five times, then take two days off. Working from home feels more like: check messages, plan the day’s agenda, make some coffee, begin the first task, work until that task is finished, take a stretch break, begin the next task, respond to a request from a colleague, jog around the back yard for a few minutes, pick some chard from the garden, work some more, etc. The tasks seemed to unfold more organically throughout the day.
  6. I was every bit as available from home as I normally am in the office. In addition to my front-end web development responsibilities, there is a customer service aspect to my job, which I love. People have web- or design-related needs that they often don’t realize until the last minute. They call or email me for help. I solve the problem. They are grateful. I feel needed. It’s tremendously satisfying. Thanks to the work of the company’s IT department, there were systems in place that allowed me to do my job seamlessly from my remote location. I forwarded my office phone number to my home phone, and I could access all the internal resources I needed over a secure VPN connection.
  7. I was productive. I won’t claim that I was more productive than usual, but I would go so far as to say that I was equally productive. I attribute this to being happier, healthier, and less distracted, as noted above.
  8. I’m not going to lie: I enjoyed working in my pajamas and slippers.

The Cons

  1. I missed many of my coworkers. Even the ones who cause some of the aforementioned distractions. I am fortunate to work with great people, and for better or worse, we are like a big family. As effective a communication medium as the web is, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face discussion, with all the nuance and body language it provides. But I think that a meet-up once every week or two would suffice.
  2. I missed riding my motorbike. In the winter when it’s snowing, and when school is in session and traffic is dense, the commute is stressful. But in the summer when the weather is nice, I love to ride my motorcycle to work. I choose a mellow route that meanders over backroads through some beautiful, hilly farmland. It’s a nice meditation, and a nice way to bookend the work day.
  3. Network latency. I worked over a fast cable internet connection, but some unknown link in the chain throttled network speeds to a crawl. I’m not sure whether it’s simply the nature of VPN, or an under-provisioned server, or if it’s an issue with Adobe applications. Photoshop CC took 34 seconds to open a 52MB file off of a network drive, versus 7 seconds to open the same file saved to my local machine’s desktop. I quickly figured out that it was more effective to copy files down to my local machine, work on them there, then copy them back to the network drive when I was done.
  4. Telephone service. Out here in the country where I live, Verizon’s wireless signal is pathetic. Just about every phone call I take gets dropped or scrambled. This wasn’t a huge problem for my work, as I conducted most of my business asynchronously via email. But the handful of people who reached out by phone had to repeat themselves a couple of times.
  5. Time seemed to pass more slowly than usual. It felt a bit like jet lag at first. I attribute this to the absence of the habitual “structure” imposed by the normal work week: waking early, exercising, showering, donning the business-casual attire, commuting, etc. I created a new structure during my two weeks of telecommuting, but it felt unfamiliar, and it took almost the whole two weeks for my circadian rhythms to adjust to it.

In Conclusion

Obviously there are certain types of jobs (doctor, nurse, law enforcer, repair person, manufacturer, laborer) that require a physical presence at a particular work site. But for programmers, designers, writers, and other mostly computer-based professionals, telecommuting—even part of the time—seems like a reasonable and environmentally-responsible option. Kudos to the companies that trust their employees, and explore this modern approach to work.

First Snow

An occasion for reflection and gratitude

Over the twenty-eight years that I’ve been a naturalized New Englander, I’ve developed a personal tradition: every year, I must artisanally hand-shovel the first snowfall. In fact, I try to avoid using a gasoline-powered snowblower for as long as I can into the season. This ceases to be practical after the second or third foot of snow has fallen in as many weeks, which eventually does happen.

This year the first real snowfall came pretty late—December 28th. (I’m not counting the flurries that flew early in October.) We didn’t get a deep accumulation—it was only three or four inches. But what little fell was wet, heavy as bricks, and covered with a brittle crust of ice, leading me to question the wisdom of shoveling the whole driveway by hand (and by back). But I forged ahead and did my work, and in the process reminded myself of why I had concocted my silly tradition in the first place.

It had something to do with being rugged and stoic in the face of daunting odds and conditions, which I’ve romanticized as a New England trait. It also puts me in touch with an earlier, more thoughtful, less mechanized way of doing things. We live in such a privileged, materialistic society that makes it so easy to step on a pedal and end up miles from where we were half an hour ago. In this light, I think it is so important to maintain a perspective that honors the laws of physics and the idea that what goes up must come down. Whatever seems easy (like pushing a button and starting an orange robot that makes easy work of snow removal) must be paid for somewhere else in the universe, probably by some innocent butterfly whose only crime was flapping its wings.

