Befriending Time

My grandfather and I in 1984

I stood up from my seat in the pew, ready to carry a heavy weight. Could I take a punch? I guess this was as good a time as any to find out. Only it would have to be a wet one, like a kiss, because it was starting to rain.

***

When someone dies, you still need to do the normal things. Like shave, make sure your shirt is wrinkle-free, help your kids get ready for the events of the day. There’s fixing up the daughter’s hair, helping the son with his tie, and you eat a little bit if you’re hungry or you know you’ve been forgetting. Then there are the abnormal things, the new things. Trying to find a way to comfort your mother, who’s just lost her Father. Remembering the last time you saw someone, how they looked. How they looked compared to what you remember them as.

The first time we found out my Grandfather had cancer, we quickly gathered plans to race down and see him. It always amazes me how our small family can create chaos out of quiet, when given the sliver of a chance. This was more than a sliver. It was just after Easter, the time of year that Connecticut is in the full bloom of spring while northern New England is still going rounds with winter, hoping at best for a draw. We escaped the dirty snow banks to flowers on the trees and something like blue in the skies. We were told, rightly or wrongly, that we needed to visit Grandpa because things did not look good. The kids ran around the back yard, we setup lawn chairs, the aunts and uncles gathered. You talk about work when you don’t want to talk about the future.

Four years later, he died. Four years of ups and downs, long nights we could only imagine with all the distance of 300 miles and a half a climate between us and my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neighbors. What did my mother go through in those four years that I could learn from? Not just the fear of driving to the hospital, but the loneliness of driving home, to go to bed, to wake up and go on with their lives the next day, waiting for news.

What about my Grandfather, at the center of it? You’ll need to change your eating habits, try to like new things, have patience forced on you like an icy sidewalk when you fall. The patience of waiting rooms, test results, the patience of waiting to see if a new treatment works or what else it will do to you while you’re trying to battle the larger of two evils.

When I think about those four years, I imagine the patience is tempered by the vast uncertainty of length, like how driving somewhere the first time always seems so long. Do you lose sense of time wondering if today will be a good day, or if this month will bring setbacks, or this season will be filled with promise as the enemy retreats? And come to think of it, did the enemy retreat, or are they regrouping? When you’re a child, time alternates between enemy and friend at different times. Growing up means understanding time, befriending it, ultimately controlling it. The cancer takes that, returns days to weeks, hours to months, removes your ability to predict and balance your present with your future.

Secretly, I didn’t think he’d get well, only manage, with bouts of triumph and resolve, while a steady decline walked on, ignoring his will.

***

He died in February, yet another time of year when Maine is consumed by the darkness and the whiteness of winter, while Connecticut turns the corner. There weren’t quite flowering trees, but the snow had given way to rain and the immeasurable dark skies were now just gray, with a hint of blue.

Me with my Grandfather Gerald Dowd, Christmas 1984.

We were ready. I had a haircut and bought a larger wedding band to fit over my broken finger. My family would immediately notice if I wasn’t wearing a ring, and even a swollen and purple knuckle would not excuse the adoscelent arrogance of not wearing it to such an occasion. Death is one of the reasons we maintain traditions in the first place.

Saturday morning, we were groups of dark suits and dresses, piling into dark cars under deep gray skies. They weren’t showing clear signs of lightening; that took the promise out of our small talk about the weather. Some of those gathered  were handed umbrellas by the funeral attendants, until the umbrellas ran out. My own children had never been to a funeral; never seen my wife and I at our most vulnerable. We would need to expose them to the power of grief and still hold them close enough to not feel alone.

A traditional Catholic mass anchored the solemnity. Even for those people who grew up outside of the church, it provided meaning to our dress and united our quiet solitude. The sermon reminded us that my Grandfather received comfort as dramatically and as surely in the other world as he had been plagued by pain and decline in ours. This peace was possible in his new place because, the priest assured us, “Only the father knows the son,” and “only the son knows the father.” This was religious in intent. Then my uncle got up to deliver the eulogy for his father, gone after a lifetime, and those words meant something even more to me.