So I return to my shoveling, thinking these deep thoughts, fancying myself some kind of modern-day Thoreau, “wishing to speak a word for Nature.” But I burst my own bubble when I catch myself grumbling about how hard it is to live in a place that experiences extreme winters. (I’m sure that my friends in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Manitoba will chuckle at this characterization of Massachusetts.) There’s always a five-to-ten-foot strip where the driveway meets the road, where big plow trucks throw salty slush, adding the snow from the road to the snow already on your driveway, gluing everything together into a giant block of concrete, and turning your evening into a major excavation project.

But the complaining reflex doesn’t last for long, as I snap back to the perspective of how fortunate and grateful I am. After so many years of struggling and wanting, I finally have a driveway TO shovel. And I think about people in Missouri and Louisiana whose homes are being flooded, and worry about them. I think about people who are being held captive, even if it’s a prison of their own making—a mental scaffolding of religious fanaticism, political fervor, or lust for attention. And my heart goes out to them, and hopes that one day they will find peace within themselves. I think a lot about people who face health challenges, and all the associated pain. My heart goes out to everyone in the world who is suffering, and it makes my little mountain of ice seem so inconsequential.

And I return to my shoveling.

Springing Forward, Falling Backward

All of this time zone switching is upsetting our circadian rhythms. Let’s pick one time zone and stick with it.

A traffic sign outside of the local fire station flashes a reminder: “Change your clocks, change your smoke detector batteries.” It’s a clever association, but I would argue that only one of these periodic tasks is necessary. Smoke detectors save lives. I’m happy to spend an hour per year installing fresh batteries so that I won’t be awoken at 3:00 in the morning by a periodic chirp from who knows where in the house. But “springing forward” and “falling backward” jars our circadian rhythms. Why do we continue to do this to ourselves?

There are several urban myths purporting to explain why we change our clocks. One has it that shifting clocks forward gives farmers more daylight to work their fields in the summer. Another theory has it that changing clocks back in the fall makes it lighter—and therefore safer—for school children to board buses and walk to school early in the morning. Flashlights, anyone? Yet another story has it that we save energy in the summer by leaving our lights off until later in the evening. This seems to be loosely related to the legend that Benjamin Franklin advocated for people to arise earlier, so that they would make better use of morning light, and consequently burn fewer candles. But I have yet to see any compelling evidence that changing our clocks helps us. A growing body of evidence suggests that it does not.

Checklist of clocks to change
Checklist of clocks to change

How many clocks do you change twice per year? I change seven (not including my iPhone and my computer, which are smart enough to change themselves). I’ve got a watch. An old digital clock radio. The clock in my camera. My microwave oven. My regular oven. A manual wall clock in the kitchen. The clock in my car. Don’t get me wrong—I’m deeply grateful for each of these luxuries. But each of them has its own peculiar way of setting the time, and some of them are less intuitive than others (I’m looking at you, Hyundai).

As silly and monotonous as this chore seems, I’m not opposed to doing the work. I like to tinker with things, so I find messing around with clocks to be enjoyable on a certain level. But I am loath to endure what amounts to bureaucratically imposed jet lag twice per year. We humans are sensitive creatures. Furthermore, we are not the only things that are impacted by this biannual ritual–consider all the time-dependent software that stands to go awry. A few years ago my iPhone’s calendar events got mixed up for days after a time change.

I agree with Tom Emswiler, who argues that we in Massachusetts should defect from our time zone, and join the Atlantic Standard Time Zone (one hour ahead of Eastern Time) year-round. It makes sense—New England is farther east than many other states on the Eastern Seaboard. Among other sound arguments, Emswiler cites a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which found that heart attacks increased for three days in the spring following the start of daylight saving time. That “lost hour” may be fraught with deeper repercussions than the modern productivity-oriented mindset understands or wants to admit.

I realize that time is an abstract, and that nothing is really changing but our “framing” of it. Clouds, trees, fish, and birds (apart from the cuckoo) don’t pay attention to what clocks say. But when society decides that a store opens at 9, employers say that work starts at 8, and a friend wants to meet for lunch at noon, we have little choice but to adopt the new frame when it changes.

But what if we didn’t? What if we stopped trying to change time? We would do well to heed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” In the context of timekeeping, we could be more patient with the short days of winter and the long days of summer, accept the strengths and limitations of each part of the cycle in the particular place where we live, and embrace the ebb and flow of light through the seasons without jolting our biological rhythms in the process.

Apple of My Eye

Sometimes bad things happen to good software.

It is an interesting time to be a customer of Apple computers, devices, and software. The hardware is gorgeous and efficient. The iOS 8 and Mac OS X “Yosemite” operating systems are powerful. Many aspects of the new software interfaces are delightful. I like where things are going with cloud-based services and the vision of seamless syncing among devices. But the transition to this new era of Apple software design is not without its growing pains. Continue reading “Apple of My Eye”

A Tree for All Seasons

A fond farewell to my old friend, the oak tree.

This is the last photograph I will ever publish of this old oak tree, and the lovely meadow over which it presides. I’m not bored with the subject; who could ever tire of looking at clouds like these? No, the reason I will never photograph this place again is that it is slated to become a Walmart store.

I was devastated when I learned the news. I have come to revere this old tree as one would an elderly person sitting on a park bench, seemingly marginalized and passed over by a fast-paced world, but exuding a quiet confidence that tells a thousand stories.

This is not an indictment of Walmart. Despite criticisms that one could (and many do) levy against the giant, Walmart is a business. It is doing exactly what it is supposed to do; exactly what we the people tell it to do. Nor is it an indictment of the host city. Holyoke, one of the poorest cities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, would benefit (at least in the short term) from the jobs and the tax revenue. This is more of an indictment of a modern society that values convenience over open space and natural beauty. And in this sense, it is an indictment of myself. I have shopped at Walmart before, and at some point I probably will yet again. Every dollar I spend is a vote for the kind of world I want to live in. In my own small way, I will have helped to kill this tree.

I generally prefer to support independent local retailers over “big box” stores. Sure, the service at a small business might take longer and cost a little bit more, and the selection of products may be limited. But the overall quality of the shopping experience feels more human, as does the sense of shared connection with our community and respect for our environment. But is it enough to support our local retailers? Or do we need to more closely examine the impact of satisfying all our commercial desires? At some point way back in the Twentieth Century, Walmart started out as the quintessential local retailer with one store: Sam Walton’s Five and Dime. And now, scaled up by orders of magnitude, look what “shopping local” hath wrought.

I am under no illusion that I’ll be able to stop the relentless forward march of the bulldozer. Our modern, convenience-addicted society demands more goods, lower prices, and stores that are closer to us. Never mind that we already have everything we need: the Holyoke Mall, a CVS pharmacy, a Kmart, a Bed Bath & Beyond, a Petco, a Barnes & Noble, and a Stop & Shop grocery store are all located within a mile of this soon-to-be Walmart. Competition is the name of the game here. My hope is that Walmart and its developer will see a little bit of the same magic that I see in my friend the oak tree, and will find a way to spare it. Can you imagine parking lots peppered with old-growth shade trees? I can.

To be perfectly honest, my photos of this meadow are somewhat fictional. What you don’t see—what I prefer to exclude with my camera’s lens—is the yucky stuff: the “no trespassing” sign at the field’s border, the impenetrable brush, and the doubtless thousands of mosquitoes and ticks that it harbors. The surrounding neighborhoods are nothing special either: some modest ranch houses on small lots; a few downtrodden apartment complexes; a handful of businesses; a fire station. And hidden beyond the precipice at the far end of the field is yet another shopping center. The whole place is sort of an oxymoron: a busy road in the middle of a pseudo-industrial limbo that used to be farmland.

But I find such oxymorons intriguing, and I have learned to train my camera on them at every opportunity, building a repertoire of images of a fleeting world I’d love to hang on to.

When the world exasperates me (as it often does), I like to invoke the wisdom of others to guide and inspire me. There is one thought in particular that has been resonating with me lately, in all sorts of situations:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

—Richard Buckminster Fuller

What, then, will be the new model that I build? Will I relocate next to a cemetery, an ocean, or even further out into the sticks where no one would possibly want to plop a big box store? Will I simply acquiesce, accepting thoughtless commercial expansion as an unavoidable by-product of a cancerous capitalism? Or will I intensify my efforts to photograph the dwindling natural beauty that I find in unlikely places, creating an illusionary cut-and-pasted paradise that represents “the way we could have been”? I’m liking this latter approach.

It is with much gratitude and great respect that I have had the privilege of photographing this particular meadow over the years. Now I will move on and find another willing subject. Farewell, my friend the tree. I will see you in the cosmos.

Remembering Hillman Curtis

A tribute to Hillman Curtis, one of the world’s great creative minds who died of cancer in 2012

Hillman Curtis had been one of my personal heroes since the early 2000s. I had discovered one of his short films featuring the music of what would become one of my favorite bands, Mogwai. I promptly went out and bought his 2002 book MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer, and it became one of the handful of books that shaped my own creative aspirations over the years.

One of the things that made Hillman such a compelling influence for me is that his career trajectory foreshadowed and in some ways mirrored my own. He had been a student, a creative writer, a musician in a rock band, a graphic designer, a web designer, and ultimately a filmmaker.

What’s the Story?

In his book (MTIV stands for Making the Invisible Visible), one of the things Hillman taught is that success in creative projects usually depends on how clearly we understand and present the central theme of whatever story we are telling (whether it be our own or that of our clients). In his eponymous video, he characterizes his own theme as “Reinvention.”