***

After a short drive from the church, we gathered at the gravesite. The rain clacked on umbrellas above us, and below the somber quiet followed us from the church. They’d erected a canopy over the grave for the service. My grandmother and aunts and uncles and friends gathered in seats for the military ceremony, honoring my Grandfather’s service in Korea. I stood outside the canopy, listening.

Approaching middle age, I realized I had been wondering, for nearly 30 years, how my Grandfather felt on the long boat ride from Korea back to the United States. I know from stories that he and his friends played cards to relax and pass the time, but what else? What mix of confidence and relief showed itself on the faces and in the words of him and the men next to him? Did he dwell much on the choices that lay before him, as impossibly wide as the ocean? Did he plan out the universe he would co-create, that now stood gathered around him in the cold and wet world he left? You rarely think of something when you’re in the middle of it, even as long as a life.

My wife pulled my daughter closer under her umbrella. Men in uniform moved through traditions. My Grandfather had never been as far away from that boat and its possibilities. No harm could come to him anymore as he stood with the Father, in rest following a lifetime of choices and sentences, lucky and smart, fair and cruel.

My son looked up at me, and I looked back at him. I don’t think you learn how to act at funerals, any more than you learn how to control life. You befriend time, and you carry an umbrella, and when you escape one battlefield, you take a moment to laugh and play cards and maybe you catch a glimpse of the next adventure you’ll have a hand in creating. Then you go towards it, with fear and confidence, invincibility and fragility. Peace and loss.

As my son stared at me standing in the rain, his face moved for a second. I think it was recognition. Then he lifted up his umbrella, stretching to the limits of his reach to place it over my head. I took it from him and held it over both of us. We were out of the rain for the time being, but it was still loud as hell and inches above our heads. He stood close to me to keep out of the cold.

Only the father knows the son, and only the son knows the father.

My Top 20 Favorite Tweets of 2014

Photo by Jon Bellah (@jonbellah)

20. As a habitual, obsessive tabs closer, and a big Glengarry Glen Ross fan, this speaks to me.

19. Web agencies *need* to shift to adopt this perspective in order to survive and thrive.

18. It’s often lost on me. I’m grateful for thoughts like this to remind me.

17. I’ve been using FTP for 12 years and this still rings 10000% true.

https://twitter.com/danielimmke/status/527582499929464832

16. I often wonder if the flatbed tow truck actually made it back to the garage without breaking down.

16. Twitter Best Of List Recursion.

15. If you’re not familiar, check out Comedy Bang! Bang! and of course Paul F. Tompkins.

14. I do the same.

13. Still want to make this actually come true in real life.

12. When my son meant to text me on his mom’s phone and Tweeted by accident:

11.

https://twitter.com/tiamhdha/status/499318795195133952

10. Sorry, but this is true.

9. Yes. Yes there is.

8. Really sad. Really true.

7. That’s my daughter!

6. I want to be in this kid’s crew.

https://twitter.com/DancesWithTamis/status/539529085832019968

5. Yep.

4. Still makes me LOL for real.

https://twitter.com/mattonomics/status/535975208210157568

3. Anyone who’s ever set foot in a clothing store at any point in human history knows this to be insanely true.

2. That’s a book’s worth of awesome in one tweet.

1. This is easily one of my all-time favorite tweets. Other people seem to agree: it has over 10,000 RTs as of today.

Top 5 Cooks

If you haven’t seen Too Many Cooks, the recent NSFW “Informercial” on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, find 10 minutes and watch. Yes, it’s long, but it’s the rare video that’s definitely worth it.

Then, come back here for the definitive list of the Top 5 cooks:

5. Will Dove

Will Dove

4. Ali Froid

Ali Froid

3. Ken DeLozier

Ken DeLozier

2. Katie Adkins

Katie Adkins

1. Smarf

Smarf

 

Don’t just create memories — look back on them, together

Scrolling through Instagram the other day, I noticed a friend’s photo of a photo of a jar filled with slips of paper. She and her family had spent the month of November writing down things to be thankful for, and then took turns pulling out slips of paper and talking about them together on Thanksgiving.

Since I was already feeling like Thanksgiving went by too quickly for our family, without much of a chance to reflect, and inspired by my friend’s simple idea to add some meaning to the typically busy holiday season, I decided to grab the kids and do something similar. The result is our first ever Memory Jar (beta version, of course).

The idea is that every Wednesday for the next couple of weeks — and in between, if the inspiration strikes — we’ll jot down a memory from the past 11 months (happy or sad, both are important) on a slip of paper and drop it in a glass jar. Some afternoon or evening between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we’ll sit down and take turns pulling slip of paper out of the jar and talking over what we’ve done over the past year.

The resulting “memory jar” craft project is described below. Since this an off-the-cuff project we whipped up last night, I’m not sure how it will turn out, though I’m hoping it helps us take just a few hours to get together and think back on the ups and downs of 2014.

Here’s how we made our memory jar:

  • Some wrapping paper (holiday themed, if you’re into that)
  • Some ribbon (again, holiday themed is possible though not required)
  • A basket (or similar container)
  • Scissors
  • A jar
  • Something to write with (pen or marker recommended)
  • Friends and/or family to contribute
Step1

Step 1

Grab some different rolls of holiday wrapping paper and cut off 1’x1′ square pieces. Then, fold the pieces in half 3-4 times until it’s folded into a 3″ square.

Then, unfold the piece back again, and you’ll have some nice creases to cut on.

Step2

Step 2

Using the creases as guides, cut the larger squares of paper into smaller squares. Then, fold the smaller squares in half (with the paper design on the outside) and crease them to make sure they lay flat.

As you finish them, put them in a circle in the bottom of your basket. Leave room in the middle of the basket for the jar.

Step3

Step 3

Grab some ribbon (green and red, if available) and tie them to the top of a clear jar. Place the jar into the middle of the basket.

Step4

Step 4

Set a particular day of the week (“Every Wednesday”) or just invite friends/family members to jot down memories any time.

When you’ve written a memory, fold it back up so it’s hidden and place it into the jar.

Step5

Step 5

When the slips of paper are gone, or on a set date (we’re going with New Year’s Eve), take turns removing a slip of paper and reading it. Then spend a few minutes talking over the memory before passing the jar along to the next person to take the next slip of paper.

Bonus points for having a phone or laptop on hand — when a slip of paper is pulled from the memory jar, find photos or videos of the event to add to the conversation.

 

An innovation that DirecTV could probably never ship

I rarely ever channel surf live TV, though when I do I’m consistently amazed at the sheer length and frequency of commercial breaks. The seismic impact of DVRing aside, TV providers have limited if any tools beyond the decades-old “Previous Channel” button to help casual surfers avoid the mind-numbing crush of ads in those rare occasions when clicking around is the entertainment method of choice.

Browsing through the DirecTV channel guide while out of DVR’d shows on a quick lunch break the other day, I thought of a new idea that might infuriate advertisers and networks even as it makes casual browsing just slightly better for viewers.

DirecTV_Channel_guide
Imagine a small icon to the right of the channel or show name every time that particular channel was on a commercial break

Imagine your TV provider’s standard channel guide (a screenshot of my DirecTV guide is pictured). Now, imagine a new feature: An icon next to each channel or show name, to appear when that particular channel is currently in the midst of a commercial break. If we want to get negative, the icon could be a red button or perhaps a skull and crossbones; a more moderate icon could be as simple as a megaphone or “Ad break” — anything to provide an immediate and yet subtle visual clue so you can choose to skip past that channel and pick one where that 295th rerun of The Wedding Singer is actually airing.

If TV providers wanted to go a step further and give a nod to the advertisers they were helping viewers avoid, they could potentially even show a logo of the advertiser next to the show name in the guide, updating it live as the ads changed. An even more explicit and potentially mutually beneficial feature would be to show a countdown until the break is over. Sure, a commercial break countdown that still shows 4 minutes left might spur viewers to another option, though a nearly-finished countdown could also tilt the scales towards a few seconds of ad viewing. Since so much of my ad viewing comes via fast-forwarding the ads in DVR’d show, I’m assuming advertisers are already accounting for extremely brief views as part of their ad creation process.