I would add that it wasn’t reinvention merely for the sake of change. That would have been easy enough to justify: we live in a society mesmerized by “all that is shiny and new.” What struck me about Hillman’s serial self-reinvention was that there was a deep level of continuity to it. Every evolution built upon the successes of the previous incarnation.

Studying creative writing led to writing songs; which in turn led to his going on the road with a band. His band needed posters to advertise its shows, so Hillman stepped up and taught himself that craft. And with computer skills under his belt, it made perfect sense to move his creativity online when the whole Web thing happened. Motion graphics on the Web became a big deal (and a lucrative business opportunity), and Hillman evolved to become a master of Adobe’s (née Macromedia) Flash technology. When Flash became the go-to platform for delivering video over the Web, the path became clear once again, and Hillman had an opportunity to circle back to his writing and filmmaking roots.

On this, the anniversary of his passing, I’m taking a few moments to appreciate his gifts and his influence upon my creative life.

A few related links

Figure Drawing

A few figure studies, and some thoughts on the odd practice of drawing the nude human figure

For thousands of years and maybe more, artists have drawn, painted, and sculpted the nude human figure. In theory, working from the live nude model is a serious practice that aims to teach artists to see, to understand human anatomy, to appreciate and empathize with humanity in its totality, and to render the forms that we see. But let’s face it: it’s an odd practice.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with nakedness. The human body is beautiful. Nakedness is natural. It’s how we come into this world, and it’s how we spend some of our finest private moments. But we live in a culture where being clothed is the norm, and where the human body is often sexualized and politicized. Most of us have some degree of self-consciousness about our bodies. Consequently, for those of us who’ve had a relatively conventional Western upbringing (whatever that means), experiencing public nakedness evokes some emotional and intellectual dissonance.

The first time one ever joins a room full of other art students to gaze upon a live figure model (naked person), it’s kind of awkward. I can’t even imagine how models must feel about being objectified for our benefit. However, most of the models I’ve met seem singularly unconcerned about their nudity. In fact, they seem uncannily comfortable in their own skin, and interested in the art that is being made. Kudos to them for being so brave and seemingly unselfconscious (though perhaps this is an incorrect assumption).

In the meantime, we get over our discomfort, continue with the practice, and go on to gain a better understanding of human anatomy. We learn how to draw what we see, and we begin the arduous process of figuring out how representation of the human form fits into our work. The more one practices figure drawing, the less awkward it feels.

Contour Studies

Contour studies

Gesture Studies

Gesture studies

More gesture studies

Drawings I’ve made at a drawing class I occasionally attend at Amherst College

Other kinds of drawing

Human figures are not the only subjects worthy of our artistic study. I have also enjoyed drawing still life compositions, landscapes, old manual typewriters, crumpled-up paper bags, crushed Cheerwine soda cans, neckties, abstractions, and a few other delights.

1954 Chevrolet Truck

1954 Chevrolet truck

Some Onions

Some onions

Hanging up the Skates

A story about my relationship with the great sport of ice hockey, and my short-lived retirement from organized play.

Trace at age 8, as a Mite
The author as a Maple Leaf Mite, circa 1974

When I was a kid, I played one season of ice hockey as a Toronto Maple Leaf at the Mites level. The Atlanta Flames were my hometown’s professional team at the time, and hockey was popular enough to support a vibrant youth program in what was at that time one of the few southern cities to host an NHL team. My dad (who also played amateur hockey) took me to see a lot of Flames games at the Omni, and we sat right behind one of the goals—literally in the first or second row. I got to see some of The Greats—Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Bobby Clarke, Curt Bennett (need I say more?)—playing at close range, smashing into the glass sans-helmet (back when that was allowed), seventies hair flowing in the breeze. In between the periods, I was one of the kids to whom referees would sometimes toss game pucks over the glass. In a box in an attic somewhere, I must still have one or two of those pucks, and autographs of several of the Flames.

Hockey is a sport of contrasts. As a mild-mannered, peace loving guy, I am as conflicted about the brutal and aggressive aspects of the sport as I am enthralled with its beauty and regalia. The code of honor between the players. The beautiful graphic design and colors of the uniforms, set against a brilliant field of snowy white. The sheer grace of the dance on skates. The speed. The strategy. The skill. The uniqueness and obscurity of it. The crispness of the cold air. The bravery. The adrenaline. The passion. The pizza. (Okay, I digress.)

I don’t remember whether, after one season, I quit playing of my own accord, or whether my parents couldn’t afford to keep buying bigger and bigger skates and pads to keep up with their growing boy. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I fell in love with the sport, and always thought that I had played it better than any other organized sport I had played as a kid (which consisted of soccer, basketball, and baseball).

Later on in my childhood, I had a notion to try out for football, a seemingly more accessible sport than hockey, but one I had never played before. I didn’t even like football very much, but many of my peers were playing it, and for some reason, I got it in my mind that I should play too. But a strange thing happened when I arrived at the tryouts: I freaked out. I panicked. I chickened out. I cried. I hid behind the bleachers. The sight of all those kids confidently playing a sport I didn’t yet know how to play filled me with angst. The prospect of embarrassment was terrifying. I ended up begging my mom to take me home, before I ever set foot on the field. In her motherly compassion, she obliged. (Thanks, Mom!)

As trivial as that incident seemed, it stuck with me over the years, staying safely stowed away in that part of my heart where I stow such things. Even as adulthood offered more meaningful opportunities for me to develop my competence and self confidence, I occasionally recalled that time of self doubt, and I imagined it symbolizing something I needed to overcome at some point, when the opportunity presented itself.

On a wing and a prayer, I moved to New England in my early twenties, and ice sports once again entered my consciousness. I lived not far from an outdoor rink that the Town of Amherst maintained during the winters, and I occasionally played pick-up hockey with the locals. Later, while studying art at the University of Massachusetts, my studio space was located in the legendary Art Barn, just a stone’s throw from the Mullins Center ice rink. For several semesters, I managed to finagle my class schedule such that I could ice skate every weekday at the noontime public skating session. I got really good at skating during that time. It was meditation. All of that time on the ice gave me a lot of time to reflect on and romanticize my childhood hockey experience. I often thought about how cool it would be to play again someday. But when? And how?

A few years back, as my fortieth birthday approached, it hit me: THIS was my time to start striking things off my bucket list. Trying out for an amateur hockey team served a dual purpose. It gave me a chance once again to play the sport I had played and loved as a kid, and it gave me a chance to revisit the aforementioned football tryout shame incident, and this time, to push through and overcome the fear. I am happy to report that the whole venture has been incredibly worthwhile and successful on both of those levels. I have made some good friends, and have achieved a difficult goal that I set for myself. (Did I mention that playing hockey is difficult?) Playing has kept me in pretty decent shape, and—I would argue—has contributed to my physical dexterity and mental sharpness.

But some good things must come to an end*, and I’m beginning to feel the toll that an intensely physical sport can take on a body. My injuries over the past handful of seasons have been fairly minor, thankfully. Some bumps and bruises and a puck to the chest. One painful hip pointer that lasted a half a year or so. Other people in my league have not been so fortunate. A couple of guys have sustained pretty serious and bloody accidental skate-slicings in the last two seasons (one in the forearm and one in the thigh) and there have been a few garden variety busted knees, snapped tendons and the like. Amazingly, no lost teeth (the smart guys like me wear the full bird-cage face masks on our helmets). Ours is a fairly collegial, gentlemanly, no-check league in which referees are strict and fighting is not tolerated. But hockey is fast, and incidental contact is unavoidable. I want to get out before my number comes up!

Trace as a grown-up hockey player
The author as a grown-up hockey player

While I am a little emotional about my pending retirement, I have no regrets about bowing out of the league honorably at this point, and I will leave with my head held high. I’ve represented the forty-something crowd quite respectably, skating head-to-head with, and scoring goals against kids half my age. I’m sure I will continue to play informal shinny and pond hockey when available. But I am looking forward to reclaiming my Saturday nights from this long-standing commitment. Saturday nights I will henceforth spend working in my studio, visiting with friends, adventuring, reading and relaxing at home, possibly watching hockey, and maybe—just maybe—updating my website from time to time.

Saturday, February 25th, 2012, at 8:00 p.m. in Greenfield, Massachusetts, I will play my last regular-season game as a winger with the Canadiens of the Greenfield Adult Hockey League. Then the following Saturday, playoffs begin. If we lose the first game of the playoffs, it’s over. I’m done. If we win, my team goes on to play a best-of-three series for the championship. Which ever way it goes, I can’t wait to play my heart and lungs out, then retire #11.

* 2015 update: Retirement just wasn’t for me. I’m back in the rink.

Two Trees

Two maple trees at Mt. Pollux in South Amherst, Massachusetts.

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that there is anything more gloriously beautiful than autumn in New England. Each of the seasons has its own particular beauty, but October—my favorite month—ushers in a perfect convergence of climate, emotion, and color.

The heat of summer tapers off and is replaced with a cooler ambient temperature. Gardeners lay their gardens to rest, and people and animals alike batten down the hatches in preparation for the winter to come. Dramatic, blustery clouds and azure skies set a pensive mood. Golden afternoon light illuminates resplendent, fiery colors that the region’s trees produce. All of this is draped over a stunningly-gorgeous landscape and an all too fleeting American Gothic architectural style. By mid-month, invigorating breezes will whip up the leaves that will have fallen. Crisp, sweet smells of composting leaves will waft about. And by the end of the month the show will be over.

One of the places that I most love to visit during this season is Mount Pollux, located in South Amherst, Massachusetts. Formerly an apple orchard, Mt. Pollux is a little knob just north of Mt. Norwottuck, the highest mountain in the Holyoke Range. It is a very romantic, dreamy, energetic place. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sits atop an intersection of some of the earth’s ley lines. Many weddings have taken place here. Doubtless many young romantics have wooed each other on its flanks. Many hands have been held, many picnics have been consumed, and many kites have been flown. I brought my Dad here when he visited many moons ago, and we ceremoniously remembered my departed brother (and his son). As I recall, we visited on a bitterly cold the day.

One of the unique features of Mt. Pollux is that from the top, on a clear day, you are treated to a nearly unobstructed, 360-degree view of the surrounding land, which includes the Connecticut River Valley (a.k.a. the Pioneer Valley) and mountains as far away as New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. You can’t see Connecticut to the south, because the majestic Holyoke Range stands in the way. And you can’t see Rhode Island because it’s just so darn small.

Another unique feature of Mt. Pollux is its centerpiece: the two maple trees at the top. I have been told that some students from nearby Hampshire College refer to the place simply as Two Trees, which makes perfect sense.

Calling it Mt. Pollux makes sense too, as the trees embody an energy of “two-ness.” Recursively underscoring this theme, there is also a Mt. Castor in the area, but it is harder to find.

In Roman mythology, Castor and Pollux were the Gemini (twin) brothers. As astronomy buffs will tell you, the constellation Gemini comprises the twin stars Castor and Pollux. (Incidentally, my aforementioned brother Trevor was born under the astrological sign of Gemini.)

In the myth, the twins shared the same mother but had different fathers (immortal Zeus and mortal Tyndareus), which meant that Pollux was immortal and Castor was mortal. When Castor was killed, Pollux asked Zeus to let him share his own immortality with his twin to keep them together and they were transformed into the Gemini constellation. The pair were regarded as the patrons of sailors, to whom they appeared as St. Elmo’s fire.

One thing I like about these two trees is that they seem to tell a story. They are not classically “perfect” maple specimens. They are unusual and asymmetrical. They are a little bit messy, not unlike life itself. The tree on the left sports a protrusion that reaches out to cover a corresponding chunk that is missing from the tree on the right. Both of the trees lean away from each other, but they seem to be relating. Is the one on the left reaching out to help one on the right, which has been injured in an ancient lightning strike or ice storm? Or is it more of an antagonistic gesture, as might befit a bickering old couple? Is it presumptuous to anthropomorphize them thusly?

If you have a chance, visit Mt. Pollux and decide for yourself! In the meantime, please enjoy this photograph.

San Francisco and the Marin Headlands

Photos of my adventures in the San Francisco Bay area.

In August of 2010 I traveled to San Francisco, California for the first time to attend a professional conference called UX Week. I fell in love with the area. Everywhere I turned was a visual feast that appealed to my inner aspiring photographer. Every aspect of the place—the climate, the fog, the architecture, the topography, the flora, the Mediterranean quality of light, and the cultural vibe—felt intriguingly and refreshingly foreign from anything I had ever experienced before, even in my dreams. Luckily, I had an opportunity to return to the area for a week in August of 2011. Following are a few of my favorite shots from both visits.

En route, somewhere over the Midwest

View from a plane

This story would not be complete without a photo taken from the plane. This one was taken some 38,000 feet above Michigan. As uncomfortable, expensive, potentially unhealthy, and inconvenient as the air travel can be, there is something about it that I love, and that I feel is necessary to drive home the scale of the country, its mountains, and the distance between the coasts.

It is still mesmerizing to me that I can fly out of Boston, see the Atlantic Ocean, and in less time than I spend at work on a typical day, see the Pacific on the other coast, as I descend into San Francisco. I always book a window seat, because I love to look down and get a feel for the topographical character of the various parts of the country. Every region has its own signature landmarks, crop circles, bodies of water, canyons, and other formations. And at night (if you have the fortune of returning on an overnight flight as I did), you can see different types of grids that cities and towns are built upon, etched in lights below.

Trolley leaving Powell & Market

San Francisco Trolley

Ever since I was a child I have always been fascinated with trains. So rugged and free, yet so orderly. Needless to say, San Francisco’s trolleys were one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing. After my flight, I took BART from SFO to the Powell Street Station (near where I spent the week, at Hotel Palomar). I had been up from the underground station no more than two minutes when I was blown away by this sight. I was instantly transformed into a kid again, full of wide-eyed amazement. Oh, the possibilities of things!

Steep hills in this city

Steep San Francisco hills

Neither the moderate Piedmont plateau of Atlanta, Georgia (where I was born and spent the first half of my life) nor the rolling hills and fertile valleys of Western Massachusetts that I now call home could have prepared me for the topographical surprise and delight that I would discover in San Francisco. There are a couple of flat areas in the city (that I am certain the local bicyclists have discovered), but most of San Francisco—at least the part that I saw—simply undulates.

It is one of the true great romantic cities of the world. Apparently it’s very motorcycle-friendly too, which I would not have expected of a place that is fairly seismically active.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge

I love bridges almost as much as I love trains! Before my conference began, a couple of dear old friends now living in the Bay Area picked me up at my hotel and drove me across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands, where we enjoyed a simply perfect day lunching in Sausalito, playing on Rodeo Beach, walking among the tall California redwood trees at Muir Woods, and taking in some breathtaking sights from the bluffs above the San Francisco Bay, just north of the city.

Rodeo Beach

Rodeo Beach

Giant rocks and steep cliffs held together with succulent vegetation are hallmarks of Rodeo Beach (apparently pronounced “roh-DAY-oh”). This photograph was taken in August 2011 (on my second visit), and was a typically blustery, foggy day (unlike last year’s visit which was unseasonably clear and warmer). What a magical place it is. Seriously—as the song says—when you go, be sure to wear a flower in your hair!

Celebrating a Decade Online

My website—tracemeek.com—has been online since February 7, 2001.

Big Boy figurine

While reviewing and organizing some old digital files and accounts recently, I was both startled and overjoyed when I stumbled across a reminder that this website—tracemeek.com—had been online for over a decade. Since February 7, 2001, to be exact.

And then a twinge of sadness crept over me. Ten years seemed like an auspicious anniversary to have let slip by with such little fanfare. Where have I been? What have I been doing? How did I get this far? So I thought I would make amends by writing a little about this site’s history, and by recommitting to its future development. This also serves as the inaugural long-form essay in my second decade online, and coincides with the launch of a brand new website.

My formative years on the Web

Back in the late 1990s when I first went online, I was a recent college graduate and artist working in an art-related manufacturing industry. I saw the Web as an opportunity to promote my art work to a wider audience than I had previously known. Being a do-it-yourselfer, I set about learning how to build my own online art portfolio.

I quickly outgrew iTools (Apple’s WYSIWYG webpage creation tool at the time), yet the prospect of hand coding a site using a text editor (SimpleText) was still a little daunting. A coworker with friends in the web design industry told me that she had heard good things about Macromedia (now Adobe) Dreamweaver. So I bought the software and built my first real site by trial and error, reading everything I could about web design along the way, and loving every minute of it.

By today’s standards the code under the hood of my first site was disastrous, but I was online, Baby, and there was no looking back.

Rumblings of change

At some point along the way I began to see another opportunity emerge: a potential new career path. “If I can build a website for myself,” I thought, “I can build websites for other people, and make a better living doing something I enjoy.” The barriers to entry seemed relatively low: I wouldn’t need to go to the equivalent of law school or medical school in order to build a legitimate web design practice. I discovered websites like A List Apart (ALA) that published free (and priceless) articles that helped me to learn the art, the science, and the trade of web design. ALA was founded by Jeffrey Zeldman, a pioneer of publishing on the web and the preeminent champion of Web Standards.

In and of itself, this course of self study probably would have sufficed, but in order to gain more in-depth technical knowledge, build professional credibility, and academically affirm what I was already learning on my own, I entered and completed a Master CIW Designer professional certification program at STCC, worked an internship, scored a couple of freelance gigs, landed my first real design job, then the rest was history.

Consequently, at some point during the early aughts my site entered its adolescence (or was it extended childhood?) with an awkward multiple identity: fine art portfolio, aspiring mural painting business, and web design business, all lumped together under the label of Creative Services. My accountant assured me that it made sense on paper, but I struggled for several years with the breadth of the endeavor. While such diverse Creative Services may be an apt metaphor for my oeuvre—the spirit of my life’s work—it did not make for the most cogent business model, and ultimately proved to be unsustainable. So I contented myself with my role as an in-house web designer, which it turns out is not a bad place to be.

To blog or not to blog? That was the question.

Later I blogged in fits and starts (briefly in 2003, and again from 2007-2009), but ultimately scrapped those projects while I still had some water left in the proverbial well. Both my personal and professional life were in flux, so I choose a handful of priorities to receive the lion’s share of my attention. I needed to put writing on the back burner for a while, but I pledged to resume the practice when it fit more comfortably into my life. I wasn’t finding my public Voice then, and that was OK. It was the right battle, but at the wrong time.

Nor did I fully comprehended the scale of the Web—the fact that I wouldn’t be writing for just myself, friends, family, and business associates, but potentially for a worldwide audience. The responsibility of having such a global voice was intimidating. Would my small town musings seem petty on this big important world stage? How would I forge a connection? How would I keep trolls and stalkers at bay? How would I avoid being perceived as one? Already I’d had mixed success in attempting to befriend my heroes online. I had only experienced real-world rejection up to that point; would I be able to handle a whole new flood of potential rejection on a worldwide scale?

And then there were the technical considerations of blogging. At the time, I had not yet experienced the joys (and the heartaches) of wrangling with content management systems (CMSs), so I wasn’t quite ready to redevelop my site using one of these platforms. Needless to say, manually managing a growing body of content became laborious.

So I poured my energy into other creative pursuits. All the while I’ve been engaged in the Web and its people. But I’ve been listening, reading, commenting, and storing up energy more than I have been speaking up. It is possible that this may eventually change. Exposing our ideas to the judgment of others is a risk that we take living in this world. For all its ills, social media has given us a gift: the permission to express ourselves extemporaneously on the web.

Happy (social) medium?

Oh sure, I use the microblogging and third party sharing platforms—the Twitters, the Flickrs, the Facebooks, and what have you. These are hardly a substitute for one’s own personal/professional website, but with their built-in communities and their occasionally well-designed tools, they do enable one to develop a form of “web presence” without having to build a website from scratch.

On Twitter, I often feel like I’m hollering (or whispering) into the Abyss (à la the movie Garden State) rather than personally connecting. Still, it seems meaningful enough to be worthwhile. Like little mental calisthenics or musical scales, I can develop my voice without the more intense responsibility of gestating ideas into more fully-fledged essays. That’s not to say that there haven’t been golden moments on Twitter. I’ve been moved by certain tweets (1, 2, 3, 4). And there have been more than a few tweets that have helped me to solve a work problem or to better understand an issue relevant to my career, government, or society.

On Facebook it’s more personal. I put a lot more thought into the work that I share there, and the way I interact. On Facebook, people feel more familiar. But I still measure my words.

Long before I tiptoed into sharing via these relatively new sharing services, I contributed photos to the Mirror Project (1999-2005), a photographic community curated by the inimitable Heather Champ. And I lurked around the fringes of Fray—a magazine of true stories and original art edited by Derek Powazek. There, I interloped and read, but did not contribute; I dreamt of a day when I would be so bold as to comfortably and confidently express myself in this brave new medium. Little did I know that self-expression would rarely be comfortable.

But for all the wonders that these online communities have wrought, I have been longing for something more. A property of my own. A place to be. Preferably with a wraparound screened-in porch, crickets, and stars at night. Near a pond to skate on in the winter. Hopefully this will be it. Or an integral part of it.

And then there is mortality

One of the aspects of life that starts to hit home the longer you live is that more and more people you know and love die. Some leave by way of tragic accident, well before their rightful time. Others succumb to disease. Still others simply live to a ripe old age and follow the rules of DNA to their peaceful repose. As profound and sad as the loss of these significant individuals is, it is no more nor any less than an inevitable part of life—the life that we are all a part of and will ultimately manifest in our own way, in our own time.

So part of the impetus here may be to leave a bit of a legacy. If I can share something that teaches or enlightens someone (including myself) or brings a smile or a laugh or a tear, then I will have succeeded, and the building of this site will have been worth the effort. Otherwise, I’ll just have all of these ideas swimming around in my head—not doing anyone any good—until that great day of reckoning.

But to keep things in perspective, this website will be impermanent as well. At some point the delivery formats may change, the servers may crash, I will stop breathing and will consequently stop paying my web hosting bill, and this site will shut down. And that will be OK. Then again, it is possible that at some point there will be a sort of a massive free archiving system (Google?) that will prolong the inevitable erasure for a hundred or a thousand years. More likely, this will all go the way of Yahoo! Geocities and the eight-track tape. Sometimes, in spite of our noblest efforts, things stop working and we just have to let go.

But I am not ready to let go just yet

Bringing this full-circle, my intention with this website re-dedication is simple. Be myself. Welcome you. Hopefully entertain. Get some of these ideas out of my head and onto the digital paper. My inner idealistic 20-something still wants to save the world through his art, but a more seasoned me has begun to accept that more modest goals may illuminate more sustainable paths. And I’ve grown to feel that simplicity and happiness are noble goals in and of themselves. I will end this essay with one of my favorite quotes, which is a nice touchstone for any endeavor, but particularly for the creative efforts that I publish to this website:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.

—Gil Bailie