Yes, this would be  more visual clutter in the already crowded channel guide user experience, and no, TV providers are not likely to subvert their partners so brazenly. All that said, “heads up” ad break tracking on channel guides could be a useful innovation to a problem that has plagued our lazy weeknights and sick days for generations.

 

We should celebrate the end of Kroll Show

One of my favorite TV shows is ending, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Nearing the third season premiere of Kroll Show next month, co-creator and star Nick Kroll announced that he’s ending the show entirely after this season airs. Not because ratings are low, or the network decided to move on, or any of the business-related reasons that shows are ended. Rather, Kroll is wrapping up simply because he “wanted to feel like we were going out with the best work that we’ve done.”

Given how rare this type of voluntary ending is, I have even more respect for Kroll than I already did. In an industry where the norm is to renew successful shows until long after their natural expiration dates — resulting in increasingly ridiculous plots and beloved cast/characters exiting, among other issues — it’s really refreshing to see a star (with creative control, no less) making sure a show goes out like this.

Kroll Show
Nick Kroll and Jon Daly as Wendy and Ashley, two wealthy jerks who get into adventures

Of course it’s natural to want something great to continue. That said, we often stick with great shows to the point where they’re no longer recognizable as what we loved in the first place. The results are comedies like The Office continuing on without its star, funniest character and emotional heart; otherwise superb dramas like Downton Abbey resorting to inexplicable deaths, and previously respected shows like ER descending into soap opera-like insanity to keep viewers tuned in.

The worst part isn’t even what we’re watching — it’s what we’re missing. When previously great shows continue on well past their prime, their producers and stars are spending time and energy investing in a stale product when they could instead be working on new and different projects. A new project isn’t guaranteed to be a winner, though I’ll always bet on a great performer to come back again with something new and great, when given the chance.

After Kroll Show wraps, I’ll miss Liz and Liz, Ceasar (maybe not), Bobby Bottleservice, Wendy and Ashley, the Wheels crew, and of course Gil and George most of all. That said, loving nearly every minute of the show so far only makes me more excited to see where Kroll and the cast and crew of the Show will end up next.

 

Message to the Young Man

A few months ago, my wife noticed this simple, beautiful and a little bit sad classified ad, and I impulsively snapped a photo of it. When I’m looking through photos, it’s still one that I stop to read, especially when I want a smile or reminder of the good, and whimsy, of the people around us.

Did the Young Man ever see the ad? Did he ever recover the lid? It almost doesn’t matter. Just the existence of the ad proves that somebody moved beyond thought into action. IMG_0330.JPG

From Hammond to Rannazzisi

Steven Rannazzisi

Getting tickets to see Steve Rannazzisi (he might hate this, but you likely know him as Kevin on The League) tonight got me thinking about the other comics I’ve seen perform live. Below, a list with approximate dates.

  • Darryl Hammond, Sept. 2003 (John Fugelsang opening)
  • Dane Cook, October 2004
  • Mitch Hedberg, November 2005 (Stephen Lynch opening)
  • Eugene Mirman, June 2008 (As part of a live taping of Late Night with Conan O’Brien)
  • Ricky Gervais, June 2008 (Todd Berry opener)
  • Demitri Martin, February 2009
  • Conan O’Brien’s live tour, June 2009 (this counts, right? Deon Cole performed a short set)
  • Bob Saget, December 2010
  • Aziz Ansari, October 2011 (Joe Mande opening)
  • Bill Burr, July 2012 (Multiple openers)
  • Louis CK, November 2012 (With Gary Gulman opening)
  • Comedy Bang! Bang! Live, October 2013 (This is definitely a stretch, but come on… I saw Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Tompkins, and The Birthday Boys live!)
  • Update, June 2015: Dave Attell, June 2015, State Theater, Portland Maine. (Josh Day, opener)

 

 

 

Empathy: The Secret Ingredient in WordPress Work, Development, and Success

Today at the first inaugural WordCamp Maine, I presented a talk with the title “Empathy: The Secret Ingredient in WordPress Development, Work, and Success.” Below, my slides, along with notes and additional info.

I’d love to hear your feedback or ideas — please leave them in the comments or on Twitter!

Talk:

Notes: